South Dakota in Federal District Court decision seems to allow a release to stop the claims for a minor.

Release was effective in stopping ordinary negligence claims; however, the gross negligence claims were allowed to continue.

Reed v. Union Resort, LLC, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 225856, 2018 WL 8332583

State: South Dakota, United States District Court for the District of South Dakota, Western Division

Plaintiff: Brad Reed, Individually and as Joint Limited Conservators of I.R., a Minor; and Tara Reed, Individually and as Joint Limited Conservators of I.R., a Minor

Defendant: Union Resort, LLC, dba Mystic Miner

Plaintiff Claims: negligence and gross negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For both plaintiff and defendant, but proceeding to trial

Year: 2018

Summary

The minor child was injured on a tubing hill when her tube stopped in the middle of the hill, and she was hit and injured by her brother coming after her. The release the parents signed stopped the ordinary negligence claim but under South Dakota, law did not stop a claim for gross negligence.

There was no discussion in the decision as to whether the release stopped the claims of the minor child, the injured plaintiff. It just seemed to be taken for granted by the court, or at least not argued by the plaintiffs.

Facts

On March 13, 2015, Brad and Tara Reed brought their children to the defendant’s resort near Lead, South Dakota, for an afternoon of recreational snow tubing.1 The resort was owned and operated by Union Resort, LLC, dba Mystic Miner. Among the Reeds’ children with them that day was seven-year-old I.R. Accompanying the Reeds were another couple and Alex, a social worker from the Philippines.

Upon arriving shortly before noon, the Reed party entered the lodge area where customers are required to check in and purchase admission tickets for the resort. The Reeds purchased snow tubing day passes for themselves and their children, including I.R. As a condition of allowing I.R. to use the resort, Union required the Reeds to agree to a written release of liability. The Reeds signed the release and printed the names of each of their children, including I.R., as participants.

The Reeds understood the document was a release of liability agreement and that, by signing, they would be relinquishing certain unspecified rights. They did not ask any questions about the release. The release informed resort participants that tubing activities are extremely hazardous and can result in personal injury. The Reeds understood that tubing carried with it a degree of risk, including risk of trauma to the head, and that I.R. would be exposed to this risk.

After signing the release and paying the admission fee, the Reeds and their kids received individual tickets for the tube park. Those tickets included additional warnings.

At the resort, there are numerous bright red signs that provide instructions and warnings to participants. Among the messages on some of the signs was a warning that collisions with other tubers was one of the dangers of tubing. Other signs instructed the tubers to follow the attendant’s instructions and to wait for the attendant’s signal before starting [down the tube run]. The Reeds do not recall whether they saw or read any of these signs.

The Reeds were directed to select tubes from the resort’s selection of tubes, which they did. Defendant had approximately 50 to 70 tubes in inventory at the time, but there is no evidence how many of these tubes had already been selected by prior guests. No employee of defendant selected the tubes for the Reeds. Several defendant employees testified at their depositions that it was a practice at the resort to leave tubes with tears in the bottoms in circulation for guests to use. The employees explained that such tubes were slower and slower equated to safer in their minds.

During the Reeds’ stay at the resort, they went down the tube runs approximately 15 to 20 times. Two of the four tube runs at the resort were open that day. During the Reeds’ runs, there were two defendant employees at the bottom of the tube runs assisting guests with the tow rope (which towed guests to the top of the run).

On approximately two of the Reeds’ 15-20 tubing runs, there was a young man at the top of the tube runs who also appeared to be a resort employee with a radio in his possession. However, the young man never monitored the tube runs, never gave instructions to tubers, and never staged tubers going down the tube runs. “Staging” means controlling the entry of guests onto the tube runs to ensure that the prior tuber has finished the run and cleared the area before the next tuber is allowed to begin his or her descent. There was no staging and, instead, tubers decided themselves when to begin their descent, a situation Brad Reed described as a “free-for-all.”

At approximately 2 p.m., the Reeds decided to take one last run down the tube runs before leaving the resort. Up to this point, the Reeds had experienced no concerns or incidents. Up to this final run, I.R. had always completed her run down the slope as part of a group or with one of her parents. On the final run, she asked to be allowed to go down the tube run by herself, to which her parents agreed. Mrs. Reed told I.R. they would go down the run together, parallel to each other in each of the two open tube runs. At this point, Alex was directly behind I.R. in line for the same tube lane. Mr. Reed was behind Alex in the same line.

Once both lanes were clear, Mrs. Reed and I.R. began their descents. Mrs. Reed went all the way down the run, but I.R.’s tube stopped approximately 3/4 of the way down the slope. While I.R. was stopped, Alex began her descent before I.R. cleared the lane. When Alex’s tube reached I.R.’s tube, they collided. No defendant employee told Alex to begin her descent, but no defendant employee was present at the top of the run to tell her, instruct her, or prevent her from beginning her descent until I.R. cleared the lane.

From the top of the slope, Mr. Reed testified Alex should have been able to see I.R. had not cleared the lane had Alex been paying attention. Mr. Reed himself was able to observe the collision from his vantage point at the top of the slope.

After the accident, the Reeds observed an approximately 8-inch hole in the bottom of I.R.’s tube that had filled with snow. Defendant asserts it was its policy to stow the tubes under the deck each night and to pull them out the next day for guests’ use. Defendant asserts employees were directed to observe the tubes for significant tears or defects and to remove defective tubes during this process. However, several defendant employees testified they left tubes with tears in their bottoms in rotation for guest use because the tears would slow the tuber down as they descended the slope. Employees believed a slower descent was a safer descent.

If a lightweight child descended the slope with a tube with a tear in it, sometimes the tube would stop mid-way down the slope and a defendant employee would have to walk up the slope to retrieve the child. In such an instance, the defendant employee at the bottom of the slope would radio the employee at the top and tell them to stop sending guests down the slope until the child was retrieved and taken to the bottom.

No photograph was taken of I.R.’s tube at the beginning of the day, after the accident, or at any other time on the day of the accident. It is unknown if the tear in the bottom of her tube was there from the start of the day or whether the tear occurred during the Reeds’ use of the tube that day. The Reeds mixed and mingled the various tubes they checked out, so several members of the Reeds’ group could have used the accident tube at various times of the day.

The accident tube was the only tube checked out by the Reed group that had a tear in it. The Reeds did not notice the tear until after I.R.’s injury. The Reeds did not inform anyone at the resort about the tear in the tube after the accident occurred. There is no evidence that any defendant employee had specific knowledge that the Reeds had checked out a tube with a tear in it on the day of the accident, though defendant employees had general knowledge that such tubes were often retained in inventory because they were perceived to be “safer” because they were slower.

From the beginning of the 2010-11 season through the end of the 2014-15 season, defendant had incident reports of 17 collisions of tubers. During that same time frame, there were 72 total incident reports.3 Several of these collisions between tubers occurred within a few weeks and, in two examples, a few days, of I.R.’s collision. Specifically, there were 5 incident reports involving collisions between tubers going down the tube lane between December 30, 2014, and February 27, 2015. None of defendant’s incident reports record whether a hole in a tube contributed to the incident.

Defendant maintains that it had a proper protocol of having at least one employee at the top of the tube run and one employee at the bottom of the tube run at all times. The employee at the top of the tube run was supposed to “stage” the tubers going down. The employee at the bottom of the tube run would retrieve items lost by tubers going down the slope (hats, mittens, etc.) and also retrieve guests whose tubes stopped without fully descending the slope.

The Reeds assert defendant was chronically understaffed and that defendant made a deliberate decision not to station an employee at the top of the tube run the day of I.R.’s accident. Defendant asserts the Reeds have no evidence to support the assertion that the decision not to station an employee at the top of the tube run was a deliberate decision.

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

The plaintiff’s conceded that the release barred their claims for negligence, the first count in their complaint. That left the issue of whether the release barred their claims for gross negligence and whether they had pled enough facts to support a gross negligence claim.

Gross negligence under South Dakota law is the same as willful and wanton conduct:

Under South Dakota law, the phrase “gross negligence” is synonymous with the phrase “willful and wanton misconduct.” Both phrases refer “to a category of tort that is different in kind and characteristics than negligence.” Negligence occurs when one acts with an “unreasonable risk of harm to another.” Willful and wanton misconduct requires a risk of harm that is “substantially greater than that which is necessary to make the conduct negligent.” The threatened harm “must be an easily perceptible danger of death or substantial physical harm.”

The major difference between ordinary negligence and gross negligence is the mental state of the defendant.

In addition, proof of a negligence claim focuses on the ordinary standard of care, while a gross negligence claim focuses on the defendant’s mental state. A defendant acts willfully and wantonly when it knows or has reason to know at the time of its actions of the dire risk and proceeds without concern for the safety of others. The standard does not require proof of intent to harm, but it does “partake to some appreciable extent … of the nature of a deliberate and intentional wrong.” Gross negligence requires “an affirmatively reckless state of mind.” There must be “a conscious realization that a serious physical injury was a probable, as distinguished from a possible (ordinary negligence), result of such conduct.”

That creates a two-step test to determine if the defendant was grossly negligent.

Summarizing the above case law, gross negligence is distinguished from ordinary negligence by two factors. The risk of harm must be greater for gross negligence—whereas under ordinary negligence, the risk of harm can be anything from negligible harm to death, the risk of harm for gross negligence must be death or serious harm. Secondly, the likelihood that harm will come about, phrased in terms of the defendant’s state of mind, must be greater. For example, if there is a 10 percent chance some harm will happen and the defendant fails to take steps to ensure that harm does not come about, he is merely negligent. If there is an 85 percent chance serious harm or death will happen and the defendant fails to take steps to ensure the harm does not occur, he has acted willfully and wantonly or with gross negligence.

The court’s analysis of the chance of the harm occurring is a way of looking at the differences between ordinary and gross negligence that I have never seen before.

The court looked at the facts as presented by both sides and found both lacking the information the court felt would prove the plaintiff’s case. However, the court made this statement.

Under the law of gross negligence, South Dakota has recognized a plaintiff will rarely have direct evidence of the defendant’s state of mind. Rather, state of mind must be inferred from the circumstances. Id. Also, under the law of summary judgment, all inferences from the facts must be made in favor of the nonmoving party, Both sources of law, then, support taking the Reeds’ view of the inference to be drawn from the fact that defendant was chronically understaffed and did not have an employee stationed at the top of the tube run at the time of I.R.’s accident.

So, with the inferences created by the plaintiffs about the state of mind of the tubing hill, the court held that there was enough information plead to allow the gross negligence claim to continue.

The court then looked at the assumption of the risk argument made by the defendant. There was no case law in South Dakota stating that assumption of the risk was a defense to gross negligence, so the court held that assumption of the risk would not stop the gross negligence claim.

So Now What?

What did not arise in this case is whether the release stopped the claims of the minor child. The case was captioned as the parents suing on behalf of their minor child. In that regard, the release would bar the claims of the parents. However, this is a different way of suing on behalf of a minor, not away normally done in most states any more.

Also, this is a decision by a Federal District Court applying South Dakota law so, whether a not a release stops a minor’s claims is probably still up in the air until the South Dakota Supreme Court decides the issue.

However, it is a decision to lean on if you have participants who are minors in your program.

The other issues are classic situations where the defendant looks at a situation one way as a positive for patrons but the injured patron is able to turn the situation around and use it as a club against the defendant. Torn tubes were regarded by the defendant as good because they were slower than the other tubes. However, a torn tube is not a product that is 100%, in the condition it was received from the manufacturer. It was a defective product. So, the plaintiff was able to show the defendant was derelict in using them.

If they placed the tubes in a different location with a sign that said, slower tubes it might have been helpful.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Reed v. Union Resort, LLC, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 225856, 2018 WL 8332583

Reed v. Union Resort, LLC, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 225856, 2018 WL 8332583

United States District Court for the District of South Dakota, Western Division

November 15, 2018, Decided; November 15, 2018, Filed

5:17-CV-05047-JLV

Reporter

Brad Reed, Individually and as Joint Limited Conservators of I.R., a Minor; and Tara Reed, Individually and as Joint Limited Conservators of I.R., a Minor; Plaintiffs, vs. Union Resort, LLC, dba Mystic Miner, Defendant.

Subsequent History: Objection overruled by, Adopted by, Summary judgment granted by, in part, Summary judgment denied by, in part Reed v. Union Resort, LLC, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 49327 (D.S.D., Mar. 25, 2019)

Counsel:  [*1] For Brad Reed, Individually and as Joint Limited Conservators of I.R., a minor, other, I.R., Tara Reed, Individually and as Joint Limited Conservators of I.R., a minor, other, I.R., Plaintiffs: Kenneth E. Barker, LEAD ATTORNEY, Barker Wilson Law Firm, LLP, Belle Fourche, SD.

For Union Resort, LLC, doing business as Mystic Miner, Defendant: Shane E. Eden, LEAD ATTORNEY, Davenport, Evans, Hurwitz & Smith, LLP, Sioux Falls, SD.

Judges: VERONICA L. DUFFY, United States Magistrate Judge.

Opinion by: VERONICA L. DUFFY

Opinion

REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

INTRODUCTION

This matter is before the court on the amended complaint of Brad and Tara Reed as conservators of I.R., their minor daughter. See Docket No. 16. The Reeds allege claims of negligence and gross negligence against defendant Union Resort, LLC, dba Mystic Miner (defendant) arising out of a tubing accident at defendant’s ski resort. Id. This matter rests on the court’s diversity jurisdiction, 28 U.S.C. § 1332.

Defendant has now filed a motion for summary judgment. See Docket No. 21. The Reeds oppose the motion. See Docket No. 30. The motion was referred to this magistrate judge for a recommended disposition pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B), the order of referral dated November 11, 2018 (Doc. 42), and the [*2]  October 16, 2014, standing order of the Honorable Jeffrey L. Viken, Chief United States District Judge.

FACTS

Defendant filed a statement of undisputed material facts, Docket No. 22, to which the Reeds have responded, Docket No. 31. The following facts have been drawn from those pleadings with disputes or discrepancies as noted.

On March 13, 2015, Brad and Tara Reed brought their children to the defendant’s resort near Lead, South Dakota, for an afternoon of recreational snow tubing.1 The resort was owned and operated by Union Resort, LLC, dba Mystic Miner. Among the Reeds’ children with them that day was seven-year-old I.R. Accompanying the Reeds were another couple and Alex, a social worker from the Philippines.

Upon arriving shortly before noon, the Reed party entered the lodge area where customers are required to check in and purchase admission tickets for the resort. The Reeds purchased snow tubing day passes for themselves and their children, including I.R. As a condition of allowing I.R. to use the resort, Union required the Reeds to agree to a written release of liability. The Reeds signed the release and printed the names of each of their children, including I.R., as participants. [*3] 

The Reeds understood the document was a release of liability agreement and that, by signing, they would be relinquishing certain unspecified rights. They did not ask any questions about the release. The release informed resort participants that tubing activities are extremely hazardous and can result in personal injury. The Reeds understood that tubing carried with it a degree of risk, including risk of trauma to the head, and that I.R. would be exposed to this risk.

After signing the release and paying the admission fee, the Reeds and their kids received individual tickets for the tube park. Those tickets included additional warnings.

At the resort, there are numerous bright red signs that provide instructions and warnings to participants. Among the messages on some of the signs was a warning that collisions with other tubers was one of the dangers of tubing. Other signs instructed the tubers to follow the attendant’s instructions and to wait for the attendant’s signal before starting [down the tube run]. The Reeds do not recall whether they saw or read any of these signs.

The Reeds were directed to select tubes from the resort’s selection of tubes, which they did. Defendant had approximately [*4]  50 to 70 tubes in inventory at the time, but there is no evidence how many of these tubes had already been selected by prior guests. No employee of defendant selected the tubes for the Reeds. Several defendant employees testified at their depositions that it was a practice at the resort to leave tubes with tears in the bottoms in circulation for guests to use. The employees explained that such tubes were slower and slower equated to safer in their minds.

During the Reeds’ stay at the resort, they went down the tube runs approximately 15 to 20 times. Two of the four tube runs at the resort were open that day. During the Reeds’ runs, there were two defendant employees at the bottom of the tube runs assisting guests with the tow rope (which towed guests to the top of the run).

On approximately two of the Reeds’ 15-20 tubing runs, there was a young man at the top of the tube runs who also appeared to be a resort employee with a radio in his possession. However, the young man never monitored the tube runs, never gave instructions to tubers, and never staged tubers going down the tube runs. “Staging” means controlling the entry of guests onto the tube runs to ensure that the prior tuber has [*5]  finished the run and cleared the area before the next tuber is allowed to begin his or her descent. There was no staging and, instead, tubers decided themselves when to begin their descent, a situation Brad Reed described as a “free-for-all.”

At approximately 2 p.m., the Reeds decided to take one last run down the tube runs before leaving the resort. Up to this point, the Reeds had experienced no concerns or incidents. Up to this final run, I.R. had always completed her run down the slope as part of a group or with one of her parents. On the final run, she asked to be allowed to go down the tube run by herself, to which her parents agreed. Mrs. Reed told I.R. they would go down the run together, parallel to each other in each of the two open tube runs. At this point, Alex was directly behind I.R. in line for the same tube lane. Mr. Reed was behind Alex in the same line.

Once both lanes were clear, Mrs. Reed and I.R. began their descents. Mrs. Reed went all the way down the run, but I.R.’s tube stopped approximately 3/4 of the way down the slope. While I.R. was stopped, Alex began her descent before I.R. cleared the lane. When Alex’s tube reached I.R.’s tube, they collided. No defendant [*6]  employee told Alex to begin her descent, but no defendant employee was present at the top of the run to tell her, instruct her, or prevent her from beginning her descent until I.R. cleared the lane.

From the top of the slope, Mr. Reed testified Alex should have been able to see I.R. had not cleared the lane had Alex been paying attention. See Docket No. 25-5 at p. 7 (depo. pp. 25-26). Mr. Reed himself was able to observe the collision from his vantage point at the top of the slope. Id. at p. 6 (depo. pp. 22-24).2

After the accident, the Reeds observed an approximately 8-inch hole in the bottom of I.R.’s tube that had filled with snow. Defendant asserts it was its policy to stow the tubes under the deck each night and to pull them out the next day for guests’ use. Defendant asserts employees were directed to observe the tubes for significant tears or defects and to remove defective tubes during this process. However, several defendant employees testified they left tubes with tears in their bottoms in rotation for guest use because the tears would slow the tuber down as they descended the slope. Employees believed a slower descent was a safer descent.

If a lightweight child descended the slope with [*7]  a tube with a tear in it, sometimes the tube would stop mid-way down the slope and a defendant employee would have to walk up the slope to retrieve the child. In such an instance, the defendant employee at the bottom of the slope would radio the employee at the top and tell them to stop sending guests down the slope until the child was retrieved and taken to the bottom.

No photograph was taken of I.R.’s tube at the beginning of the day, after the accident, or at any other time on the day of the accident. It is unknown if the tear in the bottom of her tube was there from the start of the day or whether the tear occurred during the Reeds’ use of the tube that day. The Reeds mixed and mingled the various tubes they checked out, so several members of the Reeds’ group could have used the accident tube at various times of the day.

The accident tube was the only tube checked out by the Reed group that had a tear in it. The Reeds did not notice the tear until after I.R.’s injury. The Reeds did not inform anyone at the resort about the tear in the tube after the accident occurred. There is no evidence that any defendant employee had specific knowledge that the Reeds had checked out a tube with [*8]  a tear in it on the day of the accident, though defendant employees had general knowledge that such tubes were often retained in inventory because they were perceived to be “safer” because they were slower.

From the beginning of the 2010-11 season through the end of the 2014-15 season, defendant had incident reports of 17 collisions of tubers. During that same time frame, there were 72 total incident reports.3 Several of these collisions between tubers occurred within a few weeks and, in two examples, a few days, of I.R.’s collision. Specifically, there were 5 incident reports involving collisions between tubers going down the tube lane between December 30, 2014, and February 27, 2015. None of defendant’s incident reports record whether a hole in a tube contributed to the incident.

Defendant maintains that it had a proper protocol of having at least one employee at the top of the tube run and one employee at the bottom of the tube run at all times. The employee at the top of the tube run was supposed to “stage” the tubers going down. The employee at the bottom of the tube run would retrieve items lost by tubers going down the slope (hats, mittens, etc.) and also retrieve guests whose [*9]  tubes stopped without fully descending the slope.

The Reeds assert defendant was chronically understaffed and that defendant made a deliberate decision not to station an employee at the top of the tube run the day of I.R.’s accident. Defendant asserts the Reeds have no evidence to support the assertion that the decision not to station an employee at the top of the tube run was a deliberate decision.

DISCUSSION

A. Summary Judgment Standard

Under Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment is appropriate where the moving party “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).

The court must view the facts, and inferences from those facts, in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. See Matsushita Elec. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587-88, 106 S. Ct. 1348, 89 L. Ed. 2d 538 (1986) (citing United States v. Diebold, Inc., 369 U.S. 654, 655, 82 S. Ct. 993, 8 L. Ed. 2d 176 (1962)); Helton v. Southland Racing Corp., 600 F.3d 954, 957 (8th Cir. 2010) (per curiam). Summary judgment will not lie if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986); Allison v. Flexway Trucking, Inc., 28 F.3d 64, 66 (8th Cir. 1994).

The burden is placed on the moving party to establish both the absence of any genuine issue of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). Once the movant has met its burden, the nonmoving party may not simply rest on the allegations in the pleadings, but [*10]  must set forth specific facts, by affidavit or other evidence, showing that a genuine issue of material fact exists. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 256; Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e) (each party must properly support its own assertions of fact and properly address the opposing party’s assertions of fact, as required by Rule 56(c)).

The underlying substantive law identifies which facts are “material” for purposes of a motion for summary judgment. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. “Only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment. Factual disputes that are irrelevant or unnecessary will not be counted.” Id. (citing 10A Charles Alan Wright, Arthur R. Miller & Mary Kay Kane, Federal Practice And Procedure § 2725, at 93-95 (3d ed. 1983)). “[T]he mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact.” Id. at 247-48.

Essentially, the availability of summary judgment turns on whether a proper jury question is presented: “The inquiry performed is the threshold inquiry of determining whether there is the need for a trial—whether, in other words, there are any genuine [*11]  factual issues that properly can be resolved only by a finder of fact because they may reasonably be resolved in favor of either party.” Id. at 250.

B. Does the Release Signed by the Reeds Bar Their Claims?

Defendant’s first argument in favor of its summary judgment motion is that the clear and plain language of the release signed by the Reeds bars their claims and that there is no overriding public policy that serves to neutralize the release.

South Dakota law4 provides that a valid release of liability bars claims for ordinary negligence, but does not bar claims for gross or willful negligence or recklessness. Holzer v. Dakota Speedway, Inc., 2000 SD 65, 610 N.W.2d 787, 792-93 (S.D. 2000). The Reeds do not argue that the release was invalid in any way or that the activity I.R. was engaged in when she was injured was outside the scope of the release. In fact, the Reeds concede that their first claim in their amended complaint for ordinary negligence is barred by defendant’s release. See Docket No. 30 at p. 5. Accordingly, the court recommends that defendant’s motion for summary judgment as to the Reeds’ claim for ordinary negligence, count one of the amended complaint, be granted.

C. Are There Material Factual Disputes as to Gross Negligence?

Defendant argues the facts alleged [*12]  by the Reeds, even if true, allege a claim for ordinary negligence only, not gross negligence. Thus, since ordinary negligence is barred by the release, defendant argues it should be granted summary judgment on the Reeds’ gross negligence claim too.

Under South Dakota law, the phrase “gross negligence” is synonymous with the phrase “willful and wanton misconduct.” Fischer v. City of Sioux Falls, 919 N.W.2d 211, 2018 SD 71, 2018 WL 4779267 at *2 (S.D., 2018). Both phrases refer “to a category of tort that is different in kind and characteristics than negligence.” Id. Negligence occurs when one acts with an “unreasonable risk of harm to another.” Id. (citing W. Page Keeton et al., Prosser & Keeton on the Law of Torts, § 34, at 212 (5th ed. 1984)). Willful and wanton misconduct requires a risk of harm that is “substantially greater than that which is necessary to make the conduct negligent.” Id. The threatened harm “must be an easily perceptible danger of death or substantial physical harm.” Id. (all quotes from Fischer cleaned up).

In addition, proof of a negligence claim focuses on the ordinary standard of care, while a gross negligence claim focuses on the defendant’s mental state. Id. 2018 SD 71, [WL] at *3. A defendant acts willfully and wantonly when it knows or has reason to know at the time of its actions [*13]  of the dire risk and proceeds without concern for the safety of others. Id. The standard does not require proof of intent to harm, but it does “partake to some appreciable extent … of the nature of a deliberate and intentional wrong.” Id. Gross negligence requires “an affirmatively reckless state of mind.” Id. There must be “a conscious realization that a serious physical injury was a probable, as distinguished from a possible (ordinary negligence), result of such conduct.” Id. (all quotes from Fischer cleaned up).

The evidence must show more than “mere mistake, inadvertence, or inattention . . . there need not be an affirmative wish to injure another, but, instead, a willingness to injure another.” Gabriel v. Bauman, 2014 SD 30, 847 N.W.2d 537, 541 (S.D. 2014)). Generally, whether the facts constitute gross negligence is a question of fact “if reasonable minds might differ in interpreting the facts in arriving at different conclusions on whether the defendant was willful, wanton, or reckless.” Id. at 542. “Because willfulness, wantonness, or recklessness is almost never admitted, and can be proved only by the conduct and the circumstances, an objective standard must of necessity in practice be applied. Id. at 542-43.

Summarizing the above case law, gross negligence [*14]  is distinguished from ordinary negligence by two factors. The risk of harm must be greater for gross negligence—whereas under ordinary negligence, the risk of harm can be anything from negligible harm to death, the risk of harm for gross negligence must be death or serious harm. Fischer, 2018 SD 71, 2018 WL 4779267 at *2. Secondly, the likelihood that harm will come about, phrased in terms of the defendant’s state of mind, must be greater. For example, if there is a 10 percent chance some harm will happen and the defendant fails to take steps to ensure that harm does not come about, he is merely negligent. If there is an 85 percent chance serious harm or death will happen and the defendant fails to take steps to ensure the harm does not occur, he has acted willfully and wantonly or with gross negligence.

The Reeds posit three facts in support of their assertion the defendant in this case acted grossly negligent (or willfully and wantonly) with regard to I.R. First, the defendant had a practice of leaving tubes with tears in the canvas bottoms in rotation for guests to use because the torn tubes were slower and, therefore, in the eyes of defendant’s employees, safer. Second, the defendant knew the importance of staging—having [*15]  an employee at the top of the tube run to meter the guests as they descended the slope so that one guest could clear the run before the next guest began descending—but made a deliberate decision not to station an employee at the top of the tube run on the day of I.R.’s accident. And, finally, the existence of prior collisions on the tube run put the defendant on notice of the likelihood of harm.

Neither party speaks to the magnitude of the harm which, as discussed above, is one of the two factors distinguishing ordinary negligence from gross negligence. The defendant does not cite facts or circumstances to show that the prior collisions were minor bump-and-bruise types of encounters. The Reeds do not cite facts or circumstances to show the prior collisions resulted in concussions, closed head injuries, broken bones, surgeries or hospitalizations. The Reeds have supported their assertion that I.R.’s injuries were sufficiently serious—a fractured skull–something defendant does not dispute. Because the moving party has the burden, the court makes all inferences in favor of the nonmoving party. Accordingly, the court infers that previous accidents were sufficiently severe in nature to [*16]  satisfy the standard required for gross negligence.

Likewise, with regard to the number of prior incidents, neither party has placed into the record what the total number of tubers was during the period of time covered by the incidents. This fact goes to the likelihood of a collision—for gross negligence, there must be a greater probability of harm occurring than is the case with ordinary negligence. If 17 collisions occurred between fall of 2010 and March 15, 2015, and there were 5,000 tubers during that time, the number of prior accidents takes on one type of significance. But the significance of the number of prior accidents is different if the total number of tubers during that time frame is 100, 300, or even 500. There is a significantly bigger risk of harm the smaller the total number of tubers. Although the defendant alleges there were “thousands” of tubers, it has not supported that assertion with citation to an affidavit, deposition, or authenticated document. Again, there is a lack of evidence.

Also, neither party describes the scope of defendant’s incident reports. Do they encompass all kinds of incidents—those attributable to conditions on the slopes within defendant’s control [*17]  as well as incidents attributable to factors not within defendant’s control? Do they encompass heart attacks and strokes as well as collisions? Do the reports include drunken brawls between guests as well as injuries inflicted when a tow bar snaps?

Furthermore, is there any evidence suggesting that not all collisions at defendant’s resort are documented in incident reports? Are the incident reports the tip of the iceberg—or are they truly representative of all injuries occurring at defendant’s resort?

Finally, defendant does not dispute that no employee was stationed at the top of the tube run at the time of I.R.’s accident. The Reeds assert that defendant was “chronically understaffed” and that defendant made a “deliberate decision” not to place an employee at the top of the tube run that day. The Reeds have amply supported their assertion that defendant was chronically understaffed, with the result that positions that should have been filled by employees were left unattended. See Docket Nos. 33-4, 33-5, & 33-8. The Reeds also supplied testimony that, when there were not enough employees, the defendant prioritized putting an employee at the bottom of the tube slope rather than at the [*18]  top of the slope. See Docket No. 33-4 at p. 5 (depo p. 20). From these two facts, the Reeds infer that defendant made a “deliberate decision” the day of the accident not to place an employee at the top of the tube slope to stage the tubers.

Defendant disputes that it made a “deliberate decision” not to have an employee staging the tubers that day. Defendant’s disagreement with the Reeds’ assertion is based solely on the fact that they do not have testimony from any witness stating outright that a calculated decision was made. Defendant seems to assert that the Reeds may not rely upon an inference, but must have affirmative evidence of the fact a “deliberate decision” was made.

The court makes two observations. Under the law of gross negligence, South Dakota has recognized a plaintiff will rarely have direct evidence of the defendant’s state of mind. Gabriel, 847 N.W.2d at 542-43. Rather, state of mind must be inferred from the circumstances. Id. Also, under the law of summary judgment, all inferences from the facts must be made in favor of the nonmoving party. Matsushita Elec. Co., 475 U.S. at 587-88. Both sources of law, then, support taking the Reeds’ view of the inference to be drawn from the fact that defendant was chronically understaffed and did [*19]  not have an employee stationed at the top of the tube run at the time of I.R.’s accident.

Defendant attempts to eliminate a genuine issue of fact as to the presence of a staging employee by asserting that there was in fact an employee at the top of the tube hill with a radio. See Docket No. 34 at p. 6. In support of this assertion of fact, defendant cites Mr. and Mrs. Reeds’ depositions and argues they cannot claim a version of facts more favorable than their own testimony, an old chestnut of South Dakota Law.

Reading the Reeds’ depositions, however, leads one to conclude defendant’s assertion is, if not outright untrue, certainly misleading. Both Mr. and Mrs. Reed testified no one was at the top of the hill staging the tubers at the time of I.R.’s accident. Docket No. 27-1 at p. 10 (depo. p. 30); Docket No. 27-5 at p. 7 (depo. p. 25). Prior to the accident, both the Reeds had observed a young man with a radio they assumed was defendant’s employee at the top of the hill during one or two of the Reed party’s previous 15-20 tube runs. However, the young man never provided instruction to the tubers about when to go down the slope—he was not staging the tubers. Docket No. 27-1 at p. 10 (depo. [*20]  pp. 39-40). Thus, the Reeds have sustained their assertion of fact that defendant had no employee stationed at the top of the tube hill to stage tubers at the time of I.R.’s accident.

Defendant’s motion is decided with resort to two veins of law. First, the law applicable to summary judgment. As the movant, defendant has the burden to show that there are no genuine disputes of material fact and that, based upon those undisputed facts, it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. All of the absences of crucial fact detailed by the court above cut against defendant as the moving party. Furthermore, all of the inferences from the facts that are present in the record must be drawn in favor of the Reeds. Applying those standards to the issue before the court, the conclusion is inescapable that there are genuine issues of material fact existing which prevent summary judgment in defendant’s favor.

The second vein of law which comes into play is the dictate of South Dakota law that, ordinarily, questions of whether a defendant acted with gross negligence are questions of fact for the jury if reasonable minds could differ as to the inferences to draw from the known facts. Gabriel, 847 N.W.2d at 542. That is the situation [*21]  here. The court recommends that defendant’s motion for summary judgment on the Reeds’ gross negligence claim be denied.

D. Are There Material Factual Disputes as to Assumption of the Risk?

Defendant’s final argument in favor of its summary judgment motion is that the Reeds assumed the risk of their daughter’s accident as a matter of law, thereby relieving defendant of any liability. The court addresses the first question apparent by defendant’s argument: whether assumption of the risk is even a defense to a claim of gross negligence. As legal authority for its position, defendant cites only the Restatement (Second) of Torts 496A, cmt. d (1965), and a dissenting opinion in Barger for Wares v. Cox, 372 N.W.2d 161, 170-71 (S.D. 1985) (Wuest, J., dissenting). See Defendant’s Brief, Docket No. 23 at pp. 29-30. Neither of these authorities represent binding South Dakota law.

The Reeds in their brief do not address the issue of whether assumption of the risk is a defense to a claim of gross negligence. They argue only that assumption of the risk is a quintessential issue of fact for the jury. See Docket No. 30 at pp. 13-14.

In the Holzer case discussed previously, the plaintiff signed defendant’s release of liability form which defendant called an “assumption of the risk” form. Holzer, 610 N.W.2d at 790. The court held [*22]  in that case that liability releases only serve to protect defendants from claims of ordinary negligence, not from claims of gross negligence. Id. at 793. However, the title the defendant chose to give its release form is not dispositive of the question in this case.

The South Dakota Supreme Court has said that when a defendant’s actions are merely negligent, the defense of contributory negligence applies. But when the defendant’s conduct is willful and wanton, the defense of contributory negligence does not apply. Carlson v. Johnke, 57 S.D. 544, 234 N.W. 25, 27-28 (S.D. 1931), overruled on other grounds Wittstruck v. Lee, 62 S.D. 290, 252 N.W. 874, 877 (S.D. 1934) (clarifying that it did not adopt the doctrine of comparative negligence in Johnke).

In a dissenting opinion in another case, Justice Henderson stated that while assumption of the risk was a defense to ordinary negligence, the plaintiff would nonetheless have recourse for willful or wanton acts of a defendant. Johnson v. Rapid City Softball Ass’n. , 514 N.W.2d 693, 703 (S.D. 1994) (Henderson, J., dissenting). See Rantapaa v. Black Hills Chair Lift Co., 2001 SD 111, 633 N.W.2d 196, 204 (S.D. 2001) (assumption of the risk is an affirmative defense to an ordinary negligence claim).

The court has found no South Dakota case directly on point addressing whether the defense of assumption of the risk applies to grossly negligent or willful and wanton conduct. Defendant cites § 496A, comment d, of the Restatement (Second) of Torts for the proposition that the defense is [*23]  available here. The section cited stands for the proposition that assumption of the risk is a defense to both ordinary negligence and to reckless conduct. The section does not address gross negligence or willful and wanton conduct. However, it is true that the South Dakota Supreme Court has, at times, used the word “reckless” interchangeably with “gross negligence” and “willful and wanton.”

If assumption of the risk is a defense to a claim of gross negligence, it is a subjective standard. Duda v. Phatty McGees, Inc., 2008 SD 115, 758 N.W.2d 754, 758 (S.D. 2008). Defendant has the burden to prove that “the particular plaintiff in fact sees, knows, understands and appreciates” the specific risk that caused the injury. Id. The defendant must prove three elements: (1) the plaintiff had actual or constructive knowledge of the risk; (2) the plaintiff appreciated its character; and (3) the plaintiff voluntarily accepted the risk, with the time, knowledge, and experience to make an intelligent choice. Id. “A person is deemed to have appreciated the risk if it is the type of risk that no adult of average intelligence can deny.” Id. (quoting Westover v. East River Elec. Power Coop., Inc., 488 N.W.2d 892, 901 (S.D. 1992)) (cleaned up).

The Restatement states that a plaintiff who knows generally of a danger does not necessarily assume the risk if [*24]  the danger appears to be slight or negligible. See
Restatement (Second) Torts §496D, cmt. b. The Restatement also echoes what South Dakota law establishes: because the standard for assumption of the risk is a subjective one based on whether the plaintiff knows of the existence of the risk as well as understands its magnitude and unreasonable character, the question of assumption of the risk is almost always a question of fact for the jury to decide. Id.; Ray v. Downes, 1998 SD 40, 576 N.W.2d 896, 900 (S.D. 1998).

Here, the Reeds have established that neither they nor their children had ever been tubing before the day they visited defendant’s resort. See Docket No. 27-1 at p.3 (depo. p. 12). They anticipated that tubing at defendant’s resort would be safe, fun and would build family memories. See Docket No. 33-1 at p. 103. Furthermore, there is no evidence produced by defendant showing that the Reeds anticipated, understood, and accepted the risk that defendant would provide no employee at the top of the tube run to stage the tubers—contrary to defendant’s own policy and its prominent signage at the resort (i.e. follow attendant’s instructions when going down the tube run).

The defense of assumption of the risk is a subjective one. There are material issues of fact as to what the [*25]  Reeds knew and appreciated in terms of the risk they and I.R. would encounter when tubing at defendant’s resort. Assuming that the defense applies at all to a claim of gross negligence, the court concludes summary judgment is inappropriate on this record.

Conclusion

Based on the foregoing facts, law and analysis, this magistrate judge respectfully recommends granting in part and denying in part defendant’s motion for summary judgment, Docket No. 21. Specifically, the court recommends defendant’s motion should be granted as to plaintiff’s claim for ordinary negligence, but recommends defendant’s motion should be denied as to plaintiff’s claim for gross negligence.

Notice To Parties

The parties have fourteen (14) days after service of this Report and Recommendation to file written objections pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1), unless an extension of time for good cause is obtained. Failure to file timely objections will result in the waiver of the right to appeal questions of fact. Objections must be timely and specific in order to require de novo review by the District Court. Thompson v. Nix, 897 F.2d 356 (8th Cir. 1990); Nash v. Black, 781 F.2d 665 (8th Cir. 1986).

DATED November 15, 2018.

BY THE COURT:

/s/ Veronica L. Duffy

VERONICA L. DUFFY

United States Magistrate Judge


Your release cannot use the term “inherent risk” as the description of the risks, it creates no release at all.

California appellate court reviews numerous issues brought by plaintiff in this skier v. skier fatality. Most important issue is the relationship between Assumption of the Risk in California and a Release.

Tuttle v. Heavenly Valley, L.P., 2020 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 814, 2020 WL 563604

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

Plaintiff: Grant Tuttle et al.

Defendant: Heavenly Valley, L.P.

Plaintiff Claims:

Defendant Defenses: doctrines of primary assumption of the risk, on the ground Tuttle’s accident was the result of the inherent risks of skiing, and express assumption of the risk, based on Tuttle’s signed release of all claims and liability for defendant’s negligence.

Holding: for the defendant

Year: 2020

Summary

Skier died after being hit by snowboarder coming out of terrain park. Descendant’s heirs could not sue because the release stated the descendant assumed the risk of her injuries. Case is still ongoing.

Discussion by the court provides great analysis of the different types of risk assumed and the differences between inherent risks and other risks.

Facts

On September 2, 2013, Tuttle purchased a season ski pass from defendant and executed a release.2 The release begins with an all-capital advisement: “WARNING, ASSUMPTION OF RISK, RELEASE OF LIABILITY INDEMNIFICATION AGREEMENT PLEASE READ CAREFULLY BEFORE SIGNING. THIS IS A RELEASE OF LIABILITY WAIVER OF CERTAIN LEGAL RIGHTS.”

The accident occurred on December 21, 2013. Snowboarder Anthony Slater was proceeding out of defendant’s terrain park and collided with skier Tuttle after their respective trails merged. The impact of the collision propelled Tuttle into a tree. Tuttle died the following morning. Factors that potentially contributed to the accident included defendant’s signage, fencing, crowd control the day of the accident, Tuttle’s ski path, and Slater’s speed.

It is unknown what happened to the lawsuit against the snowboarder.

The actual facts on how the trial proceeded are convoluted and not in the normal course of trials. The appellate court recognized this and found although the proceedings were different, the outcome was correct.

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

The court first reviewed release law in California. The main issue the court found was the relationship between a release in California and the inherent risks of a sport. The court made this statement, which should be known by everyone in the outdoor industry.

But a release that applies only to the inherent risks of a sport is the legal equivalent of no release at all.

When you play sports, explore the woods or ski, just three examples, you assume the risk of the inherent risks of the sport. If your release only identifies inherent risks as the risks, the release protects against, you release is protecting you from things you are already protected against. A plaintiff cannot sue you for the inherent risks of the activity.

Your release is written, or should be written, to protect you from all the other risks of an activity. Risks such as those created by equipment, guides or decision’s guides or participants make. Those are risks that are probably not inherent to the sport and a such; you are liable for those risks.

The court did an extensive analysis of these issues. The foundation case is Knight v. Jewett (1992) 3 Cal.4th 296, 11 Cal. Rptr. 2d 2, 834 P.2d 696, a California Supreme Court decision that has been quoted in hundreds of cases in most states and laid down the definitions of the different types of risk and how a person assumes those different risks.

Knight and its progeny have established that a ski resort operator is not liable for injuries caused by risks inherent in the sport of snow skiing. Instead, pursuant to the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk, participants in active sports assume responsibility for injuries sustained as a result of the sport’s inherent risks. Stated another way, the defendant owes no duty of care to protect the plaintiff from the inherent risks of an active sport. Because no duty of care is owed and the plaintiff has assumed the risk of injury, no release is necessary to absolve a defendant of liability when a plaintiff is injured as the result of an inherent risk in an active sport such as skiing.

The issue in the law then becomes has the defendant done something to change the inherent risks or said another way increased the risk to the participants. The participant assumes the inherent risks and others, but not to the extent the risk has been increased. You cannot assume gross negligence, for example.

A ski resort operator “still owe[s] a duty, however, not to increase the risks of injury beyond those that are inherent in the sport. This distinction is closely tied to the policy underlying the finding of no duty, i.e., there should be no liability imposed which would chill normal participation or fundamentally alter the nature of the sport, but liability may be appropriate where the risk is not ‘inherent’ in the sport.” This is the doctrine of secondary assumption of the risk, and it is an exception to the complete defense of primary assumption of risk.

The balance between the risks in the sport that create the excitement and define the sport versus actions of the defendant in controlling or presenting the sport in such a way the risks cannot be assumed by the participants.

The court then compared the issues of increasing the risk and comparative fault. Comparative fault is how the jury or trier of fact determines who is actually liable and in what percentages for the injuries of the plaintiff.

Comparative fault principles apply in secondary assumption of the risk cases. The trier of fact considers the “plaintiff’s voluntary action in choosing to engage in an unusually risky sport, whether or not the plaintiff’s decision to encounter the risk should be characterized as unreasonable” and weighs it against the defendant’s breach of the duty not to increase the risks beyond those inherent in the active sport. Where a plaintiff’s “injury has been caused by both a defendant’s breach of a legal duty to the plaintiff and the plaintiff’s voluntary decision to engage in an unusually risky sport, application of comparative fault principles will not operate to relieve either individual of responsibility for his or her actions, but rather will ensure that neither party will escape such responsibility.”

The court then reviewed the relationship between comparative fault and how that is affected when a release is used.

A different analysis applies when a skier signs a written release that expressly holds the ski operator harmless for its own negligence. This triggers the doctrine of express assumption of the risk. Unlike secondary assumption of the risk, but like primary assumption of the risk, the doctrine of express assumption of the risk provides a complete defense in a negligence action.

The court then clarified its statement defining how a court looks at how the defenses are applied to the facts.

However, unlike both implied primary and secondary assumption of the risk, which focus on risks inherent in an active sport like skiing, express assumption of the risk focuses on the agreement itself.

Court added further clarification to its statement.

A valid release “operates to relieve the defendant of a legal duty to the plaintiff with respect to the risks encompassed by the agreement and, where applicable, to bar completely the plaintiff’s cause of action.” The legal issue in an express assumption of the risk case “‘is not whether the particular risk of injury appellant suffered is inherent in the recreational activity to which the Release applies, but simply the scope of the Release.'”

In assumption of the risk, the plaintiff must know the risks they are assuming. A release removes that actual knowledge from the analysis.

Additionally, a plaintiff does not need to have “‘specific knowledge of the particular risk that ultimately caused the injury. [Citation.] If a release of all liability is given, the release applies to any negligence of the defendant [so long as the negligent act that results in injury is] “‘reasonably related to the object or purpose for which the release is given.'”

The court then looked at the limits of protection a release provides. That limit is defined as gross negligence.

There is an outer limit to the scope of a release from liability for one’s own negligence in the recreational sports context: As a matter of public policy, if a skier proves the operator unreasonably increased the inherent risks to the level of gross negligence, express assumption of the risk is no longer a viable defense; and the operator will be liable for damages notwithstanding the existence of a valid release of liability for ordinary negligence.

If the defendant engages in gross negligence, that is outside of the protection afforded by the release.

A validly executed express release of liability for a defendant’s ordinary negligence means the only viable theory for a judgment in a plaintiff’s favor is if the defendant acted with gross negligence. There is no inconsistency between findings that a defendant is ordinarily negligent by unreasonably increasing the inherent risks of snow skiing, but not grossly negligent. A finding of gross negligence would necessarily mean a defendant unreasonably increased the inherent risks of snow skiing, so that comparative fault principles apply. But an express release, coupled with an undisputed factual finding that a defendant did not act with gross negligence, necessarily results in a defense judgment.

The court then recapped its comparison of the legal issues in a case involving inherent and other risks and a release.

To recap, snow skiing has inherent risks, and a ski operator does not owe skiers any duty to protect against them. If a skier is injured as a result of a risk inherent in the sport, the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk provides a complete defense to a lawsuit against the ski operator. But a ski resort operator owes a duty not to unreasonably increase the risks beyond those inherent in the sport. If a ski operator breaches this duty, the doctrine of secondary assumption of the risk makes the ski resort liable to an injured skier on a comparative fault basis. If the skier executes a release that absolves the ski resort operator of liability for the operator’s negligence, the release is a complete defense, provided the ski operator did not act with gross negligence. That is to say, the ski operator is entitled to judgment as a matter of law if the skier has signed a valid release and the ski operator’s conduct, although negligent, was not grossly negligent.

There is a lot more discussion in the case about the procedural issues and how the trial was handled. There is no need to discuss these here.

So Now What?

This is a difficult case to read and understand, however, if you can parse the procedural arguments from the assumption of the risk and release arguments, it is extremely educational in explaining the relationship between the plaintiff and defendant in a case like this.

Simply put there is a hierarchy of defenses available to a business or program in the outdoor recreation industry. There is no fine line between them, in fact, it is a massive gray area, that changes when you move from state to state.

  • Inherent Risks of the Activity
  • Assumption of the Risk
  • Release

Nor are the defenses entirely separate from each other. And if used properly they can be effectively used to support and define each other.

Your website can help explain the risks, inherent and otherwise. Your release can identify specific risks, which may not be apparent to some or for which some may argue they did not know and understand. Your safety talk can define the inherent risks of the activity to make sure those are known by participants.

When writing a release or assumption of the risk agreement, those written documents need to take in all aspects of the risks and make sure nothing in your program or marketing derails your defense wall.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Nevada Appellate court voids release because statements made between the riders & the mechanical bull operator creates a requirement to maneuver the bull in an easy fashion which voided the release. Plaintiff also claimed battery from the actions of the defendant.

A strong and well written dissent argued to enforce the release on general contract principals.

Kuchta v. Opco, 2020 Nev. App. Unpub. LEXIS 549, 2020 WL 3868434

State:
Nevada, Court of Appeals of Nevada

Plaintiff: Joseph Kuchta

Defendant: Sheltie Opco, LLC, a Nevada Limited Liability Company, d/b/a John Ascuaga’s Nugget, d/b/a Gilley’s Nightclub; and Wolfhound Holdings, LLC, a Delaware Limited Liability Company

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence, Negligence Per Se, Negligent Hiring and Respondent Superior, Negligent Supervision, Negligent Entrustment, and Battery

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the Plaintiff

Year: 2020

Summary

Bar patrons wanted to ride the mechanical bull. Before doing so they made the bull operator agree to an easy ride. After one of the riders was thrown and suffered an injury, they sued saying the agreement between the operator and the riders for an easy ride voids the release. The Nevada Court of Appeals agreed.

Facts

While socializing with friends at Gilley’s Nightclub in Sparks, Nevada, a bar owned by respondent Sheltie Opco, Kuchta and his friends observed an employee riding a mechanical bull. As the employee was riding the bull, another employee used a joystick to control the bull’s movements. After the employee demonstrated how easy and non-challenging it was to engage safely in a slow ride, she stepped off the bull.

Sometime later that night, Kuchta and his friends were considering riding the bull. Kuchta’s group approached the same employee, who they had watched ride the bull earlier, and who was now operating the joystick and controlling the ride. Two different people within the group that Kuchta was part of conversed with the employee about riding the mechanical bull.

Viewing all factual allegations in a light most favorable to Kuchta, his friends told the employee that each person in their group wanted an easy ride, which based on a difficulty scale of one to ten, they described as a two (with one meaning not moving at all), which the employee said she could provide. The friends indicated that everyone in the group was a novice and wanted a ride similar to the ride the employee had demonstrated. Furthermore, they told the employee that everyone should be able to step off the bull once the ride concluded, just as the employee had been able to do earlier that night after her ride. The employee agreed to provide the type of a ride Kuchta’s group requested. Thus, Kuchta’s and the employee’s understandings and expectations regarding Kuchta’s ride were that it would be easy, at a level two or at a low speed, and that Kuchta would be able to dismount after the ride was finished.

Before any person could ride the mechanical bull, however, Gilley’s required each patron to sign a previously prepared Assumption of Risk, Release, Indemnity, and Medical Treatment Authorization Agreement (Agreement), also known as a written waiver. The Agreement listed potential risks and possible injuries involved in riding the bull, including broken bones, and also released Sheltie Opco from any and all liability for injuries or negligence that occur from all risks, both known and unknown. Kuchta signed the Agreement, although the record does not reveal when it was signed in relation to the conversations described above.

According to Kuchta, once on the bull, the ride was initially slow, as had been requested. However, after approximately 20 seconds, the operator significantly increased the speed and violence of the bull’s movements. Kuchta was thrown from the bull and suffered a fractured pelvis.

Kuchta sued Sheltie Opco alleging: negligence, negligence per se, negligent hiring and respondent superior, negligent supervision, negligent entrustment, and battery. Sheltie Opco moved for summary judgment on all claims, arguing there was no genuine issue of fact because Kuchta expressly assumed the risks of the ride and consented to the battery when he signed the Agreement before riding the bull. The district court granted Sheltie Opco’s motion for summary judgment finding that Kuchta expressly assumed the risks of riding the bull by signing the Agreement, including consenting to the touching that was the basis for his battery claim.

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

The basic issue that pops up in this case is the conversation between the operator of the mechanical bull and the plaintiff who set the conditions for the plaintiff to ride the bull. Normally, verbal agreements are void and only the paper agreements are valid when a contract is signed. This is called the Parol Evidence rule. Oral statements made prior to the signing of the written agreement are of no value in interpreting the contract. Only the information contained in the four corners of the paperwork are reviewed.

This is a scary issue because any statement made by your staff could be used to defeat a release.

Kuchta argues that he did not expressly assume the risk because the operator specifically agreed to provide the requested slow ride (i.e., an intensity of two out of ten) and the operator instead ultimately conducted a wild ride exceeding his expectations.

Does a conversation between a customer and an employee, (or staff member) change a release? More importantly, does it create a modification of the experience so that the release does not cover the risk. Normally no, but in this case, Yes.

The court then looked at the requirements for a valid release under Nevada’s law.

(1) Contracts providing for immunity for liability for negligence must be construed strictly since they are not favorite[s] of the law . . . (2) such contracts must spell out the intention of the party with the greatest particularity . . . and show the intent to release from liability beyond doubt by express stipulation and no inference from the words of general import can establish it . . . (3) such contracts must be construed with every intendment against the party who seeks immunity from liability . . . (4) the burden to establish immunity from liability is upon the party who asserts such immunity . . . .

Taken as a whole, the requirements are not different in most states. However, the Nevada Appellate court looked further at the requirements to determine whether the plaintiff did assume the risk. Where the risks identified in the release or known by the plaintiff.

However, our inquiry does not stop here as it pertains to the waiver’s validity; we must determine whether Kuchta expressly assumed the risks contemplated by the waiver.

In Nevada, releases are looked at as proof, the plaintiff assumed the risk. These are one-way courts look at releases; however, it is a minority view. The release must then contain the necessary language for the defendant to prove the plaintiff knew and assumed the risk that caused his or her injury.

The court has combined, under Nevada’s law, the relationship of contract, the release, and the risks outlined or assumed by contract in the release. Meaning, not only must you agree not to sue, the risks you assume must be specific in the release.

“Express assumption of risk[‘s] . . . vitality stems from a contractual undertaking that expressly relieves a putative defendant from any duty of care to the injured party; such a party has consented to bear the consequences of a voluntary exposure to a known risk.”

A release under Nevada’s law is an express assumption of risk agreement. Express meaning written.

Generally, “[a]ssumption of the risk is based on a theory of consent.” For a party to assume the risk there are two requirements. “First, there must have been voluntary exposure to the danger. Second, there must have been actual knowledge of the risk assumed.” Actual knowledge of the danger by the party alleged to have assumed the risk is the essence of the express assumption of risk doctrine.

The plaintiff in this case did not consent to the ride he was given, even though he signed away his right to sue. The failure of the defendant to prove the plaintiff assented to the ride he received, which was not in the written release, was cause for the release to fail, possibly.

To determine whether the party signing had actual knowledge of the risks assumed, courts must consider “[(1)] the nature and extent of the injuries, [(2)] the haste or lack thereof with which the release was obtained, and [(3)] the understandings and expectations of the parties at the time of signing.”

The first two requirements were met in this case. However, the third requirement was not met. The plaintiff did not have an understanding or expectations of the parties at the time the release was signed.

These conflicting allegations create a genuine dispute of material fact as to the expectations of the parties and as to whether the bull operator’s conduct failed to meet those expectations. Because Kuchta and Sheltie Opco each presented consistent and conflicting facts regarding both parties’ expectations of the ride, and knowledge of the risks involved in a level two-of-ten or easy ride, a trier of fact should have resolved this issue. Thus, the district court erred by granting summary judgment in favor of Sheltie Opco as to Kuchta’s negligence claims.

No party, who signs a release, expects to be injured or killed. So, this third requirement is different. No guest signs the release with an understanding they can’t sue. They sign the release because it is part of the paperwork needed to engage in the activity. If you made the effort to make sure the person signing the release understood the expectations of them from you when signing the release, many might not.

So, this decision in Nevada does not void releases. It does, however, create an additional requirement in the relationship between your guests and your operations. The risks the client is undertaking must be known and assumed by the plaintiff prior to undertaking the activity. That risk must be expressed in the release.

The second argument the plaintiff made that the court undertook was the battery claim. Most people understand the TV term assault and battery as a criminal charge. However, battery has been an intentional tort for centuries. “A battery is an intentional and offensive touching of a person who has not consented to the touching.”

In this case, the touching is not an actual contact between the plaintiff and the defendant but causing the plaintiff to be “touched” by the landing surface which caused his injury.

The court looked at this intentional tort as greater than normal negligence.

“[G]eneral clauses exempting the defendant from all liability for negligence will not be construed to include intentional or reckless misconduct, or extreme and unusual kinds of negligence, unless such intention clearly appears.”

This phrase is quite interesting. Like all other states, a release does not cover intentional, reckless, or extreme conduct on the part of the defendant. At the same time, the court seemed to open the idea that a release under Nevada’s law could stop a claim for intentional, reckless, or extreme conduct if it was intentional and clear in the release.

Because there was a conflict between the plaintiff and the defendant as to the facts surrounding the battery, the Appellate court found the motion for summary judgment should not have been granted.

The dissent in this case would have upheld the release based on basic contract law. The dissent sets out a thorough review of contract law in Nevada.

Summing up, what 500 years of contract law tell us is this:

(1) a contract means what its words say and an unambiguous contract “will be enforced as written”;

(2) what the contractual words say is what they objectively convey in their ordinary sense regardless of what the parties might have personally thought or intended in their heads;

(3) the final contract supersedes all earlier verbal negotiations;

(4) parol evidence may only be used to clarify a term that is ambiguous, and an ambiguity does not arise merely because the parties disagree on what they think the contract means;

(5) parol evidence may never be used to contradict an express term of a contract, whether the contract is integrated or not;

(6) parol evidence may never consist of earlier negotiations inconsistent with the final contract, whether the final document is integrated or not;

(7) when there is no dispute regarding what the words of the contract consist of (and there is no dispute regarding what any parol evidence admitted to clarify an ambiguity actually is), and the only remaining dispute is over what those undisputed words and parol evidence mean, then all that remains is a pure question of law for the court.

The dissent specifically focused on the Parol Evidence Rule which in most cases have prevented the conversation between the patrons and the mechanical bull operator from being offered into evidence.

The court voided the release and allowed the intentional tort of battery to proceed.

So Now What?

This upends release law in Nevada. Your release must be able to prove the guest understood the risks they may encounter, All of the risks.

Any statements made by your staff, could alter your release, worse, alter the understanding of the release or the risks, creating an issue that will have to go to trial to determine.

Bringing an intentional tort into a lawsuit is another game changer. Raft guides that intentional hit a rock, bump a boat, or even flip a boat will create liability in Nevada for any injury their customers receive.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Tuttle v. Heavenly Valley, L.P., 2020 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 814, 2020 WL 563604

Tuttle v. Heavenly Valley, L.P., 2020 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 814, 2020 WL 563604

Tuttle v. Heavenly Valley, L.P.

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

February 5, 2020, Opinion Filed

G056427

Reporter

2020 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 814 *; 2020 WL 563604

GRANT TUTTLE et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants, v. HEAVENLY VALLEY, L.P., Defendant and Respondent.

Notice: NOT TO BE PUBLISHED IN OFFICIAL REPORTS. CALIFORNIA RULES OF COURT, RULE 8.1115(a), PROHIBITS COURTS AND PARTIES FROM CITING OR RELYING ON OPINIONS NOT CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION OR ORDERED PUBLISHED, EXCEPT AS SPECIFIED BY RULE 8.1115(b). THIS OPINION HAS NOT BEEN CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION OR ORDERED PUBLISHED FOR THE PURPOSES OF RULE 8.1115.

Subsequent History: Request denied by Tuttle v. Heavenly Valley, L.P., 2020 Cal. LEXIS 2940 (Cal., Apr. 29, 2020)

Prior History:  [*1] Appeal from a judgment and post judgment orders of the Superior Court of Orange County, Ct. No. 30-2015-00813230, Nathan R. Scott, Judge.

Disposition: Affirmed.

Counsel: The Simon Law Group, Thomas J. Conroy; Williams Iagmin and Jon R. Williams for Plaintiffs and Appellants.

Wilson, Elser, Moskowitz, Edelman & Dicker, Steven R. Parminter, Patrick M. Kelly and John J. Immordino for Defendant and Respondent.

Judges: DUNNING, J.*, BEDSWORTH, ACTING P. J., MOORE, J. concurred.

Opinion by: DUNNING, J.

Opinion

INTRODUCTION

Skier and Heavenly Valley season passholder Dana Tuttle died after she and a snowboarder collided at Heavenly Valley’s resort in South Lake Tahoe. Tuttle’s spouse and sons sued Heavenly Valley and the snowboarder.1 Defendant asserted as defenses the doctrines of primary assumption of the risk, on the ground Tuttle’s accident was the result of the inherent risks of skiing, and express assumption of the risk, based on Tuttle’s signed release of all claims and liability for defendant’s negligence.

The trial court determined as a matter of law the release was unambiguous and covered Tuttle’s accident. Despite these conclusions, the jury was still asked to decide whether defendant “unreasonably increased the risks . . . over and above [*2] those inherent in the sport of skiing.” The jury found defendant did, but unanimously agreed defendant did not act with gross negligence. Finding Tuttle and defendant each 50 percent at fault, the jury awarded plaintiffs substantial damages.

A judgment in plaintiffs’ favor typically would have followed as a matter of course unless defendant formally moved for, and was granted, a judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV). However, the trial court determined the jury’s factual finding that defendant was not grossly negligent, coupled with its legal conclusion that the release provided a complete defense to plaintiffs’ lawsuit, compelled entry of a judgment in defendant’s favor, even without a posttrial JNOV motion.

Plaintiffs appeal, but do not challenge the jury instructions, the special verdict form, or the finding that defendant did not act with gross negligence. Plaintiffs urge this court to (1) review the release do novo and conclude it does not cover Tuttle’s accident, (2) hold the release violates public policy, (3) find that defendant invited errors in the special verdict form and jury instructions and forfeited the opportunity for entry of judgment in its favor without first [*3]  formally moving for JNOV, and (4) order a new trial. We find no error, however, and affirm.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

I.

The Release

On September 2, 2013, Tuttle purchased a season ski pass from defendant and executed a release.2 The release begins with an all-capital advisement: “WARNING, ASSUMPTION OF RISK, RELEASE OF LIABILITY INDEMNIFICATION AGREEMENT PLEASE READ CAREFULLY BEFORE SIGNING. THIS IS A RELEASE OF LIABILITY WAIVER OF CERTAIN LEGAL RIGHTS.” Salient provisions of the release are found in paragraphs 1, 2, 5, 6, and 13.

In paragraph 1, Tuttle acknowledged snow skiing “can be HAZARDOUS AND INVOLVES THE RISK OF PHYSICAL INJURY AND/OR DEATH.” In paragraph 2, she “ASSUME[D] ALL RISKS . . . known or unknown, inherent or otherwise [associated with skiing at the resort, including] falling; slick or uneven surfaces; surface and subsurface snow conditions; . . . variations in terrain; design and condition of man-made facilities and/or terrain features; . . . [and] collisions.” Paragraph 5 advised: “The description of the risks listed above is not complete and participating in the Activities may be dangerous and may also include risks which are inherent and/or which cannot be reasonably [*4] avoided without changing the nature of the Activities.”

Paragraph 6 included Tuttle’s express agreement “NOT TO SUE AND TO RELEASE [DEFENDANT] FROM ALL LIABILITY . . . for . . . injury or loss to [her], including death.” This paragraph specifically advised that Tuttle was releasing all “CLAIMS BASED ON [DEFENDANT’S] ALLEGED OR ACTUAL NEGLIGENCE . . . .” In paragraph 13, Tuttle agreed the release was “binding to the fullest extent permitted by law . . . on [her] heirs, next of kin, executors and personal representatives.”

II.

The Accident and the Lawsuit

The accident occurred on December 21, 2013. Snowboarder Anthony Slater was proceeding out of defendant’s terrain park and collided with skier Tuttle after their respective trails merged. The impact of the collision propelled Tuttle into a tree. Tuttle died the following morning. Factors that potentially contributed to the accident included defendant’s signage, fencing, crowd control the day of the accident, Tuttle’s ski path, and Slater’s speed.

Plaintiffs sued defendant and Slater.3 Defendant raised the defenses of implied and express assumption of the risk: (1) “any injury, loss or damage purportedly sustained . . . by Plaintiffs was directly [*5]  and proximately caused and contributed to by risks which are inherent to the activity in which Plaintiffs participated”; (2) “Plaintiffs either impliedly or expressly relieved Defendant of its duty, if any, to Plaintiffs by knowingly assuming the risk of injury”; and (3) defendant “is entitled to defense and indemnity of each and every cause of action alleged in the Complaint pursuant to the release agreement signed by Plaintiffs and/or Plaintiffs’ representative or agent.”

III.

The Jury Trial

The jury trial spanned five weeks.4 The week before jury selection, the parties stipulated to a special verdict form that posed two liability questions: (1) whether defendant “unreasonably increased the risks to Tuttle over and above those inherent in the sport of skiing” and (2) whether defendant was grossly negligent. The special verdict form further instructed the jury that if it answered “yes” to either question, it was to make findings regarding the amount of damages and allocation of fault. Before the final witness concluded his testimony, the trial court confirmed that counsel was not making any changes to the special verdict form.

The following day, at the close of evidence and outside the [*6] jurors‘ presence, the trial court denied plaintiffs’ motion for directed verdict and defendant’s renewed motion for nonsuit.5 The trial court rejected plaintiffs’ argument the release was fatally ambiguous with regard to the risks involved in the accident. Given the absence of competent extrinsic evidence regarding the release, the trial court determined its interpretation presented a legal question for the court: “So I will construe the release, relying on its plain language. I find that it is not ambiguous. It covers the risks here, most notably in paragraph 2 where it covers risks regarding design and collision, and later where it notes that the risks include injury, including death.”

In the trial court’s own words, the finding as a matter of law that the release unambiguously discharged defendant from liability for its own ordinary negligence meant “we still have questions for the jury about whether the contract was entered into and whether the defendant[] committed gross negligence that cannot be released. For these reasons, the plaintiffs’ motion for directed verdict is denied.”

The rulings prompted defendant’s counsel to suggest additional jury instructions and a revision to the [*7] special verdict form might be necessary to address the fact issues surrounding Tuttle’s execution of the release. The following colloquy then ensued: “[Plaintiffs’ counsel]: Your Honor I’ll shortcut the whole thing. With the court’s ruling, I’ll stipulate to the formation of the contract and proceed with the verdict form as is, so no need for additional instructions. [¶] [Defendant’s counsel]: I’m sorry. To be clear, we have a stipulation that the contract existed and that the contract included the release and waiver language? [¶] [Plaintiffs’ counsel]: Right. The release and—release of liability and waiver was executed—existed and was executed. That’s the stipulation. [¶] [Defendant’s counsel]: Accepted, your Honor. [¶] The Court: So stipulated.” (Italics added.)

At this point, the jurors returned to the courtroom. The trial court read the jury instructions, and plaintiffs’ counsel began his closing argument. He had this to say about the release: “What we’re talking about here, the liability of the resort does not fall under this release. And you are not going to be asked any questions on the verdict form about the release. Yeah, [Tuttle] signed one, and she understood the inherent [*8] risks of skiing, and that’s what the release
releases. It does not release gross negligence. It does not release what we’re talking about.”

At the beginning of the afternoon session, before defendant’s closing argument, the trial court and counsel met again outside the jurors’ presence to discuss the stipulation concerning the release. Plaintiffs’ counsel maintained the jury should not hear about the stipulation. When the trial court repeated its concern the jury could “end up finding that the release was not valid” and invited counsel to revisit the special verdict form, plaintiffs’ counsel replied there was no need as “the release in evidence releases
negligence. And the questions on the verdict form
go [] to gross negligence, and—this doesn’t have to do with the release, but the increase of unreasonable risk.” Defendant’s counsel remarked the “dialogue this morning, your Honor, was prompted in part by the plaintiffs’ desire not to have to modify further the special verdict form.” Plaintiffs’ counsel concurred: “Right.” Counsel then agreed the stipulation would not be read to the jury.

Closing arguments continued. Defendant’s counsel did not mention the release in his closing argument. [*9]  Neither did plaintiffs’ counsel in his rebuttal argument. There, he referred to the special verdict form and told the jurors, “[a]t the end of the day, it’s a simple exercise. That jury form . . . . [¶] . . . If you perceive wrong on the part of [defendant], you tick those two boxes. And there’s two of them—you tick them both. Procedurally, you tick the one about increased unreasonable risk, and then you tick the one about gross negligence. If you perceive wrong, that’s what you do.”

The jury was never told the release provided a complete defense to defendant’s ordinary negligence.

IV.

The Special Verdict

As to defendant, the special verdict form included three liability questions, three damages questions, and three comparative fault/apportionment of liability questions. The liability questions read as follows:

“3. Did Heavenly Valley do something or fail to do something that unreasonably increased the risks to Dana Tuttle over and above those inherent in the sport of skiing?

“Yes X No __

“4. Was Heavenly Valley grossly negligent in doing something or failing to do something that caused harm to Dana Tuttle?

“Yes __ No X

“If you answered ‘Yes’ to either question 3 or 4, then answer question [*10]  5. [¶] If you answered ‘No’ to both questions 3 and 4, and also answered ‘No’ to either question 1 or 2, then sign and return this verdict form. You do not need to answer any more questions.

“If you answered ‘Yes’ to both questions 1 and 2, and answered ‘No’ to both questions 3 and 4, insert the number ‘0’ next to Heavenly Valley’s name in question 11, skip question 5, and answer questions 6-11.

“5. Was Heavenly Valley’s conduct a substantial factor in causing harm to Dana Tuttle?

“Yes X No __”

Because the jury answered “yes” to question 5, it was instructed to answer the remaining questions. The jury determined plaintiffs’ damages were $2,131,831, with Tuttle and defendant sharing equal responsibility.

Immediately after polling the jurors, the trial court asked plaintiffs’ counsel to prepare the judgment and submit it the next morning. The trial court then thanked and discharged the jury without objection from trial counsel. No one noted on the record that express assumption of the risk was a complete defense to the jury’s verdict.

V.

Entry of a Defense Judgment

At the trial court’s direction, plaintiffs’ counsel prepared a proposed judgment awarding plaintiffs $1,065,915.50, plus costs and [*11] interest. Defendant objected on the basis the jury found defendant was not grossly negligent and the release provided “a complete and total defense to this entire lawsuit and Plaintiffs should take nothing.”6

After briefing and a hearing, the trial court sustained defendant’s objection to plaintiffs’ proposed judgment. In its March 9, 2018 order, the trial court reiterated its finding as a matter of law that Tuttle’s release “clearly, unambiguously, and explicitly released defendant from future liability for any negligence against Dana Tuttle.” The trial court explained its earlier finding concerning the scope of the release still left open fact questions as to whether Tuttle knowingly accepted the release agreement and, if she did, whether defendant acted with gross negligence. With the parties’ stipulation that Tuttle knowingly executed the release and the jury’s factual finding that defendant did not act with gross negligence, the trial court further explained there was only one legal conclusion: “[D]efendant has prevailed on the express assumption issue and ‘negate[d] the defendant’s duty of care, an element of the plaintiff’s case.'”

The trial court acknowledged “the structure” of [*12] the special verdict form erroneously directed the jury to continue to answer questions on damages after finding defendant had not been grossly negligent. The trial court found, however, the jury’s specific finding that defendant did not act with gross negligence was not inconsistent with, but instead overrode, the award of damages.

The trial court did not invite defendant to file a motion for JNOV or call for the filing of such a motion on its own initiative. Instead, it entered judgment in favor of defendant.

VI.

Plaintiffs’ Post judgment Motions

The defense judgment reiterated the jury’s special verdict findings and stated in relevant part: “It appearing that by reason of those special verdicts, and the Court’s interpretation of the terms of the legal contract in Decedent Dana Tuttle’s season ski pass agreement, and [the] legal conclusions as set forth in that certain Order entered on March 9, 2018, Defendants Heavenly Valley L.P., and Anthony Slater are entitled to judgment on Plaintiffs’ complaint.” (Some capitalization omitted.)

Plaintiffs filed a motion to set aside the judgment under Code of Civil Procedure section 663 on the ground the judgment was not consistent with the special verdict and adversely affected plaintiffs’ [*13] substantial rights. Plaintiffs also filed a motion for JNOV or, in the alternative, a new trial, on the grounds there was insufficient evidence defendant had not acted with gross negligence,7 the special verdict was “hopelessly contradictory” because the jury’s gross negligence finding imposed no liability, but its apportionment of fault between Tuttle and defendant did, and defendant invited errors.

The trial court denied plaintiffs’ post judgment motions. Plaintiffs timely appealed.

DISCUSSION

I.

The Release Covered Tuttle’s Accident.

The trial court found as a matter of law that defendant’s release was not ambiguous and covered Tuttle’s accident. Our review of the release is de novo. (Paralift, Inc. v. Superior Court (1993) 23 Cal.App.4th 748, 754, 29 Cal. Rptr. 2d 177.) No extrinsic evidence concerning the meaning of the release was presented in the trial court, so “the scope of a release is determined by [its] express language.” (Benedek v. PLC Santa Monica (2002) 104 Cal.App.4th 1351, 1357, 129 Cal. Rptr. 2d 197 (Benedek).)

Rather than a straightforward argument the trial court erred as a matter of law in interpreting the release, plaintiffs contend the release was narrow in scope and applied only to risks inherent in the sport of snow skiing. But a release that applies only to the inherent risks of a sport is the legal equivalent of no release at all. [*14]  (Cohen v. Five Brooks Stable (2008) 159 Cal.App.4th 1476, 1490, 72 Cal. Rptr. 3d 471 (Cohen); Zipusch v. LA Workout, Inc. (2007) 155 Cal.App.4th 1281, 1291, 66 Cal. Rptr. 3d 704 (Zipusch).) To understand the distinction, we detour briefly to discuss the doctrines of implied and express assumption of the risk.

A.

Overview: Assumption of the Risk

The California Supreme Court’s decision in Knight v. Jewett (1992) 3 Cal.4th 296, 11 Cal. Rptr. 2d 2, 834 P.2d 696 (Knight)8 and its progeny have established that a ski resort operator is not liable for injuries caused by risks inherent in the sport of snow skiing.9 Instead, pursuant to the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk, participants in active sports assume responsibility for injuries sustained as a result of the sport’s inherent risks. (Id. at p. 321.) Stated another way, the defendant owes no duty of care to protect the plaintiff from the inherent risks of an active sport. (Allan v. Snow Summit, Inc. (1996) 51 Cal.App.4th 1358, 1367, 59 Cal. Rptr. 2d 813 (Allan).) Because no duty of care is owed and the plaintiff has assumed the risk of injury, no release is necessary to absolve a defendant of liability when a plaintiff is injured as the result of an inherent risk in an active sport such as skiing.

A ski resort operator “still owe[s] a duty, however, not to increase the risks of injury beyond those that are inherent in the sport. This distinction is closely tied to the policy underlying the finding of no duty, i.e., there should be no liability imposed [*15]  which would chill normal participation or fundamentally alter the nature of the sport, but liability may be appropriate where the risk is not ‘inherent’ in the sport.” (Allan, supra, 51 Cal.App.4th at p. 1367, italics omitted.) This is the doctrine of secondary assumption of the risk, and it is an exception to the complete defense of primary assumption of risk. (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 308.)

Comparative fault principles apply in secondary assumption of the risk cases. The trier of fact considers the “plaintiff’s voluntary action in choosing to engage in an unusually risky sport, whether or not the plaintiff’s decision to encounter the risk should be characterized as unreasonable” and weighs it against the defendant’s breach of the duty not to increase the risks beyond those inherent in the active sport. (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 314.) Where a plaintiff’s “injury has been caused by both a defendant’s breach of a legal duty to the plaintiff and the plaintiff’s voluntary decision to engage in an unusually risky sport, application of comparative fault principles will not operate to relieve either individual of responsibility for his or her actions, but rather will ensure that neither party will escape such responsibility.” (Ibid.; see Allan, supra, 51 Cal.App.4th at p. 1367.)

A different analysis applies when a skier [*16] signs a written release that expressly holds the ski operator harmless for its own negligence. This triggers the doctrine of express assumption of the risk. Unlike secondary assumption of the risk, but like primary assumption of the risk, the doctrine of express assumption of the risk provides a complete defense in a negligence action.

However, unlike both implied primary and secondary assumption of the risk, which focus on risks inherent in an active sport like skiing, express assumption of the risk focuses on the agreement itself. A valid release “operates to relieve the defendant of a legal duty to the plaintiff with respect to the risks encompassed by the agreement and, where applicable, to bar completely the plaintiff’s cause of action.” (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 309, fn. 4, italics added.) The legal issue in an express assumption of the risk case “‘is not whether the particular risk of injury appellant suffered is inherent in the recreational activity to which the Release applies [citations], but simply the scope of the Release.'” (Hass, supra, 26 Cal.App.5th at p. 27.)

Additionally, a plaintiff does not need to have “‘specific knowledge of the particular risk that ultimately caused the injury. [Citation.] If a release of all liability is given, the [*17] release applies to any negligence of the defendant [so long as the negligent act that results in injury is] “‘reasonably related to the object or purpose for which the release is given.'” [Citation.]’ [Citation.] As we have said, ‘[t]he issue is not whether the particular risk of injury is inherent in the recreational activity to which the release applies, but rather the scope of the release.'” (Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th at p. 1485; see Allan, supra, 51 Cal.App.4th at p. 1374 [courts will enforce a skier’s agreement “to ‘shoulder the risk’ that otherwise might have been placed” on the ski resort operator].)

There is an outer limit to the scope of a release from liability for one’s own negligence in the recreational sports context: As a matter of public policy, if a skier proves the operator unreasonably increased the inherent risks to the level of gross negligence, express assumption of the risk is no longer a viable defense; and the operator will be liable for damages notwithstanding the existence of a valid release of liability for ordinary negligence. (See City of Santa Barbara v. Superior Court (2007) 41 Cal.4th 747, 777, 62 Cal. Rptr. 3d 527, 161 P.3d 1095 (Santa Barbara).)

To recap, snow skiing has inherent risks, and a ski operator does not owe skiers any duty to protect against them. If a skier is injured as a result of a risk inherent in the sport, [*18] the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk provides a complete defense to a lawsuit against the ski operator. But a ski resort operator owes a duty not to unreasonably increase the risks beyond those inherent in the sport. If a ski operator breaches this duty, the doctrine of secondary assumption of the risk makes the ski resort liable to an injured skier on a comparative fault basis. If the skier executes a release that absolves the ski resort operator of liability for the operator’s negligence, the release is a complete defense, provided the ski operator did not act with gross negligence. That is to say, the ski operator is entitled to judgment as a matter of law if the skier has signed a valid release and the ski operator’s conduct, although negligent, was not grossly negligent.

B.

Analysis

The parties stipulated Tuttle executed the release with full knowledge of its content; consequently, the validity of the release is not before us. The jury unanimously agreed defendant’s conduct did not constitute gross negligence, and plaintiffs do not challenge the sufficiency of the evidence to support that finding; thus, no public policy considerations preclude its enforcement. Our only [*19] concern is “‘whether the release in this case negated the duty element of plaintiffs’ causes of action.'” (Eriksson v. Nunnink (2015) 233 Cal.App.4th 708, 719, 183 Cal. Rptr. 3d 234.) If so, it applied to any ordinary negligence by defendant. (Benedek, supra, 104 Cal.App.4th at p. 1357.)

Defendant’s release did precisely that. Tuttle assumed “ALL RISKS associated with [skiing], known or unknown, inherent or otherwise.” She also agreed not to sue defendant and to release it “FROM ALL LIABILITY . . . BASED ON [DEFENDANT’S] ALLEGED OR ACTUAL NEGLIGENCE.” No more was required.

Defendant’s use of the phrase, “inherent or otherwise” did not create any ambiguity or confusion. As the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit has recognized, “[t]he term ‘otherwise,’ when ‘paired with an adjective or adverb to indicate its contrary’ . . . is best understood to mean ‘NOT.’ Webster’s Third New Int’l. Dictionary 1598 (2002). The plain language and meaning of the phrases therefore reflect a clear intent to cover risks that are not inherent to skiing.” (Brigance v. Vail Summit Resorts, Inc. (10th Cir. 2018) 883 F.3d 1243, 1256-1257.)

Plaintiffs’ contention that defendant’s release “bears many similarities to the release” in Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th 1476 misses the mark. The plaintiff in Cohen fell from a rented horse on a guided trail ride. She sued the stable, alleging its employee, the trail guide, negligently [*20]  and “unexpectedly provoke[d] a horse to bolt and run without warning” (id. at p. 1492), causing her to lose control of her horse (id. at p. 1482). The trial court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment based on the plaintiff’s written agreement “‘to assume responsibility for the risks identified herein and those risks not specifically identified.'” (Id. at p. 1486, italics omitted.)

The Court of Appeal reversed. The Cohen majority noted “the trial court apparently granted summary judgment on the theory that the risks ‘not specifically identified’ in the Release include the risk that misconduct of respondent or its employee might increase a risk inherent in horseback riding.” (Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1486-1487, italics omitted.) This interpretation was erroneous because the stable’s agreement did not explicitly advise that the plaintiff was releasing the defendant from liability for the defendant’s negligence. Although a release is not required to use “the word ‘negligence‘ or any particular verbiage . . . [it] must inform the releasor that it applies to misconduct on the part of the releasee.” (Id. at pp. 1488-1489.) The release in Cohen used the word “negligence” only once, in reference to the plaintiff’s negligence, not that of the defendant. The stable’s release [*21] also did not “indicate that it covers any and all injuries arising out of or connected with the use of respondent’s facilities.” (Id. at p. 1489.)

Having found the release ineffective to trigger the doctrine of express assumption of the risk, the Cohen majority turned to the doctrines of implied assumption of the risk, i.e., it focused on the inherent risks of horseback riding. Summary judgment could not be granted on that basis, either, because a triable issue of fact existed as to whether the trail guide acted recklessly and increased the inherent risks of a guided horseback ride. (Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th at p. 1494-1495.)

Here, in contrast, Tuttle assumed all risks associated with her use of defendant’s facilities and expressly released defendant from all liability for its negligence. That language applied to ordinary negligence by defendant and provided a complete defense to plaintiffs’ lawsuit, so long as defendant’s conduct did not constitute gross negligence. (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at pp. 308-309, fn. 4.)

The release in Zipusch, supra, 155 Cal.App.4th 1281 mirrors the one in Cohen, but not the one in this case. As in Cohen, the plaintiff in Zipusch did not agree to assume the risk of negligence by the defendant gym. Accordingly, the agreement was ineffective as an express release; and the issue for the Court [*22]  of Appeal was whether the plaintiff’s injury was the result of an inherent risk of exercising in a gym, in which case the primary assumption of the risk doctrine would apply, or whether it was the result of the gym increasing the inherent risks of exercise, in which case the secondary assumption of the risk doctrine would apply. (Id. at pp. 1291-1292.)

Hass, supra, 26 Cal.App.5th 11 is instructive. Plaintiffs cite Hass in their opening brief, but do not attempt to distinguish it, even though the release in Hass is similar to the one Tuttle signed. The analysis in Hass applies in this case.

In Hass, the plaintiffs’ decedent suffered a fatal cardiac arrest after finishing a half marathon organized and sponsored by the defendant. His heirs sued for wrongful death. The Court of Appeal held that cardiac arrest is an inherent risk of running a race, but a triable issue of material fact existed as to whether the defendant acted with gross negligence in failing to provide timely and adequate emergency medical services. (Hass, supra, 26 Cal.App.5th at p. 18.)

Addressing the release, Hass held: “By signing the Release in the instant case, we conclude that [the decedent] intended both to assume all risks associated with his participation in the race, up to and including the risk [*23]  of death, and to release [the defendant] (on behalf of himself and his heirs) from any and all liability with respect to any injuries he might suffer as a result of his participation. This was sufficient to block the [plaintiffs’] wrongful death claim for ordinary negligence.”10 (Hass, supra, 26 Cal.App.5th at p. 27.)

Our independent examination of defendant’s release convinces us Tuttle assumed all risks that might arise from skiing at defendant’s resort, including risks created by defendant’s ordinary negligence. With a valid release and no gross negligence by defendant, the issue of inherent risk was no longer relevant. (Willhide-Michiulis v. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, LLC (2018) 25 Cal.App.5th 344, 353, 235 Cal. Rptr. 3d 716 [where the doctrine of express assumption of risk applies, implied assumption of the risk is no longer considered].)

II.

Enforcement of the Release Does not Violate California’s Public Policy.

Plaintiffs next argue the release‘s exculpatory language violates California’s public policy. The linchpin of their argument is that defendant’s act of unreasonably increasing the inherent risk of an active sport was neither ordinary negligence nor gross negligence, but a separate category of “aggravated” negligence.

Plaintiffs argue Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th 747 “left open the question of whether public policy precludes the contractual release [*24]  of other forms of ‘aggravated’ misconduct, in addition to gross negligence.” (Some capitalization omitted.) The argument is raised for the first time on appeal; it has no merit.

In Santa Barbara, a parent signed an agreement releasing the defendants from liability for “‘any negligent act'” related to her child’s participation in summer camp. (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at p. 750.) The child drowned. (Ibid.) The trial court denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment based on the release, and the appellate court denied defendants’ petition for writ of mandate challenging that ruling. (Id. at p. 753.) The sole issue before the Supreme Court was “whether a release of liability relating to recreational activities generally is effective as to gross negligence.” (Id. at p. 750.)

The defendants argued California law, specifically Civil Code section 1668,11 impliedly allowed recreational activity releases to be enforced against a claim of gross negligence. (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at pp. 762-763.) At the time, no published California decision “voided[] an agreement purporting to release liability for future gross negligence.” (Id. at p. 758.) The Santa Barbara majority turned to out-of-state authorities and rejected the defendants’ position based on public policy principles. (Id. at pp. 760-762.)

References in Santa Barbara to “aggravated [*25]  wrongs” (a term used by Prosser & Keeton, The Law of Torts (5th ed. 1984) § 68, p. 484) (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at pp. 762, 765, 776) and “aggravated misconduct” (id. at pp. 760, 762, 777, fn. 54) do not suggest a new species of negligence that might affect a liability release for recreational activities. Rather, those phrases encompassed misconduct that included gross negligence and willful acts. (Id. at p. 754, fn. 4.) As the majority held, “the distinction between ‘ordinary and gross negligence‘ reflects ‘a rule of policy’ that harsher legal consequences should flow when negligence is aggravated instead of merely ordinary.” (Id. at p. 776.) With a valid release, “a theory of gross negligence, if supported by evidence showing the existence of a triable issue, is the only negligence-based theory that is potentially open to [the] plaintiffs.” (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at p. 781.)

Here, no public policy considerations preclude the enforcement of defendant’s recreational activity release that exculpated it from liability for its own ordinary negligence. (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 309, fn. 4.)

III.

The Trial Court did not Err by Entering Judgment in Favor of Defendant.

Plaintiffs argue the trial court should have entered judgment in their favor regardless of the jury’s finding concerning gross negligence because the jury made findings on damages and apportioned fault [*26] between Tuttle and defendant. They contend the responsibility to seek a JNOV or some other post judgment remedy should have fallen to defendant, not plaintiffs. But once the trial court determined the special verdict was not inconsistent and Tuttle’s express release provided a complete defense as a matter of law, entry of a defense judgment was proper. Even if the trial court erred in entering a defense judgment without a formal motion for JNOV, any error was harmless.

A.

Legal Principles Governing Special Verdicts

A special verdict must include “conclusions of fact as established by the evidence . . . [so] that nothing shall remain to the Court but to draw from them conclusions of law.” (Code Civ. Proc., § 624.) A special verdict is not a judgment. (Goodman v. Lozano (2010) 47 Cal.4th 1327, 1331-1332, 104 Cal. Rptr. 3d 219, 223 P.3d 77.) If a special verdict includes findings on inconsistent theories, the findings on the legal theory that does not control the outcome of the litigation “may be disregarded as surplusage.” (Baird v. Ocequeda (1937) 8 Cal.2d 700, 703, 67 P.2d 1055.) Additionally, “where no objection is made before the jury is discharged, it falls to ‘the trial judge to interpret the verdict from its language considered in connection with the pleadings, evidence and instructions.'” (Woodcock v. Fontana Scaffolding & Equip. Co. (1968) 69 Cal.2d 452, 456-457, 72 Cal. Rptr. 217, 445 P.2d 881; see Zagami, Inc. v. James A. Crone, Inc. (2008) 160 Cal.App.4th 1083, 1091-1092, 74 Cal. Rptr. 3d 235.)

B.

The Trial Court’s Ruling

As noted, the jury [*27] was discharged before the parties raised an issue concerning the special verdict form and the jury’s findings. The trial court recognized and fulfilled its duty to interpret the special verdict: “After [this] court rejected several unilateral proposals, the parties stipulated to a special verdict form. . . . But they did so before the court construed the release in response to defendant’s nonsuit motion and before the parties stipulated Ms. Tuttle entered into the release. [¶] Thus, the form presented only two questions addressing the assumption of the risk. Question #3 asked whether defendant unreasonably increased the inherent risks of skiing. Question #4 asked whether defendant acted with gross negligence. [¶] The answer ‘NO’ to either Question #3 or #4 exonerates defendant. Answering ‘No’ to Question #3 would foreclose the only relevant exception to the primary assumption defense. Answering “NO’ to Question #4 would foreclose the only relevant exception to the express assumption defense. [¶] But the form allowed the jurors to answer ‘YES’ to one question and ‘NO’ to [the] other one and continue to answer questions, including determining and allocating damages.” (Italics and bold [*28] omitted.)

The trial court further explained: “Here, the specific finding that defendant did not act with gross negligence controls over the general award of damages. The jury was properly instructed with the definition of gross negligence. The jury received percipient and expert testimony that, if credited, showed defendant did not act with gross negligence. The parties argued whether defendant [did] or did not act with gross negligence. The answer ‘NO’ to Question #4 unambiguously shows the jury found defendant did not act with gross negligence. That resolved the only factual question on the express assumption issue in favor of defendant. [¶] . . . [¶] The award of damages is not a hopeless inconsistency so much as it is mere surplusage once the court honors the jury’s unambiguous finding that defendant acted without gross negligence and draws the legal conclusion—a conclusion that [the] jury was not asked to draw—that the release covers these claims and effects an express assumption of the risk.”

The trial court also correctly concluded the “jury’s findings on Question[] #3 and Question #4 [were not] irreconcilable. The concept of unreasonably increasing inherent risks is distinct [*29] from the concept of gross negligence. In a particular case, the same facts that show an unreasonable increase in the inherent risks may also show gross negligence. [Citation.] Overlap is possible, [but not] necessary. In this case, the jury found no such overlap. There is no inconsistency in defendant losing on the primary assumption issue but prevailing on the express assumption issue. And that, after five weeks of trial, is what happened here.”

C.

Analysis

A validly executed express release of liability for a defendant’s ordinary negligence means the only viable theory for a judgment in a plaintiff’s favor is if the defendant acted with gross negligence. (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at p. 781.) There is no inconsistency between findings that a defendant is ordinarily negligent by unreasonably increasing the inherent risks of snow skiing, but not grossly negligent. A finding of gross negligence would necessarily mean a defendant unreasonably increased the inherent risks of snow skiing, so that comparative fault principles apply. But an express release, coupled with an undisputed factual finding that a defendant did not act with gross negligence, necessarily results in a defense judgment. Accordingly, Question No. 3 concerning [*30] whether defendant unreasonably increased the inherent risk should have been removed from the special verdict form.

Also, the special verdict form should have instructed the jury that if it found defendant was not grossly negligent, it should not answer the remaining questions. The jury’s compliance with the trial court’s instructions and consequent damages-related findings were surplusage, but did not create an inconsistency with its finding that defendant did not act with gross negligence. The trial court correctly entered judgment in favor of defendant based on the dispositive finding of no gross negligence. The trial court’s explanation of its ruling demonstrates the trial court’s application of the correct legal principles in doing so.

In their appellate opening brief, plaintiffs argue defendant forfeited any objection to the special verdict form because it (1) failed to object to the special verdict before the jury was discharged; (2) invited the erroneous instructions in the special verdict form because it had participated in drafting it; and (3) failed to bring “a statutorily authorized post-trial motion” challenging the special verdict form. Although the special verdict form [*31] should have been amended before deliberations, there is no issue of forfeiture or invited error on defendant’s part.

The parties jointly agreed on the wording of the special verdict form. Any fault in the drafting cannot be assigned to one side over the other, and all parties bear responsibility for the erroneous directions in the stipulated special verdict form. Nothing in the record suggests the special verdict form or the objection to entry of a plaintiffs’ judgment was the product of gamesmanship. (See Lambert v. General Motors (1998) 67 Cal.App.4th 1179, 1183, 79 Cal. Rptr. 2d 657.)

Additionally, plaintiffs’ trial strategy to stipulate to Tuttle’s knowing execution of the release was wise: Evidence Tuttle understood the release was overwhelming. As part of the discussion pertaining to the parties’ stipulation, however, both the trial court and defendant’s trial counsel questioned the adequacy of the special verdict form. But plaintiffs’ trial counsel maintained the special verdict form was fine “as is” and persuasively argued against making any changes or advising the jury of the stipulation. This meant the doctrine of implied secondary assumption of the risk was not relevant unless the jury found defendant acted with gross negligence.

We agree the procedural [*32] aspects surrounding the entry of the defense judgment on what appeared to be a plaintiffs’ verdict were unconventional; but the bottom line is once the jury found no gross negligence, defendant was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Under these circumstances, it would have been a waste of resources to require defendant, or the trial court on its own initiative, to formally notice a motion for JNOV (Code Civ. Proc., § 629, subd. (a)).

Even if we found the procedure to have been erroneous, the error would have been procedural, not substantive; and, plaintiffs have not demonstrated the likelihood of a different outcome. (See Webb v. Special Electric, Co., Inc. (2016) 63 Cal.4th 167, 179, 202 Cal. Rptr. 3d 460, 370 P.3d 1022 [because the defendant “did not have a complete defense as a matter of law, the entry of JNOV was unjustified [on the merits]. In light of this conclusion, we need not reach plaintiffs’ claims of procedural error”].) Defendant had a complete defense; there is no reasonable probability the trial court would have denied a formal JNOV motion.

Plaintiffs argue they relied on the state of the special verdict form in making the decision to stipulate to the validity of the release agreement. Plaintiffs suggest defendant, by agreeing to the special verdict form, tacitly stipulated to a deviation from [*33] the applicable law to allow plaintiffs to recover damages based solely on a finding defendant had unreasonably increased the inherent risk, notwithstanding the existence of a valid, applicable release. Such an argument is without support in the law. It is also belied by the record. As already discussed, both defendant’s counsel and the trial court raised questions concerning the special verdict form once the parties stipulated to Tuttle’s execution of the release. Plaintiffs’ trial counsel maintained there should be no changes in the jury instructions or the special verdict form.

IV.

Plaintiffs are not Entitled to a New Trial.

Plaintiffs argued in their motion for new trial that the special verdict was “hopelessly contradictory” and, consequently, against the law. Plaintiffs also asserted there were errors in the special verdict form, they “excepted to” those errors, but then were penalized because “the jury’s finding of unreasonably increased inherent risk has ex post facto been deemed insufficient to impose liability on Defendant Heavenly Valley.” Although plaintiffs did not claim instructional error in the trial court, they complained the modified version of CACI No. 431,12 to which they agreed, [*34]  misled the jurors into thinking they could find defendant liable if they found it unreasonably increased the inherent risk of skiing or if they found it acted with gross negligence.

On appeal, plaintiffs ask this court to reverse the denial of their motion for a new trial. They fail to cite applicable authorities to support their arguments. (Cal. Rules of Court, rule 8.204(a)(1)(B).) Instead, they contend “the trial court changed the rules of the game only after the game had already been played, leaving the parties and their counsel without the opportunity to satisfy those new rules, and robbing the jury of the ability to assess all viable liability options.” Plaintiffs add they stipulated to Tuttle’s execution of the release “in reliance on the wording of the then existing Special Verdict form, which . . . made clear that a finding of gross negligence was only one of two disjunctive liability paths, and was not necessary to impose liability against Heavenly. As a consequence, [plaintiffs] . . . were . . . induced into a stipulation concerning that issue in light of the wording of the existing Special Verdict form, an unfair sequence which the trial court itself acknowledged worked against [plaintiffs].” This characterization [*35] misstates the record.

First, the trial court made legal rulings throughout trial when called upon to do so. The trial court did not change any of its pronouncements of law after the trial concluded. The record shows the trial court gave the parties every opportunity to revisit the jury instructions and special verdict form before they were given to the jury.

Second, although the trial court described the sequence of events, it did not suggest the events were unfair or “worked against” plaintiffs. As discussed ante, when the trial court denied defendant’s renewed motion for nonsuit, it advised counsel the jury must decide whether Tuttle actually executed the release. Because neither side proposed jury instructions or questions on the special verdict form addressing the issue of contract formation, defendant’s counsel suggested they should revisit both the jury instructions and the special verdict form. Plaintiffs’ trial counsel immediately stipulated to Tuttle’s execution of the release and advised he would “proceed with the verdict form as is.” This statement calls into question plaintiffs’ claim they were induced into entering into the stipulation.

Third—and significantly—plaintiffs’ [*36] counsel did not discuss disjunctive liability paths in his closing arguments. Instead, plaintiffs’ counsel focused on the evidence and urged the jury to find gross negligence: “What we’re talking about here, the liability of the resort does not fall under this release. And you are not going to be asked any questions on the verdict form about the release. Yeah, [Tuttle] signed one, and she understood the inherent risks of skiing, and that’s what the release
releases. It does not release gross negligence. It does not release what we’re talking about.”

The jury unanimously found defendant did not act with gross negligence. The jury’s function is to make ultimate findings of fact, and it is the trial court’s responsibility to apply the law to the relevant findings of fact. Nothing in the special verdict form misled the jury with regard to the factors it should consider in making any particular finding. We conclude the trial court correctly applied the law and entered judgment accordingly.

DISPOSITION

The judgment and post judgment orders are affirmed. Respondents shall recover costs on appeal.

DUNNING, J.*

WE CONCUR:

BEDSWORTH, ACTING P. J.

MOORE, J.

 


Pennsylvania No Duty Rule stops lawsuit by underage rider.

A minor with 12 years of riding and competing on dirt bikes could not sue the commercial operation after crashing on the course.

Hawkins v. Switchback MX, LLC, 339 F. Supp. 3d 543, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 155249

State: Pennsylvania; United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania

Plaintiff: Kameron Hawkins and Amber Lynn Durbin

Defendant: Switchback MX, LLC d/b/a Switchback Raceway

Plaintiff Claims: negligence and negligence per se

Defendant Defenses: Pennsylvania No Duty Rule (Assumption of the Risk)

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2019

Summary

The Pennsylvania Comparative Negligence Act specifically identifies downhill skiing and off-road riding as exempt from the comparative negligence act. In both those sports, the participant assumes the risk of their injuries due from the inherent risks of the sports.

Facts

Hawkins [plaintiff] began riding a dirt bike at the age of five or six.. He learned the ins and outs of dirt bike [motorized] riding from his father, who raced dirt bikes and often brought Hawkins to spectate at off-road races Hawkins began participating in races himself at “a young age” and even secured sponsorships. He testified that he was aware of the dangers of riding dirt bikes from early on in his experience, that his father instructed him to avoid jumps that “you don’t think you can handle,” and that he wore protective gear to guard against the risk of injury. He acknowledges that dirt bike riding is “a dangerous sport,” that “you could get hurt” on a dirt bike, and that a fall could cause “injury . . . or even death.” Despite his protective measures, Hawkins has suffered injuries in the past riding a dirt bike. Hawkins had been to Switchback on three prior occasions: once as a spectator, once as pit crew member for his friend Jonathan Franjko, and once as a rider.

The events preceding Hawkins’ accident on January 9, 2016 are disputed by the parties and not fully explored in the Rule 56 record. According to Hawkins, he arrived at Switchback with several friends and met with Brader, who asked them whether they had been to Switchback before. Hawkins relayed that, after the group responded affirmatively, Brader told them to sign in, accepted their payment, and provided them with wristbands to attach to their helmets to indicate they had been authorized to ride. He denied ever being asked to present identification and did not recall being asked his age.

Switchback’s account diverges considerably. According to Brader, Hawkins entered the indoor facility on January 9, 2016 with Franjko, who had a Switchback membership card. Brader did not recognize Hawkins and thought he appeared to be under the age of 18. Brader reported that he told Hawkins he needed to “take home a waiver and fill it out” and that he had to “bring [the waiver] out next time and join us another day.” Brader does not recall Hawkins signing in on Switchback’s sign-in sheet for January 9, 2016, but testified that he told Hawkins he “could not ride” without waiver and consent forms on file. Brader also testified that he does not know how Hawkins ultimately came to access the track on January 9, 2016. It is undisputed that Durbin did not execute a parental consent form allowing Hawkins to participate in dirt bike riding at Switchback.

On January 9, 2016, Hawkins somehow gained access Switchback’s indoor dirt bike racing track. Hawkins “attempted a jump, without enough speed,” on one of the track’s “table top jumps,” which caused the frame of his dirt bike to hit the ground and “flip [the] bike and Hawkins over.” According to Brader, it was only after this wreck that he became aware that Hawkins had accessed the track. Brader testified that Hawkins “didn’t look right” and that he offered to call an ambulance. Franjko confirmed that Brader asked “a couple times” whether Hawkins wanted medical attention. Hawkins left Switchback’s facility with his friends without receiving medical attention. Hawkins was subsequently treated for injuries including a lacerated kidney and pancreas, trauma to his spleen, a broken hip, a concussion, and post-concussion syndrome. The accident occurred four months before Hawkins’ 18th birthday.

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

The court first reviewed the requirements to prove a negligence claim in Pennsylvania.

Under Pennsylvania law, a plaintiff must prove the “four basic elements of duty, breach, causation, and damages. That is, plaintiffs must prove: (1) the existence of a legal duty requiring a certain standard of conduct; (2) breach of that duty by the defendant; (3) a causal connection between defendant’s breach and plaintiffs’ injury; and (4) actual loss or damages.

The court then reviewed the claims of the plaintiff as whether the defendant owed a duty to the minor plaintiff because the plaintiff assumed the risk of his injuries.

The defendant’s position was it had no duty to protect the plaintiff because of the inherent risk set out in the “no duty” rule in the Pennsylvania Comparative Negligence Act.

The plaintiff’s response to that argument was the negligence of the defendant was in allowing the plaintiff to access the track.

The court looked at the conflicting arguments by next reviewing assumption of the risk as applied in Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Comparative Negligence Act eliminated the defense of assumption of the risk in all areas except two when it enacted the statute. The two exemptions were downhill skiing and off-road vehicle riding. Meaning in those two situations, the no-duty rule retained the defense of assumption of the risk. The defendant has no duty to protect the plaintiff from the inherent risks of the sport of downhill skiing or off-road riding.

The court then reviewed whether assumption of the risk applied to minors. That is “the court must ask what the “particular minor plaintiff knows, sees, hears, comprehends, and appreciates” with respect to the risk involved.”

Under Pennsylvania law, to prove assumption:

…the court must find that the plaintiff (1) “consciously appreciated the risk” attending the activity, (2) assumed the risk of injury by nonetheless engaging in the activity, and (3) sustained an injury that was “the same risk of injury that was appreciated and assumed.”

A factor in determining whether or not a minor assumed the risk is the minor’s age and experience. In this case that worked for the defendant because the minor was only four months from turning eighteen at the time of the accident and had been riding for twelve years.

The court then defined inherent risk as a risk “which “cannot be removed without altering the fundamental nature” of the activity.”

The court broke down the inherent risks of off-road riding as identified in the statute, to see if the plaintiff’s injury landing on a table-top jump was inherent to the sport.

Common sense dictates that the risk of a fall or collision that does not involve another rider or object is equally inherent in the activity. Indeed, Hawkins’ own experience bears this out—he testified that his accident on January 9, 2016, was not his first; that he knew from personal experience that attempting jumps carried a certain risk; and that he wore protective gear in an attempt to mitigate that risk. We find that the risk of suffering serious injury when attempting a dirt bike jump is one which “cannot be removed without altering the fundamental nature” of dirt bike riding and is thus inherent in the activity.

We further conclude that reasonable persons could not debate whether Hawkins appreciated and knowingly assumed that risk. Hawkins was nearly 18 years old at the time of the accident and had been riding dirt bikes for more than 12 years. He was a vastly experienced rider. He was well aware that dirt bike riding carried the risk of serious injury and even death. Indeed, Hawkins acknowledged that a dirt bike presents a certain danger “even when the bike’s on the ground.” Given this unequivocal record testimony, we have little difficulty finding that this particular rider—plaintiff Kameron Hawkins—knew, appreciated, and assumed the risks attending off-road dirt bike riding.

For these reasons, the court found the minor, because of his age and experience assumed the risk of his injuries, and the defendant was not liable for those injuries because of the Pennsylvania Comparative Negligence Act.

So Now What?

Assumption of the risk in most states is the only defense you have to injuries a minor receives. Unless your state has a specific statute that identifies your activity as one with inherent risk a person assumes, you need to prove the minor in your case assumed those risks.

To do that you must maximize all the avenues to educate and document that education of a minor, in fact, all participants in your activity or business.

Post videos of your activity showing crashes, flips and falls on your website and social media. Point out possible risks on your site and social media. Then confirm in some way that the minor observed that information.

You can go so far as to ask the minor and/or the minor’s parents of their experience in the sport. Have they participated in the sport before, seen it on TV, participated for how many years, etc.

A release is your best defense to a lawsuit, but for minors, in those states where releases are not valid and or minors, assumption of the risk is your best and sometimes only defense.

For more information see:

States that allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue

States that do not Support the Use of a Release

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Hawkins v. Switchback MX, LLC, 339 F. Supp. 3d 543, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 155249

Hawkins v. Switchback MX, LLC, 339 F. Supp. 3d 543, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 155249

United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania

September 12, 2018, Decided; September 12, 2018, Filed

CIVIL ACTION NO. 2:16-CV-1719

Reporter

KAMERON HAWKINS and AMBER LYNN DURBIN, Plaintiffs v. SWITCHBACK MX, LLC d/b/a SWITCHBACK RACEWAY, Defendant

Counsel:  [**1] For KAMERON HAWKINS, &, AMBER LYNN DURBIN, Plaintiffs: George R. Farneth , II, LEAD ATTORNEY, The Farneth Law Group, LLC, Wellsburg, WV.

For SWITCHBACK MX, LLC, doing business as, SWITCHBACK RACEWAY, Defendant: Michael John Pawk, Lutz & Pawk, Butler, PA.

Judges: Christopher C. Conner, Chief United States District Judge.

Opinion by: Christopher C. Conner

Opinion

[*545]  MEMORANDUM

Plaintiff Kameron Hawkins (“Hawkins”) suffered injuries after he unsuccessfully attempted a jump while riding a dirt bike on an indoor course at defendant Switchback Raceway (“Switchback”). Hawkins and his mother, plaintiff Amber Lynn Durbin (“Durbin”), commenced this diversity action advancing three negligence claims against Switchback under Pennsylvania law. Before the court are the parties’ cross-motions for summary judgment.

I. Factual Background and Procedural History1

This personal injury lawsuit arises from physical injuries suffered by Hawkins following a dirt bike accident at Switchback’s off-road riding and racing facility in Butler, Pennsylvania. Switchback promotes and stages dirt bike races for participants of all skill levels. (Doc. 28 ¶ 1; Doc. 32 ¶ 2). Switchback’s website articulates [**2]  its waiver and consent policy as follows:

Dirtbike/ATV riding is dangerous. Accidents, injuries, and even death can occur. Ride at your own risk! All riders must sign a waiver before they will [be] permitted to ride. Minors will be required to have parental consent. During practice, there are limited to no flaggers. Please, ride safely.

There is no trespassing on Switchback property. Anyone caught trespassing will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

All minors that come without their legal parents they must have a NOTARIZED waiver to be able to ride. NO EXCEPTIONS.

(Doc. 30-9 at 1). Switchback’s track manager, Mark Brader (“Brader”), testified that,  [*546]  pursuant to this policy, a minor is not be permitted to ride without a signed parental consent form and waiver. (Brader Dep. 29:5-18, 42:13-21).2 He also testified that it was his responsibility to ensure that minors did not misrepresent their age or otherwise engage in efforts to improperly gain access to the track. (Id. at 56:4-8; see also Doc. 28 ¶ 10).

Hawkins began riding a dirt bike at the age of five or six. (Doc. 32 ¶ 4). He learned the ins and outs of dirt bike riding [**3]  from his father, who raced dirt bikes and often brought Hawkins to spectate at off-road races. (See id. ¶¶ 7-9; Hawkins Dep. 20:5-22:4 (“Hawkins Dep.”)). Hawkins began participating in races himself at “a young age” and even secured sponsorships. (Doc. 32 ¶ 6). He testified that he was aware of the dangers of riding dirt bikes from early on in his experience, that his father instructed him to avoid jumps that “you don’t think you can handle,” and that he wore protective gear to guard against the risk of injury. (Id. ¶¶ 7-8; Hawkins Dep. 21:20-22:21, 38:22-39:25, 133:3-12, 147:18-148:6). He acknowledges that dirt bike riding is “a dangerous sport,” that “you could get hurt” on a dirt bike, and that a fall could cause “injury . . . or even death.” (Hawkins Dep. 25:17-26:4, 38:13-21, 39:14-25, 147:18-148:6). Despite his protective measures, Hawkins has suffered injuries in the past riding a dirt bike. (Doc. 32 ¶ 14; see also Hawkins Dep. 38:22-39:25, 133:3-12). Hawkins had been to Switchback on three prior occasions: once as a spectator, once as pit crew member for his friend Jonathan Franjko (“Franjko”), and once as a rider. (Doc. 32 ¶ 28).

The events preceding Hawkins’ accident on January [**4]  9, 2016 are disputed by the parties and not fully explored in the Rule 56 record. According to Hawkins, he arrived at Switchback with several friends and met with Brader, who asked them whether they had been to Switchback before. (Hawkins Dep. 49:5-12). Hawkins relayed that, after the group responded affirmatively, Brader told them to sign in, accepted their payment, and provided them with wristbands to attach to their helmets to indicate they had been authorized to ride. (See id.) He denied ever being asked to present identification and did not recall being asked his age. (Id. at 133:13-23).

Switchback’s account diverges considerably. According to Brader, Hawkins entered the indoor facility on January 9, 2016 with Franjko, who had a Switchback membership card. (See Brader Dep. 56:9-18). Brader did not recognize Hawkins and thought he appeared to be under the age of 18. (See id. at 56:19-57:2). Brader reported that he told Hawkins he needed to “take home a waiver and fill it out” and that he had to “bring [the waiver] out next time and join us another day.” (Id. at 56:23-57:6). Brader does not recall Hawkins signing in on Switchback’s sign-in sheet for January 9, 2016, but testified that he [**5]  told Hawkins he “could not ride” without waiver and consent forms on file. (Id. at 76:12-77:1). Brader also testified that he does not know how Hawkins ultimately came to access the track on January 9, 2016. (Id. at 91:12-16). It is undisputed that Durbin did not execute a parental consent form allowing Hawkins to participate in dirt bike riding at Switchback. (Doc. 28 ¶ 12).

On January 9, 2016, Hawkins somehow gained access Switchback’s indoor dirt bike racing track. (See Doc. 28 ¶ 13; Doc.  [*547]  32 ¶¶ 1, 13, 31). Hawkins “attempted a jump, without enough speed,” on one of the track’s “table top jumps,” which caused the frame of his dirt bike to hit the ground and “flip [the] bike and Hawkins over.” (Doc. 32 11 13, 31). According to Brader, it was only after this wreck that he became aware that Hawkins had accessed the track. (See Brader Dep. 57:4-11). Brader testified that Hawkins “didn’t look right” and that he offered to call an ambulance. (Id. at 82:10-83:12). Franjko confirmed that Brader asked “a couple times” whether Hawkins wanted medical attention. (See Franjko Dep. 58:12-59:1). Hawkins left Switchback’s facility with his friends without receiving medical attention. (See Doc. 28 [**6]  ¶ 17; Doc. 39 ¶ 17). Hawkins was subsequently treated for injuries including a lacerated kidney and pancreas, trauma to his spleen, a broken hip, a concussion, and post-concussion syndrome. (Doc. 28 ¶ 18). The accident occurred four months before Hawkins’ 18th birthday. (See Doc. 32 ¶ 3).

Hawkins and Durbin commenced this lawsuit on November 15, 2016, asserting one claim of negligence each and one claim of negligence per se together. Plaintiffs contend that Switchback violated its internal policies and its legal duty of care by failing to ensure that Hawkins, a minor, did not access its facility without parental consent. The parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment on each of the plaintiffs’ claims. The motions are fully briefed and ripe for disposition.

II. Legal Standard

Through summary adjudication, the court may dispose of those claims that do not present a “genuine dispute as to any material fact” and for which a jury trial would be an empty and unnecessary formality. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). The burden of proof tasks the non-moving party to come forth with “affirmative evidence, beyond the allegations of the pleadings,” in support of its right to relief. Pappas v. City of Lebanon, 331 F. Supp. 2d 311, 315 (M.D. Pa. 2004); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). The court is to view [**7]  the evidence “in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw all reasonable inferences in that party’s favor.” Thomas v. Cumberland County, 749 F.3d 217, 222 (3d Cir. 2014). This evidence must be adequate, as a matter of law, to sustain a judgment in favor of the non-moving party on the claims. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250-57, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986); Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587-89, 106 S. Ct. 1348, 89 L. Ed. 2d 538 (1986). Only if this threshold is met may the cause of action proceed. See Pappas, 331 F. Supp. 2d at 315.

Courts are permitted to resolve cross-motions for summary judgment concurrently. See Lawrence v. City of Phila., 527 F.3d 299, 310 (3d Cir. 2008); see also Johnson v. Fed. Express Corp., 996 F. Supp. 2d 302, 312 (M.D. Pa. 2014); 10A Charles Alan Wright et al., Federal Practice and Procedure § 2720 (3d ed. 2015). When doing so, the court is bound to view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party with respect to each motion. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56; Lawrence, 527 F.3d at 310 (quoting Rains v. Cascade Indus., Inc., 402 F.2d 241, 245 (3d Cir. 1968)).

III. Discussion

Pennsylvania substantive law governs the negligence claims raised by the plaintiffs in this diversity action. See Maghakian v. Cabot Oil & Gas Corp., 171 F. Supp. 3d 353, 358 (M.D. Pa. 2016) (citing Chamberlain v. Giampapa, 210 F.3d 154, 158 (3d Cir. 2000)); see also Erie R.R. Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 58 S. Ct. 817, 82 L. Ed. 1188 (1938). Under Pennsylvania law, a plaintiff must prove the “four basic  [*548]  elements of duty, breach, causation, and damages.” Perez v. Great Wolf Lodge of the Poconos LLC, 200 F. Supp. 3d 471, 478 (M.D. Pa. 2016) (quoting Loughran v. Phillies, 2005 PA Super 396, 888 A.2d 872, 874 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2005)). That is, plaintiffs must prove: (1) the existence of a legal duty requiring a certain standard of conduct; (2) breach of that duty by the defendant; (3) a causal connection between defendant’s breach and plaintiffs’ injury; and (4) actual loss or damages. Id. (quoting Berrier v. Simplicity Mfg., Inc., 563 F.3d 38, 61 (3d Cir. 2009)).

The parties’ [**8]  cross-motions for summary judgment concenter on two disputes: first, whether Switchback owed a legal duty of care to Hawkins in view of the no-duty rule set forth in Pennsylvania’s Comparative Negligence Act, 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 7102, and second, whether Hawkins assumed the risk of injury, negating any duty of care, by engaging in an activity which he understood to be dangerous.3

A. Duty of Care

The parties offer competing perspectives of the applicable duty of care. Switchback maintains that it had no duty to protect Hawkins from risks inherent in off-road dirt bike riding. Switchback invokes the no-duty rule set forth in Pennsylvania’s Comparative Negligence Act, which provides that an operator of an off-road vehicle riding area—such as Switchback—”shall have no duty to protect riders from common, frequent, expected and nonnegligent risks inherent to the activity, including collisions with riders or objects.” 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 7102(b.3)(1). Switchback avers that the possibility of falling and suffering injury while engaged in off-road riding is an inherent, expected risk of the activity, and that the no-duty rule forecloses liability in this case.

Plaintiffs rejoin that the no-duty rule has no application here. They assert that [**9]  this case does not concern a duty to protect patrons from the risks of off-road riding once they have accessed the track, but instead concerns Switchback’s alleged negligence in allowing minors to access its facility in the first instance. Plaintiffs rely on the Armstrong County Court of Common Pleas’ decision in Emerick v. Fox Raceway, 68 Pa. D. & C. 4th 299 (Pa. Ct. Com. Pl. 2004), wherein the state court found that off-road riding area operators have a legal duty to develop and follow internal procedures to check a prospective rider’s age and to ensure minor riders do not access their facility without parental consent. Id. at 318. To hold otherwise, the court found, would be “contrary to good public policy.” Id.

Plaintiffs insist that the Emerick decision is on all fours with their claims. The trouble with Emerick is that it fails to engage with or even acknowledge the no-duty rule, which became law on July 15, 2004—a mere six days before the Emerick decision issued. Plaintiffs posit that the lack of discussion of the new rule suggests that the court deemed it inapplicable, given that the case before the court involved policies which allowed a plaintiff to sneak onto the track rather than the conditions of the track itself. Switchback, for its part, insists [**10]  that the court was either unaware of the new enactment or deemed it inapplicable because the accident at issue occurred before the statute’s effective date.

We cannot ascribe weight to the Emerick decision when it failed to engage with this transformative legislative enactment.  [*549]  The court’s opinion expressly states that it is grounded largely in public policy—but the state legislature six days prior explicitly and substantially transformed the Commonwealth’s negligence policy as concerns tort liability for operators of off-road riding areas. In our view, the failure of the Emerick court to account for the no-duty rule severely diminishes its value as precedent. Nonetheless, because we determine infra that the assumption of the risk doctrine negates any duty that Switchback may have had to protect Hawkins, we need not determine, as a matter of law, what duty of care remains for operators of off-road riding areas with respect to minors attempting to access their facilities.

B. Assumption of the Risk

Most tort claims in Pennsylvania are governed by the comparative negligence doctrine. See 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 7102(a). But the legislature expressly preserved assumption of the risk as a defense in two categories of activities: [**11]  off-road vehicle riding, see id. § 7102(b.3)(2), and downhill skiing, see id. § 7102(c)(2). Specifically, as pertains off-road vehicle riding areas, the Comparative Negligence Act states: “The doctrine of knowing voluntary assumption of risk shall apply to all actions to recover damages for negligence resulting in death or injury to person or property brought against any off-road vehicle riding area operator.” Id. § 7102(b.3)(2). The assumption of the risk doctrine operates to negate any legal duty ascribed to those plaintiffs seek to hold liable: “to the extent the injured plaintiff proceeded in the face of a known danger, he relieved those who may have otherwise had a duty, implicitly agreeing to take care of himself.” Montagazzi v. Crisci, 2010 PA Super 78, 994 A.2d 626, 635 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2010) (citing Carrender v. Fitterer, 503 Pa. 178, 469 A.2d 120, 124 (Pa. 1983)). The doctrine operates as a “no-duty” rule; that is, for those facilities for which the legislature preserved the assumption of the risk defense, the owner or operator “has no duty to protect the user from any hazards inherent in the activity.” Chepkevich v. Hidden Valley Resort, L.P., 607 Pa. 1, 2 A.3d 1174, 1185-86 (Pa. 2010) (citations omitted).

Pennsylvania courts apply a subjective standard when determining whether a minor assumed the risk of a given activity. That is, the court must ask what the “particular minor plaintiff knows, sees, hears, comprehends, and appreciates” [**12]  with respect to the risk involved. Bjorgung v. Whitetail Resort, LP, 550 F.3d 263, 269 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting Berman v. Phila. Bd. of Educ., 310 Pa. Super. 153, 456 A.2d 545, 550 (Pa. 1983)). To grant summary judgment based on an assumption of the risk defense, the court must find that the plaintiff (1) “consciously appreciated the risk” attending the activity, (2) assumed the risk of injury by nonetheless engaging in the activity, and (3) sustained an injury that was “the same risk of injury that was appreciated and assumed.” Zeidman v. Fisher, 2009 PA Super 161, 980 A.2d 637, 641 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2009) (quoting Hadar v. Avco Corp., 2005 PA Super 326, 886 A.2d 225, 229 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2005)). When reasonable minds could not disagree, the question of assumption of the risk is for the court. See Carrender, 469 A.2d at 124; see also M.D. v. Ski Shawnee, Inc., No. 14-CV-1576, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 81392, 2015 WL 3866050, at *4 (M.D. Pa. 2015) (citing Restatement (Second) of Torts § 469 cmt. e (Am. Law Inst. 1965)).

No court has explored the assumption of the risk doctrine in the context of off-road riding areas following the 2004 amendment to the Comparative Negligence Act. But several courts have interpreted the doctrine as pertains to downhill skiing. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has held that retention of the assumption of the risk doctrine in that context reflects the legislature’s intent that a ski resort  [*550]  owner owes no duty of care to patrons for any risk “‘inherent’ in downhill skiing.” Hughes v. Seven Springs Farm, Inc., 563 Pa. 501, 762 A.2d 339, 344 (Pa. 2000); see also Bjorgung, 550 F.3d at 268. Knowledge of the inherent risk has been deemed the sine qua non of an assumption of the risk defense. See M.D., 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 81392, 2015 WL 3866050, at *3. The plaintiff’s age and relative degree of experience [**13]  with the activity are relevant in determining whether that particular plaintiff was aware of a given risk. See id. (citing Bjorgung, 550 F.3d 263; Chepkevich, 607 Pa. 1, 2 A.3d 1174; Hughes, 563 Pa. 501, 762 A.2d 339). We can conceive of no reason why these principles, developed in the analogous context of downhill skiing, should not apply with equal force to negligence claims involving off-road riding areas. Compare 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 7102(b.3)(1)-(2) with id. § 7102(c)(1)-(2).

We must first query whether the risk of falling during a jump and suffering serious injury is inherent in the activity of off-road riding. An “inherent risk” is one which “cannot be removed without altering the fundamental nature” of the activity. Bjorgung, 550 F.3d at 268-69 (quoting Crews v. Seven Springs Mountain Resort, 2005 PA Super 138, 874 A.2d 100, 105 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2005)). The Comparative Negligence Act identifies “collisions with riders or objects” as risks inherent in off-road riding. 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 7102(b.3)(1). Common sense dictates that the risk of a fall or collision that does not involve another rider or object is equally inherent in the activity. Indeed, Hawkins’ own experience bears this out—he testified that his accident on January 9, 2016, was not his first; that he knew from personal experience that attempting jumps carried a certain risk; and that he wore protective gear in an attempt to mitigate that risk. (Hawkins Dep. 38:22-39:25, 133:3-12, 147:24-148:6). We find that the [**14]  risk of suffering serious injury when attempting a dirt bike jump is one which “cannot be removed without altering the fundamental nature” of dirt bike riding and is thus inherent in the activity. See Bjorgung, 550 F.3d at 268-69 (quoting Crews, 874 A.2d at 105).

We further conclude that reasonable persons could not debate whether Hawkins appreciated and knowingly assumed that risk. Hawkins was nearly 18 years old at the time of the accident and had been riding dirt bikes for more than 12 years. He was a vastly experienced rider. He was well aware that dirt bike riding carried the risk of serious injury and even death. Indeed, Hawkins acknowledged that a dirt bike presents a certain danger “even when the bike’s on the ground.” (Hawkins Dep. 92:4-93:2). Given this unequivocal record testimony, we have little difficulty finding that this particular rider—plaintiff Kameron Hawkins—knew, appreciated, and assumed the risks attending off-road dirt bike riding.

Anticipating the defense’s strategy sub judice, plaintiffs contend that a minor cannot ever assume the risk of a particular activity, again invoking Emerick, in which the Armstrong County Court of Common Pleas held that, because a minor plaintiff is incapable of entering into a contract [**15]  and cannot expressly waive liability for a given activity, a minor cannot impliedly assume that same risk by his or her actions. Emerick, 68 Pa. D. & C. 4th at 319. The state court provided no precedent in support of this sweeping conclusion. In this respect, Emerick
runs counter to the great weight of authority in the state courts and in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals which have held consistently that a minor is capable of assuming the risk of a dangerous activity. See, e.g., Bjorgung, 550 F.3d at 268-69 (quoting Berman, 456 A.2d at 550); Montagazzi, 994 A.2d at 635-36; Berman, 456 A.2d at 550; see also Johnson v. Walker, 376 Pa. Super. 302, 545 A.2d 947, 949-50 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1988).

 [*551]  The undisputed Rule 56 record establishes beyond debate that Hawkins knew, appreciated, and assumed the risk of injury attending off-road dirt bike riding. He was an experienced dirt bike rider who was fully aware that attempting a jump on a dirt bike carried with it an inexorable risk of injury. And he proceeded to attempt a jump on Switchback’s indoor track notwithstanding that understood risk. Switchback accordingly had no duty to protect Hawkins on January 9, 2016. We will grant summary judgment to Switchback on Hawkins’ negligence claim. Because Durbin’s claim for economic damages is derivative of Hawkins’ individual claim, we will likewise grant summary judgment to Switchback on Durbin’s claim.

IV. Conclusion

We are [**16]  not unsympathetic to the serious injuries suffered by Hawkins. But the unequivocal fact remains that Hawkins—having more than a decade of experience riding on similar off-road tracks—voluntarily engaged in the dangerous sport of dirt bike riding knowing full well the risks of the activity. Switchback is not legally responsible for the injuries that Hawkins suffered at its facility. Accordingly, the court will grant summary judgment to Switchback on plaintiffs’ negligence claims. An appropriate order shall issue.

/s/ Christopher C. Conner

Christopher C. Conner, Chief Judge

United States District Court

Middle District of Pennsylvania

Dated: September 12, 2018

ORDER & JUDGMENT

AND NOW, this 12th day of September, 2018, upon consideration of the parties’ cross-motions (Docs. 27, 31) for summary judgment, and the parties’ briefs in support of and opposition to said motions, (Docs. 29, 33, 36, 38, 41), and for the reasons set forth in the accompanying memorandum, it is hereby ORDERED that:

1. Plaintiffs’ motion (Doc. 27) for summary judgment is DENIED.

2. Defendant’s motion (Doc. 31) for summary judgment is GRANTED as follows:

a. Judgment is ENTERED in favor of defendant and against plaintiffs on [**17]  the negligence claims set forth in Counts I and II of plaintiffs’ complaint.

b. The negligence per se claim set forth in Count III of plaintiffs’ complaint is DISMISSED.

3. The Clerk of Court is directed to CLOSE this case.

/s/ Christopher C. Conner

Christopher C. Conner, Chief Judge

United States District Court

Middle District of Pennsylvania

Dated: September 12, 2018


Convoluted procedural issues at the trial court, created a ripe field for confusion, but the appellate court held the release bard the claims of the plaintiff in the skier v. skier collision where the ski resort was also sued.

Once the jury found there was no gross negligence on the part of the plaintiff, the release stopped all other claims of the plaintiff.

Tuttle et al., v. Heavenly Valley, L.P., 2020 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 814, 2020 WL 563604

State: California Court of Appeals, Fourth District, Third Division

Plaintiff: Grant Tuttle et al

Defendant: Heavenly Valley, L.P.

Plaintiff Claims: negligence

Defendant Defenses: …implied and express assumption of the risk: (1) any injury, loss or damage purportedly sustained… by Plaintiffs was directly and proximately caused and contributed to by risks which are inherent to the activity in which Plaintiffs participated; (2) Plaintiffs either impliedly or expressly relieved Defendant of its duty, if any, to Plaintiffs by knowingly assuming the risk of injury; and (3) defendant is entitled to defense and indemnity of each and every cause of action alleged in the Complaint pursuant to the release agreement signed by Plaintiffs and/or Plaintiffs’ representative or agent.

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2020

Summary

Reading the case is confusing. A lot of the decision revolves around stipulated jury special verdict form and how the case was decided at the trial level after the jury rendered a verdict. The verdict was sort of in favor of the plaintiff; however, the stipulated part of the proceedings were used by the judge to hold for the defendant.

The plaintiff, deceased, season pass holder was hit on the slopes by a snowboarder. Her family sued the snowboarder and the ski area. The jury held the ski area was negligent but not grossly negligent. Because the deceased plaintiff had signed a release, the release stopped the negligence claims.

Facts

The jury found the plaintiff negligent, but not grossly negligent. The judge then ruled the release removed the duty on the party of the defendant so therefore the defendant was not liable.

The accident occurred on December 21, 2013. Snowboarder Anthony Slater was proceeding out of defendant’s terrain park and collided with skier Tuttle after their respective trails merged. The impact of the collision propelled Tuttle into a tree. Tuttle died the following morning. Factors that potentially contributed to the accident included defendant’s signage, fencing, crowd control the day of the accident, Tuttle’s ski path, and Slater’s speed.

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

The appellate court first looked at the release. The first analysis is what made this case stand out.

Rather than a straightforward argument the trial court erred as a matter of law in interpreting the release, plaintiffs contend the release was narrow in scope and applied only to risks inherent in the sport of snow skiing. But a release that applies only to the inherent risks of a sport is the legal equivalent of no release at all.

You cannot sue, because you assume the inherent risks of a sport. Therefore, a release that only protects the defendant from the inherent risks is worthless, as stated by the court.

To help everyone understand the statement above made by the court, the court reviewed Assumption of the Risk under California law.

The California Supreme Court’s decision in Knight v. Jewett (1992) 3 Cal.4th 296 (Knight) and its progeny have established that a ski resort operator is not liable for injuries caused by risks inherent in the sport of snow skiing. Instead, pursuant to the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk, participants in active sports assume responsibility for injuries sustained as a result of the sport’s inherent risks. Stated another way, the defendant owes no duty of care to protect the plaintiff from the inherent risks of an active sport. Because no duty of care is owed and the plaintiff has assumed the risk of injury, no release is necessary to absolve a defendant of liability when a plaintiff is injured as the result of an inherent risk in an active sport such as skiing.

[Emphasize added]

A ski resort operator still owe[s] a duty, however, not to increase the risks of injury beyond those that are inherent in the sport. This distinction is closely tied to the policy underlying the finding of no duty, i.e., there should be no liability imposed which would chill normal participation or fundamentally alter the nature of the sport, but liability may be appropriate where the risk is not inherent’ in the sport. This is the doctrine of secondary assumption of the risk, and it is an exception to the complete defense of primary assumption of risk.

[Emphasize added]

If a defendant increases the risk to participants, then the defendant is liable for any injury to a participant that occurs because of the increase in risk caused by the defendant. However, a participant may still choose to participate and may still be stopped from suing for injuries received from the increased risk if the participants know of the risks and voluntarily assumes the risk. This is called Secondary Assumption of the Risk.

Comparative fault principles apply in secondary assumption of the risk cases. The trier of fact considers the plaintiff’s voluntary action in choosing to engage in an unusually risky sport, whether or not the plaintiff’s decision to encounter the risk should be characterized as unreasonable and weighs it against the defendant’s breach of the duty not to increase the risks beyond those inherent in the active sport. Where a plaintiff’s injury has been caused by both a defendant’s breach of a legal duty to the plaintiff and the plaintiff’s voluntary decision to engage in an unusually risky sport, application of comparative fault principles will not operate to relieve either individual of responsibility for his or her actions, but rather will ensure that neither party will escape such responsibility.

Secondary Assumption of the risk is part of the defenses a release provides to a defendant. However, a release provides broader and more defenses then Secondary Assumption of the risk provides. On top of that, by signing a written document, the risk outlined in the release, if any, are assumed by the participant because the document is (and should be) a release and an Express Assumption of the Risk document.

A different analysis applies when a skier signs a written release that expressly holds the ski operator harmless for its own negligence. This triggers the doctrine of express assumption of the risk. Unlike secondary assumption of the risk, but like primary assumption of the risk, the doctrine of express assumption of the risk provides a complete defense in a negligence action.

Not all court think exactly along these lines when reviewing releases. However, many do and all courts reach the same conclusion, just by different legal analysis.

However, unlike both implied primary and secondary assumption of the risk, which focus on risks inherent in an active sport like skiing, express assumption of the risk focuses on the agreement itself. A valid release operates to relieve the defendant of a legal duty to the plaintiff with respect to the risks encompassed by the agreement and, where applicable, to bar completely the plaintiff’s cause of action. The legal issue in an express assumption of the risk case is not whether the particular risk of injury appellant suffered is inherent in the recreational activity to which the Release applies, but simply the scope of the Release.’

[Emphasize added]

Assumption of the risk is a great defense. However, a release provides a greater defense, a better defense and should, if properly written to incorporate the defenses available in all types of assumption of the risk.

Additionally, a plaintiff does not need to have specific knowledge of the particular risk that ultimately caused the injury. If a release of all liability is given, the release applies to any negligence of the defendant [so long as the negligent act that results in injury is] reasonably related to the object or purpose for which the release is given.’ we have said, [t]he issue is not whether the particular risk of injury is inherent in the recreational activity to which the release applies, but rather the scope of the release.’ ([courts will enforce a skier’s agreement to shoulder the risk’ that otherwise might have been placed on the ski resort operator].)

There is one caveat with all of this. If they actions of the defendant in changing the risk, increase the risk to the level of gross negligence, a release in most states does not act to bar gross negligence.

As a matter of public policy, if a skier proves the operator unreasonably increased the inherent risks to the level of gross negligence, express assumption of the risk is no longer a viable defense; and the operator will be liable for damages notwithstanding the existence of a valid release of liability for ordinary negligence.

The court then summed up its review of the defenses of assumption of the risk and release.

To recap, snow skiing has inherent risks, and a ski operator does not owe skiers any duty to protect against them. If a skier is injured as a result of a risk inherent in the sport, the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk provides a complete defense to a lawsuit against the ski operator. But a ski resort operator owes a duty not to unreasonably increase the risks beyond those inherent in the sport. If a ski operator breaches this duty, the doctrine of secondary assumption of the risk makes the ski resort liable to an injured skier on a comparative fault basis. If the skier executes a release that absolves the ski resort operator of liability for the operator’s negligence, the release is a complete defense, provided the ski operator did not act with gross negligence. That is to say, the ski operator is entitled to judgment as a matter of law if the skier has signed a valid release and the ski operator’s conduct, although negligent, was not grossly negligent.

[Emphasize added]

In reviewing the release the appellate court found it stopped the negligence claims of the plaintiff.

Here, in contrast, Tuttle assumed all risks associated with her use of defendant’s facilities and expressly released defendant from all liability for its negligence. That language applied to ordinary negligence by defendant and provided a complete defense to plaintiffs’ lawsuit, so long as defendant’s conduct did not constitute gross negligence.

The court then applied its ruling on the release to the plaintiff’s argument that the defendant was grossly negligent.

A validly executed express release of liability for a defendant’s ordinary negligence means the only viable theory for a judgment in a plaintiff’s favor is if the defendant acted with gross negligence. There is no inconsistency between findings that a defendant is ordinarily negligent by unreasonably increasing the inherent risks of snow skiing, but not grossly negligent. A finding of gross negligence would necessarily mean a defendant unreasonably increased the inherent risks of snow skiing, so that comparative fault principles apply. But an express release, coupled with an undisputed factual finding that a defendant did not act with gross negligence, necessarily results in a defense judgment.

The rest of the case then goes on to evaluate the appellate court’s findings and the different way the court came to its ruling at the trial court level.

We agree the procedural aspects surrounding the entry of the defense judgment on what appeared to be a plaintiffs’ verdict were unconventional; however, the bottom line is once the jury found no gross negligence, defendant was entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

The defendant won because the jury did not find the defendant was grossly negligent, and the release stopped all other claims of the plaintiff.

So Now What?

There are several things to learn from this case. The first is the intricacies, procedures and rulings that the trial system has, make any trial a nightmare now days. It is nothing like TV, more like a game of war played out on a board with dozens of books or rules that must be consulted before every move.

The second is the value and power of a release. Even after the plaintiff won the trial, the release came back into to play to defeat the claims of the plaintiff.

Thirdly the education the court provided and copies into this post about assumption of the risk as a defense, the different types of assumption of the risk and how your release should incorporate assumption of the risk.

Make sure your release incorporates assumption of the risk language and is written to protect you in the state where you are doing business for the business you are running.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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

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Tuttle et al., v. Heavenly Valley, L.P., 2020 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 814, 2020 WL 563604

Tuttle et al., v. Heavenly Valley, L.P., 2020 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 814, 2020 WL 563604

Grant Tuttle et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants,

v.

Heavenly Valley, L.P., Defendant and Respondent.

G056427

California Court of Appeals, Fourth District, Third Division

February 5, 2020

NOT TO BE PUBLISHED

Appeal from a judgment and postjudgment orders of the Superior Court of Orange County No. 30-2015- 00813230 Nathan R. Scott, Judge. Affirmed.

The Simon Law Group, Thomas J. Conroy; Williams Iagmin and Jon R. Williams for Plaintiffs and Appellants.

Wilson, Elser, Moskowitz, Edelman & Dicker, Steven R. Parminter, Patrick M. Kelly and John J. Immordino for Defendant and Respondent.

OPINION

DUNNING, J. [*]

INTRODUCTION

Skier and Heavenly Valley season passholder Dana Tuttle died after she and a snowboarder collided at Heavenly Valley’s resort in South Lake Tahoe. Tuttle’s spouse and sons sued Heavenly Valley and the snowboarder.[ 1] Defendant asserted as defenses the doctrines of primary assumption of the risk, on the ground Tuttle’s accident was the result of the inherent risks of skiing, and express assumption of the risk, based on Tuttle’s signed release of all claims and liability for defendant’s negligence.

The trial court determined as a matter of law the release was unambiguous and covered Tuttle’s accident. Despite these conclusions, the jury was still asked to decide whether defendant ;unreasonably increased the risks… over and above those inherent in the sport of skiing. The jury found defendant did, but unanimously agreed defendant did not act with gross negligence. Finding Tuttle and defendant each 50 percent at fault, the jury awarded plaintiffs substantial damages.

A judgment in plaintiffs’ favor typically would have followed as a matter of course unless defendant formally moved for, and was granted, a judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV). However, the trial court determined the jury’s factual finding that defendant was not grossly negligent, coupled with its legal conclusion that the release provided a complete defense to plaintiffs’ lawsuit, compelled entry of a judgment in defendant’s favor, even without a posttrial JNOV motion.

Plaintiffs appeal, but do not challenge the jury instructions, the special verdict form, or the finding that defendant did not act with gross negligence. Plaintiffs urge this court to (1) review the release do novo and conclude it does not cover Tuttle’s accident, (2) hold the release violates public policy, (3) find that defendant invited errors in the special verdict form and jury instructions and forfeited the opportunity for entry of judgment in its favor without first formally moving for JNOV, and (4) order a new trial. We find no error, however, and affirm.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

I.

THE RELEASE

On September 2, 2013, Tuttle purchased a season ski pass from defendant and executed a release.[ 2] The release begins with an all-capital advisement: WARNING, ASSUMPTION OF RISK, RELEASE OF LIABILITY INDEMNIFICATION AGREEMENT PLEASE READ CAREFULLY BEFORE SIGNING. THIS IS A RELEASE OF LIABILITY WAIVER OF CERTAIN LEGAL RIGHTS. Salient provisions of the release are found in paragraphs 1, 2, 5, 6, and 13.

In paragraph 1, Tuttle acknowledged snow skiing can be HAZARDOUS AND INVOLVES THE RISK OF PHYSICAL INJURY AND/OR DEATH. In paragraph 2, she ASSUME[D] ALL RISKS… known or unknown, inherent or otherwise [associated with skiing at the resort, including] falling; slick or uneven surfaces; surface and subsurface snow conditions;… variations in terrain; design and condition of man-made facilities and/or terrain features;… [and] collisions. Paragraph 5 advised: The description of the risks listed above is not complete and participating in the Activities may be dangerous and may also include risks which are inherent and/or which cannot be reasonably avoided without changing the nature of the Activities.

Paragraph 6 included Tuttle’s express agreement NOT TO SUE AND TO RELEASE [DEFENDANT] FROM ALL LIABILITY… for… injury or loss to [her], including death. This paragraph specifically advised that Tuttle was releasing all CLAIMS BASED ON [DEFENDANT’S] ALLEGED OR ACTUAL NEGLIGENCE…. In paragraph 13, Tuttle agreed the release was binding to the fullest extent permitted by law… on [her] heirs, next of kin, executors and personal representatives.

II.

THE ACCIDENT AND THE LAWSUIT

The accident occurred on December 21, 2013. Snowboarder Anthony Slater was proceeding out of defendant’s terrain park and collided with skier Tuttle after their respective trails merged. The impact of the collision propelled Tuttle into a tree. Tuttle died the following morning. Factors that potentially contributed to the accident included defendant’s signage, fencing, crowd control the day of the accident, Tuttle’s ski path, and Slater’s speed.

Plaintiffs sued defendant and Slater.[ 3] Defendant raised the defenses of implied and express assumption of the risk: (1) any injury, loss or damage purportedly sustained… by Plaintiffs was directly and proximately caused and contributed to by risks which are inherent to the activity in which Plaintiffs participated; (2) Plaintiffs either impliedly or expressly relieved Defendant of its duty, if any, to Plaintiffs by knowingly assuming the risk of injury; and (3) defendant is entitled to defense and indemnity of each and every cause of action alleged in the Complaint pursuant to the release agreement signed by Plaintiffs and/or Plaintiffs’ representative or agent.

III.

THE JURY TRIAL

The jury trial spanned five weeks.[ 4] The week before jury selection, the parties stipulated to a special verdict form that posed two liability questions: (1) whether defendant unreasonably increased the risks to Tuttle over and above those inherent in the sport of skiing and (2) whether defendant was grossly negligent. The special verdict form further instructed the jury that if it answered yes to either question, it was to make findings regarding the amount of damages and allocation of fault. Before the final witness concluded his testimony, the trial court confirmed that counsel were not making any changes to the special verdict form.

The following day, at the close of evidence and outside the jurors’ presence, the trial court denied plaintiffs’ motion for directed verdict and defendant’s renewed motion for nonsuit.[ 5] The trial court rejected plaintiffs’ argument the release was fatally ambiguous with regard to the risks involved in the accident. Given the absence of competent extrinsic evidence regarding the release, the trial court determined its interpretation presented a legal question for the court: So I will construe the release, relying on its plain language. I find that it is not ambiguous. It covers the risks here, most notably in paragraph 2 where it covers risks regarding design and collision, and later where it notes that the risks include injury, including death.

In the trial court’s own words, the finding as a matter of law that the release unambiguously discharged defendant from liability for its own ordinary negligence meant we still have questions for the jury about whether the contract was entered into and whether the defendant[] committed gross negligence that cannot be released. For these reasons, the plaintiffs’ motion for directed verdict is denied.

The rulings prompted defendant’s counsel to suggest additional jury instructions and a revision to the special verdict form might be necessary to address the fact issues surrounding Tuttle’s execution of the release. The following colloquy then ensued: [Plaintiffs’ counsel]: Your Honor I’ll shortcut the whole thing. With the court’s ruling, I’ll stipulate to the formation of the contract and proceed with the verdict form as is, so no need for additional instructions. [¶] [Defendant’s counsel]: I’m sorry. To be clear, we have a stipulation that the contract existed and that the contract included the release and waiver language? [¶] [Plaintiffs’ counsel]: Right. The release and-release of liability and waiver was executed-existed and was executed. That’s the stipulation. [¶] [Defendant’s counsel]: Accepted, your Honor. [¶] The Court: So stipulated. (Italics added.)

At this point, the jurors returned to the courtroom. The trial court read the jury instructions, and plaintiffs’ counsel began his closing argument. He had this to say about the release: What we’re talking about here, the liability of the resort does not fall under this release. And you are not going to be asked any questions on the verdict form about the release. Yeah, [Tuttle] signed one, and she understood the inherent risks of skiing, and that’s what the release releases. It does not release gross negligence. It does not release what we’re talking about.

At the beginning of the afternoon session, before defendant’s closing argument, the trial court and counsel met again outside the jurors’ presence to discuss the stipulation concerning the release. Plaintiffs’ counsel maintained the jury should not hear about the stipulation. When the trial court repeated its concern the jury could end up finding that the release was not valid and invited counsel to revisit the special verdict form, plaintiffs’ counsel replied there was no need as the release in evidence releases negligence. And the questions on the verdict form go[] to gross negligence, and-this doesn’t have to do with the release, but the increase of unreasonable risk. Defendant’s counsel remarked the dialogue this morning, your Honor, was prompted in part by the plaintiffs’ desire not to have to modify further the special verdict form. Plaintiffs’ counsel concurred: Right. Counsel then agreed the stipulation would not be read to the jury.

Closing arguments continued. Defendant’s counsel did not mention the release in his closing argument. Neither did plaintiffs’ counsel in his rebuttal argument. There, he referred to the special verdict form and told the jurors, [a]t the end of the day, it’s a simple exercise. That jury form…. [¶]… If you perceive wrong on the part of [defendant], you tick those two boxes. And there’s two of them-you tick them both. Procedurally, you tick the one about increased unreasonable risk, and then you tick the one about gross negligence. If you perceive wrong, that’s what you do.

The jury was never told the release provided a complete defense to defendant’s ordinary negligence.

IV.

THE SPECIAL VERDICT

As to defendant, the special verdict form included three liability questions, three damages questions, and three comparative fault/apportionment of liability questions. The liability questions read as follows:

3. Did Heavenly Valley do something or fail to do something that unreasonably increased the risks to Dana Tuttle over and above those inherent in the sport of skiing?

Yes X No __

4. Was Heavenly Valley grossly negligent in doing something or failing to do something that caused harm to Dana Tuttle?

Yes __ No X

If you answered Yes’ to either question 3 or 4, then answer question 5. [¶] If you answered No’ to both questions 3 and 4, and also answered No’ to either question 1 or 2, then sign and return this verdict form. You do not need to answer any more questions.

If you answered Yes’ to both questions 1 and 2, and answered No’ to both questions 3 and 4, insert the number 0′ next to Heavenly Valley’s name in question 11, skip question 5, and answer questions 6-11.

5. Was Heavenly Valley’s conduct a substantial factor in causing harm to Dana Tuttle?

Yes X No __

Because the jury answered yes to question 5, it was instructed to answer the remaining questions. The jury determined plaintiffs’ damages were $2, 131, 831, with Tuttle and defendant sharing equal responsibility.

Immediately after polling the jurors, the trial court asked plaintiffs’ counsel to prepare the judgment and submit it the next morning. The trial court then thanked and discharged the jury without objection from trial counsel. No one noted on the record that express assumption of the risk was a complete defense to the jury’s verdict.

V.

ENTRY OF A DEFENSE JUDGMENT

At the trial court’s direction, plaintiffs’ counsel prepared a proposed judgment awarding plaintiffs $1, 065, 915.50, plus costs and interest. Defendant objected on the basis the jury found defendant was not grossly negligent and the release provided a complete and total defense to this entire lawsuit and Plaintiffs should take nothing.[ 6]

After briefing and a hearing, the trial court sustained defendant’s objection to plaintiffs’ proposed judgment. In its March 9, 2018 order, the trial court reiterated its finding as a matter of law that Tuttle’s release clearly, unambiguously, and explicitly released defendant from future liability for any negligence against Dana Tuttle. The trial court explained its earlier finding concerning the scope of the release still left open fact questions as to whether Tuttle knowingly accepted the release agreement and, if she did, whether defendant acted with gross negligence. With the parties’ stipulation that Tuttle knowingly executed the release and the jury’s factual finding that defendant did not act with gross negligence, the trial court further explained there was only one legal conclusion: [D]efendant has prevailed on the express assumption issue and negate[d] the defendant’s duty of care, an element of the plaintiff’s case.’

The trial court acknowledged the structure of the special verdict form erroneously directed the jury to continue to answer questions on damages after finding defendant had not been grossly negligent. The trial court found, however, the jury’s specific finding that defendant did not act with gross negligence was not inconsistent with, but instead overrode, the award of damages.

The trial court did not invite defendant to file a motion for JNOV or call for the filing of such a motion on its own initiative. Instead, it entered judgment in favor of defendant.

VI.

PLAINTIFFS’ POSTJUDGMENT MOTIONS

The defense judgment reiterated the jury’s special verdict findings and stated in relevant part: It appearing that by reason of those special verdicts, and the Court’s interpretation of the terms of the legal contract in Decedent Dana Tuttle’s season ski pass agreement, and [the] legal conclusions as set forth in that certain Order entered on March 9, 2018, Defendants Heavenly Valley L.P., and Anthony Slater are entitled to judgment on Plaintiffs’ complaint. (Some capitalization omitted.)

Plaintiffs filed a motion to set aside the judgment under Code of Civil Procedure section 663 on the ground the judgment was not consistent with the special verdict and adversely affected plaintiffs’ substantial rights. Plaintiffs also filed a motion for JNOV or, in the alternative, a new trial, on the grounds there was insufficient evidence defendant had not acted with gross negligence, [ 7] the special verdict was hopelessly contradictory because the jury’s gross negligence finding imposed no liability, but its apportionment of fault between Tuttle and defendant did, and defendant invited errors.

The trial court denied plaintiffs’ postjudgment motions. Plaintiffs timely appealed.

DISCUSSION

I.

THE RELEASE COVERED TUTTLE’S ACCIDENT.

The trial court found as a matter of law that defendant’s release was not ambiguous and covered Tuttle’s accident. Our review of the release is de novo. (Paralift, Inc. v. Superior Court (1993) 23 Cal.App.4th 748, 754.) No extrinsic evidence concerning the meaning of the release was presented in the trial court, so the scope of a release is determined by [its] express language. (Benedek v. PLC Santa Monica (2002) 104 Cal.App.4th 1351, 1357 (Benedek).)

Rather than a straightforward argument the trial court erred as a matter of law in interpreting the release, plaintiffs contend the release was narrow in scope and applied only to risks inherent in the sport of snow skiing. But a release that applies only to the inherent risks of a sport is the legal equivalent of no release at all. (Cohen v. Five Brooks Stable (2008) 159 Cal.App.4th 1476, 1490 (Cohen); Zipusch v. LA Workout, Inc. (2007) 155 Cal.App.4th 1281, 1291 (Zipusch).) To understand the distinction, we detour briefly to discuss the doctrines of implied and express assumption of the risk.

A.

OVERVIEW: ASSUMPTION OF THE RISK

The California Supreme Court’s decision in Knight v. Jewett (1992) 3 Cal.4th 296 (Knight)[ 8] and its progeny have established that a ski resort operator is not liable for injuries caused by risks inherent in the sport of snow skiing.[ 9] Instead, pursuant to the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk, participants in active sports assume responsibility for injuries sustained as a result of the sport’s inherent risks. (Id. at p. 321.) Stated another way, the defendant owes no duty of care to protect the plaintiff from the inherent risks of an active sport. (Allan v. Snow Summit, Inc. (1996) 51 Cal.App.4th 1358, 1367 (Allan).) Because no duty of care is owed and the plaintiff has assumed the risk of injury, no release is necessary to absolve a defendant of liability when a plaintiff is injured as the result of an inherent risk in an active sport such as skiing.

A ski resort operator still owe[s] a duty, however, not to increase the risks of injury beyond those that are inherent in the sport. This distinction is closely tied to the policy underlying the finding of no duty, i.e., there should be no liability imposed which would chill normal participation or fundamentally alter the nature of the sport, but liability may be appropriate where the risk is not inherent’ in the sport. (Allan, supra, 51 Cal.App.4th at p. 1367, italics omitted.) This is the doctrine of secondary assumption of the risk, and it is an exception to the complete defense of primary assumption of risk. (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 308.)

Comparative fault principles apply in secondary assumption of the risk cases. The trier of fact considers the plaintiff’s voluntary action in choosing to engage in an unusually risky sport, whether or not the plaintiff’s decision to encounter the risk should be characterized as unreasonable and weighs it against the defendant’s breach of the duty not to increase the risks beyond those inherent in the active sport. (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 314.) Where a plaintiff’s injury has been caused by both a defendant’s breach of a legal duty to the plaintiff and the plaintiff’s voluntary decision to engage in an unusually risky sport, application of comparative fault principles will not operate to relieve either individual of responsibility for his or her actions, but rather will ensure that neither party will escape such responsibility. (Ibid.; see Allan, supra, 51 Cal.App.4th at p. 1367.)

A different analysis applies when a skier signs a written release that expressly holds the ski operator harmless for its own negligence. This triggers the doctrine of express assumption of the risk. Unlike secondary assumption of the risk, but like primary assumption of the risk, the doctrine of express assumption of the risk provides a complete defense in a negligence action.

However, unlike both implied primary and secondary assumption of the risk, which focus on risks inherent in an active sport like skiing, express assumption of the risk focuses on the agreement itself. A valid release operates to relieve the defendant of a legal duty to the plaintiff with respect to the risks encompassed by the agreement and, where applicable, to bar completely the plaintiff’s cause of action. (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 309, fn. 4, italics added.) The legal issue in an express assumption of the risk case is not whether the particular risk of injury appellant suffered is inherent in the recreational activity to which the Release applies [citations], but simply the scope of the Release.’ (Hass, supra, 26 Cal.App.5th at p. 27.)

Additionally, a plaintiff does not need to have specific knowledge of the particular risk that ultimately caused the injury. [Citation.] If a release of all liability is given, the release applies to any negligence of the defendant [so long as the negligent act that results in injury is] reasonably related to the object or purpose for which the release is given.’ [Citation.]’ [Citation.] As we have said, [t]he issue is not whether the particular risk of injury is inherent in the recreational activity to which the release applies, but rather the scope of the release.’ (Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th at p. 1485; see Allan, supra, 51 Cal.App.4th at p. 1374 [courts will enforce a skier’s agreement to shoulder the risk’ that otherwise might have been placed on the ski resort operator].)

There is an outer limit to the scope of a release from liability for one’s own negligence in the recreational sports context: As a matter of public policy, if a skier proves the operator unreasonably increased the inherent risks to the level of gross negligence, express assumption of the risk is no longer a viable defense; and the operator will be liable for damages notwithstanding the existence of a valid release of liability for ordinary negligence. (See City of Santa Barbara v. Superior Court (2007) 41 Cal.4th 747, 777 (Santa Barbara).)

To recap, snow skiing has inherent risks, and a ski operator does not owe skiers any duty to protect against them. If a skier is injured as a result of a risk inherent in the sport, the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk provides a complete defense to a lawsuit against the ski operator. But a ski resort operator owes a duty not to unreasonably increase the risks beyond those inherent in the sport. If a ski operator breaches this duty, the doctrine of secondary assumption of the risk makes the ski resort liable to an injured skier on a comparative fault basis. If the skier executes a release that absolves the ski resort operator of liability for the operator’s negligence, the release is a complete defense, provided the ski operator did not act with gross negligence. That is to say, the ski operator is entitled to judgment as a matter of law if the skier has signed a valid release and the ski operator’s conduct, although negligent, was not grossly negligent.

B.

ANALYSIS

The parties stipulated Tuttle executed the release with full knowledge of its content; consequently, the validity of the release is not before us. The jury unanimously agreed defendant’s conduct did not constitute gross negligence, and plaintiffs do not challenge the sufficiency of the evidence to support that finding; thus, no public policy considerations preclude its enforcement. Our only concern is whether the release in this case negated the duty element of plaintiffs’ causes of action.’ (Eriksson v. Nunnink (2015) 233 Cal.App.4th 708, 719.) If so, it applied to any ordinary negligence by defendant. (Benedek, supra, 104 Cal.App.4th at p. 1357.)

Defendant’s release did precisely that. Tuttle assumed ALL RISKS associated with [skiing], known or unknown, inherent or otherwise. She also agreed not to sue defendant and to release it FROM ALL LIABILITY… BASED ON [DEFENDANT’S] ALLEGED OR ACTUAL NEGLIGENCE. No more was required.

Defendant’s use of the phrase, inherent or otherwise did not create any ambiguity or confusion. As the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit has recognized, [t]he term otherwise,’ when paired with an adjective or adverb to indicate its contrary’… is best understood to mean NOT.’ Webster’s Third New Int’l. Dictionary 1598 (2002). The plain language and meaning of the phrases therefore reflect a clear intent to cover risks that are not inherent to skiing. (Brigance v. Vail Summit Resorts, Inc. (10th Cir. 2018) 883 F.3d 1243, 1256-1257.)

Plaintiffs’ contention that defendant’s release bears many similarities to the release in Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th 1476 misses the mark. The plaintiff in Cohen fell from a rented horse on a guided trail ride. She sued the stable, alleging its employee, the trail guide, negligently and unexpectedly provoke[d] a horse to bolt and run without warning (id. at p.1492), causing her to lose control of her horse (id. at p. 1482). The trial court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment based on the plaintiff’s written agreement to assume responsibility for the risks identified herein and those risks not specifically identified.’ (Id. at p. 1486, italics omitted.)

The Court of Appeal reversed. The Cohen majority noted the trial court apparently granted summary judgment on the theory that the risks not specifically identified’ in the Release include the risk that misconduct of respondent or its employee might increase a risk inherent in horseback riding. (Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1486-1487, italics omitted.) This interpretation was erroneous because the stable’s agreement did not explicitly advise that the plaintiff was releasing the defendant from liability for the defendant’s negligence. Although a release is not required to use the word negligence’ or any particular verbiage… [it] must inform the releasor that it applies to misconduct on the part of the releasee. (Id. at pp. 1488 1489.) The release in Cohen used the word negligence only once, in reference to the plaintiff’s negligence, not that of the defendant. The stable’s release also did not indicate that it covers any and all injuries arising out of or connected with the use of respondent’s facilities. (Id. at p. 1489.)

Having found the release ineffective to trigger the doctrine of express assumption of the risk, the Cohen majority turned to the doctrines of implied assumption of the risk, i.e., it focused on the inherent risks of horseback riding. Summary judgment could not be granted on that basis, either, because a triable issue of fact existed as to whether the trail guide acted recklessly and increased the inherent risks of a guided horseback ride. (Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th at p. 1494-1495.)

Here, in contrast, Tuttle assumed all risks associated with her use of defendant’s facilities and expressly released defendant from all liability for its negligence. That language applied to ordinary negligence by defendant and provided a complete defense to plaintiffs’ lawsuit, so long as defendant’s conduct did not constitute gross negligence. (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at pp. 308-309, fn. 4.)

The release in Zipusch, supra, 155 Cal.App.4th 1281 mirrors the one in Cohen, but not the one in this case. As in Cohen, the plaintiff in Zipusch did not agree to assume the risk of negligence by the defendant gym. Accordingly, the agreement was ineffective as an express release; and the issue for the Court of Appeal was whether the plaintiff’s injury was the result of an inherent risk of exercising in a gym, in which case the primary assumption of the risk doctrine would apply, or whether it was the result of the gym increasing the inherent risks of exercise, in which case the secondary assumption of the risk doctrine would apply. (Id. at pp. 1291-1292.)

Hass, supra, 26 Cal.App.5th 11 is instructive. Plaintiffs cite Hass in their opening brief, but do not attempt to distinguish it, even though the release in Hass is similar to the one Tuttle signed. The analysis in Hass applies in this case.

In Hass, the plaintiffs’ decedent suffered a fatal cardiac arrest after finishing a half marathon organized and sponsored by the defendant. His heirs sued for wrongful death. The Court of Appeal held that cardiac arrest is an inherent risk of running a race, but a triable issue of material fact existed as to whether the defendant acted with gross negligence in failing to provide timely and adequate emergency medical services. (Hass, supra, 26 Cal.App.5that p. 18.)

Addressing the release, Hass held: By signing the Release in the instant case, we conclude that [the decedent] intended both to assume all risks associated with his participation in the race, up to and including the risk of death, and to release [the defendant] (on behalf of himself and his heirs) from any and all liability with respect to any injuries he might suffer as a result of his participation. This was sufficient to block the [plaintiffs’] wrongful death claim for ordinary negligence. [ 10] (Hass, supra, 26 Cal.App.5th at p. 27.)

Our independent examination of defendant’s release convinces us Tuttle assumed all risks that might arise from skiing at defendant’s resort, including risks created by defendant’s ordinary negligence. With a valid release and no gross negligence by defendant, the issue of inherent risk was no longer relevant. (Willhide-Michiulis v. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, LLC (2018) 25 Cal.App.5th 344, 353 [where the doctrine of express assumption of risk applies, implied assumption of the risk is no longer considered].)

II.

ENFORCEMENT OF THE RELEASE DOES NOT VIOLATE CALIFORNIA’S PUBLIC POLICY.

Plaintiffs next argue the release’s exculpatory language violates California’s public policy. The linchpin of their argument is that defendant’s act of unreasonably increasing the inherent risk of an active sport was neither ordinary negligence nor gross negligence, but a separate category of aggravated negligence. Plaintiffs argue Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th 747 left open the question of whether public policy precludes the contractual release of other forms of aggravated’ misconduct, in addition to gross negligence. (Some capitalization omitted.) The argument is raised for the first time on appeal; it has no merit.

In Santa Barbara, a parent signed an agreement releasing the defendants from liability for any negligent act’ related to her child’s participation in summer camp. (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at p. 750.) The child drowned. (Ibid.) The trial court denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment based on the release, and the appellate court denied defendants’ petition for writ of mandate challenging that ruling. (Id. at p. 753.) The sole issue before the Supreme Court was whether a release of liability relating to recreational activities generally is effective as to gross negligence. (Id. at p. 750.)

The defendants argued California law, specifically Civil Code section 1668, [ 11] impliedly allowed recreational activity releases to be enforced against a claim of gross negligence. (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at pp. 762-763.) At the time, no published California decision voided[] an agreement purporting to release liability for future gross negligence. (Id. at p. 758.) The Santa Barbara majority turned to out-of-state authorities and rejected the defendants’ position based on public policy principles. (Id. at pp. 760-762.)

References in Santa Barbara to aggravated wrongs (a term used by Prosser & Keeton, The Law of Torts (5th ed. 1984) § 68, p. 484) (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at pp. 762, 765, 776) and aggravated misconduct (id. at pp. 760, 762, 777, fn. 54) do not suggest a new species of negligence that might affect a liability release for recreational activities. Rather, those phrases encompassed misconduct that included gross negligence and willful acts. (Id. at p. 754, fn. 4.) As the majority held, the distinction between ordinary and gross negligence’ reflects a rule of policy’ that harsher legal consequences should flow when negligence is aggravated instead of merely ordinary. (Id. at p. 776.) With a valid release, a theory of gross negligence, if supported by evidence showing the existence of a triable issue, is the only negligence-based theory that is potentially open to [the] plaintiffs. (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at p. 781.)

Here, no public policy considerations preclude the enforcement of defendant’s recreational activity release that exculpated it from liability for its own ordinary negligence. (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 309, fn. 4.)

III.

THE TRIAL COURT DID NOT ERR BY ENTERING JUDGMENT IN FAVOR OF DEFENDANT.

Plaintiffs argue the trial court should have entered judgment in their favor regardless of the jury’s finding concerning gross negligence because the jury made findings on damages and apportioned fault between Tuttle and defendant. They contend the responsibility to seek a JNOV or some other postjudgment remedy should have fallen to defendant, not plaintiffs. But once the trial court determined the special verdict was not inconsistent and Tuttle’s express release provided a complete defense as a matter of law, entry of a defense judgment was proper. Even if the trial court erred in entering a defense judgment without a formal motion for JNOV, any error was harmless.

A.

LEGAL PRINCIPLES GOVERNING SPECIAL VERDICTS

A special verdict must include conclusions of fact as established by the evidence… [so] that nothing shall remain to the Court but to draw from them conclusions of law. (Code Civ. Proc., § 624.) A special verdict is not a judgment. (Goodman v. Lozano (2010) 47 Cal.4th 1327, 1331-1332.) If a special verdict includes findings on inconsistent theories, the findings on the legal theory that does not control the outcome of the litigation may be disregarded as surplusage. (Baird v. Ocequeda (1937) 8 Cal.2d 700, 703.) Additionally, where no objection is made before the jury is discharged, it falls to the trial judge to interpret the verdict from its language considered in connection with the pleadings, evidence and instructions.’ (Woodcock v. Fontana Scaffolding & Equip. Co. (1968) 69 Cal.2d 452, 456-457; see Zagami, Inc. v. James A. Crone, Inc. (2008) 160 Cal.App.4th 1083, 1091-1092.)

B.

THE TRIAL COURT’S RULING

As noted, the jury was discharged before the parties raised an issue concerning the special verdict form and the jury’s findings. The trial court recognized and fulfilled its duty to interpret the special verdict: After [this] court rejected several unilateral proposals, the parties stipulated to a special verdict form…. But they did so before the court construed the release in response to defendant’s nonsuit motion and before the parties stipulated Ms. Tuttle entered into the release. [¶] Thus, the form presented only two questions addressing the assumption of the risk. Question #3 asked whether defendant unreasonably increased the inherent risks of skiing. Question #4 asked whether defendant acted with gross negligence. [¶] The answer NO’ to either Question #3 or #4 exonerates defendant. Answering No’ to Question #3 would foreclose the only relevant exception to the primary assumption defense. Answering NO’ to Question #4 would foreclose the only relevant exception to the express assumption defense. [¶] But the form allowed the jurors to answer YES’ to one question and NO’ to [the] other one and continue to answer questions, including determining and allocating damages. (Italics and bold omitted.)

The trial court further explained: Here, the specific finding that defendant did not act with gross negligence controls over the general award of damages. The jury was properly instructed with the definition of gross negligence. The jury received percipient and expert testimony that, if credited, showed defendant did not act with gross negligence. The parties argued whether defendant [did] or did not act with gross negligence. The answer NO’ to Question #4 unambiguously shows the jury found defendant did not act with gross negligence. That resolved the only factual question on the express assumption issue in favor of defendant. [¶]… [¶] The award of damages is not a hopeless inconsistency so much as it is mere surplusage once the court honors the jury’s unambiguous finding that defendant acted without gross negligence and draws the legal conclusion-a conclusion that [the] jury was not asked to draw-that the release covers these claims and effects an express assumption of the risk.

The trial court also correctly concluded the jury’s findings on Question[] #3 and Question #4 [were not] irreconcilable. The concept of unreasonably increasing inherent risks is distinct from the concept of gross negligence. In a particular case, the same facts that show an unreasonable increase in the inherent risks may also show gross negligence. [Citation.] Overlap is possible, [but not] necessary. In this case, the jury found no such overlap. There is no inconsistency in defendant losing on the primary assumption issue but prevailing on the express assumption issue. And that, after five weeks of trial, is what happened here.

C.

ANALYSIS

A validly executed express release of liability for a defendant’s ordinary negligence means the only viable theory for a judgment in a plaintiff’s favor is if the defendant acted with gross negligence. (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at p. 781.) There is no inconsistency between findings that a defendant is ordinarily negligent by unreasonably increasing the inherent risks of snow skiing, but not grossly negligent. A finding of gross negligence would necessarily mean a defendant unreasonably increased the inherent risks of snow skiing, so that comparative fault principles apply. But an express release, coupled with an undisputed factual finding that a defendant did not act with gross negligence, necessarily results in a defense judgment. Accordingly, Question No. 3 concerning whether defendant unreasonably increased the inherent risk should have been removed from the special verdict form.

Also, the special verdict form should have instructed the jury that if it found defendant was not grossly negligent, it should not answer the remaining questions. The jury’s compliance with the trial court’s instructions and consequent damages-related findings were surplusage, but did not create an inconsistency with its finding that defendant did not act with gross negligence. The trial court correctly entered judgment in favor of defendant based on the dispositive finding of no gross negligence. The trial court’s explanation of its ruling demonstrates the trial court’s application of the correct legal principles in doing so.

In their appellate opening brief, plaintiffs argue defendant forfeited any objection to the special verdict form because it (1) failed to object to the special verdict before the jury was discharged; (2) invited the erroneous instructions in the special verdict form because it had participated in drafting it; and (3) failed to bring a statutorily authorized post-trial motion challenging the special verdict form. Although the special verdict form should have been amended before deliberations, there is no issue of forfeiture or invited error on defendant’s part.

The parties jointly agreed on the wording of the special verdict form. Any fault in the drafting cannot be assigned to one side over the other, and all parties bear responsibility for the erroneous directions in the stipulated special verdict form. Nothing in the record suggests the special verdict form or the objection to entry of a plaintiffs’ judgment was the product of gamesmanship. (See Lambert v. General Motors (1998) 67 Cal.App.4th 1179, 1183.)

Additionally, plaintiffs’ trial strategy to stipulate to Tuttle’s knowing execution of the release was wise: Evidence Tuttle understood the release was overwhelming. As part of the discussion pertaining to the parties’ stipulation, however, both the trial court and defendant’s trial counsel questioned the adequacy of the special verdict form. But plaintiffs’ trial counsel maintained the special verdict form was fine as is and persuasively argued against making any changes or advising the jury of the stipulation. This meant the doctrine of implied secondary assumption of the risk was not relevant unless the jury found defendant acted with gross negligence.

We agree the procedural aspects surrounding the entry of the defense judgment on what appeared to be a plaintiffs’ verdict were unconventional; but the bottom line is once the jury found no gross negligence, defendant was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Under these circumstances, it would have been a waste of resources to require defendant, or the trial court on its own initiative, to formally notice a motion for JNOV (Code Civ. Proc., § 629, subd. (a)).

Even if we found the procedure to have been erroneous, the error would have been procedural, not substantive; and, plaintiffs have not demonstrated the likelihood of a different outcome. (See Webb v. Special Electric, Co., Inc. (2016) 63 Cal.4th 167, 179 [because the defendant did not have a complete defense as a matter of law, the entry of JNOV was unjustified [on the merits]. In light of this conclusion, we need not reach plaintiffs’ claims of procedural error].) Defendant had a complete defense; there is no reasonable probability the trial court would have denied a formal JNOV motion.

Plaintiffs argue they relied on the state of the special verdict form in making the decision to stipulate to the validity of the release agreement. Plaintiffs suggest defendant, by agreeing to the special verdict form, tacitly stipulated to a deviation from the applicable law to allow plaintiffs to recover damages based solely on a finding defendant had unreasonably increased the inherent risk, notwithstanding the existence of a valid, applicable release. Such an argument is without support in the law. It is also belied by the record. As already discussed, both defendant’s counsel and the trial court raised questions concerning the special verdict form once the parties stipulated to Tuttle’s execution of the release. Plaintiffs’ trial counsel maintained there should be no changes in the jury instructions or the special verdict form.

IV.

PLAINTIFFS ARE NOT ENTITLED TO A NEW TRIAL.

Plaintiffs argued in their motion for new trial that the special verdict was hopelessly contradictory and, consequently, against the law. Plaintiffs also asserted there were errors in the special verdict form, they excepted to those errors, but then were penalized because the jury’s finding of unreasonably increased inherent risk has ex post facto been deemed insufficient to impose liability on Defendant Heavenly Valley. Although plaintiffs did not claim instructional error in the trial court, they complained the modified version of CACI No. 431, [ 12] to which they agreed, misled the jurors into thinking they could find defendant liable if they found it unreasonably increased the inherent risk of skiing or if they found it acted with gross negligence.

On appeal, plaintiffs ask this court to reverse the denial of their motion for a new trial. They fail to cite applicable authorities to support their arguments. (Cal. Rules of Court, rule 8.204(a)(1)(B).) Instead, they contend the trial court changed the rules of the game only after the game had already been played, leaving the parties and their counsel without the opportunity to satisfy those new rules, and robbing the jury of the ability to assess all viable liability options. Plaintiffs add they stipulated to Tuttle’s execution of the release in reliance on the wording of the then existing Special Verdict form, which… made clear that a finding of gross negligence was only one of two disjunctive liability paths, and was not necessary to impose liability against Heavenly. As a consequence, [plaintiffs]… were… induced into a stipulation concerning that issue in light of the wording of the existing Special Verdict form, an unfair sequence which the trial court itself acknowledged worked against [plaintiffs]. This characterization misstates the record.

First, the trial court made legal rulings throughout trial when called upon to do so. The trial court did not change any of its pronouncements of law after the trial concluded. The record shows the trial court gave the parties every opportunity to revisit the jury instructions and special verdict form before they were given to the jury.

Second, although the trial court described the sequence of events, it did not suggest the events were unfair or worked against plaintiffs. As discussed ante, when the trial court denied defendant’s renewed motion for nonsuit, it advised counsel the jury must decide whether Tuttle actually executed the release. Because neither side proposed jury instructions or questions on the special verdict form addressing the issue of contract formation, defendant’s counsel suggested they should revisit both the jury instructions and the special verdict form. Plaintiffs’ trial counsel immediately stipulated to Tuttle’s execution of the release and advised he would proceed with the verdict form as is. This statement calls into question plaintiffs’ claim they were induced into entering into the stipulation.

Third−and significantly−plaintiffs’ counsel did not discuss disjunctive liability paths in his closing arguments. Instead, plaintiffs’ counsel focused on the evidence and urged the jury to find gross negligence: What we’re talking about here, the liability of the resort does not fall under this release. And you are not going to be asked any questions on the verdict form about the release. Yeah, [Tuttle] signed one, and she understood the inherent risks of skiing, and that’s what the release releases. It does not release gross negligence. It does not release what we’re talking about.

The jury unanimously found defendant did not act with gross negligence. The jury’s function is to make ultimate findings of fact, and it is the trial court’s responsibility to apply the law to the relevant findings of fact. Nothing in the special verdict form misled the jury with regard to the factors it should consider in making any particular finding. We conclude the trial court correctly applied the law and entered judgment accordingly.

DISPOSITION

The judgment and post judgment orders are affirmed. Respondents shall recover costs on appeal.

WE CONCUR: BEDSWORTH, ACTING P. J., MOORE, J.

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Notes:

[*] Retired judge of the Orange Superior Court, assigned by the Chief Justice pursuant to article VI, section 6 of the California Constitution.

[ 1] We refer to Dana Tuttle as Tuttle and to her spouse and sons collectively as plaintiffs. We refer to Heavenly Valley as defendant.

Plaintiffs erroneously identified Heavenly Valley in the complaint as the Vail Corporation. There is no dispute Heavenly Valley is the correct defendant in this case.

[ 2] Tuttle purchased the ski pass online. No actual signature was required; she signed the release by clicking the appropriate box on the electronic form.

[ 3] The jury exonerated Slater from liability. He is not a party to this appeal.

[ 4] The appellate record is lengthy. Given the limited issues before this court, however, we do not recite the trial evidence in detail.

[ 5] The trial court denied defendant’s first nonsuit motion two days earlier. At that time, the trial judge announced he would be prepared to find as a matter of law that colliding with a snowboarder or colliding with a tree is an inherent risk of skiing, but the jury would decide whether defendant unreasonably increased the inherent risk of the sport.

[ 6] Defendant also requested a statement of decision addressing the applicability of primary implied and express assumption of the risk doctrines; the trial court denied the request. The trial court’s denial of this request is not at issue in this appeal.

[ 7] Plaintiffs do not challenge the sufficiency of the evidence in this appeal.

[ 8] Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th 296 was a plurality decision authored by Chief Justice George that all members of the court except Justice Kennard subsequently accepted. (Luna v. Vela (2008) 169 Cal.App.4th 102, 107, citing Shin v. Ahn (2007) 42 Cal.4th 482, 491.)

[ 9] Whether a risk is inherent to a particular active sport presents a question of law for the court. (Hass v. RhodyCo Productions (2018) 26 Cal.App.5th 11, 23 (Hass).)

[ 10] So it is here. Paragraph 13 of Tuttle’s release also binds her assignees, subrogors, distributors, heirs, next of kin, executors and personal representatives.

A wrongful death action is not a derivative action. Nonetheless, although an individual involved in a dangerous activity cannot by signing a release extinguish his heirs’ wrongful death claim, the heirs will be bound by the decedent’s agreement to waive a defendant’s negligence and assume all risk. (Ruiz v. Podolsky (2010) 50 Cal.4th 838, 851 852; see Hass, supra, 26 Cal.App.5th at p. 25 [In other words, although a decedent cannot release or waive a subsequent wrongful death claim by the decedent’s heirs, that decedent’s express agreement to waive the defendant’s negligence and assume all risks’ acts as a complete defense to such a wrongful death action].)

[ 11] Civil Code section 1668 lists the types of contractual releases that are unenforceable as a matter of public policy (i.e., those exempting anyone from responsibility for his own fraud, or willful injury to the person or property of another, or violation of law, whether willful or negligent). Gross negligence is not on the list.

[ 12] Plaintiffs do not challenge the modified version of CACI No. 431 in this court, either. The modified instruction read: If you find that Heavenly Valley unreasonably increased the inherent risks of snow skiing, or that Heavenly Valley was grossly negligent, and also find that Heavenly Valley’s conduct was a substantial factor in causing Dana Tuttle’s harm, then Heavenly Valley is responsible for the harm. Heavenly Valley cannot avoid responsibility just because some other person, condition, or event, including but not limited to Dana Tuttle’s own negligence or the acts of Anthony Slater were also a substantial factor in causing Dana Tuttle’s harm.

———


Blanchette v. Competitor Group, Inc., 2019 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 7714, 2019 WL 6167131

Blanchette v. Competitor Group, Inc., 2019 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 7714, 2019 WL 6167131

Craig Blanchette, Plaintiff and Respondent,

v.

Competitor Group, Inc., Defendant and Appellant.

D073971

California Court of Appeals, Fourth District, First Division

November 20, 2019

NOT TO BE PUBLISHED

APPEAL from a judgment and postjudgment order of the Superior Court of San Diego County No. 37-2016-00018380- CU-PO-CTL, Richard E. L. Strauss, Judge. Affirmed.

Horvitz & Levy, S. Thomas Todd, Eric S. Boorstin; Daley & Heft, Robert H. Quayle IV, Lee H. Roistacher and Rachel B. Kushner for Defendant and Appellant.

Higgs Fletcher & Mack, John Morris, Rachel E. Moffitt; RDM Legal Group, Russell Myrick and Keith Rodenhuis for Plaintiff and Respondent.

IRION, J.

Plaintiff Craig Blanchette (Plaintiff), then an elite wheelchair racer, competed in the 2014 San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon (Marathon), which was owned and operated by defendant Competitor Group, Inc. (Defendant). During the race, Plaintiff was injured as he attempted a 90 degree left-hand turn, could not complete the turn, went through the orange traffic cones that marked the course boundary, and crashed into a car stopped at a traffic light in a lane outside the course.

Following a jury trial on one cause of action for gross negligence, the court entered a judgment in favor of Plaintiff and against Defendant in the amount of $3.2 million. On appeal, Defendant argues, as a matter of law, that it neither acted grossly negligent nor increased the risk inherent in wheelchair racing on city streets. As we explain, Defendant did not meet its burden of establishing, as a matter of law, either that it was not grossly negligent or that Plaintiff assumed the risk of the injuries he received. Thus, we will affirm the judgment and the order denying Defendant’s postjudgment motions.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND[ 1]

Due to a birth defect, Plaintiff’s femur bones are about two inches long, and Plaintiff has used a wheelchair since he was in the eighth grade. When Plaintiff was 15 years old, his grandfather bought him his first racing wheelchair. Plaintiff participated in his first professional wheelchair race two years later in 1986, placing fifth in a field of 250. He won his next eight races, setting four world records along the way. At age 20, Plaintiff won a bronze medal in the 1988 Summer Olympics; and over the next approximately 11 years of competition (i.e., prior to the year 2000), he set 21 world records and obtained sponsors.

Plaintiff took a break from wheelchair racing, competing in hand cycling for a few years. He eventually returned to wheelchair racing; and, by June of 2014, he was again “in race shape” as an elite athlete and participated in the Marathon.[ 2] Plaintiff described the “elite level” of wheelchair racing as the professional level, “allow[ing] you to make money competing[.]” Indeed, the Marathon had an elite athlete coordinator who invited Plaintiff, then a resident of Washington state, to come to San Diego to compete at the event. By that time Plaintiff had competed in hundreds of wheelchair races.

Plaintiff arrived in San Diego two days before the Marathon. Because he had not previously competed in a San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon, during that time he “did everything” he was aware of to prepare for the race. He reviewed the basic course map; he studied “the virtual tour” video-at least 15 times-which played continuously on a monitor in the lobby of the hotel where the elite racers stayed; he went to the prerace exposition, where competitors signed in and received their racing bibs; and the night before the race, he attended the all-competitor meeting which included a general safety check, the distribution of additional copies of the basic course map, and the further opportunity to view the virtual tour video.

The basic course map that Defendant provided Plaintiff was on one piece of paper and covered the area from Balboa Avenue on the north to National Avenue/Logan Avenue on the south and from west of Interstate 5 on the west to Interstate 15 on the east. The marathon course is shown in a solid red line; the half-marathon course is shown in a solid blue line; and some of the shorter streets on the courses are unidentified. The virtual tour was a video of the entire racecourse, from start to finish, recorded from a car that traveled the streets of the course during normal daytime traffic conditions.[ 3] The entire video played at a speed that covered the entire 26.2-mile course in approximately five minutes-i.e., at a rate in excess of 300 miles per hour-and ran on a continuous loop in multiple locations.

The virtual tour video of the racecourse was especially important to Plaintiff, since wheelchair racers rely on the “racing line” they choose to maximize speed to gain an advantage during competition. According to Plaintiff, a wheelchair racer tries to “have the fastest racing line through” the turns; “you start wide, you taper down narrow,” completing the turn in “the exit lane.” In particular, from the virtual tour video, Plaintiff had studied the intersection where his accident occurred-11th Avenue just south of its intersection with B Street-and the racing line he would take as he turned left from B Street onto 11th Avenue.

According to the individual who was Defendant’s president and chief executive officer at all relevant times, [ 4] Defendant made available a one page document entitled “Turn by Turn Directions” (turn-by-turn directions) that listed each of the Marathon’s more than 40 turns and specified for each whether the entire street (“whole road”) or a portion of the street (e.g., “southbound lanes,” “east side of road,” etc.) was part of the racecourse. (See fn. 7, post.) Defendant presented evidence that these directions were available only on Defendant’s website and at an information booth at the prerace exposition. There is no evidence either that Defendant told Plaintiff about these directions or that Plaintiff knew about these directions; and Plaintiff testified that, before this lawsuit, he had never seen a copy of the turn-by-turn directions.

Defendant also presented evidence that it had provided the elite wheelchair racers with “a 24-hour concierge” who was able to answer questions they had, including information about or a tour of the racecourse. Defendant’s president and chief executive officer confirmed, however, that a competitor would have to contact the concierge and request services and that Defendant did not offer tours directly to the racers. In any event, there is no evidence that Plaintiff was aware of either the concierge or the services Defendant’s witness said the concierge could provide.

Finally, Defendant presented evidence that it provided bicycle-riding “spotters” on the racecourse who were responsible for providing visual cues to alert the elite racers-both those running and those wheeling-of course conditions. Defendant did not present evidence that any of its spotters was at or near the location of Plaintiff’s accident at any time; Defendant’s witnesses did not know the location of any of the spotters at or near the time of Plaintiff’s accident; and Plaintiff did not see any spotters on the racecourse at or near the place of his accident.

At the Marathon, Defendant hosted approximately 25, 000 athletes-five of whom competed in wheelchairs. The wheelchair racers started first, since they travel at much faster speeds than the runners.[ 5]

The accident occurred early in the race, approximately 3.9 miles from the start.[ 6] The Marathon began on 6th Avenue at Palm Street and proceeded north approximately one mile to University Avenue; the course continued east (right turn) on University Avenue for more than one-half mile to Park Boulevard; and then the course went south (right turn) on Park Boulevard for approximately two miles. The following two turns in quick succession, at times referred to “a zigzag” or “an S turn,” led to the accident: At the intersection of Park Boulevard and B Street, the racers made a 90 degree right turn (west) onto B Street; and one block later, they made a 90 degree left turn (south) onto 11th Avenue. At the speed he was traveling, Plaintiff was unable to negotiate the left turn from B Street onto 11th Avenue. Instead of completing the left turn and continuing south on 11th Avenue, at about 45 degrees, Plaintiff went off the course to the west and crashed into a car stopped at a traffic light in the western-most lane of 11th Avenue.

There are three lanes on B Street and four lanes on 11th Avenue. Under normal conditions on 11th Avenue, all four lanes of vehicle traffic travel northbound and merge into a freeway two blocks north of B Street. During the race, the far west lane of 11th Avenue was unavailable for the southbound racers; instead, it was kept open for northbound vehicle traffic from downtown to the freeway.

 Approximately one hour before the race, Defendant closed the Marathon streets downtown and, as relevant to this lawsuit, set up traffic cones, 15 feet apart, which directed the Marathon racers to make the left turn from the three lanes of B Street to the three eastern lanes of 11th Avenue-thereby eliminating the west lane of 11th Avenue to wheelchair racers and making it available for vehicles traveling north to the freeway. At all times, including well in advance of the Marathon, Defendant knew that the west lane of 11th Avenue would be closed to competitors and open to vehicle traffic: Defendant was using the same course it had used in prior years; and Defendant had prepared and provided to many others “an internal working document” that contained sufficient detail to show the traffic cones and elimination of the west lane on 11th Avenue. In this latter regard, Defendant provided its “internal working document” to the course setup teams, the traffic control setup teams, the bands, the aid stations, the medical people, and “those that needed that level of detail”-but not to the elite wheelchair racers.

Not until he was racing-indeed, not until the point in time at which he was at the west end of the one block of B Street, turning left onto 11th Avenue at a speed in excess of 20 miles per hour-did Plaintiff first learn that Defendant had closed the west lane of 11th Avenue to racers and left it open to motor traffic. Nowhere in what Defendant provided-which included the basic course map, the virtual tour video of the course, and the information at the prerace exposition (sign-in) and the all-competitor safety check meeting-was Plaintiff told that, as the racecourse turned left from B Street to 11th Avenue: the west lane of 11th Avenue would be unavailable to racers; a row of orange traffic cones would separate the three east lanes of 11th Avenue (i.e., the course) from the one west lane (i.e., outside the course); or cars would be in the one west lane of 11th Avenue while the racers would be limited to the three east lanes, separated only by traffic cones 15 feet apart from one another.

This was significant to Plaintiff. In planning his speed and racing line for the S curve (right turn from Park Blvd. to B St. followed immediately by the left turn from B St. to 11th Ave.), he had to know his exit lane on 11th Avenue in order to “set up for this corner.” That is because, according to Plaintiff, “the width of the exit is the primary factor that determines the speed of entrance.” To safely set up for the S curve, for example, “you had to know the specifics of what was happening on 11th [Avenue] back on Park [Boulevard]” in order to maneuver the S curve “at the right speed.” More specifically, Plaintiff testified that he “would have needed to know about this racing lane elimination [on the west side of 11th Avenue] prior to entering the corner on [B Street]-off of Park [Boulevard].”[ 7] (Italics added.)

That did not happen. Based on the information Defendant provided Plaintiff-i.e., from studying the basic course map and the virtual tour video, and attending the prerace exposition and the all-competitor meeting-Plaintiff had no reason to suspect that his planned exit lane would be closed to wheelchair racers and open to cars. Given his speed, his “racing line,” and his view of the road, Plaintiff had only two seconds from the time he first learned that the west lane of 11th Avenue was unavailable as an exit lane until he crossed the boundary and crashed into the car in the west lane.

Plaintiff testified that, throughout his 30 years of racing, he had “never seen a lane elimination like that” on the turn from B Street to 11th Avenue at the Marathon. Consistently, another of the elite wheelchair racers who competed at the Marathon testified that, based on the approximately 140 races in which he has participated over 27 years, he would not expect motor vehicle traffic like the wheelchair racers encountered on 11th Avenue. Finally, Plaintiff’s expert testified: changing a racecourse that a wheelchair racer is expecting an hour before the race is not only misleading but “would make the race inherently more dangerous”; “on Sunday morning there can be no changes”; and the organizer of the race is responsible for ensuring the safety of the competitors.

As a result of the crash into the stopped vehicle on 11th Avenue, Plaintiff suffered personal injuries, including broken bones, and the healing process required multiple surgeries. Since the accident at the Marathon, Plaintiff has been unable to compete as an elite athlete in longer wheelchair races.

II. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

In June 2016, Plaintiff filed a complaint based on the injuries he suffered during the Marathon when he crashed into the stopped vehicle on 11th Avenue. The operative complaint is a first amended complaint in which Plaintiff alleged three causes of action-negligence, gross negligence, and fraud-against Defendant and two other entities.

As to the two other entities, the trial court granted their summary judgment motion, and there is no issue on appeal as to these defendants or the claims Plaintiff alleged against them. As to Defendant, the trial court granted its motion for summary adjudication as to the claims for negligence, fraud, and punitive damages; and there is no issue on appeal regarding these claims. The case proceeded to a jury trial on Plaintiff’s one claim for gross negligence against Defendant.

Over the course of seven days in January 2018, the trial court presided over a jury trial, and the jury returned a verdict in Plaintiff’s favor, finding in relevant part: Defendant was grossly negligent (vote 9-3); Plaintiff did not assume the risk of the injury he suffered (vote 9-3); Plaintiff suffered damages in the amount of $4 million (vote 12-0); and Plaintiff was 20 percent contributorily negligent (vote 10-2). Accordingly, the court entered judgment for Plaintiff and against Defendant in the amount of $3.2 million.

Defendant filed postjudgment motions, including supporting documentation, for a new trial and for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict. Plaintiff filed oppositions to the motions, and Defendant filed replies to Plaintiff’s oppositions. Following hearing, in March 2018 the trial court denied Defendant’s motions.

Defendant timely appealed from both the judgment and the order denying the postjudgment motions.

III. DISCUSSION

Defendant contends that the judgment should be reversed with directions to enter judgment in Defendant’s favor on either of the following two grounds: (1) As a matter of law, Plaintiff failed to establish gross negligence by Defendant; or (2) as a matter of law, Defendant established that it did not unreasonably increase the risk (i.e., Plaintiff assumed the risk) that Plaintiff would injure himself by turning from B Street to 11th Avenue at too high a speed to complete the turn.

The parties disagree as to the standard of review to be applied. Defendant argues that, because the material facts are undisputed and only one inference can reasonably be drawn, we review both issues de novo. In response, Plaintiff argues that, because material facts were disputed-or, at a minimum, conflicting inferences exist from the undisputed facts-we review both issues for substantial evidence. As we explain, under either standard we must consider the evidence in a light most favorable to Plaintiff; thus, in essence, we will be reviewing both issues for substantial evidence. In doing so, we apply well-established standards.

We “look to the entire record of the appeal,” and if there is substantial evidence, “it is of no consequence that the [jury] believing other evidence, or drawing other reasonable inferences, might have reached a contrary conclusion.” (Bowers v. Bernards (1984) 150 Cal.App.3d 870, 873-874, italics deleted.)” ‘[T]he test is not the presence or absence of a substantial conflict in the evidence. Rather, it is simply whether there is substantial evidence in favor of the respondent.'” (Dane-Elec Corp., USA v. Bodokh (2019) 35 Cal.App.5th 761, 770.) “If this ‘substantial’ evidence is present, no matter how slight it may appear in comparison with the contradictory evidence, the judgment must be upheld.” (Howard v. Owens Corning (1999) 72 Cal.App.4th 621, 631 (Howard).) The fact that the record may contain substantial evidence in support of an appellant’s claims is irrelevant to our role, which is limited to determining the sufficiency of the evidence in support of the judgment actually made. (Ibid.)

In determining the sufficiency of the evidence, we “may not weigh the evidence or consider the credibility of witnesses. Instead, the evidence most favorable to [the verdict] must be accepted as true and conflicting evidence must be disregarded.” (Campbell v. General Motors Corp. (1982) 32 Cal.3d 112, 118, italics added; accord, Howard, supra, 72 Cal.App.4th at p. 631 [“we will look only at the evidence and reasonable inferences supporting the successful party, and disregard the contrary showing”].) The testimony of a single witness, including that of a party, may be sufficient (In re Marriage of Mix (1975) 14 Cal.3d 604, 614; Evid. Code, § 411); whereas even uncontradicted evidence in favor of an appellant does not establish the fact for which the evidence was submitted (Foreman & Clark Corp. v. Fallon (1971) 3 Cal.3d 875, 890 (Foreman)).

Under these standards, as we will explain, substantial evidence supports the jury’s findings both that Defendant was grossly negligent (i.e., Plaintiff proved Defendant’s extreme departure from the ordinary standard of care) and that Plaintiff did not assume the risk of the injury he suffered (i.e., Defendant failed to prove that it did not unreasonably increase the risks to Plaintiff over and above those inherent in wheelchair racing). Thus, as we will conclude, Defendant did not meet its burden of establishing reversible error. (See Jameson v. Desta (2018) 5 Cal.5th 594, 609 [“a trial court judgment is ordinarily presumed to be correct and the burden is on an appellant to demonstrate… an error that justifies reversal”].)

A. Gross Negligence

The jury answered “Yes” to special verdict question No. 1, “Was [Defendant] grossly negligent?” Defendant contends that, as a matter of law, the undisputed material facts do not support the jury’s finding of gross negligence. We disagree.

1. Law

Ordinary negligence “consists of a failure to exercise the degree of care in a given situation that a reasonable person under similar circumstances would employ to protect others from harm.” (City of Santa Barbara v. Superior Court (2007) 41 Cal.4th 747, 753-754 (Santa Barbara).)” ‘” ‘[M]ere nonfeasance, such as the failure to discover a dangerous condition or to perform a duty, ‘” amounts to ordinary negligence.'” (Willhide-Michiulis v. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, LLC (2018) 25 Cal.App.5th 344, 358 (Willhide-Michiulis).) In contrast, to establish gross negligence, a plaintiff must prove “either a ‘want of even scant care’ or ‘an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.'” (Santa Barbara, at p. 754; accord, Willhide-Michiulis, at p. 358.)

California does not recognize a cause of action for “gross negligence.” (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at pp. 779-780.) Rather, as our Supreme Court explained, “the distinction between ‘ordinary and gross negligence’ reflects ‘a rule of policy’ that harsher legal consequences should flow when negligence is aggravated instead of merely ordinary.” (Id. at p. 776.) For this reason,” ‘”‘ “[g]ross negligence” falls short of a reckless disregard of consequences, and differs from ordinary negligence only in degree, and not in kind.'” ‘” (Willhide-Michiulis, supra, 25 Cal.App.5th at p. 358.)

2. Analysis

Defendant argues for de novo review on the basis that, according to Defendant, “the material facts are undisputed and only one inference can reasonably be drawn.” Plaintiff disagrees, arguing that many material facts were disputed, conflicting inferences exist, Defendant’s appeal “presents garden-variety challenges to a jury’s factual findings”-and, accordingly, the issues Defendant raises in this appeal are subject to substantial evidence review.

 Persuasively, Plaintiff relies on Cooper v. Kellogg (1935) 2 Cal.2d 504 (Cooper). In Cooper, the plaintiff was a passenger in the defendant’s car, and late at night the plaintiff was injured when the defendant fell asleep, crossed into oncoming traffic, and hit a car traveling in the opposite direction. (Id. at pp. 506-507.) Under the law in effect at the time of the accident, the plaintiff could recover from the defendant driver only if the defendant was grossly negligent. (Id. at pp. 505-506.) Thus, to recover, the plaintiff had to establish “whether defendant [driver] was grossly negligent in permitting himself to fall asleep”-i.e., not merely “whether he was negligent in the manner in which he controlled the car[.]” (Id. at p. 507.)

Following trial, the court found that the defendant had not operated the vehicle in a grossly negligent manner. (Cooper, supra, 2 Cal.2d at p. 507.) The plaintiff in Cooper argued on appeal that the uncontradicted evidence required a finding as a matter of law that the defendant driver was grossly negligent. (Id. at p. 508.) The uncontradicted evidence in Cooper included the defendant’s considerable activities during the 18 hours preceding the accident (from 8:00 a.m. until the accident at 2:00 a.m. the following morning[ 8]), and the defendant’s testimony that, despite the activities, he had no premonition or warning of sleepiness. (Id. at pp. 506-507.) The plaintiff could add nothing to the evidence of the accident, since he had fallen asleep. (Id. at p. 506.)

In response to the plaintiff’s argument that “the uncontradicted evidence requires a finding of gross negligence upon the part of [the defendant driver],” the Supreme Court disagreed, ruling: “Whether there has been such a lack of care as to constitute gross negligence is a question of fact for the determination of the trial court or jury, and this is so ‘even where there is no conflict in the evidence if different conclusions upon the subject can be rationally drawn therefrom.'” (Cooper, supra, 2 Cal.2d at pp. 508, 511, italics added.) Thus, even though the evidence concerning the defendant driver and his activities during the 18 hours preceding the accident was undisputed, the Supreme Court refused to rule as a matter of law, deferring instead to the trier of fact: Despite the undisputed facts, “we cannot say that the only reasonable conclusion the trial court could reach was that there was such a likelihood of his falling asleep, of which he knew or should have been aware, that his continuing to operate the car amounted to gross negligence as defined above.” (Id. at p. 511.)

The analysis and result are the same here. We cannot say that the only reasonable conclusion the jury could reach was that Defendant’s actions were not grossly negligent. Even if some facts are undisputed, viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to Plaintiff-as we must (see fn. 1, ante)-” ‘different conclusions upon the subject can be rationally drawn therefrom.'” (Cooper, supra, 2 Cal.2d at p. 511.) Thus, as in Cooper, we do not apply independent review. (Ibid.) Although Defendant does not present its arguments based on substantial evidence review, by contending that the undisputed material facts require as a matter of law a ruling that Defendant was not grossly negligent, Defendant is arguing that substantial evidence does not support the jury’s finding of gross negligence. As we explain, we are satisfied that substantial evidence supports the jury’s finding that Defendant was grossly negligent-i.e., Defendant’s behavior was an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.[ 9]

Defendant argues: “As a matter of law, [Defendant] did not fail to use even scant care, or depart in an extreme way from the ordinary standard of conduct, when it posted the turn-by-turn directions on its website and made them available at its information booth, but did not physically hand a copy to [P]laintiff and the other wheelchair racers.” Very simply, this argument fails to consider or apply the appropriate standard of review.[ 10] As we introduced at footnote 1, ante-and as Defendant invites us to do, but fails to do in its analysis-we construe all facts and inferences in a light most favorable to Plaintiff. (Mary M., supra, 54 Cal.3d at p. 214, fn. 6 [on appeal where appellant contends the material facts are undisputed]; Carrington, supra, 30 Cal.App.5th at p. 518 [on appeal from the judgment where appellant contends the record lacks substantial evidence to support the verdict]; Jorge, supra, 3 Cal.App.5th at p. 396 [on appeal from the denial of a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict where appellant contends the record lacks substantial evidence to support the verdict].)

According to Defendant, we should credit fully the evidence presented by Defendant-including but not limited to the testimony that the turn-by-turn directions were available to Plaintiff-and discredit the evidence from the wheelchair racers that races like the Marathon do not have either lane elimination (like that on the turn from B Street to 11th Avenue) or vehicle traffic (like that in the west lane of 11th Avenue). However, this is not the appropriate standard when viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to the prevailing party. (See pt. III., before pt. III.A., ante.) To accept Defendant’s argument would result in this appellate court usurping the jury’s responsibility for determining credibility of witnesses and truth of evidence. (City of Hope National Medical Center v. Genetech, Inc. (2008) 43 Cal.4th 375, 394; Hawkins v. City of Los Angeles (2019) 40 Cal.App.5th 384, 393 [” ‘”‘ “it is the exclusive province of the [jury] to determine the credibility of a witness and the truth or falsity of the facts upon which a determination depends” ‘”‘ “; brackets in original].) Even though a material fact may be “undisputed” as argued by Defendant, on the present record this means only that contrary evidence was not presented; it does not mean that Plaintiff agreed to the fact or that the jury-or this court on appeal-must credit the undisputed fact as a matter of law. (See Hass v. RhodyCo Productions (2018) 26 Cal.App.5th 11, 33 [defense summary judgment on claim of gross negligence inappropriate in part due to “credibility questions that need to be answered”].)

We consider, for example, Defendant’s actions in making the west lane of 11th Avenue unavailable for racers; in making the west lane of 11th Avenue available for vehicle traffic; in separating the wheelchair racers’ exit lane and the traffic lane with cones placed 15 feet apart; and in notifying the racers of this situation. Defendant’s president and chief economic officer testified that Defendant prepared turn-by-turn directions that communicated to racers that the west lane of 11th Avenue would not be available for racers and that Defendant made these directions available both on its website and at its information booth at the exposition.[ 11] However, Plaintiff testified that he neither saw nor knew of the turn-by-turn directions;[ 12] and the record does not contain evidence from anyone who actually saw the directions either on Defendant’s website or Defendant’s information booth. Thus, although Defendant tells us that it “is undisputed that the turn-by-turn directions were” on Defendant’s website and at Defendant’s information booth, at best the facts on which Defendant relies were uncontradicted, not undisputed; yet even uncontradicted evidence in favor of an appellant does not establish the fact for which the evidence was submitted (Foreman, supra, 3 Cal.3d at p. 890).

In any event, these facts raise inferences and credibility determinations that preclude a ruling-either way-whether Defendant was grossly negligent as a matter of law.

Through the basic course map and the virtual tour video it provided to the Marathon racers, Defendant represented to Plaintiff that all lanes on 11th Avenue would be open to the racers-including specifically the west lane, which Plaintiff reasonably considered and planned to use as the exit lane for his turn from B Street to 11th Avenue. At all times, however, Defendant knew that traffic cones would be used both to direct wheelchair racers to make the left turn from B Street to 11th Avenue and to eliminate the west lane of 11th Avenue to wheelchair racers. Although Defendant prepared an “internal working document” with this specific information and provided it to “those that needed that level of detail,” Defendant did not provide it to the wheelchair racers. One hour before the start of the race and with no notice to Plaintiff-at a time when Plaintiff was already near the starting line and warming up-Defendant placed traffic cones, 15 feet apart from one another, on the outside of the left turn from B Street to 11th Avenue and down the length of 11th Avenue, blocking Plaintiff from using the exit lane he had planned based on the basic course map and virtual tour video Defendant provided.

In this regard, the following evidence from two of the five elite wheelchair racers who competed at the Marathon was uncontradicted: One racer testified that, in his 30 years’ experience in wheelchair racing, he had “never seen a lane elimination” like that on the left turn from B Street to 11th Avenue; and another racer testified that, based on his 27 years’ experience in over 140 wheelchair races, he would never expect motor vehicle traffic to be in the lane next to the wheelchair racers separated only by traffic cones placed 15 feet apart. Moreover, according to Plaintiff’s expert, Defendant was responsible for ensuring the safety of all racers, and on the morning of the race “there can be no changes” made to racecourse, because to do so “would make the race inherently more dangerous” for the wheelchair competitors. Given his speed, his racing line, and his view of the racecourse as he proceeded down the one block of B Street, Plaintiff had only two seconds to attempt to change his course from when he first learned that Defendant had closed the west lane of 11th Avenue and when he crashed into the car in the west lane of 11th Avenue. Had Plaintiff known of the lane elimination on 11th Avenue, he would have been able to negotiate the turn from B Street by “com[ing] into the corner differently.”

Like Cooper, even where (as here) there is no conflict in the evidence, because various conclusions can be drawn from the evidence based on inferences and credibility, we cannot say that the only reasonable finding the jury could reach was that Defendant’s actions were not an extreme departure from what a reasonably careful person would do in the same situation to prevent harm to Plaintiff. Stated differently, the evidence and inferences from the evidence described in the preceding paragraphs substantiate the jury’s finding that Defendant was grossly negligent.

 Defendant’s legal authorities do not support a different analysis or result. Defendant first cites seven cases-each followed by a one sentence (or less) parenthetical describing facts or quoting language-in which intermediate appellate courts ruled that a plaintiff could not establish a lack of gross negligence as matter of law. Defendant continues by citing five cases-each followed by a one sentence (or less) parenthetical describing facts or quoting language-in which intermediate appellate courts ruled that a defendant failed to establish a lack of gross negligence as a matter of law. Defendant then concludes by stating without discussion or argument: “Contrasting the facts of the cases that find no gross negligence as a matter of law with the facts of the cases that find possible gross negligence, it is apparent that our case falls in the former category.” Defendant does not suggest the reason, and we decline to speculate as to what “is apparent” to Defendant. In short, Defendant’s one-sentence argument is neither helpful nor persuasive.

For the foregoing reasons, Defendant did not meet its burden of establishing, as a matter of law, that Plaintiff failed to prove gross negligence.

B. Assumption of the Risk

The jury answered “Yes” to special verdict question No. 3, “Did [Defendant] do something or fail to do something that unreasonably increased the risks to [Plaintiff] over and above those inherent in marathon wheelchair racing?” Defendant contends that, as a matter of law, the undisputed material facts do not support the jury’s finding that Defendant unreasonably increased the risks inherent in marathon wheelchair racing. Stated differently, Defendant contends that, as a matter of law, Plaintiff assumed the risk of the injuries he sustained by competing as an elite wheelchair racer at the Marathon. We disagree.

1. Law

Assumption of the risk is an affirmative defense to a plaintiff’s claim of negligence. (6 Witkin, Summary of Cal. Law (11th ed. 2017) Torts, § 1437(2), p. 758.) Primary assumption of risk, when applicable, “completely bars the plaintiff’s recovery,” whereas secondary assumption of risk” ‘is merged into the comparative fault scheme, and the trier of fact, in apportioning the loss resulting from the injury, may consider the relative responsibility of the parties.'” (Cheong v. Antablin (1997) 16 Cal.4th 1063, 1068 (Cheong); see Knight v. Jewett (1992) 3 Cal.4th 296, 314-315 (Knight ).) The presence or absence of duty determines whether an application of the defense will result in a complete bar (primary assumption of the risk) or merely a determination of comparative fault (secondary assumption of the risk). (6 Witkin, supra, § 1437(2) at p. 758.)

” ‘Although persons generally owe a duty of due care not to cause an unreasonable risk of harm to others (Civ. Code, § 1714, subd. (a)), some activities-and, specifically, many sports-are inherently dangerous. Imposing a duty to mitigate those inherent dangers could alter the nature of the activity or inhibit vigorous participation.'” (Nalwa v. Cedar Fair, L.P. (2012) 55 Cal.4th 1148, 1154 (Nalwa).) Primary assumption of risk is a doctrine of limited duty which was “developed to avoid such a chilling effect.” (Ibid.) If it applies to a recreational activity like the Marathon, an event sponsor like Defendant owes the “participants only the duty not to act so as to increase the risk of injury over that inherent in the activity.” (Ibid. [primary assumption of the risk applied as a complete defense to bumper car passenger’s action against amusement park owner for injuries sustained when bumper cars collided].)

In Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th 296, our Supreme Court considered the proper application of the assumption of risk doctrine in terms of duty, given the court’s adoption of comparative fault principles in Li v. Yellow Cab Co. (1975) 13 Cal.3d 804.[ 13] The court “distinguished between (1) primary assumption of risk-‘those instances in which the assumption of risk doctrine embodies a legal conclusion that there is “no duty” on the part of the defendant to protect the plaintiff from a particular risk’-and (2) secondary assumption of risk-‘those instances in which the defendant does owe a duty of care to the plaintiff but the plaintiff knowingly encounters a risk of injury caused by the defendant’s breach of that duty.'” (Cheong, supra, 16 Cal.4th at pp. 1068-1069, quoting Knight, at p. 308.)

The test for whether primary assumption of risk applies is whether the activity” ‘involv[es] an inherent risk of injury to voluntary participants… where the risk cannot be eliminated without altering the fundamental nature of the activity.'” (Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 1156.) “The test is objective; it ‘depends on the nature of the sport or activity in question and on the parties’ general relationship to the activity’ rather than ‘the particular plaintiff’s subjective knowledge and awareness[.]'” (Cheong, supra, 16 Cal.4th at p. 1068, quoting Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 313.)

In determining whether the doctrine of assumption of the risk will be a defense to a claim of negligence in a sporting activity, the trial court must consider three issues:”‘ “whether an activity is an active sport, the inherent risks of that sport, and whether the defendant has increased the risks of the activity beyond the risks inherent in the sport.” ‘” (Fazio v. Fairbanks Ranch Country Club (2015) 233 Cal.App.4th 1053, 1061 (Fazio); see Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 317 [in analyzing the duty of an owner/operator of a sporting event, courts should consider “the risks inherent in the sport not only by virtue of the nature of the sport itself, but also by reference to the steps the sponsoring business entity reasonably should be obligated to take in order to minimize the risks without altering the nature of the sport” (italics added)].) The first two issues, which relate to duty, are determined by the court, and the third-viz., increased risk-is a question to be decided by the trier of fact.[ 14] (Fazio, at pp. 1061-1063.)

2. Analysis

In its opening brief, Defendant explained that, at trial, in response to Defendant’s prima facie showing in support of its affirmative defense of primary assumption of the risk, “[P]laintiff had to prove that [Defendant] unreasonably increased the risk to him over and above the risks inherent in wheelchair racing on city streets.”[ 15] In this context, Defendant characterized the risk at issue as follows:

“The pertinent inherent risk was that [P]laintiff would attempt to turn a corner at too high a speed, run off the race course, and crash.”

In this context, Defendant described the issue on appeal to be:

 “[W]hether [Defendant], by not physically handing [P]laintiff a copy of the turn-by-turn directions, in addition to making them available on its website and at its information booth, unreasonably increased the inherent risk that [P]laintiff would attempt to turn a corner at too high a speed, run off the race course, and crash.”

Defendant accordingly limited its substantive argument on appeal to establishing, as a matter of law, that it did nothing to increase the risk that “[P]laintiff would attempt to turn a corner too fast, run his wheelchair off the race course, and crash” and that it was not required to undertake any affirmative efforts to decrease that risk.

In its brief, Plaintiff criticized Defendant for “tak[ing] too narrow a view of its duty here (framing this issue as simply as whether it ‘unreasonably increased the inherent risk’ that [Plaintiff] would ‘roll over or run off the race course and crash’).” Plaintiff disagreed with Defendant’s “formulation,” corrected Defendant’s statement of the inherent risk at issue, and explained his position as follows:

“The ‘precise issue,’ instead, is whether… [Defendant] increased the risks inherent in wheelchair racing in multiple ways, including: (1) by failing to indicate on the basic course map provided to all competitors that the outside lane of 11th Avenue (the necessary ‘exit lane’ for a fast-moving wheelchair) would not be available on race day (or by failing to at least direct competitors to its much-heralded turn-by-turn directions for information regarding lane closures); (2) by affirmatively representing to racers through its ‘virtual tour’ that all lanes on 11th Avenue would be available to complete that turn; (3) by removing 13 feet… of the roadway from the critical ‘exit lane’ about an hour before the race began without ever alerting at least the… wheelchair racers to this change; and (4) by [f]ailing to take other necessary precautions (for instance, with announcements, required tours, better barricades, bigger signs, or sufficient spotters) to advise racers of that particularly precarious intersection.”

In its argument, consistent with its position on gross negligence, Plaintiff emphasized that Defendant affirmatively increased the inherent risks of marathon wheelchair racing by changing the racecourse from that shown on the basic course map and the virtual tour video. According to Plaintiff, an hour before the race began with the wheelchair competitors already at the starting line, Defendant increased the risks by: eliminating the west lane of 11th Avenue, whereas the basic course map and virtual tour video did not indicate the loss of a lane; and allowing vehicle traffic in the west lane of 11th Avenue, where wheelchair racers would ordinarily complete their left turns from B Street, separating the racecourse from vehicle traffic by plastic traffic cones placed 15 feet apart. In support of his argument, Plaintiff relied on the following testimony: In his 30 years of wheelchair racing, Plaintiff had “never seen a lane elimination like that” on the turn from B Street to 11th Avenue; and based on his 27 years of wheelchair racing, another Marathon wheelchair competitor would never have expected the motor vehicle traffic that the wheelchair racers encountered on 11th Avenue-i.e., motor vehicles traveling in the lane next to the wheelchair racers’ exit lane, where competitors were racing at speeds exceeding 20 miles per her, separated only by traffic cones placed 15 feet apart.

In its reply brief, Defendant acknowledged that Plaintiff considered Defendant’s increase to the inherent risks in wheelchair racing to be the elimination of the west lane of 11th Avenue without notice, but continued with its position from its opening brief, restating it in part as follows:

 “Stated in terms of legal requirements, [Defendant] had no duty to eliminate or minimize the inherent risks of wheelchair road racing, one of which is that [P]laintiff would attempt to go too fast around a corner, run off the race course and crash. [¶] In the opening brief, we said the precise issue on appeal is whether [Defendant] unreasonably increased the inherent risk of injury by making the turn-by-turn directions available on its website and at its manned information booth, but not physically handing [P]laintiff a copy of the directions.”

Defendant again argued that it did not increase the inherent risks associated with wheelchair racing by eliminating the west lane and allowing vehicle traffic on 11th Avenue, because Defendant prepared turn-by-turn directions that a defense witness said were available on Defendant’s website and at Defendant’s information booth at the exposition.

The parties again disagree as to the standard of review. Defendant contends that, because the facts are undisputed, we are to review the judgment de novo; whereas Plaintiff contends that, because many facts-and inferences from the facts-are disputed, we are to review the judgment for substantial evidence. As before, Plaintiff has the better position.

As we explained in reviewing whether Defendant was grossly negligent (see pt. III.A.2, ante), even if some facts are undisputed, viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to Plaintiff-as we must (see fn. 1, ante)-” ‘different conclusions upon the subject can be rationally drawn therefrom’ “; and if different conclusions can be drawn, then the issue to be determined is a question of fact” ‘even where there is no conflict in the evidence.'” (Cooper, supra, 2 Cal.2d at p. 511 [uncontradicted evidence of arguably gross negligence does not require a finding of gross negligence as a matter of law].) Since the same “undisputed” evidence is at issue in reviewing whether Defendant increased the risks of injury to the wheelchair racers at the Marathon, we apply the same standard of review-i.e., substantial evidence.

The determination of whether Defendant increased the risks for wheelchair racers beyond those inherent in the sport of marathon wheelchair racing is an issue of fact.[ 16] (Fazio, supra, 233 Cal.App.4th at p. 1061; see pt. III.B.1., ante.) As we discuss, the same substantial evidence that supported the jury’s finding of gross negligence (see pt. III.A.2., ante) also supports the jury’s finding that Defendant affirmatively increased the risks associated with marathon wheelchair racing.[ 17]

Through the basic course map and the virtual tour video it provided to Plaintiff, Defendant represented that all lanes on 11th Avenue would be open to the racers-including specifically the west lane, which Plaintiff reasonably considered and planned to use as the exit lane for his left turn from B Street to 11th Avenue. One hour before the start of the race and with no notice to Plaintiff-at a time when Plaintiff was already near the starting line and warming up-Defendant placed traffic cones, 15 feet apart from one another, on the outside of the left turn from B Street to 11th Avenue and down the length of 11th Avenue, blocking Plaintiff from using the exit lane he had planned. This action increased the risks otherwise inherent in wheelchair racing, because: Neither lane elimination on the racecourse nor vehicle traffic separated by traffic cones next to the wheelchair racers’ exit lane on the racecourse is a risk inherent in marathon wheelchair racing; yet Defendant’s actions both eliminated a lane on 11th Avenue and allowed for a lane of vehicle traffic on 11th Avenue next to the exit lane for the left turn from B Street, separated only by traffic cones 15 feet apart.

Thus, the record contains substantial evidence to support the finding that Defendant increased the risks inherent in marathon wheelchair racing. In short, the record contains evidence that Defendant changed the racecourse from what Defendant showed Plaintiff on the basic course map and virtual tour video-merely one hour before the start of the race-without disclosing the change to Plaintiff or the other wheelchair racers.

Consistent with its argument as to gross negligence, Defendant contends that, with regard to assumption of the risk, although “it is the racers’ responsibility to become sufficiently familiar with the race course to successfully negotiate its features,” Plaintiff failed to “go on [Defendant’s] website, visit [Defendant’s] information booth, or consult [Defendant’s] knowledgeable personnel” where Plaintiff could have received a copy of the turn-by-turn directions. Consistent with our ruling on gross negligence (see pt. III.A.2., ante), Defendant does not cite to evidence that Plaintiff knew of such resources, let alone that those resources had turn-by-turn directions or other information which disclosed the changes to the racecourse from the information Defendant affirmatively provided him in the basic course map and virtual tour video.

For the foregoing reasons, Defendant did not meet its burden of establishing, as a matter of law, that Plaintiff assumed the risk of the injuries he sustained by competing as a wheelchair racer at the Marathon.

IV. DISPOSITION

The judgment and the order denying Defendant’s postjudgment motions are affirmed. Plaintiff is entitled to his costs on appeal. (Cal. Rules of Court, rule 8.278(a)(2).)

  WE CONCUR: HALLER, Acting P. J., O’ROURKE, J.

———

Notes:

[ 1] Defendant argues for de novo review of the two issues (gross negligence and assumption of the risk) based on its contention that “the material facts are undisputed and only one inference can reasonably be drawn.” Defendant’s principal authority for this standard is Mary M. v. City of Los Angeles (1991) 54 Cal.3d 202 (Mary M.), which instructs that, when applying this standard, the facts must be considered “in the light most favorable” to the prevailing party. (Id. at p. 214, fn. 6.) Indeed, citing this same footnote in Mary M., Defendant acknowledges that, under this standard, even “[d]isputed material facts can become undisputed by construing them in the manner most favorable to the opposing party.” Construction of the evidence in a light most favorable to the prevailing party is consistent with established standards of review following a jury verdict and the denial of a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. (Carrington v. Starbucks Corp. (2018) 30 Cal.App.5th 504, 518 (Carrington) [appeal from judgment where appellant contends the record lacks substantial evidence to support the verdict]; Jorge v. Culinary Institute of America (2016) 3 Cal.App.5th 382, 396 (Jorge) [appeal from order denying motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict].)

[ 2] The Marathon was 26.2 miles. It began just north of downtown San Diego (on 6th Ave. near Palm St., west of Balboa Park) and finished in the south end of downtown San Diego (on 13th St. near K St., east of Petco Park).

[ 3] A copy of the virtual tour video was not available for trial. As described by Plaintiff, on one-way streets where the racers would be traveling against the flow of the traffic during the recording session, the camera was placed in the rear of the car, and when the video was prepared, the portions recorded from the rear of the car were spliced into the video in reverse.

[ 4] We describe this evidence-and the evidence in the subsequent two paragraphs of the text-since Defendant emphasizes it in Defendant’s appellate briefing. However, this is not evidence we consider when analyzing the evidence and inferences in a light most favorable to Plaintiff, as previewed at footnote 1, ante, and discussed at parts III.A.2. and III.B.2., post.

[ 5] The Marathon course diagram, which is an internal document that the course operations team prepares, indicates that the wheelchair racers were scheduled to start 5 minutes before the first group of runners.

[ 6] The reporter’s transcript contains testimony from Defendant’s president and chief executive officer that the accident happened “at a little less than a fourth of a mile” from the start line. Based on the course map and the testimony of two racers, apparently either the witness misspoke or the reporter’s transcript contains an error.

[ 7] Plaintiff testified that, had he been given advance notice that the west lane of 11th Avenue had been eliminated from the course he had seen on the virtual tour video, he would have planned for a different racing line and successfully completed the turn from B Street to 11th Avenue. The turn-by-turn directions-the existence of which was never made known to Plaintiff-described the S curve from Park Boulevard to 11th Avenue as follows: “1.6 [miles] Right (south) turn on Park Blvd[.], southbound lanes only “3.8 [miles] Right (west) turn on B St[.], whole road “3.9 [miles] Left (south, against traffic) turn on 11th Ave[.], east side of road[.]” Notably, these directions do not disclose either that the west lane of 11th Avenue would be unavailable to racers or that vehicle traffic would be traveling northbound in the west lane of 11th Avenue.

[ 8] The plaintiff and defendant left Santa Rosa around 8:00 a.m.; more than two hours later they had lunch in San Francisco; they drove to San Mateo and attended a football game; after the game, they drove to San Francisco, where they had dinner and attended the theater; they took the ferry to Sausalito around midnight; and the accident occurred as the defendant drove from Sausalito back to Santa Rosa. (Cooper, supra, 2 Cal.2d at p. 506.)

[ 9] Consistent with CACI No. 425, the court instructed the jury: “Gross negligence is the lack of any care or an extreme departure from what a reasonably careful person would do in the same situation to prevent harm to oneself or to others. [¶] A person can be grossly negligent by acting or by failing to act.”

[ 10] Defendant’s argument also implies that Plaintiff should have requested or taken advantage of the turn-by-turn directions. However, since there is no evidence suggesting that Plaintiff knew such information was available, we question how Plaintiff could have requested or taken advantage of it.

[ 11] Defendant does not contend that its turn-by-turn directions or any other evidence told Plaintiff that the west lane of 11th Avenue would be open to vehicle traffic or separated from the racecourse only by traffic cones 15 feet apart.

[ 12] In its reply, Defendant argues that Plaintiff was unaware of turn-by-turn directions because “Plaintiff chose not go on the website, visit the information booth, or consult the knowledgeable personnel.” (Italics added.) Defendant cites no evidence-and in our review of the record, we are unaware of evidence-that Plaintiff chose not to take advantage of those services. While that is one inference that can be drawn from Plaintiff’s testimony, that is not the only inference. Other reasonable inferences include that Plaintiff failed to take advantage of those services either: because he did not know they were available; or, since Plaintiff had never seen a lane eliminated like on 11th Avenue and elite wheelchair racers do not expect motor vehicle traffic to be separated from the competitors by traffic cones, he would not think to ask about such services. As Defendant acknowledges, because multiple inferences can be drawn from Plaintiff’s failure to take advantage of those services, such failure is not an “undisputed fact” for purposes of our appellate review. (Mary M., supra, 54 Cal.3d at p. 213.)

[ 13] Knight was a plurality opinion, but a unanimous court later “restated the basic principles of Knight‘s lead opinion as the controlling law.” (Cheong, supra, 16 Cal.4th at p. 1067, citing Neighbarger v. Irwin Industries, Inc. (1994) 8 Cal.4th 532, 537-538.)

[ 14] We recognize-as we did in Fazio, supra, 233 Cal.App.4th at page 1061-that Court of Appeal decisions conflict as to whether the issue of increased risk is a legal question for the court or a factual question for the jury. (Id. at pp. 1061-1063.) We have no reason to reconsider our ruling and analysis in Fazio, and Defendant does not suggest otherwise. (See fn. 16, post.)

[ 15] In this regard, the trial court instructed the jury as follows, consistent with CACI No. 472, entitled “Primary Assumption of Risk-Exception to Nonliability-… Event Sponsors”: “[Plaintiff] claims he was harmed while participating in a wheelchair race as part of [Defendant’s] Rock and Roll Marathon. To establish this claim, [Plaintiff] must prove all of the following: [¶] 1. That [Defendant] was the operator of the Rock and Roll Marathon; [¶] 2. That [Defendant] unreasonably increased the risks to [Plaintiff] over and above those inherent in the sport of wheelchair marathon racing[; ¶] 3. That [Plaintiff] was harmed; and [¶] 4. That [Defendant’s] conduct was a substantial factor in causing [Plaintiff’s] harm.” (Italics added.)

[ 16] As we introduced ante, the other two issues associated with the potential application of the doctrine of assumption of the risk-whether marathon wheelchair racing is “an active sport” and “the risks inherent in that sport”-are legal issues that are reviewed de novo. (Fazio, supra, 233 Cal.App.4th at p. 1061.) Although Defendant does not directly raise either of those issues in its appeal, we have no difficulty concluding that: Marathon wheelchair is an active sport; and turning a corner at too high a speed and running off the racecourse is a risk inherent in marathon wheelchair racing. In its reply brief, Defendant suggests that we apply a de novo standard of review because “this appeal involves a mixed question of law and fact.” We disagree that this appeal involves a mixed question. Each of the three issues under Fazio is decided and reviewed separately: two are issues of law, and one-i.e., whether the defendant increased the risks inherent in the sport-is an issue of fact. (Fazio, supra, 233 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1061-1063.) This appeal involves only the last issue, and as an issue of fact, it is reviewed on appeal for substantial evidence.

[ 17] In its reply brief, for the first time, Defendant “note[d]” that, in Fazio, supra, 233 Cal.App.4th 1053, “this court held that, in the summary judgment context, if there are disputed material facts, the jury will decide whether the defendant increased the inherent risk.” We agree that, if there are disputed material facts, then the jury must decide the factual dispute; and that is what happened in this case. Defendant then argues “that, after trial, if the case goes up on appeal, the appellate court is bound by the jury’s resolution of the factual disputes, but not by the jury’s determination that the defendant increased the inherent risk,” suggesting instead that “[t]he appellate court, based on the now-established facts, decides de novo whether the defendant increased the inherent risk.” Not only does Defendant fail to provide authority for its suggestion, in the context of the present appeal, the suggestion makes no sense. Here, the jury resolved the ultimate factual dispute-i.e., whether the defendant increased the inherent risk: “[Defendant] d[id] something or fail[ed] to do something that unreasonably increased the risks to [Plaintiff] over and above those inherent in marathon wheelchair racing.” As we ruled in Fazio: “[R]esolving the question of whether [the defendant] increased the risk of [the harm the plaintiff suffered] is properly decided by the trier of fact. This question… ‘requires application of the governing standard of care (the duty not to increase the [inherent risks]) to the facts of this particular case-the traditional role of the trier of fact.'” (Fazio, supra, 233 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1062-1063; italics and second and third brackets added.) For these reasons, we disagree with Defendant’s reply argument in support of de novo review.


Ruts left in slope by snowmaking ATV did not rise to the level of recklessness or gross negligence in the Pennsylvania skiing lawsuit.

Great review of gross negligence and recklessness law under Pennsylvania law in this decision.

Kibler v. Blue Knob Recreation, Inc., 2018 PA Super 89 (Pa.Super. 2018)

State: Pennsylvania, Superior Court of Pennsylvania

Plaintiff: Patrick Kibler and Kathryn Kibler, Husband and Wife

Defendant: Blue Knob Recreation, Inc., /d/b/a Blue Knob All Seasons Resort, and Blue Knob Resort, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence and Gross Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For Defendant

Year: 2017

Summary

Ruts left on the slope are an inherent risk of skiing and do not rise to gross negligence in Pennsylvania. Plaintiff assumed the risk of his injuries both under the Pennsylvania Skier Safety Act and the release he signed for his pass.

Facts

On March 21, 2014, [appellant] applied for a season ski pass for the 2014-2015 ski season at Blue Knob Ski Resort. [Appellant] signed and dated the season pass/application agreement, which contained [184 A.3d 977] information and guidelines about the Blue Knob season pass.

On December 21, 2014 at 9:00 a.m., [appellant] arrived at Blue Knob to ski with friends. Prior to arriving at the resort, [appellant] learned that five slopes were open to ski. [Appellant] eventually would ski on two of these five open slopes. After skiing down a slope identified as “Lower Mambo,” [appellant] stopped to look for his skiing companions, who were snowboarding on another slope. In an attempt to rejoin them without walking back up the slope, [appellant] intended to ski toward the middle of “Lower Mambo Valley” in order to reach a ski lift. While traversing this area, [appellant] ran over “trenches” he avers were four-to-six inches deep and six-to-eight inches wide, which extended halfway across the ski slope. Defendants’ employees identified the trenches as being caused by an all-terrain-vehicle operated by a resort employee. [Appellant] fell when encountering these trenches, causing him to fracture his left tibia and fibula.

Plaintiff sued for his injuries, and the trial court dismissed his claim on a motion for summary judgment. This was the plaintiff’s appeal.

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

The court first looked at the issues in this appeal from the standpoint of the Pennsylvania Skier Safety Act. The act states that skiers voluntarily assume the risk of the sport. Unlike most other skier safety acts, the Pennsylvania Skier Safety Act does not list the risks the skier assumes. That is left up to the court in each case. This leads to more litigation as each plaintiff is free to argue that the risk that caused his accident is not an inherent risk of skiing and not covered under the Pennsylvania Skier Safety Act.

When reviewing whether a risk is inherent and part of the sport of skiing the Pennsylvania Supreme Court created standards to assist courts in making that decision.

First, this Court must determine whether [appellant] was engaged in the sport of downhill skiing at the time of [his] injury. If that answer is affirmative, we must then determine whether the risk [encountered] is one of the “inherent risks” of downhill skiing, which [appellant] must be deemed to have assumed under the Act. If so, then summary judgment was appropriate because, as a matter of law, [appellant] cannot recover for [his] injuries.

Inherent risks of skiing in Pennsylvania are those “that are ‘common, frequent, or expected’ when one is engaged in a dangerous activity, and against which the defendant owes no duty to protect.”

The court found the plaintiff was engaged in downhill skiing. Downhill skiing has a broad definition under Pennsylvania law.

Obviously, the sport of downhill skiing encompasses more than merely skiing down a hill. It includes those other activities directly and necessarily incident to the act of downhill skiing. Such activities include boarding the ski lift, riding the lift up the mountain, alighting from the lift, skiing from the lift to the trail and, after a run is completed, skiing towards the ski lift to start another run or skiing toward the base lodge or other facility at the end of the day.

To determine if wheel ruts in the slope were a risk in skiing the court turned to a New York decision.

Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court, and find that wheel ruts in the terrain are an inherent risk to the sport of downhill skiing. Accordingly, we hold that appellants cannot recover damages as a matter of law, and that the trial court properly granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment.

However, the court never found or determined if the Pennsylvania Skier Safety Act prevented the claim. The court then turned to the release the plaintiff signed when he paid for his season pass.

The plaintiff argued the release should be void.

Specifically, appellant avers that the release in question is “not a valid exculpatory release” due to the fact that the release is ambiguous, the release is “without print of a size and boldness that draws the attention of an ordinary person,” and there is no evidence that appellants actually read the release.

The court then looked for the requirements under Pennsylvania law for a release to be valid.

It is generally accepted that an exculpatory clause is valid where three conditions are met. First, the clause must not contravene public policy. Secondly, the contract must be between persons relating entirely to their own private affairs and thirdly, each party must be a free bargaining agent to the agreement so that the contract is not one of adhesion. [[O]ur supreme court] noted that once an exculpatory clause is determined to be valid, it will, nevertheless, still be unenforceable unless the language of the parties is clear that a person is being relieved of liability for his own acts of negligence. In interpreting such clauses we listed as guiding standards that: 1) the contract language must be construed strictly, since exculpatory language is not favored by the law; 2) the contract must state the intention of the parties with the greatest particularity, beyond doubt by express stipulation, and no inference from words of general import can establish the intent of the parties; 3) the language of the contract must be construed, in cases of ambiguity, against the party seeking immunity from liability; and 4) the burden of establishing the immunity is upon the party invoking protection under the clause.

Since the release was between the ski area and a skier, it was a private contract and did not contravene public policy. The court then looked at whether the release was enforceable. That standard required the court to:

…construe the release strictly against [defendants] to determine whether it spells out the intention of the parties with particularity and shows to the intent to release [defendants] from liability by express stipulation, recognizing that is [defendants’] burden to establish immunity.”

To be valid in Pennsylvania a release must spell out with particularity the intentions of the parties.

…construe the release strictly against [defendants] to determine whether it spells out the intention of the parties with particularity and shows to the intent to release [defendants] from liability by express stipulation, recognizing that is [defendants’] burden to establish immunity.

The plaintiff argued the release should be void because:

Appellants first aver that the language of the release was ambiguous. Specifically, appellants allege that the release failed to “clearly and unequivocally intend for the defendant[s] to be relieved from liability, using language understandable to an ordinary and knowledgeable person so participants know what they have contracted away.” Appellants then allege that the release failed include any reference to the risk encountered by appellant. Appellants specifically argue that “the risk [appellant] encountered, i.e. , deep and wide frozen trenches in the middle of a beginner’s slope, are not stated because it is nonsensical to contend such a serious hazard is inherent to the sport.

The plaintiff then argued the release lacked conspicuity and “was without print of a size and boldness that draws the attention of an ordinary person.” The court referred to Pennsylvania Uniform Code, which set froth requirements for contracts and defines what a conspicuous term is:

(i) A heading in capitals equal to or greater in size than the surrounding text, or in contrasting type, font or color to the surrounding text of the same or lesser size.

(ii) Language in the body of a record or display in larger type than the surrounding text, in contrasting type, font or color to the surrounding text of the same size, or set off from surrounding text of the same size by symbols or other marks that call attention to the language.

The court found the release valid because exculpatory language was preceded by a heading that was written in all caps equal to the size of the text in the exculpatory paragraph. The heading also contained two exclamation points to draw attention to it.

The plaintiff then argued he did not read the release. (That’s his problem no one else’s!) “Our cases provide that “failure to read an agreement before signing it does not render the agreement either invalid or unenforceable.”

The court then reviewed the gross negligence, and reckless conduct claims the plaintiff made. A claim that the actions of the defendant were reckless would not be barred by a release. The court then reviewed the definition of gross negligence.

The general consensus finds [that] gross negligence constitutes conduct more egregious than ordinary negligence but does not rise to the level of intentional indifference to the consequences of one’s acts.” (relying in part on bailment cases and in part on the definition of “gross negligence” as applied to the [Mental Health Procedures Act[9] ] ). Gross negligence may be deemed to be a lack of slight diligence or care compromising a conscious, voluntary act or omission in “reckless disregard” of a legal duty and the consequences to another party. While it is generally true that the issue of whether a given set of facts satisfies the definition of gross negligence is a question of fact to be determined by a jury, a court may take the issue from a jury, and decide the issue as a matter of law, if the conduct in question falls short of gross negligence, the case is entirely free from doubt, and no reasonable jury could find gross negligence.

The court then identified the definition of recklessness.

Recklessness is distinguishable from negligence on the basis that recklessness requires conscious action or inaction which creates a substantial risk of harm to others, whereas negligence suggests unconscious inadvertence.

Then the court reviewed recklessness as defined by the Restatement (Second) of Torts:

The actor’s conduct is in reckless disregard of the safety of another if he does an act or intentionally fails to do an act which it is his duty to the other to do, knowing or having reason to know of facts which would lead a reasonable man to realize, not only that his conduct creates an unreasonable risk of physical harm to another, but also that such risk is substantially greater than that which is necessary to make his conduct negligent.

Restatement (Second) of Torts § 500 (1965). The Commentary to this Section emphasizes that “[recklessness] must not only be unreasonable, but it must involve a risk of harm to others substantially in excess of that necessary to make the conduct negligent.” cmt. a. Further, as relied on in Fitsko, the Commentary contrasts negligence and recklessness:

Reckless misconduct differs from negligence in several important particulars. If differs from that form of negligence which consists in mere inadvertence, incompetence, unskillfulness, or a failure to take precautions to enable the actor adequately to cope with a possible or probable future emergency, in that reckless misconduct requires a conscious choice of a course of action, either with knowledge of the serious danger to others involved in it or with knowledge of facts which would disclose this danger to any reasonable man…. The difference between reckless misconduct and conduct involving only such a quantum of risk as is necessary to make it negligent is a difference in the degree of risk, but this difference of degree is so marked as to amount substantially to a difference in kind.

Finally, the court summed up the definitions as:

Recklessness is more than ordinary negligence and more than want of ordinary care; it is an extreme departure from ordinary care, a wanton or heedless indifference to consequences, and indifference whether or not wrong is done, and an indifference to the rights of others

Since the plaintiff could not prove any intentional conduct on the part of the defendant, the actions of the defendant were not reckless or gross negligence.

[Appellants] aver that Defendants’ snow-making crew created the “trenches” by operating an all-terrain-vehicle across part of the ski-slope, rather than entirely along the sides of the slopes.[Footnote 7] While apparently against normal maintenance policy and procedures and arguably negligent, we do not believe these actions amount to gross negligence or recklessness. Defendants’ employees were engaged in the normal and expected process of maintaining the ski slopes and did so in a careless fashion, producing a condition that— although possibly dangerous— was not inherently unexpected upon a ski slope. We view such conduct to be a matter of “… mere inadvertence, incompetence, unskillfulness, or a failure to take precautions” rather than recklessness.

The summary judgement of the trial court dismissing the plaintiff’s claims was upheld.

So Now What?

Anytime you do anything outside of the scope of operations of your competitors you set yourself up for a claim. Using ATV’s on the ski slope rather than a snow machine created that opportunity here for the plaintiff.

The ATV was a vehicle that could be used by the defendant year round and probably saved them money. However, the amount of time their employees spent defendant this claim and responding to the allegations I would guess wiped out that savings.

If you insist and being different, which is necessary for any industry to grow and change, justify the why with thought and reasons that are more than money. In this case, simply grooming after the ATV had passed would have solved the problem.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Kibler v. Blue Knob Recreation, Inc., 2018 PA Super 89 (Pa.Super. 2018)

Kibler v. Blue Knob Recreation, Inc., 2018 PA Super 89 (Pa.Super. 2018)

184 A.3d 974

Patrick Kibler and Kathryn Kibler, Husband and Wife, Appellants

v.

Blue Knob Recreation, Inc., a Pennsylvania Corporation, t/d/b/a Blue Knob All Seasons Resort, and Blue Knob Resort, Inc., a Pennsylvania Corporation

No. 903 WDA 2017

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

April 19, 2018

Argued November 29, 2017

[184 A.3d 975] [Copyrighted Material Omitted]

[184 A.3d 976]

Appeal from the Order, May 24, 2017, in the Court of Common Pleas of Bedford County, Civil Division at No. 2015-183. TRAVIS W. LIVENGOOD, J.

Douglas V. Stoehr, Altoona, for appellants.

Anthony W. Hinkle, Blue Bell, for appellees.

BEFORE: BOWES, J., STABILE, J., AND FORD ELLIOTT, P.J.E.

OPINION

FORD ELLIOTT, P.J.E.

Patrick and Kathryn Kibler (collectively “appellants”[1] ) appeal from the May 24, 2017 order of the Court of Common Pleas of Bedford County granting Blue Knob Recreation, Inc. and Blue Knob Resort, Inc.’s (hereinafter, collectively “defendants”) motion for summary judgment. After careful review, we affirm.

The trial court provided the following synopsis of the facts:

On March 21, 2014, [appellant] applied for a season ski pass for the 2014-2015 ski season at Blue Knob Ski Resort. [Appellant] signed and dated the season pass/application agreement, which contained [184 A.3d 977] information and guidelines about the Blue Knob season pass. The bottom half of said document contains the following exculpatory language:

PLEASE READ THE FOLLOWING

BEFORE SIGNING!!

Snowboarding, skiing and other snow related activities, like many other sports, contain inherent risks including, but not limited to, the risk of personal injury, death or property damage, which may be caused by: variation in terrain or weather conditions, surface or subsurface, snow, ice, bare spots, thin cover, moguls, ruts, bumps, forest growth, debris, other persons using the facilities, branches, trees, roots, stumps, rocks, and other natural or man made objects that are incidental to the provision or maintenance of the facility. For the use of Blue Knob Ski Area, the holder assumes all risks of injury and releases Blue Knob Recreation from all liability THEREFORE: Not withstanding the foregoing, if I sue Blue Knob Recreation ET AL I agree that I will only sue it, whether on my own behalf or on behalf of a family member, in the Court of Common Pleas of Bedford County or in the United States District Court for the District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and further agree that any and all disputes which might arise between Blue Knob Recreation ET AL and myself shall be litigated exclusively in one of said courts.

See Blue Knob All Seasons Resort Information/Guidelines.

On December 21, 2014 at 9:00 a.m., [appellant] arrived at Blue Knob to ski with friends. Prior to arriving at the resort, [appellant] learned that five slopes were open to ski. [Appellant] eventually would ski on two of these five open slopes. After skiing down a slope identified as “Lower Mambo,” [appellant] stopped to look for his skiing companions, who were snowboarding on another slope. In an attempt to rejoin them without walking back up the slope, [appellant] intended to ski toward the middle of “Lower Mambo Valley” in order to reach a ski lift. While traversing this area, [appellant] ran over “trenches” he avers were four-to-six inches deep and six-to-eight inches wide, which extended halfway across the ski slope. Defendants’ employees identified the trenches as being caused by an all-terrain-vehicle operated by a resort employee. [Appellant] fell when encountering these trenches, causing him to fracture his left tibia and fibula.

Trial court opinion, 5/23/17 at 2-3.

On February 15, 2015, appellants filed a civil complaint with the trial court sounding in negligence. Following discovery, defendants filed a motion for summary judgment with an accompanying memorandum of law on January 23, 2017. Appellants filed a motion for summary judgment on March 17, 2017. Oral arguments were held before the trial court on April 18, 2017. On May 24, 2017, the trial court granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment, dismissing appellants’ complaint with prejudice, and denied appellants’ motion for summary judgment.

On June 16, 2017, appellants filed a timely notice of appeal with this court. The trial court ordered appellants to file a concise statement of errors complained of on appeal pursuant to Pa.R.A.P. 1925(b), and appellants complied on July 18, 2017. The trial court filed an opinion on August 10, 2017, pursuant to Pa.R.A.P. 1925(a) in which it incorporated the content of its May 24, 2017 order and opinion granting defendants’ motion for summary judgment.

Appellants raise the following issues for our review: [184 A.3d 978] A. Was the hazard encountered by [appellant] inherent to the dangers of downhill skiing, when [defendants’] Director of Maintenance testified that the hazard was out of the ordinary, not common, and [appellant] should not have expected to encounter the hazard?

B. Is the Blue Knob All Seasons Resort 2014-2015 Season Pass Holder Information/Guidelines document a valid exculpatory release, where the top half of the document only discusses the requirements to be a season pass holder, and the lower half is ambiguous, the word “releases” is located 75% down the page, lacks conspicuity, without print of a size and boldness that draws the attention of an ordinary person, and where no evidence exists that [appellant] read this document?

C. Is a claim for injuries caused by the grossly negligent and/or reckless acts of a ski resort barred by an alleged exculpatory sentence in Blue Knob’s season pass?

D. Did [appellant] voluntarily assume the risk of injury when he encountered a hazard at [defendants’] resort for which he was unaware, and for which [defendants’] Director of Maintenance testified that [appellant] had no reason to anticipate or know of the hazard’s existence? Appellant’s brief at 4-5.[2]

In reviewing an appeal from the trial court’s granting of a motion for summary judgment, we are governed by the following standard of review:

[O]ur standard of review of an order granting summary judgment requires us to determine whether the trial court abused its discretion or committed an error of law. Our scope of review is plenary. In reviewing a trial court’s grant of summary judgment, we apply the same standard as the trial court, reviewing all the evidence of record to determine whether there exists a genuine issue of material fact. We view the record in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, and all doubts as to the existence of a genuine issue of material fact must be resolved against the moving party. Only where there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and it is clear that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law will summary judgment be entered. All doubts as to the existence of a genuine issue of a material fact must be resolved against the moving party.

* * *

Upon appellate review, we are not bound by the trial court’s conclusions of law, but may reach our own conclusions.

Petrina v. Allied Glove Corp., 46 A.3d 795, 797-798 (Pa.Super. 2012) (internal citations omitted).

Rule of Civil Procedure 1035 governs motions for summary judgment and provides, in relevant part, as follows:

After the relevant pleadings are closed, but within such time as not to unreasonably delay trial, any party may move for summary judgment in whole or in part as a matter of law

(1) Whenever there is no genuine issue of any material fact as to a necessary element of the cause of [184 A.3d 979] action or defense which could be established by additional discovery or expert report, or (2) If, after the completion of discovery relevant to the motion, including the production of expert reports, an adverse party who will bear the burden of proof at trial has failed to produce evidence of facts essential to the cause of action or defense which in a jury trial would require the issues to be submitted to a jury.

Pa.R.C.P. 1035.2. This Court has explained the application of this rule as follows:

Motions for summary judgment necessarily and directly implicate the plaintiff’s proof of the elements of a cause of action. Summary judgment is proper if, after the completion of discovery relevant to the motion, including the production of expert reports, an adverse party who will bear the burden of proof at trial has failed to produce evidence of facts essential to the cause of action or defense which in a jury trial would require the issues to be submitted to a jury. In other words, whenever there is no genuine issue of any material fact as to a necessary element of the cause of action or defense, which could be established by additional discovery or expert report and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, summary judgment is appropriate. Thus, a record that supports summary judgment either (1) shows the material facts are undisputed or (2) contains insufficient evidence of facts to make out a prima facie cause of action or defense. Petrina, 46 A.3d at 798. Criswell v. Atlantic Richfield Co., 115 A.3d 906, 909-910 (Pa.Super. 2015).

Voluntary Assumption of the Risk

Appellants’ first and fourth issues on appeal address the voluntary assumption of the risk associated with downhill skiing. The General Assembly directly addressed this issue when it passed the Pennsylvania Skier’s Responsibility Act (hereinafter, “the Act”). The Act provides, in relevant part,

(c) Downhill skiing—

(1) The General Assembly finds that the sport of downhill skiing is practiced by a large number of citizens of this Commonwealth and also attracts to this Commonwealth large numbers of nonresidents significantly contributing to the economy of this Commonwealth. It is recognized that as in some other sports, there are inherent risks in the sport of downhill skiing.

(2) The doctrine of voluntary assumption of the risk as it applies to downhill skiing injuries and damages is not modified by subsections (a) and (a.1).[3]

42 Pa.C.S.A. § 7102(c).

In light of the Act, our supreme court established the following standard when reviewing grants of summary judgment in cases involving downhill skiing:

First, this Court must determine whether [appellant] was engaged in the sport of downhill skiing at the time of [his] injury. If that answer is affirmative, we must then determine whether the risk [encountered] is one of the “inherent risks” of downhill skiing, which [appellant] must be deemed to have assumed under the Act. If so, then summary [184 A.3d 980] judgment was appropriate because, as a matter of law, [appellant] cannot recover for [his] injuries.

Hughes v. Seven Springs Farm, Inc., 563 Pa. 501, 762 A.2d 339, 344 (2000). In the context of downhill skiing, our supreme court stated that both common law assumption of the risk doctrine and the court’s decision in Hughes “direct that inherent risks are those that are ‘common, frequent, or expected’ when one is engaged in a dangerous activity, and against which the defendant owes no duty to protect.” Chepkevich v. Hidden Valley Resort, L.P., 607 Pa. 1, 2 A.3d 1174, 1187 n.14 (2010).

In the instant appeal, it is beyond dispute that appellant was engaged in the sport of downhill skiing at the time of his injury. Indeed, as noted by the Hughes court,

Obviously, the sport of downhill skiing encompasses more than merely skiing down a hill. It includes those other activities directly and necessarily incident to the act of downhill skiing. Such activities include boarding the ski lift, riding the lift up the mountain, alighting from the lift, skiing from the lift to the trail and, after a run is completed, skiing towards the ski lift to start another run or skiing toward the base lodge or other facility at the end of the day.

Hughes, 762 A.2d at 344. Therefore, our paramount inquiry is whether encountering wheel ruts on a ski slope created by an ATV operated by an employee of defendants is an inherent risk to downhill skiing.

Appellants make the argument that operating an ATV up the middle of a ski slope is not an inherent aspect of the sport, and should therefore not be considered an inherent risk as contemplated by the Act. (See appellants’ brief at 32.) Appellants specifically cite the deposition testimony of Craig Taylor, defendants’ director of maintenance, in which Mr. Taylor stated that it would not be common or expected by a skier to encounter wheel ruts made by an ATV on the ski slope. (See notes of testimony, 10/21/15 at 28.) Defendants aver that the cause of the alleged condition is not relevant to whether the condition itself, in this case wheel ruts left by operating an ATV up the middle of a ski slope, constitutes an inherent risk associated with downhill skiing.

As noted by the Chepkevich court, “Pennsylvania’s Act is unusual in its brevity and failure to give any definition of an ‘inherent’ risk of skiing,” especially when compared to other states in which skiing constitutes a “significant industry.” Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1188 n.15. Of the states referenced by the Chepkevich court, the most instructive is New York.

In Schorpp v. Oak Mountain, LLC, 143 A.D.3d 1136, 39 N.Y.S.3d 296 (N.Y.App.Div. 2016), the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division[4] reversed the trial court’s denial of summary judgment in a negligence cause of action. Id. at 1137, 39 N.Y.S.3d 296. The plaintiff in this case “skied into a ‘depression’ that was filled with snow. The skis got caught in the depression causing [the plaintiff] to flip over and fall out of his skis.” Id. The appellate court held that under New York’s assumption of the risk doctrine as it pertains to downhill skiing, “an individual ‘assumes the inherent risk of personal injury caused by ruts, bumps or variations in the conditions of the skiing terrain.’ ” Id. , quoting Ruepp v. West Experience, 272 A.D.2d 673, 674, 706 N.Y.S.2d 787 (N.Y.App.Div. 2000) (emphasis added). Unlike its Pennsylvania counterpart, the [184 A.3d 981] New York State Legislature specifically identified ruts as an inherent risk of downhill skiing. N.Y. General Obligations Law § 18-101.

Given that our cases do not directly address an injury incurred while engaged in downhill skiing caused by wheel ruts in the terrain on the slope, we find the New York statute and case law to be the most instructive in the instant appeal. Moreover, the language of the release signed by appellant, which we further discuss infra , is nearly identical to the language of the New York statute.[5] We agree with the holding of the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court, and find that wheel ruts in the terrain are an inherent risk to the sport of downhill skiing. Accordingly, we hold that appellants cannot recover damages as a matter of law, and that the trial court properly granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment.

Validity of Release[6]

Appellants’ second issue pertains to the release appellant signed when he purchased his season pass. Specifically, appellant avers that the release in question is “not a valid exculpatory release” due to the fact that the release is ambiguous, the release is “without print of a size and boldness that draws the attention of an ordinary person,” and there is no evidence that appellant actually read the release. (Appellants’ brief at 33.)

When considering the validity of exculpatory releases, we are governed by the following standard:

It is generally accepted that an exculpatory clause is valid where three conditions are met. First, the clause must not contravene public policy. Secondly, the contract must be between persons relating entirely to their own private affairs and thirdly, each party must be a free bargaining agent to the agreement so that the contract is not one of adhesion. Princeton Sportswear Corp. v. H & M Associates, 510 Pa. 189, 507 A.2d 339 (1986); Employers Liability Assurance Corp. v. Greenville Business Men’s Association, 423 Pa. 288, 224 A.2d 620 (1966). In Dilks v. Flohr Chevrolet, 411 Pa. 425, 192 A.2d 682 (1963), [our supreme court] noted that once an exculpatory clause is determined to be valid, it will, nevertheless, still be unenforceable unless the language of the parties is clear that a person is being relieved of liability for his own acts of negligence. In interpreting such clauses we listed as guiding standards that: 1) the contract [184 A.3d 982] language must be construed strictly, since exculpatory language is not favored by the law; 2) the contract must state the intention of the parties with the greatest particularity, beyond doubt by express stipulation, and no inference from words of general import can establish the intent of the parties; 3) the language of the contract must be construed, in cases of ambiguity, against the party seeking immunity from liability; and 4) the burden of establishing the immunity is upon the party invoking protection under the clause. Dilks, 192 A.2d at 687.

Topp Copy Products, Inc. v. Singletary, 533 Pa. 468, 626 A.2d 98, 99 (1993), cited by Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1189.

In the context of exculpatory releases used for downhill skiing, we find the rationale behind the Chepkevich court’s decision to be highly instructive to the instant appeal.[7]

As we have stated, downhill skiing … is a voluntary and hazardous activity, and that fact is acknowledged in the Act as discussed above. Moreover, an exculpatory agreement conditioning the use of a commercial facility for such activities has not been construed as a typical contract of adhesion. The signer is under no compulsion, economic or otherwise, to participate, much less to sign the exculpatory agreement, because it does not relate to essential services, but merely governs a voluntary recreational activity. The signer is a free agent who can simply walk away without signing the release and participating in the activity, and thus the contract signed under such circumstances is not unconscionable. Moreover, the absence of a definition or illustration of negligence does not render this Release an invalid contract of adhesion; that factor simply does not relate to the concerns implicated by adhesion contracts.

Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1191 (internal citations omitted).

Facial Validity

Similar to the Chepkevich court, we must first look to the facial validity of the release. In Chepkevich, our supreme court found that the release signed by the plaintiff did not “contravene any policy of the law. Indeed, the clear policy of this Commonwealth, as articulated by the Act, is to encourage the sport [of downhill skiing] and place the risks of skiing squarely on the skier.” Id. , citing 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 7102(c)(2). The court also stated that, “Pennsylvania courts have upheld similar releases respecting skiing and other inherently dangerous sporting activities.” Id. (collecting cases). Finally, our supreme court held that the release the plaintiff signed was a contract between Hidden Valley and the plaintiff, “relating to their private affairs, specifically [the plaintiff’s] voluntary use of the resort’s facilities.” Id.

[184 A.3d 983] Our discussion in the instant appeal is comparable to the analysis employed by the Chepkevich court. Here, the release signed by appellant does not contravene any policy of the law. Similar to the release used by defendant Hidden Valley in Chepkevich , the release before us relates to the private affairs of appellant and defendants— namely, appellant’s voluntary use of defendants’ facilities. Accordingly, we find that the release signed by appellant is facially valid.

Enforceability

Similar to the Chepkevich court, we must now look to the release’s enforceability. “[T]he Topp Copy/Employers Liability standard requires us to construe the release strictly against [defendants] to determine whether it spells out the intention of the parties with particularity and shows to the intent to release [defendants] from liability by express stipulation, recognizing that is [defendants’] burden to establish immunity.” Id. , citing Topp Copy, 626 A.2d at 99.

In the instant appeal, appellants aver that the release was ambiguous, lacked conspicuity, and “was without print of a size and boldness that draws the attention of an ordinary person.” (Appellant’s brief at 33.) Appellants further aver that there is no evidence that appellant read the release before signing it. (Id. ) We shall address each of these claims individually.

Appellants first aver that the language of the release was ambiguous. Specifically, appellants allege that the release failed to “clearly and unequivocally intend for the defendant[s] to be relieved from liability, using language understandable to an ordinary and knowledgeable person so participants know what they have contracted away.” (Id. at 39.) Appellants then allege that the release failed include any reference to the risk encountered by appellant. (Id. at 43.) Appellants specifically argue that “the risk [appellant] encountered, i.e. , deep and wide frozen trenches in the middle of a beginner’s slope, are not stated because it is nonsensical to contend such a serious hazard is inherent to the sport.” (Id. ) This argument misses the mark. To the contrary, as noted supra , one of the inherent risks explicitly referenced in the release is the presence of ruts on the ski slope. Merriam-Webster defines “rut” as “a track worn by a wheel or by habitual passage.” Merriam-Webster.com.Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 2 Jan. 2018. Roget’s Thesaurus identifies “trench” as a synonym of “rut.” Thesaurus.com.Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus, Third Edition, n.d. Web. 2 Jan. 2018. We therefore find that defendants’ release was not ambiguous, and that it explicitly referenced the risk encountered by appellant.

We now turn to appellants’ claim that the release lacked conspicuity and “was without print of a size and boldness that draws the attention of an ordinary person.” (Appellants’ brief at 33.) As noted above, the release appellant signed contained information regarding his season ski pass. Following the ski pass information, in a paragraph labeled “PLEASE READ THE FOLLOWING BEFORE SIGNING!![,]” defendants’ release contained the exculpatory language before us for review. (Id. at 34.)

The Pennsylvania Uniform Commercial Code[8] defines “conspicuous” as “so written, [184 A.3d 984] displayed, or presented that a reasonable person against which it is to operate ought to have noticed it.” 13 Pa.C.S.A. § 1201(b)(10). The Code specifically states that a conspicuous term includes the following:

(i) A heading in capitals equal to or greater in size than the surrounding text, or in contrasting type, font or color to the surrounding text of the same or lesser size.

(ii) Language in the body of a record or display in larger type than the surrounding text, in contrasting type, font or color to the surrounding text of the same size, or set off from surrounding text of the same size by symbols or other marks that call attention to the language.

Id. at § 1201(b)(10)(i-ii) (emphasis added).

Here, the release issued by defendants and signed by appellant meets the definition of conspicuous as set forth by the Pennsylvania Uniform Commercial Code. The exculpatory language of the release is preceded by a heading that is written in all capital letters in a size of text equal to the exculpatory language of the release. The heading also contains two exclamation points that call attention to the language of the heading, pursuant to the Code. Accordingly, we find that appellants’ argument that the release lacked conspicuity and “was without print of a size and boldness that draws the attention of an ordinary person” is without merit, as defendants’ release is conspicuous under the Pennsylvania Uniform Commercial Code.

Finally, we address appellants’ averment that that there is no evidence that appellant read the release before signing it. Our cases provide that “failure to read an agreement before signing it does not render the agreement either invalid or unenforceable.” Toro v. Fitness International LLC, 150 A.3d 968, 975 (Pa.Super. 2016), citing Hinkal v. Pardoe, 133 A.3d 738, 743 (Pa.Super. 2016), appeal denied , 636 Pa. 650, 141 A.3d 481 (Pa. 2016). See alsoSchillachi v. Flying Dutchman Motorcycle Club, 751 F.Supp. 1169, 1174 (E.D. Pa. 1990) (“The law in Pennsylvania is clear. One who is about to sign a contract has a duty to read that contract first”). In the instant appeal, appellant was not excused of his duty to read the Release before signing it. Therefore, appellant’s argument that there is no evidence that he read the release before signing is without merit.

Gross Negligence and Reckless Conduct

Finally, appellant avers that the release does not protect defendants from liability for acts of gross negligence and/or reckless conduct. Our supreme court has held that exculpatory releases of reckless behavior are contrary to public policy, “as such releases would jeopardize the health, safety, and welfare of the people by removing any incentive for parties to adhere to minimal standards of safe conduct.” Tayar v. Camelback Ski Corp., Inc., 616 Pa. 385, 47 A.3d 1190, 1203 (2012), citing Hall v. Amica Mut. Ins. Co., 538 Pa. 337, 648 A.2d 755, 760 (1994). Therefore, our inquiry centers on whether the conduct alleged by appellants— operating an ATV on a ski slope and creating wheel ruts on the slope— constituted gross negligence and/or reckless conduct.

This court has observed the following pertaining to gross negligence:

In Ratti v. Wheeling Pittsburgh Steel Corp., 758 A.2d 695 (Pa.Super. 2000), appeal denied, 567 Pa. 715, 785 A.2d 90 (Pa. 2001), we indicated that when courts have considered the concept of “gross negligence” in various civil contexts, [184 A.3d 985] they have concluded uniformly that there is a substantive difference between “ordinary negligence” and “gross negligence.” Id. at 703. “The general consensus finds [that] gross negligence constitutes conduct more egregious than ordinary negligence but does not rise to the level of intentional indifference to the consequences of one’s acts.” Id. at 704 (relying in part on bailment cases and in part on the definition of “gross negligence” as applied to the [Mental Health Procedures Act[9] ] ). Gross negligence may be deemed to be a lack of slight diligence or care compromising a conscious, voluntary act or omission in “reckless disregard” of a legal duty and the consequences to another party. Id. at 704-705 (citing Black’s Law Dictionary 1057 (7th ed. 1999) ). In re Scheidmantel, 868 A.2d 464, 485-486 (Pa.Super. 2005). While it is generally true that the issue of whether a given set of facts satisfies the definition of gross negligence is a question of fact to be determined by a jury, a court may take the issue from a jury, and decide the issue as a matter of law, if the conduct in question falls short of gross negligence, the case is entirely free from doubt, and no reasonable jury could find gross negligence.

Downey v. Crozer-Chester Medical Center, 817 A.2d 517, 525-526 (Pa.Super. 2003) (en banc ), quoting Albright v. Abington Memorial Hospital, 548 Pa. 268, 696 A.2d 1159, 1164-1165 (1997).

The Tayar court provided the following comparison of recklessness with ordinary negligence:

Recklessness is distinguishable from negligence on the basis that recklessness requires conscious action or inaction which creates a substantial risk of harm to others, whereas negligence suggests unconscious inadvertence. In Fitsko v. Gaughenbaugh, 363 Pa. 132, 69 A.2d 76 (1949), [our supreme court] cited with approval the Restatement ( [First] ) of Torts[10] definition of “reckless disregard” and its explanation of the distinction between ordinary negligence and recklessness. Specifically, the Restatement (Second) of Torts defines “reckless disregard” as follows:

The actor’s conduct is in reckless disregard of the safety of another if he does an act or intentionally fails to do an act which it is his duty to the other to do, knowing or having reason to know of facts which would lead a reasonable man to realize, not only that his conduct creates an unreasonable risk of physical harm to another, but also that such risk is substantially greater than that which is necessary to make his conduct negligent.

Restatement (Second) of Torts § 500 (1965). The Commentary to this Section emphasizes that “[recklessness] must not only be unreasonable, but it must involve a risk of harm to others substantially in excess of that necessary to make the conduct negligent.” Id. , cmt. a. Further, as relied on in Fitsko, the Commentary contrasts negligence and recklessness:

Reckless misconduct differs from negligence in several important particulars. If differs from that form of negligence which consists in mere inadvertence, incompetence, unskillfulness, or a failure to take precautions to enable the actor adequately to cope with a possible or probable future emergency, in that reckless misconduct [184 A.3d 986] requires a conscious choice of a course of action, either with knowledge of the serious danger to others involved in it or with knowledge of facts which would disclose this danger to any reasonable man…. The difference between reckless misconduct and conduct involving only such a quantum of risk as is necessary to make it negligent is a difference in the degree of risk, but this difference of degree is so marked as to amount substantially to a difference in kind.

Id. , cmt. g; see also AMJUR Negligence § 274 (“Recklessness is more than ordinary negligence and more than want of ordinary care; it is an extreme departure from ordinary care, a wanton or heedless indifference to consequences, and indifference whether or not wrong is done, and an indifference to the rights of others”). Our criminal laws similarly distinguish recklessness and negligence on the basis of the consciousness of the action or inaction. See 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 302(b)(3), (4) (providing that a person acts recklessly when he “consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk,” while a person acts negligently when he “should be aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk”).

This conceptualization of recklessness as requiring conscious action or inaction not only distinguishes recklessness from ordinary negligence, but aligns it more closely with intentional conduct. Tayar, 47 A.3d at 1200-1201. ` Here, we find as a matter of law, that the record does not reflect gross negligence or reckless conduct on the part of defendants. Specifically, we agree with the trial court’s following conclusion:

[Appellants] aver that Defendants’ snow-making crew created the “trenches” by operating an all-terrain-vehicle across part of the ski-slope, rather than entirely along the sides of the slopes.[Footnote 7] While apparently against normal maintenance policy and procedures and arguably negligent, we do not believe these actions amount to gross negligence or recklessness. Defendants’ employees were engaged in the normal and expected process of maintaining the ski slopes and did so in a careless fashion, producing a condition that— although possibly dangerous— was not inherently unexpected upon a ski slope. We view such conduct to be a matter of “… mere inadvertence, incompetence, unskillfulness, or a failure to take precautions” rather than recklessness.

[Footnote 7] Defendants seemingly concede the cause of the “trenches” and Defendants’ employees conceded that such actions were improper in normal slope maintenance process.

Trial court opinion, 5/24/17 at 8-9.

Accordingly, we find that defendants did not engage in grossly negligent or reckless conduct, and that the Release provided by defendants and signed by appellant is enforceable.

Order affirmed.

Bowes, J. joins this Opinion.

Stabile, J. concurs in the result.

———

Notes:

[1] For clarity, we will refer to Mr. Kibler as “appellant” throughout this memorandum.

[2] Appellants’ four issues address two overarching issues: voluntary assumption of risk and the validity of the release attached to the season pass provided by defendants. Accordingly, for the purposes of our review, we shall address issues A and D together and issues B and C together.

[3] Subsections (a) and (a.1) address contributory negligence and joint and several liability.

[4] This court is the intermediate court of appeals in New York.

[5] The New York statute provides, in relevant part:

§ 18-101. Legislative purpose

The legislature hereby finds that alpine or downhill skiing is both a major recreational sport and a major industry within the state of New York. The legislature further finds: (1) that downhill skiing, like many other sports, contains inherent risks including, but not limited to, the risks of personal injury or death or property damage, which may be caused by variations in terrain or weather conditions; surface or subsurface snow, ice, bare spots or areas of thin cover, moguls, ruts, bumps; other persons using the facilities; and rocks, forest growth, debris, branches, trees, roots, stumps or other natural objects or man-made objects that are incidental to the provision or maintenance of a ski facility in New York state ….

N.Y. General Obligations Law § 18-101.

[6] As noted by Justice Baer in his concurring opinion in Chepkevich , a review of the release issued by defendants and signed by appellant is not wholly necessary. Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1198 (Baer, J., concurring). The majority stated that, “consideration of alternative holdings is subject to prudential concerns, and we believe there are prudential concerns to consider the Release here.” Id. at 1188 n.16. We will follow the lead of the majority and analyze both issues as they have both been briefed and argued before this court.

[7] The release before the Chepkevich court was printed on an 8½ by 11-inch sheet of paper entitled “RELEASE FROM LIABILITY” and contained the following language:

Skiing, Snowboarding, and Snowblading, including the use of lifts, is a dangerous sport with inherent and other risks which include but are not limited to variations in snow and terrain, ice and icy conditions, moguls, rocks, debris (above and below the surface), bare spots, lift towers, poles, snowmaking equipment (including pipes, hydrants, and component parts), fences and the absence of fences and other natural and manmade objects, visible or hidden, as well as collisions with equipment, obstacles or other skiers …. All the risks of skiing and boarding present the risk of serious or fatal injury. By accepting this Season Pass I agree to accept all these risks and agree not to sue Hidden Valley Resort or their employees if injured while using their facilities regardless of any negligence on their part. Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1176.

[8] As in prior cases, we note that the Uniform Commercial Code is applicable to the sale of goods, while this case pertains to the sale of services; “nevertheless, we find the UCC’s warrant disclaimer provision in Article 2, and its interpreting caselaw, provides guidance in the instant case.” Beck-Hummel v. Ski Shawnee, Inc., 902 A.2d 1266, 1274 n.12 (Pa.Super. 2006).

[9] 50 P.S. § § 7101-7503.

[10] The Restatement (Second) of Torts was published in 1965.

———


Valentino v. Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC, 209 A.3d 941 (Pa. 2019)

Valentino v. Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC, 209 A.3d 941 (Pa. 2019)

Michele Valentino, as Administratrix of the Estate of Derek Valentino, Deceased, and Michele Valentino, in Her Own Right, Appellant

v.

Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC, Appellee

No. 17 EAP 2017

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

June 18, 2019

Argued: May 15, 2018

Appeal from the Judgment of Superior Court entered on November 15, 2016 at No. 3049 EDA 2013 affirming the Order entered on September 30, 2013 in the Court of Common Pleas, Philadelphia County, Civil Division at No. 1417 April Term, 2012. Jacqueline F. Allen, Judge

Craig A. Falcone, Esq., Sacchetta & Falcone, for Appellant Michele Valentino, as Admin. of the Estate of Derek Valentino, etc.

Barbara Axelrod, Esq., The Beasley Firm, L.L.C., for Appellant Amicus Curiae Pennsylvania Association for Justice.

Heather M. Eichenbaum, Esq., Spector Gadon & Rosen, P.C., for Appellee Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC.

SAYLOR, C.J., BAER, TODD, DONOHUE, DOUGHERTY, WECHT, MUNDY, JJ.

ORDER

PER CURIAM

AND NOW, this 18th day of June, 2019, the Court being evenly divided, the Order of the Superior Court is AFFIRMED.

Justice Wecht did not participate in the consideration or decision of this matter.

OPINION IN SUPPORT OF AFFIRMANCE

BAER, JUSTICE.

This Court granted allocatur to determine whether an express assumption of the risk agreement executed by triathlon participant Derek Valentino (“Decedent”) serves as a defense to a wrongful death claim commenced against the Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC (“Triathlon”) by Decedent’s heir (“Appellant”), who was not a signatory to the agreement.[1] The Superior Court held that Decedent’s express assumption of the risks inherent in participation in the sporting event eliminated Triathlon’s duty of care, thereby rendering Triathlon’s conduct non-tortious. Absent tortious activity, the Superior Court concluded that the wrongful death claim brought by Decedent’s heir could not succeed as a matter of law because the Wrongful Death Act premises recovery upon “the wrongful act or neglect or unlawful violence or negligence of another.” 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301. Accordingly, the Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s order granting summary judgment in favor of Triathlon. For the reasons set forth herein, we would affirm the judgment of the Superior Court and adopt its astute legal analysis.

Preliminarily and as explained in more detail infra, we respectfully note that the Opinions in Support of Reversal (both hereinafter collectively referred to as “OISR”) ignore the issue for which we granted allocatur and, instead, attempt to reverse the judgment of the Superior Court on grounds not encompassed by this appeal. Specifically, the OISR would sua sponte hold that express assumption of the risk agreements are void and unenforceable in violation of public policy in cases involving claims brought pursuant to the Wrongful Death Act, 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301. The OISR reaches this conclusion notwithstanding that no party to this appeal challenges the validity of the agreement on public policy grounds or otherwise. We decline to engage in this judicial overreaching and proceed to address the merits of the issue before us.

We begin with a brief recitation of the facts. In 2010, Triathlon organized a multi-sport-event, comprised of swimming in the Schuylkill River, cycling for more than fifteen miles, and running for more than three miles. To compete in the event, each participant was required to register, pay a fee, and execute electronically a liability waiver agreement that included an assumption of the risk provision (“Agreement”). On January 24, 2010, Decedent complied with these requisites by electronically registering as a participant in the triathlon and executing the Agreement.

The executed Agreement stated that Decedent understood “the physical and mental rigors associated with triathlon,” and “that running, bicycling, [and] swimming

… are inherently dangerous and represent an extreme test of a person’s physical and mental limits.” Appellee’s Motion for Summary Judgment Ex. G, dated Aug. 5, 2013. The Agreement further acknowledged Decedent’s understanding that “participation involves risks and dangers which include, without limitation, the potential for serious bodily injury, permanent disability, paralysis and death … and other undefined harm or damage which may not be readily foreseeable[.]” Id. The Agreement provided that Decedent was aware “that these Risks may be caused in whole or in part by [his] own actions or inactions, the actions or inactions of others participating in the Event, or the acts, inaction or negligence of [the Triathlon].” Id.

Germane to this appeal, the Agreement stated that Decedent “expressly assume[d] all such Risks and responsibility for any damages, liabilities, losses or expenses” resulting from his participation in the event. Id. (emphasis added). The Agreement also included a provision stating that Decedent further agreed that if he or anyone on his behalf “makes a claim of Liability against any of the Released Parties, [Decedent] will indemnify, defend and hold harmless each of the Released Parties from any such Liability which any [sic] may be incurred as the result of such claim.” Id. [2]

The triathlon took place on June 26, 2010. At approximately 8:30 a.m., Decedent entered the Schuylkill River to begin the first segment of the race. Tragically, Decedent never completed the swimming portion of the competition. Divers retrieved Decedent’s body from the river the next day after he presumably drowned while participating in the triathlon. On April 12, 2012, Decedent’s widow, Michele Valentino, both in her own right and as administratrix of her husband’s estate (referred to as “Appellant” herein), asserted wrongful death and survival claims against various defendants, including Triathlon. Only the wrongful death claim is at issue in this appeal. Appellant subsequently amended her complaint and the defendants filed preliminary objections. On July 27, 2012, the trial court sustained the defendants’ preliminary objections and struck all references in the complaint that referred to outrageous acts, gross negligence, recklessness, and punitive damages, holding that these averments were legally insufficient as the facts alleged demonstrated only ordinary negligence. The trial court further struck particular paragraphs of the amended complaint on grounds that they lacked specificity.

In December of 2012, following the various defendants’ filing of an answer and new matter, the defendants moved for summary judgment, asserting the Agreement as an affirmative defense. The trial court denied summary judgment, finding that questions of material fact remained regarding the existence of the Agreement. Appellant thereafter stipulated to the dismissal of all defendants except Triathlon. Once discovery was completed, Triathlon again moved for summary judgment. Concluding that the evidence at that point in the proceedings demonstrated that the Agreement was among Decedent’s possessions and was valid and enforceable, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Triathlon.

Prior to the trial court issuing its Pa.R.A.P. 1925(a) opinion explaining its rationale for granting summary judgment in favor of Triathlon, the Superior Court, in an unrelated matter, decided the case of Pisano v. Extendicare Homes, Inc., 77 A.3d 651 (Pa. Super. 2013), which held that a non-signatory wrongful death claimant was not bound by an arbitration agreement signed by a decedent.[3] Id. at 663. On April 14, 2012, shortly after Pisano was decided, the trial court issued its Pa.R.A.P. 1925(a) opinion in this matter and urged the Superior Court to vacate its order granting summary judgment in favor of Triathlon based on that decision.

Relying upon Pisano, Appellant argued to the Superior Court that Decedent’s Agreement with Triathlon does not apply to her as a non-signatory and, thus, has no preclusive effect upon her wrongful death claims asserted against Triathlon. In response, Triathlon contended that Decedent’s assumption of the risks inherent in participation in the event relieved its duty of care, thereby rendering Triathlon’s conduct non-tortious as a matter of law. The Triathlon maintained that, absent tortious activity, a wrongful death claim could not succeed because the Wrongful Death Act premises recovery upon “the wrongful act or neglect or unlawful violence or negligence of another.” 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301.

Initially, on December 30, 2015, a divided panel of the Superior Court reversed the trial court’s order in part, holding that under Pisano, Decedent’s Agreement was not applicable to Appellant because she was not a signatory to the contract. The Superior Court thereafter granted en banc argument and withdrew its panel decision.

On November 15, 2016, an en banc Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s order granting Triathlon summary judgment in a published decision. Valentino v. Phila. Triathlon, LLC, 150 A.3d 483 (Pa. Super. 2016). Preliminarily, the Superior Court acknowledged that because a wrongful death claim is not derivative of a decedent’s cause of action, “a decedent may not compromise or diminish a wrongful death claimant’s right of action without consent.” Id. at 493. Nevertheless, the Superior Court went on to hold that “a third-party wrongful death claimant is subject to substantive defenses supported by the decedent’s actions or agreements where offered to relieve the defendant, either wholly or partially, from liability by showing that the defendant’s actions were not tortious.” Id.

The Superior Court found that the available substantive defense here was Decedent’s contractual assumption of the risks inherent in participation in the triathlon.

The assumption of the risk doctrine, set forth in Section 496A of the Restatement Second of Torts, provides that “[a] plaintiff who voluntarily assumes a risk of harm arising from the negligent or reckless conduct of the defendant cannot recover for such harm.” Restatement Second of Torts, § 496A. Comment c(1) to Section 496A provides that the express assumption of the risk “means that the plaintiff has given his express consent to relieve the defendant of an obligation to exercise care for his protection, and agrees to take his chances as to injury from a known or possible risk.” Id. at cmt. c(1). Notably, the Comment goes on to state that “[t]he result is that the defendant, who would otherwise be under a duty to exercise such care, is relieved of that responsibility, and is no longer under any duty to protect the plaintiff.” Id.

Pennsylvania case law illustrates that one’s assumption of the risks inherent in a particular activity eliminates the defendant’s duty of care. SeeHughes v. Seven Springs Farm Inc., 563 Pa. 501, 762 A.2d 339, 343 (2000) (explaining that under Section 496A of the Restatement Second of Torts, where the plaintiff assumes the risk of harm, the defendant is under no duty to protect the plaintiff from such risks); Carrender v. Fitterer, 503 Pa. 178, 469 A.2d 120, 125 (1983) (explaining that one’s assumption of the risk of injury is simply another way of expressing the lack of duty on the part of the defendant to protect against such risks); Thompson v. Ginkel, 95 A.3d 900, 906 (Pa. Super. 2014) (citation omitted) (acknowledging that the assumption of the risk doctrine is a function of the duty analysis required in all negligence actions).

Relying on this substantive tort law, the Superior Court in the instant case held that by knowingly and voluntarily executing a valid agreement expressly assuming the risks inherent in participating in the sporting event, Decedent extinguished Triathlon’s duty of care, thereby rendering its conduct not tortious. Valentino, 150 A.3d at 493.[4] As noted, the intermediate appellate court concluded that absent tortious conduct, Appellant’s wrongful death claim could not survive as a matter of law; thus, the trial court did not err in granting summary judgment in favor of Triathlon. Id.

The Superior Court in the instant case readily distinguished Pisano on the ground that it did not involve an agreement to assume all risks inherent in a particular activity, which would serve to eliminate the duty element of the wrongful death action against the alleged tortfeasor. Acknowledging Pisano’s principle that a third party’s right of action in a wrongful death claim is an independent statutory claim of a decedent’s heirs and is not derivative of a decedent’s right of action, the Superior Court emphasized that “a wrongful death claim still requires a tortious injury to succeed.” Valentino, 150 A.3d at 493. The Superior Court cogently explained that Pisano does not undermine the fundamental principle that a statutory claimant in a wrongful death action has the burden of proving that the defendant’s tortious conduct caused the decedent’s death. It opined that this cannot occur where the

decedent assumed all risks inherent in participating in the activity and thereby abrogated any duty the putative tortfeasor may have had. Id.

Similarly, the Superior Court distinguished this Court’s decision in Buttermore v. Aliquippa Hospital, 522 Pa. 325, 561 A.2d 733 (1989), upon which Appellant had relied. Valentino, 150 A.3d at 495. In that case, James Buttermore was injured in an automobile accident and signed a release in settlement of his claim against the tortfeasors for the sum of $25,000, agreeing to release all persons from liability. Buttermore, 561 A.2d at 734. The issue on appeal to this Court was whether Buttermore’s wife, who was not a signatory to the settlement agreement, had an independent right to sue the tortfeasors for loss of consortium. Id. at 735. Acknowledging that the release applied to all tortfeasors, including the defendants, this Court held that one could not bargain away the rights of others who were not a party to the contract. Id. Because Buttermore’s wife was not a party to her husband’s settlement agreement and because she sought to sue in her own right for loss of consortium, we held that she had an independent cause of action, unaffected by her husband’s settlement agreement. Id. at 736.

The Superior Court below distinguished Buttermore, finding that unlike the express assumption of the risk agreement here, the settlement agreement in Buttermore did not extinguish a requisite element of the wife’s loss of consortium claim. Valentino, 150 A.3d at 496. Stated differently, unlike the express assumption of the risk agreement in the instant case, nothing in the settlement agreement in Buttermore precluded the finding that the defendants acted tortiously.

We agree with the Superior Court’s application of well-settled tort law and its conclusion that the assumption of the risk agreement entered into between Decedent and the Triathlon operates much differently than the settlement agreement in Buttermore and the arbitration agreement in Pisano, as the latter agreements do not preclude a finding that the defendant acted tortiously. We further agree with the intermediate appellate court that a decedent’s valid assumption of the risk agreement does not negate his heir’s right to commence a wrongful death lawsuit, but it “can support a defense asserting that the alleged tortfeasor owed no duty to the decedent.” Valentino, 150 A.3d at 494.

Accordingly, once Decedent extinguished Triathlon’s duty of care by expressly assuming all risks in the inherently dangerous sporting event, his heir could not resurrect that duty of care after his death. To do so would afford a decedent’s heirs more rights than those possessed by a decedent while alive. Such a result not only defies logic, but also the statutory requisites for a wrongful death claim. As there is no genuine issue of material fact and it is clear that Triathlon is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, we would affirm the judgment of the Superior Court, which affirmed the trial court order granting summary judgment in Triathlon’s favor. See Pa.R.C.P. 1035.2 (providing that summary judgment is appropriate only when there is no genuine issue as to any material fact or when a party which will bear the burden of proof has failed to present evidence sufficient to present the issue to the jury).

As noted, regarding the OISR’s sua sponte public policy declaration, our primary objection is that the issue of whether the express assumption of the risk agreement violates public policy is not properly before the Court; thus, the grant of relief on this claim cannot serve as a means to disturb the judgment of the Superior Court.

SeeSteiner v. Markel, 600 Pa. 515, 968 A.2d 1253, 1256 (2009) (holding that an appellate court may not reverse a judgment on a basis that was not properly raised and preserved by the parties).

Additionally, we observe that the OISR declares the express assumption of the risk agreement violative of the public policy set forth in the Wrongful Death Act, i.e., to compensate family members of victims of tortious conduct, without any explanation as to how tortious conduct can exist in the absence of a duty of care. Further, the OISR seeks to invalidate not all express assumption of the risk contracts, but only those relating to wrongful death claims, based upon the public policy set forth in the Wrongful Death Act. Accordingly, under the OISR’s reasoning, express assumption of the risk agreements would generally be valid to preclude a participant’s ordinary negligence claims against the purveyor of an inherently dangerous sport or activity, but would be invalid where a participant’s injuries were fatal and his heirs sought recovery for wrongful death. Thus, a participant who suffered grievous non-fatal injury would have no redress, but his family would have redress if the participant succumbed to his injuries.

This result is untenable as there is no evidence to suggest that it is the public policy of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to elevate the rights of victims’ heirs over those of the victims themselves or to immunize wrongful death claims from ordinary and readily available defenses. In fact, not only did the General Assembly premise recovery in wrongful death on the precise tortious conduct that caused the decedent’s fatal injuries, but directed expressly that a wrongful death action “may be brought, under procedures prescribed by general rules.” 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301(a). There is simply no provision in the Wrongful Death Act that renders an heir’s entitlement to relief absolute. Had the Legislature intended that mandate, it would have so directed.

Moreover, it is not the role of this Court to create the public policy of this Commonwealth. Instead, “public policy is to be ascertained by reference to the laws and legal precedents and not from general considerations of supposed public interest.” Burstein v. Prudential Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co., 570 Pa. 177, 809 A.2d 204, 207 (2002) (quoting Eichelman v. Nationwide Ins. Co., 551 Pa. 558, 711 A.2d 1006, 1008 (1998)). We have held that “only dominant public policy” justifies the invalidation of a contract and in the “absence of a plain indication of that policy through long governmental practice or statutory enactments, or violations of obvious ethical or moral standards, the Court should not assume to declare contracts contrary to public policy.” Burstein, 809 A.2d at 207. Significantly, we have acknowledged that in such circumstances, “courts must be content to await legislative action.” Id.

The OISR fails to heed this warning. By declaring the public policy of this Commonwealth, untethered to legislative fiat and in a case where the issue is not before us, the OISR comes dangerously close to displacing the legislative process with judicial will. Accordingly, we would affirm the judgment of the Superior Court, which affirmed the order granting summary judgment in favor of the Triathlon. While the facts of this case are most tragic, this Court may not afford relief where the law does not so provide.

Chief Justice Saylor and Justice Todd join this opinion in support of affirmance.

OPINION IN SUPPORT OF REVERSAL

DOUGHERTY, JUSTICE.

The question before the Court is whether the Superior Court erred when it determined

a pre-injury exculpatory waiver signed by a triathlon participant provides a complete defense to claims brought by the participant’s non-signatory heirs pursuant to the Wrongful Death Act, 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301. We would find the waiver is unenforceable against the heirs and does not preclude their wrongful death action. We would therefore reverse the Superior Court’s decision and remand to the trial court for further proceedings.

In 2010, appellee Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC, organized the Philadelphia Insurance Triathlon Sprint (the Triathlon). The Triathlon consisted of three events: (1) a 0.5 mile swim; (2) a 15.7 mile bicycle race; and (3) a 3.1 mile run. The swim portion of the Triathlon took place in the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As a participant in the Triathlon, Decedent, Derek Valentino, registered as a participant for the Triathlon and executed a Waiver and Release of Liability (the Waiver) by affixing his electronic signature to an online registration form.

On race day, at approximately 8:30 a.m., Decedent entered the Schuylkill River for the swim portion of the Triathlon, but he did not complete the swim and, on the following day, his body was recovered from the Schuylkill River. There is no dispute Decedent drowned in the river while participating in the Triathlon. SeeValentino v. Phila. Ins. Co., No. 120401417, 2014 WL 4796614, at *1 (Pa. Com. Pl. Aug. 26, 2014).

Appellant Michele Valentino filed a lawsuit in her individual capacity and as Administratrix of the Estate of Derek Valentino, against several defendants, including appellee, asserting survival claims on Decedent’s behalf and wrongful death claims on her own behalf and that of her children.[1] See Amended Complaint at ¶¶ 26-28, 34-36, citing 42 Pa.C.S. § 8302 (Survival Act provides “[a]ll causes of action or proceedings, real or personal, shall survive the death of the plaintiff or of the defendant …”); Amended Complaint at ¶¶29-33, 37-41, citing 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301(a), (b) (Wrongful Death Act provides spouse, children or parents of decedent can bring action “to recover damages for the death of an individual caused by the wrongful act or neglect or unlawful violence or negligence of another”).[2] In response to preliminary objections, the trial court entered orders striking from the complaint all references to outrageous acts, gross negligence and recklessness. The trial court also struck appellant’s claim for punitive damages. Remaining in the case were several allegations of ordinary negligence, specifically, that appellee failed to: make a

reasonable inspection of the premises and event course; remove or take measures to prevent dangerous conditions; follow rules, regulations, policies and procedures governing safety standards; properly train the Triathlon’s agents, servants and employees with respect to safety rules, regulations, policies and procedures; properly supervise the Triathlon’s employees to ensure the Triathlon was conducted in a reasonable and safe manner; properly construct or design a safe event route to avoid dangerous conditions; regulate or control the number of individuals participating in each phase of the race simultaneously; have proper rules, regulations, policies and procedures for the timely recognition and response of event participants in distress and need of rescue; and have adequate safety personnel on hand for each aspect of the event. Seeid. at ¶ 22(b), (d) & (f) – (l).

Thereafter, appellee filed an answer with new matter, claiming Decedent was sufficiently negligent himself to completely bar appellant’s recovery, or alternatively, to reduce appellant’s recovery in accordance with the amount of comparative negligence attributed to Decedent. See Answer with New Matter at ¶43, citing Comparative Negligence Act, 42 Pa.C.S. § 7102. In addition, appellee asserted the complete defense of assumption of risk, claiming it owed no duty to Decedent or his survivors based on Decedent’s execution of the Waiver. Id. at ¶¶44, 46.

a. Summary Judgment

On September 30, 2013, the trial court granted appellee’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed all of appellant’s remaining claims with prejudice. On appellant’s motion for reconsideration, the court opined summary judgment on the survival action was proper based on the Waiver. Valentino, 2014 WL 4796614, at *2. The court reversed itself regarding appellant’s wrongful death action, and opined that claim should be remanded for further proceedings based on the Superior Court’s decision in Pisano v. Extendicare Homes, Inc., 77 A.3d 651, 663 (Pa. Super. 2013), appeal denied, 624 Pa. 683, 86 A.3d 233 (Pa. 2014) (resident-decedent’s contractual agreement with nursing home to arbitrate all claims was not binding on non-signatory wrongful death claimants). Id. at *3. In recommending the wrongful death action be remanded, the trial court observed “a decedent can contract away his own right to recover in court under a survival action, [but] he cannot similarly alienate the rights of third parties to recover in their own wrongful death actions.” Id.

b. Superior Court

A divided en banc panel of the Superior Court subsequently affirmed summary judgment on all claims. Valentino v. Phila. Triathlon, LLC, 150 A.3d 483 (Pa. Super. 2016).[3] The majority reasoned that, for a decedent’s heirs to recover damages in a wrongful death action, there must be an underlying tortious act by the defendant. See id. at 492-93, quotingKaczorowski v. Kalkosinski, 321 Pa. 438, 184 A. 663, 664 (1936) (“… a right to recover must exist in the party injured when he died in order to entitle[ ] those named in the act to sue…. [W]here the deceased would have been barred by contributory negligence, or by the statute of limitations, the parties suing for his death are likewise barred.”) (internal citations omitted). The majority further held its own decision in Pisano, which allowed non-signatory wrongful death claimants to file a court action despite their decedent’s execution of an arbitration

agreement, is limited to the facts of that case. Id. at 493. The majority opined an heir’s right to recover for her decedent’s wrongful death is dependent upon the existence of a tortious act that caused the death, stating “while a third party’s wrongful death claim is not derivative of the decedent’s right of action, a wrongful death claim still requires a tortious injury to succeed.” Id. Underpinning the en banc majority’s analysis was its position that arbitration and settlement agreements “bind[ ] only the parties to the agreement while the [liability waiver] extends to non-signatory third-parties.” Id. at 497 n.9. The en banc majority considered the Waiver to be an express assumption of all risks which eliminated any legal duty otherwise owed to anyone by appellee, creating a complete bar to tort liability.[4] Id.

Appellant filed a petition for allowance of appeal and this Court granted review of two questions:

Whether the Superior Court erred when it determined that a waiver of liability form, executed solely by the decedent, and stating the signer assumes all risks of participation in a triathlon, also binds his heirs, thereby precluding them from bringing a wrongful death action?

Whether the defense of assumption of risk should be abolished except in those situations where it is specifically permitted by the Comparative Negligence Act?[5]

Valentino v. Phila. Triathlon, LLC, 641 Pa. 515, 168 A.3d 1283 (2017) (per curiam ).

Our standard and scope of review on appeal from summary judgment are well-established. “[A]n appellate court may reverse the entry of summary judgment only where it finds that the trial court erred in concluding that the matter presented no genuine issue as to any material fact and that it is clear that the moving party was entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Phillips v. Cricket Lighters, 576 Pa. 644, 841 A.2d 1000, 1004 (2003), citingPappas v. Asbel, 564 Pa. 407, 768 A.2d 1089 (2001). In determining whether the lower court erred in granting summary judgment, the standard of review is de novo and the scope of review is plenary. Liss & Marion, P.C. v. Recordex Acquisition Corp., 603 Pa. 198, 983 A.2d 652, 657 (2009), citingLJL Transp., Inc. v. Pilot Air Freight Corp., 599 Pa. 546, 962 A.2d 639, 647 (2009). We consider the parties’ arguments with these standards in mind.

II.

Appellant argues the Superior Court erred in determining the Waiver, which

was executed solely by Decedent, barred his heirs’ wrongful death action. Appellant first notes wrongful death actions are statutorily authorized in Pennsylvania:

(a) General rule.–An action may be brought, under procedures prescribed by general rules, to recover damages for the death of an individual caused by the wrongful act or neglect or unlawful violence or negligence of another if no recovery for the same damages claimed in the wrongful death action was obtained by the injured individual during his lifetime and any prior actions for the same injuries are consolidated with the wrongful death claim so as to avoid a duplicate recovery.

42 Pa.C.S. § 8301(a). Relying on Pennsylvania jurisprudence, appellant argues a wrongful death action is derivative of the victim’s fatal injuries, but is nevertheless meant to compensate a decedent’s survivors “for the pecuniary loss they have sustained by the denial of future contributions decedent would have made in his or her lifetime.” Appellant’s Brief at 13-15, quotingFrey v. Pa. Elec. Comp., 414 Pa.Super. 535, 607 A.2d 796, 798 (1992), and citingTulewicz v. Se. Pa. Transp. Auth., 529 Pa. 588, 606 A.2d 427, 431 (1992), Kaczorowski, 184 A. at 664 (wrongful death claim is “derivative” because “it has as its basis the same tortious act which would have supported the injured party’s own cause of action”).

Appellant relies on Buttermore v. Aliquippa Hospital, 522 Pa. 325, 561 A.2d 733 (1989), where the tort-victim husband executed a general release and settlement agreement after a car accident which purported to waive recovery by “any and all other persons associations and/or corporations[.]” Appellant’s Brief at 15-16, quotingButtermore, 561 A.2d at 734. Plaintiff’s wife did not sign the release agreement. The Buttermores filed a suit against medical professionals who treated him after the accident, including a claim brought by wife for loss of consortium. Seeid. at 16. On appeal from summary judgment, this Court ruled husband’s claim was barred by the release he executed, but wife’s claim was not because she herself had not signed it. Id., citingButtermore, 561 A.2d at 736. Appellant argues the lower courts’ ruling the Waiver in this case, which only Decedent signed, bars his heirs’ wrongful death claims is in direct contravention of Buttermore . Id. at 17-18, citingButtermore, 561 A.2d at 735.

In response, appellee contends summary judgment was properly entered and dismissal of appellant’s wrongful death claims should be affirmed. Appellee argues a wrongful death action is derivative of, and dependent upon, a tortious act that results in decedent’s death. Appellee’s Brief at 13, citingCentofanti v. Pa. R. Co., 244 Pa. 255, 90 A. 558, 561 (1914) (additional citations omitted). Appellee insists the Superior Court correctly determined Decedent’s execution of the Waiver meant appellee’s conduct was rendered non-tortious in all respects because appellee no longer owed Decedent any duty of care. Id. at 16-17, citingMontagazzi v. Crisci, 994 A.2d 626, 635 (Pa. Super. 2010) (plaintiff knowingly and voluntarily encountering an obvious and dangerous risk relieves those “who may have otherwise had a duty”); Staub v. Toy Factory, Inc., 749 A.2d 522, 526 (Pa. Super. 2000) (en banc ) (“Our [S]upreme [C]ourt appears to have concluded that in a negligence action, the question whether a litigant has assumed the risk is a question of law as part of the court’s duty analysis ….”) (additional citations omitted). Appellee also argues Pisano is not applicable here. Appellee contends Pisano determined only the narrow issue of whether a wrongful death plaintiff is bound by an arbitration agreement which she did not sign, and is not relevant to questions regarding

the exculpatory Waiver signed by Decedent. Seeid. at 24.

III.

The Wrongful Death Act (the Act), provides an independent statutory cause of action that belongs to specific claimants, i.e. the surviving spouse, children or parents of the deceased. 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301 (Act provides spouse, children or parents of decedent can bring action “to recover damages for the death of an individual caused by the wrongful act or neglect or unlawful violence or negligence of another”). SeeKaczorowski, 184 A. at 665 (“By the statute there is given an explicit and independent right of action to recover the damages peculiarly suffered by the parties named therein.”). This statutory claim for wrongful death “is derivative because it has as its basis the same tortious act which would have supported the injured party’s own cause of action. Its derivation, however, is from the tortious act and not from the person of the deceased, so that it comes to the parties named in the statute free from personal disabilities arising from the relationship of the injured party and tort-feasor.” Id. at 664 (internal citations omitted). Accordingly, Pennsylvania courts recognize that while wrongful death actions seek damages for losses to heirs arising from their relative’s wrongful death, the claims are not derivative of — or limited by — the decedent’s own rights. SeePisano, 77 A.3d at 660.

It is clear the General Assembly intended the Act to compensate the decedent’s surviving heirs, not the decedent himself, whose own losses are encompassed in a survival action. Compare 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301(wrongful death) with 42 Pa.C.S. § 8302 (survival); see alsoAmato v. Bell & Gossett, 116 A.3d 607, 625 (Pa. Super. 2015), quotingHatwood v. Hosp. of the Univ. of Pa., 55 A.3d 1229, 1235 (Pa. Super. 2012) (“The purpose of the Wrongful Death Statute … is to compensate the decedent’s survivors for the pecuniary losses they have sustained as a result of the decedent’s death…. A wrongful death action does not compensate the decedent; it compensates the survivors for damages which they have sustained as a result of the decedent’s death.”) (additional citations omitted). The Act is thus designed to assure a decedent’s heirs may seek compensation “for the loss of pecuniary benefits which [they] would have received from the deceased had death not intervened.” Kaczorowski, 184 A. at 665. Also, the Act is a remedial statute, and as such it must be liberally interpreted to effect its purpose and promote justice. 1 Pa.C.S. § 1928(c); Amadio v. Levin, 509 Pa. 199, 501 A.2d 1085, 1087 (1985) (wrongful death statute is “remedial in nature and purpose, and as such should be liberally construed to accomplish the objective of the act”); see alsoO’Rourke v. Commonwealth, 566 Pa. 161, 778 A.2d 1194, 1203 (2001) (noting remedial statutes are to be liberally construed to effect objectives).

With these principles and the legislative purpose of the Act in mind, we must determine whether the Waiver provides a complete defense to a wrongful death claim brought by non-signatory heirs. A liability waiver is, at its core, a contract, and must be construed and interpreted in the same manner as other contracts — such as arbitration clauses or settlement agreements and releases — when determining whether it is effective against a non-signatory third party. The Waiver purports to be an exculpatory contract, and such contracts are generally disfavored by the law. SeeEmployers Liability Assur. Corp. v. Greenville Business Men’s Ass’n., 423 Pa. 288, 224 A.2d 620, 623 (1966) (“contracts providing for immunity from liability for negligence must be construed strictly since

they are not favorites of the law”); see alsoSoxman v. Goodge, 372 Pa.Super. 343, 539 A.2d 826, 828 (1988) (“the law … recognized that lying behind [exculpatory] contracts is a residuum of public policy which is antagonistic to carte blanche exculpation from liability and thus developed the rule that these provisions would be strictly construed with every intendment against the party seeking their protection”), quotingPhillips Home Furnishings Inc. v. Continental Bank, 231 Pa.Super. 174, 331 A.2d 840, 843 (1974). Accordingly, a pre-injury exculpatory agreement is valid only when “it does not contravene public policy, is between parties relating entirely to their private affairs, and where each party is a free bargaining agent so that the contract is not one of adhesion.” Chepkevich v. Hidden Valley Resort, L.P., 607 Pa. 1, 2 A.3d 1174, 1177 (2010), citingTopp Copy Prods., Inc. v. Singletary, 533 Pa. 468, 626 A.2d 98, 99 (1993). This Court has consistently recognized the exculpatory contract is an agreement that is “intended to diminish legal rights which normally accrue as a result of a given legal relationship or transaction … [which must be] construed strictly against the party seeking [its] protection.” Dilks v. Flohr Chevrolet, Inc., 411 Pa. 425, 192 A.2d 682, 687 (1963), quotingMorton v. Ambridge Borough, 375 Pa. 630, 101 A.2d 661, 663 (1954).

Thus, in determining whether the Waiver provides a defense to appellant’s wrongful death action, we must liberally apply the remedial Act while we simultaneously construe the Waiver strictly against appellee as the party seeking protection from the contract. We would hold the Superior Court did the opposite in its decision below: the court erroneously gave the Waiver the broadest application possible while disregarding the remedial nature of the Act and the public policy considerations underpinning it.[6]

First, we note the Waiver is a contract between Decedent and appellee involving their own private affairs. Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1177. The Waiver includes broad language barring Triathlon participants from filing suit to recover damages for injuries or death “which may arise out of, result from, or relate to my participation in the [Triathlon], including claims for Liability caused in whole or in part by the negligence of” appellees. See Waiver attached as Exhibit A to appellee’s Answer and New Matter. However, the Waiver is plainly not an agreement between Triathlon participants’ wrongful death heirs and appellee. We emphasize a wrongful death action belongs solely to a decedent’s heirs, is intended to compensate them, and does not accrue to the decedent. SeeHatwood, 55 A.3d at 1235, quotingMachado v. Kunkel, 804 A.2d 1238, 1246 (Pa. Super. 2002) (“Under the wrongful death act the widow or family is entitled, in addition to costs, to compensation for the loss of the contributions decedent would have made …”). Thus, while a pre-injury exculpatory

waiver might indeed be effective to bar a survival claim by a decedent’s estate, it is quite another thing to conclude the decedent’s agreement acts as a complete defense to statutory claims that are specifically available to his non-signatory heirs. Appellee argues the Waiver provides a complete defense to appellant’s wrongful death claim, but in our considered view, allowing the Waiver to have this effect would require us to ignore the purpose of the Act and the public policy concerns it was specifically enacted to protect.[7]

Our conclusion is consistent with prior Pennsylvania case law arising from wrongful death actions. As this Court has stated, such lawsuits are meant to compensate the statutory beneficiaries, i.e. the spouse, children or parents of the decedent for the pecuniary losses they sustained as a result of their relative’s death. SeeTulewicz, 606 A.2d at 431. Accordingly, our courts have recognized the distinct nature of these claims and have declined to enforce a decedent’s own agreements and obligations against his heirs. SeeButtermore, 561 A.2d at 736 (release signed by husband barred his own action against hospital but not the independent action of wife, who did not sign release); Pisano, 77 A.3d at 660, citingKaczorowski, 184 A. at 664 (wrongful death claim is derived from injury to decedent but it is independent and distinct cause of action; decedent’s agreement to arbitrate not binding on non-signatory heirs); see alsoRickard v. Am. Nat’l Prop. & Cas. Co., 173 A.3d 299 (Pa. Super. 2017) (decedent’s agreement to accept insurance benefits in exchange for allowing subrogation by insurer not binding on non-signatory heirs who recovered damages in subsequent wrongful death action against tortfeasor). The Waiver in this regard is analogous to the settlement and release agreement at issue in Buttermore, or the arbitration agreement in Pisano .

We observe that the undisputed purpose of the Act is “to provide a cause of action against one whose tortious conduct caused the death of another.” Amadio, 501 A.2d at 1087. And, as we have stated, exculpatory contracts must be read narrowly. SeeDilks, 192 A.2d at 687; see alsoTayar v. Camelback Ski Corp. Inc., 616 Pa. 385, 47 A.3d 1190, 1196 (2012) (for exculpatory clause to be enforceable “contract language must be construed strictly”), quotingTopp Copy, 626 A.2d at 99. Allowing the Waiver to have a broad exculpatory effect with respect to non-signatory wrongful death claimants would essentially make the right the General Assembly created for certain heirs through the Act an illusory one. Abrogation of an express statutory right to recovery in this way violates public policy, and a pre-injury exculpatory waiver that contravenes public policy is invalid and unenforceable. Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1177. Cf.Tayar, 47 A.3d at 1203 (curtailing purported effect of waiver on public policy grounds). Moreover, our recognition of relevant public policy concerns in this regard does not constitute “creation” of public policy. See OISA at 947. Our law is clear that determination of whether contract terms may be avoided on public policy grounds “requires a showing of overriding public policy from legal precedents [or] governmental practice ….” Tayar, 47 A.3d at 1199. The public policy

we recognize here is well-established in both judicial precedents and statutory enactment. This Court has declined to enforce exculpatory contracts “[w]here the legislature has, by definite and unequivocal language, determined the public policy of this Commonwealth with regard to a particular subject, [because] that pronouncement cannot be set aside and rendered unenforceable by a contract between individuals.” Boyd v. Smith, 372 Pa. 306, 94 A.2d 44, 46 (1953) (exculpatory waiver of liability unenforceable on public policy grounds due to conflict with statute). Precluding the use of the Waiver as a carte blanche automatic defense to wrongful death actions comports with the remedial purpose and protection expressed in the Act. A contrary holding elevates a private contract above public policy embodied in a statutory enactment, and overrides our jurisprudence directing a narrow and strict construction of exculpatory waivers.

Accordingly, we would hold the Waiver is void and unenforceable with respect to appellant’s wrongful death claims and, as such, the Waiver should not be available to appellee as a defense in the underlying wrongful death litigation.[8] We would hold the Superior Court erred in affirming summary judgment in favor of appellee on that basis, and reverse and remand to the trial court for further proceedings on appellant’s wrongful death claim.

Justice Donohue and Justice Mundy join this opinion in support of reversal.

OPINION IN SUPPORT OF REVERSAL

DONOHUE, JUSTICE.

I join Justice Dougherty’s Opinion in Support of Reversal (“OISR”) in full. I too disagree with the Superior Court’s conclusion that the Decedent’s exculpatory agreement may serve as a complete defense to the wrongful death heir’s claim against the Triathlon. I write separately to express my view that, in light of the derivative nature of wrongful death actions, the Superior Court was technically correct in its analysis of the mechanical operation of the liability waiver in reaching its conclusion. However, when the mechanical operation of the law works to defeat the purpose of a remedial statute like the Wrongful Death Act, by way of the broad enforcement of a legally disfavored exculpatory agreement, the mechanical operation must yield.

As Justice Dougherty explains, this Court has repeatedly affirmed a requirement that exculpatory agreements must be narrowly and strictly construed because exculpatory language, which purports to relieve a person of liability even when he has negligently caused injury to another, is not favored in the law. OISR (Dougherty, J.) at 952-53, 954-55 (citing Employers Liability Assur. Corp. v. Greenville Business Men’s Ass’n., 423 Pa. 288, 224 A.2d 620, 623 (1966); Chepkevich v. Hidden Valley Resort, L.P., 607 Pa. 1, 2 A.3d 1174, 1189 (2010); Topp Copy Prods. Inc. v. Singletary, 533 Pa. 468, 626 A.2d 98 (1993);

Dilks v. Flohr Chevrolet, Inc., 411 Pa. 425, 192 A.2d 682, 687 (1963)). Here, Appellant does not challenge the validity or the enforceability of the contractual assumption of risk in the survival action she brought (as administratrix) on behalf of Decedent’s estate. Therefore, for purposes of this appeal, the liability waiver is valid and enforceable as a complete defense to the survival action. As between the Triathlon and Decedent, there is a knowing and voluntary agreement to extinguish Decedent’s ability to recover for claims of ordinary negligence.

I believe that we must, however, decline to allow the liability waiver to defeat a wrongful death action brought by heirs who never agreed, expressly or otherwise, to eliminate their statutory right to recover for their pecuniary loss resulting from the death of their loved one that, as alleged, was tortious but for the liability waiver. Allowing the liability waiver to defeat the wrongful death action, as the Superior Court did, gives the waiver the broadest possible reading, contrary to our mandate to narrowly construe such provisions. The tenet of strict construction requires that we limit this liability waiver to its narrowest effect: a bar to recovery under the survival action.

Moreover, as noted by Justice Dougherty, for an exculpatory waiver to be valid, it must meet three conditions: it must not contravene public policy, the contract must be between persons relating entirely to their own private affairs, and each party must be a free bargaining agent to the agreement so that the contract is not one of adhesion. OISR (Dougherty, J.) at 952-53 (citing Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1177). As to these first two prongs, this Court’s decision in Boyd v. Smith, 372 Pa. 306, 94 A.2d 44 (1953), is instructive. In Boyd, an agreement between a property owner and a tenant relieved the property owner from liability for any injury occasioned by the property owner’s negligence in the maintenance of the leased building. Boyd, 94 A.2d at 45. However, pursuant to statute, “no building … shall be used for human habitation unless it is equipped with a fire escape or fire escapes as required by law.” Id. (quoting 53 P.S. § 3962). The property in question was not equipped with fire escapes. The building caught fire and, unable to escape the building by fire escape, the tenant sustained serious injuries and sued. The property owner attempted to rely on the exculpatory agreement in the lease to avoid liability.

We declined to find the waiver enforceable, explaining:

Such a protective clause is undoubtedly valid and enforceable if it does not contravene any policy of the law, that is, if it is not a matter of interest to the public or the state but merely an agreement between persons relating entirely to their private affairs. The situation becomes an entirely different one in the eye of the law when the legislation in question is, as here, a police measure obviously intended for the protection of human life; in such event public policy does not permit an individual to waive the protection which the statute is designed to afford him.

Id. at 46. We further held, “where the legislature has, by definite and unequivocal language, determined the public policy of this Commonwealth with regard to a particular subject, that pronouncement cannot be set aside and rendered unenforceable by a contract between individuals.” Id.

We are tasked here with determining the legal effect of a liability waiver upon a third party, not the signatory – a far more extreme reach of the waiver of liability than in Boyd . However, as in Boyd, the fullest enforcement of the liability waiver would contravene an unequivocal policy determination by the General Assembly,

namely that wrongful death heirs are entitled to recover pecuniary losses from the party responsible for their provider’s death. See OISR (Dougherty, J.) at 952-53, 954.

The Wrongful Death Act, which is remedial in nature and must be construed liberally, assures that surviving heirs do not need to go without financial support nor look to public welfare agencies to shoulder the economic burden of the loss of a provider. SeeKaczorowski, 184 A. at 665; see alsoGershon v. Regency Diving Center, 368 N.J.Super. 237, 845 A.2d 720, 728 (2004) (observing that, “in many wrongful death cases the decedent was the ‘breadwinner’ and the heirs are children, incompetents or those otherwise economically dependent on the decedent”). Notably, in the case at bar, Decedent was a forty-year-old husband and father of two who worked full-time for United Parcel Service and part-time as a licensed realtor. See Appellant’s Response to Triathlon’s Motion for Summary Judgment at 2.

Allowing the Triathlon to use Decedent’s waiver of liability to defeat a wrongful death claim would require us to ignore clear public policy embedded in the wrongful death statute and our laws governing decedents more generally. Analogously, the General Assembly has for centuries prohibited spousal disinheritance by will in order to ensure the surviving spouse’s financial security after the decedent’s death. SeeIn re Houston’s Estate, 371 Pa. 396, 89 A.2d 525, 526 (1952); see also 20 Pa.C.S. § 2203 (authorizing a surviving spouse to take against the will an elective share of one-third of the deceased’s property, subject to certain exceptions, thereby ensuring the surviving spouse’s right to some inheritance). Thus, a married individual cannot eliminate his spouse’s statutory entitlement, even through an attempted disinheritance in a last will and testament. In my view, it is impossible to reconcile allowing a sporting event participant to eradicate a statutory claim for wrongful death damages when he could not accomplish a disinheritance by virtue of a will. For this reason, and because liability waivers are disfavored, I join Justice Dougherty in narrowly construing the liability waiver so that it is enforceable only in the survival action brought on behalf of Decedent’s estate, where it was not challenged. Cf.Tayar, 47 A.3d at 1203 (curtailing purported effect of waiver on public policy grounds). So construed, it has no effect on the wrongful death action. Like Justice Dougherty, I would decline to give any effect to the Decedent’s contractual waiver of the Triathlon’s duty of care in the wrongful death action because doing so would implicate public, not merely private, affairs and would contravene the policy set forth by our legislature in the Wrongful Death Act which we must liberally construe. OISR (Dougherty, J.) at 954-55; see alsoChepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1189; Boyd, 94 A.2d at 46.

———

Notes:

[1] We also granted allowance of appeal to determine whether to abolish the assumption of the risk doctrine under circumstances where the Comparative Negligence Act does not expressly permit its application. Appellant, however, waived this issue by not challenging the overall viability of the assumption of the risk doctrine in the lower tribunals. See Pa.R.A.P. 302(a) (providing that “[i]ssues not raised in the lower court are waived and cannot be raised for the first time on appeal”).

[2] In block capital lettering above the signature line, the Agreement stated that Decedent’s acceptance of the Agreement confirmed that he read and understood its terms, that he understood that he would surrender substantial rights, including the right to sue, and that Decedent signed the agreement freely and voluntarily. Id. This final paragraph went on to state that acceptance of the Agreement constituted “a complete and unconditional release of all liability to the greatest extent allowed by law.” Id.

[3] In Pisano, the decedent had executed an agreement at the time of his admission to a long-term care nursing facility (“Extendicare”), providing that any dispute arising from the agreement would be resolved by binding arbitration. Id. at 653. The decedent’s son subsequently commenced a wrongful death action against Extendicare in the trial court. Extendicare filed preliminary objections, seeking to have the case dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The trial court overruled Extendicare’s preliminary objections, holding that a wrongful death action is a creature of statute and is independent of the right of action of the decedent’s estate. Id. at 654. Thus, the trial court concluded, the decedent’s agreement to arbitrate disputes did not preclude the wrongful death claim brought by the decedent’s son. Id.

The Superior Court affirmed. The court reasoned that pursuant to 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301, a wrongful death action is not derivative of the decedent’s claim, but is a separate and distinct right of action belonging to statutory claimants to compensate them for damages they sustained as a result of the decedent’s death. Id. at 656-8. The Pisano court concluded that the arbitration agreement was not binding on the decedent’s son because he was not a party to that agreement; thus, the trial court was correct in refusing to compel arbitration.

[4] Notably, the Superior Court presumed the validity of the Agreement as Appellant presented no claim to the contrary. See id. at 492 n.6 (explaining that Appellant “does not challenge the substantive validity of the liability waiver as a bar to her claims of ordinary negligence. Consequently, we need not address the validity of the exculpatory provisions in the context of this case.”). By declaring the Agreement void as against public policy, the OISR ignores this clear waiver of any challenge to the Agreement on those grounds.

[1] Appellant stipulated to the dismissal of all defendants other than appellee on January 29, 2013, and they are not involved in this appeal. See Stipulation of Dismissal Without Prejudice.

[2] In Pennsylvania, wrongful death claims are separate and distinct from survival claims, although both involve allegations of negligence against the defendant. SeeDubose v. Quinlan, 643 Pa. 244, 173 A.3d 634, 637 (2017); Kiser v. Schulte, 538 Pa. 219, 648 A.2d 1, 4 (1994) (discussing differences between survival and wrongful death claims); Tulewicz v. Se. Pa. Transp. Auth., 529 Pa. 588, 606 A.2d 427, 431 (1992); (“the two actions are designed to compensate two different categories of claimants”); Pisano v. Extendicare Homes, Inc., 77 A.3d 651, 654 (Pa. Super. 2013), appeal denied, 624 Pa. 683, 86 A.3d 233 (Pa . 2014) (“Pennsylvania courts have repeatedly distinguished wrongful death claims from survival claims”). The survival claim is the “continuation of a cause of action that accrued to the plaintiff’s decedent while the decedent was alive …. On the other hand, a wrongful death action accrues to the decedent’s heirs when the decedent dies of such an injury ….” Dubose, 173 A.3d at 637. As explained more fully infra, a wrongful death claim is an independent action which belongs to the decedent’s heirs for damages aimed to compensate members of a decedent’s family for their loss. Tulewicz, 606 A.2d at 431.

[3] Judge Olson authored the majority opinion joined by P.J. Gantman, P.J.E. Bender, and Judges Bowes, Shogun and Ott.

[4] In a concurring and dissenting opinion joined by Judges Panella and Lazarus, P.J.E. Ford Elliott determined Buttermore v. Aliquippa Hospital, 522 Pa. 325, 561 A.2d 733 (1989) was instructive on the analysis of the Waiver, despite the majority’s effort to distinguish it. Valentino, 150 A.3d at 501-02 (Ford Elliott, P.J.E., concurring and dissenting). Judge Ford Elliott noted the Waiver is similar to the release in Buttermore, and the non-signatory heir in that case had an independent right to sue for the injury she suffered as a result of her decedent’s death. Id. Judge Ford Elliott stated the majority’s holding the Decedent’s own assumption of risk created a complete defense to his heirs’ wrongful death action would “eviscerate the Pennsylvania wrongful death statute which creates an independent and distinct cause of action, not derivative of the decedent’s rights at time of death.” Id. at 502. Judge Ford Elliott would also have relied on Pisano to reverse summary judgment. Id. at 504.

[5] This Court granted review of this second issue and ordered supplemental briefing via a per curiam order dated January 26, 2018. As acknowledged by the Opinion in Support of Affirmance (OISA), although appellant challenged the effectiveness of the Waiver as it applied to Decedent, she never questioned the overall viability of the doctrine of assumption of the risk below, and the issue is therefore waived. See OISA at 942, n.1.

[6] The OISA suggests our view of the case ignores the question before the Court. See OISA at 942-43. Respectfully, the OISA’s position reveals an overly narrow reading of the issue on appeal, i.e., whether an exculpatory contract can be enforced against non-signatory heirs in a claim made pursuant to the Wrongful Death Act. Seesupra at 950-51. In answering that question, we examine the terms of the Waiver within the context in which it is to be enforced. We cannot disregard the nature of the underlying suit and our jurisprudence guiding our interpretation of exculpatory contracts, which specifically includes a consideration of public policy. SeeChepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1177 (exculpatory agreement is valid only when “it does not contravene public policy …”). Although the question granted on appeal did not include the term “public policy,” we must surely consider public policy when determining whether an exculpatory agreement is valid and enforceable under the given circumstances.

[7] The OISA accurately observes an exculpatory agreement would “generally be valid to preclude a participant’s ordinary negligence claims against the purveyor of an inherently dangerous sport or activity,” but nevertheless rejects our view that the same waiver could be ineffective as a defense in a wrongful death claim while providing a viable defense in a survival action. See OISA at 947. We consider the disparate treatment of the Waiver in the two causes of action to be the direct result of the different goals and purposes served by the relevant statutes. Seesupra at 942, n.2.

[8] Importantly, our holding would not render appellee defenseless in that litigation, despite the OISA statement our reading means appellant’s right to relief is “absolute”. See OISA at 947. We recognize a wrongful death action is a tort claim arising from the alleged “wrongful act or neglect or unlawful violence or negligence of another.” 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301. Appellant must still prove the elements of her case, including causation, before any recovery would be assured. See, e.g.,Phillips v. Cricket Lighters, 576 Pa. 644, 841 A.2d 1000, 1008 (2003) (to maintain negligence action, plaintiff must show defendant had duty to conform to standard of conduct, breach of duty, the breach caused the injury, and the injury resulted in damages).

———


Tennessee still has not caught up, and assumption of the risk is not a defense to sport or recreational activities.

There is no assumption of the risk defense in Tennessee. Consequently, cyclists in a paceline who crash can be liable to each other for the crash.

Crisp v. Nelms, 2018 Tenn. App. LEXIS 160; 2018 WL 1545852

State: Tennessee, Court of Appeals of Tennessee, At Knoxville

Plaintiff: Carolyn Crisp

Defendant: Michael Nelms, et Al.

Plaintiff Claims: negligence

Defendant Defenses: inherent risk

Holding: for the plaintiff

Year: 2018

Summary

Cyclists in a paceline could be liable for a fatality of one of the riders because Tennessee has no assumption of the risk as a defense. Paceline riding is inherently dangerous; however, court chose to ignore that issue. Recreation in Tennessee is risky for sports & recreation participants.

Facts

A paceline is a group of riders cycling right behind the first ride, single file in a row. Cyclists do this because it increases the speed of the entire group and saves everyone’s energy. The rider in front is expanding 10% or more, less energy and the riders behind can expand up to 30% less energy. Pacelines are what you see in large cycling races like the Tour de France.

On February 25, 2014, five people embarked on a cycling expedition along the shoulder of U.S. Highway 321 near Townsend, Tennessee. The group was riding in a paceline, an activity wherein cyclists ride in a line one after the other in close quarters. This action serves to increase the efficiency of the ride as the riders draft off one another to counteract the wind resistance. At the front of the line was Long. Behind Long was Nelms. Richard Cox was third. Decedent was fourth, and Stacy Napier was at the back of the line. This was not a group of novices. Rather, these were seasoned cyclists riding expensive bicycles. Long and Decedent, friends since childhood [*3] and regular cycling companions, were in their 70s.

The cyclists left Cycology, a bicycle shop on U.S. highway 321 in Blount County, at 10:30 a.m. The riders were traveling at a speed of about 22 miles per hour. Around noon, the incident occurred. Nelms’ front tire struck Long’s back tire. Nelms wrecked and fell to the pavement. Cox, third in line, swerved and avoided Nelms. Decedent, fourth, steered right but wound up flying off his bicycle and landing on his head. Hospital records reflect that “another rider hit” Nelms. Nelms denies that Decedent hit him, asserting instead that Decedent sharply applied his breaks and thereby caused his own misfortune.

Decedent was rendered quadriplegic by the wreck. Decedent dictated a note to Nelms, stating in part: “I think it is important for you to know that I place no blame on you for the accident . . . it was just one of those things that you cannot understand.” On August 22, 2014, Decedent died.

In February 2015, Plaintiff, Decedent’s widow, sued Nelms in the Trial Court. In April 2015, Nelms filed an answer denying liability. Nelms raised the defense of comparative fault and stated that Long may have been negligent in causing the incident. In [*4] June 2015, Plaintiff filed an amended complaint, this time including Long as a defendant. In August 2015, Long filed an answer acknowledging that Nelms struck his bicycle but denying that he slowed down. Long raised the defense of comparative fault with respect to Nelms and Decedent. Discovery ensued.

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

What a crock.

I’ve written extensively about most states bringing back the assumption of the risk defense for sports and recreational activities. Without players being protected from the risks of the sport, the sport or activity will have no enthusiasm and very little value. Tennessee has not adopted that doctrine. Tennessee states that assumption of the risk is a factor used to help determine the damages. Meaning when the jury determines if there was any negligence and then determine damages, the damages can be reduced by how much of the risk the plaintiff assumed.

Assumption of the risk is a complete bar to litigation in the vast majority of states. Not in Tennessee.

Tennessee still prevents litigation over inherently risky activities. However, this court in its zeal to allow the plaintiff to win, totally ignore the fact that riding in a paceline is an inherently dangerous activity.

Defendants argue that paceline riding is an inherently risky activity as described by the experts and participants, especially for a rider of Decedent’s age. Nelms argues that Decedent had his own duty to adhere to, as well. Plaintiff argues in response that no rider in a paceline assumes that the person riding in front of him suddenly and inexplicably will slow down. Our initial inquiry is whether a duty of care exists in paceline riding and what the nature of that duty is.

By ignored, I mean the court bent over backwards to find a way to allow this case to proceed by simply ignoring the law concerning inherently dangerous activities. The court moved from inherently dangerous to finding a duty. No duty is owed in an inherently dangerous activity.

INHERENTLY DANGEROUS: An activity is inherently dangerous if there is (a) an existence of a high degree of risk of some harm to the person; (2)likelihood that any harm that results from it will be great; (c) inability to eliminate the risk by the exercise of reasonable care; (d) extent to which the activity is not a matter of commons usage; (e) inappropriateness of the activity to the place where it is carried on; and (f) extent to which value to the community is outweighed by its dangerous attributes. (Restatement, Torts 2d § 519(1))

See Definitions.

If assumption of the risk is not a defense, and if you ignore the issue of whether the risk is inherently dangerous. Consequently, you are back to simple negligence and the duties that each person owes another.

Everyone has a duty to exercise ordinary and reasonable care in light of the surrounding circumstances to refrain from conduct that could foreseeably injure others, and some locations and circumstances may require a higher degree of care than others.

The court even acknowledged why assumption of the risk is a doctrine that should be adopted in sporting and recreation situations.

The reason many courts have required a plaintiff to prove reckless or intentional conduct on the part of a defendant in order to recover for injuries sustained in an athletic competition, is that these courts have feared that an ordinary negligence standard will increase litigation of sports injuries and stifle athletic competition.

However, Tennessee does not believe it.

We do not share these court’s concerns with respect to the imposition of an ordinary negligence standard in cases of sports related injuries, because we think that the recognition that the reasonableness of a person’s conduct will be measured differently on the playing field than on a public street, will sufficiently prevent the stifling of athletic competition. We also note that the reasonableness of a person’s conduct will be measured differently depending upon the particular sport involved and the likelihood and foreseeability of injury presented by participation in the particular sport. What is reasonable, acceptable, and even encouraged in the boxing ring or ice hockey rink, would be negligent or even reckless or intentional tortious conduct in the context of a game of golf or tennis. We should not fashion a different standard of care for each and every sport. We simply recognize that the reasonable conduct standard of care should be given different meaning in the context of different sports and athletic competitions.

If there is a duty of reasonable care, you can then proceed to prove negligence. Negligence in Tennessee is defined as a five-step process.

To establish a claim for negligence a plaintiff must prove: (1) a duty of care owed by the defendant to the plaintiff; (2) conduct falling below the applicable standard of care amounting to a breach of that duty; (3) injury or loss; (4) causation in fact; (5) and proximate causation.

From there it was easy to fabricate the idea that paceline riders owed each other a duty of reasonableness.

Inherently risky or not, a paceline rider still has a duty of care to her fellow riders. For instance, while wrecks can and do happen, a paceline rider has a duty to refrain from abruptly applying her brakes or from hitting the wheel of the rider of front of her without good reason. We conclude that each paceline rider in the instant case had a duty to act reasonably under the circumstances.

Think about the absurdity of the above statement. A group of cyclists in a paceline has the right of way. A large truck pulls out in front of the first rider. Based on the analysis of the facts by the court, the first rider is now supposed to hit or get hit by the truck. He or she cannot apply their brakes.

The Tennessee Appellate court sent the case back for trial.

So Now What?

Honestly, this is a scary case. Because Tennessee’s law is antiquated, any participant in any outdoor recreation activity or sporting event could be sued for any injury they receive during the event. Insurance costs in Tennessee will continue to rise because it will be cheaper to settle these cases then to try to win at trial.

And the court’s refusal to look at the inherent risks of cycling in a paceline was a plaintiff’s dream. Even professional’s crash in pacelines. Amateurs are always going to be at risk and there is nothing you can do about the risks. Don’t ride in a paceline, and you don’t get the benefits that a paceline provides.

If you engage in any event in Tennessee, you can walk away a defendant. Stay away from Tennessee if you are recreating.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Crisp v. Nelms, 2018 Tenn. App. LEXIS 160; 2018 WL 1545852

Crisp v. Nelms, 2018 Tenn. App. LEXIS 160; 2018 WL 1545852

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, At Knoxville

January 16, 2018, Session; March 28, 2018, Filed

Reporter

CAROLYN CRISP v. MICHAEL NELMS, ET AL.

Subsequent History: Request granted Crisp v. Nelms, 2018 Tenn. LEXIS 401 (Tenn., Aug. 8, 2018)

Later proceeding at Crisp v. Nelms, 2018 Tenn. LEXIS 503 (Tenn., Aug. 9, 2018)

Prior History: Tenn. R. App. P. 3 [*1]
Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Circuit Court Reversed; Case Remanded. Appeal from the Circuit Court for Blount County. No. L-18929. Rex H. Ogle, Judge.

Disposition: Judgment of the Circuit Court Reversed; Case Remanded.

Counsel: David T. Black, Melanie E. Davis, and Carlos A. Yunsan, Maryville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Carolyn Crisp.

P. Alexander Vogel, Knoxville, Tennessee, for the appellee, Michael Nelms. Rick L. Powers and William A. Ladnier, Knoxville, Tennessee, for the appellee, George Long.

Judges: D. MICHAEL SWINEY, C.J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which CHARLES D. SUSANO, JR. and THOMAS R. FRIERSON, II, JJ., joined.

Opinion by: D. MICHAEL SWINEY

Opinion

This appeal arises from a lawsuit over a fatal cycling accident. Carolyn Crisp (Plaintiff), surviving spouse of William Andrew Crisp (Decedent), sued Michael Nelms (Nelms) and George Long (Long) (Defendants, collectively) in the Circuit Court for Blount County (the Trial Court) for negligence. Decedent and four others, including Nelms and Long, were riding as part of a paceline group when a crash occurred. Nelms asserted comparative fault, stating that Long slowed down suddenly at the head of the line. Long denied he slowed down suddenly. Defendants [*2]
filed motions for summary judgment. The Trial Court held, among other things, that paceline cycling inherently is dangerous and that Decedent was at least 50% at fault for his accident. Plaintiff appealed to this Court. We hold, inter alia, that there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Long slowed down suddenly at the head of the line and whether a reasonable jury could find Decedent less than 50% at fault in his accident. We reverse the judgment of the Trial Court and remand for the case to proceed.

OPINION

Background

On February 25, 2014, five people embarked on a cycling expedition along the shoulder of U.S. Highway 321 near Townsend, Tennessee. The group was riding in a paceline, an activity wherein cyclists ride in a line one after the other in close quarters. This action serves to increase the efficiency of the ride as the riders draft off one another to counteract the wind resistance. At the front of the line was Long. Behind Long was Nelms. Richard Cox was third. Decedent was fourth, and Stacy Napier was at the back of the line. This was not a group of novices. Rather, these were seasoned cyclists riding expensive bicycles. Long and Decedent, friends since childhood [*3]
and regular cycling companions, were in their 70s.

The cyclists left Cycology, a bicycle shop on U.S. highway 321 in Blount County, at 10:30 a.m. The riders were traveling at a speed of about 22 miles per hour. Around noon, the incident occurred. Nelms front tire struck Longs back tire. Nelms wrecked and fell to the pavement. Cox, third in line, swerved and avoided Nelms. Decedent, fourth, steered right but wound up flying off his bicycle and landing on his head. Hospital records reflect that another rider hit Nelms. Nelms denies that Decedent hit him, asserting instead that Decedent sharply applied his breaks and thereby caused his own misfortune.

Decedent was rendered quadriplegic by the wreck. Decedent dictated a note to Nelms, stating in part: I think it is important for you to know that I place no blame on you for the accident . . . it was just one of those things that you cannot understand. On August 22, 2014, Decedent died.

In February 2015, Plaintiff, Decedents widow, sued Nelms in the Trial Court. In April 2015, Nelms filed an answer denying liability. Nelms raised the defense of comparative fault and stated that Long may have been negligent in causing the incident. In [*4]
June 2015, Plaintiff filed an amended complaint, this time including Long as a defendant. In August 2015, Long filed an answer acknowledging that Nelms struck his bicycle but denying that he slowed down. Long raised the defense of comparative fault with respect to Nelms and Decedent. Discovery ensued.

Timothy Joganich, a bicycle safety expert testifying for Plaintiff, stated in his deposition:

Q. All right. The last sentence here, The collision with Mr. Nelms bike and the wheel of Mr. Longs
strike that. The collision with Mr. Nelms bike and with the wheel of Mr. Longs bike shows that these duties were breached by Mr. Nelms. That is an opinion you will be giving?

A. Yes.

Q. If Mr. Longs bike slowed suddenly, and Mr. Nelms front wheel contacted Mr. Longs back wheel, would that be a breach of a duty by Mr. Nelms?

A. You have to define suddenly because this is really a control systems problem. The reality is there is a variation in speed of all the cyclists out there, even the one in front. Now, it may be so subtle and so small that you may not perceive it. The fact is that the rider out in front has the duty to maintain a constant pace as possible, and then all the riders following [*5]
have to respond to any variation in input. Now, if for reason the rider out in front had an emergency braking where the following riders would not respond in time, then you are going to have a crash. In this case, I dont see anything in the evidence to support Mr. Long slowing down in a sudden manner to the point where Mr. Nelms could not respond.

Q. Okay. Well, you read Mr. Nelms deposition, did you not?

A. Correct. He said that he slowed down suddenly. But when you look at all the other evidence, even Mr. Nelms said that there was nothing in the roadway that he saw I should backup and say that the only reason why the rider is going to slow down is for some external factors such as something in the roadway Im talking about an emergency type of condition such as a deer runs out or a squirrel runs out, and that happens all the time. It happens to our group, but theres no evidence of anything like that happening. Mr. Long testified that he was going to go at a constant pace all the way to River Road, so theres no reason for him to slow down. The only other reason for him to slow down is he were going to pull off and switch positions, but theres no evidence of that.

Q. Well, [*6]
theres been testimony that there was a strong headwind that day. Are you going to give any opinion about the wind conditions on the day of the accident in question?

A. I will certainly refer to it because that is an issue in the case, and its been discussed in the depositions.

Q. Well, while we are on that topic, and I will cover it again, but I dont see that you give any opinion in your affidavit or in this letter where you discuss the wind conditions. Are you sticking to that?

A. Well, its not going to be a main point. It may be a sub opinion based on some of the main opinions Im talking about. If you asked me, was there a wind at the time, then Im going to talk to you about what the others said and what the climatology report says.

Q. Okay. When Mr. Long says that there was a strong headwind that day, do you have any reason to dispute that?

A. Well, I will say theres conflicting testimony in that regard because Ms. Napers doesnt remember any wind, and Mr. Nelms only suspects that there was a strong wind, so yes, Mr. Long did testify there was a wind. Now, when you look at the climatology records in that time frame, we are talking 8 to 10 miles an hour with the wind coming predominantly [*7]
out of the north, and it gives the wind direction, 330 degrees.

Q. Are you ruling out wind as any possible contribution to any of the accidents?

A. I dont see it playing a significant role.

***

Q. You state in paragraph 16 that the front wheel of Mr. Crisps bicycle subsequently ran into Mr. Nelms. Now, you understand that that statement, that fact, is disputed?

A. Its in the medical records.

Q. That was my next question.

A. Okay.

Q. What do you rely on to come to that conclusion?

A. A couple things. One is primarily the medical records. I will refer you

Q. The medical records of whom?

A. Mr. Nelms. I will refer you to the specific record. Im referring to the Care Today Clinic. Its for Michael Nelms. Lets see if theres a date on it. The date is 2/25/14. The time is 7:23. Under HPI, which is history of the patient, it says, Riding bicycle approximately 22 miles an hour, wrecked, and another rider hit him. When you look at that evidence in the context of all of the other testimony of the other riders that avoided the pileup, logically, you can only conclude it was Mr. Crisp hitting Mr. Nelms. Then Stacy testified that Mr. Crisp hit Mr. Nelms bike. Well, everything is happening so quick, [*8]
but both the bike and Nelms are on the ground, so bike versus Mr. Nelms, so I can see where there would be some confusion, and it may have been both.

James Green, a forensic engineer specializing in bicycle wreck reconstruction hired by Nelms, also was deposed. Green testified in part:

Q. You said you were employed to determine causation. Can you tell us whether or not this accident would have happened but for Mr. Nelms hitting the bicycle in front of him and losing control and wrecking?

A. Well, Im not sure I can answer it the way youve phrased it. If youre – – let me see if I understand your question and Ill try to answer it. Are you asking me if the accident to Mr. Crisp would have occurred if Mr. Nelms had not hit the bike ahead of him, or are you asking me what are you asking me causation, I guess is my question to you, to answer your question?

Q. No. Im asking you this question, and however you interpret it. But my question is, would this accident have happened not have happened but for the fact that Mr. Nelms hit the bicycle in front of him?

A. Im not Im not sure. If you isolate it just to the series of events, I would say it wouldnt. But if youre looking at causation [*9]
in terms of the whole scenario, Im going to say that you basically had four gentlemen in their 70s, and Im 71, riding riding bikes in a tight paceline on a very, very windy day where wind was coming from several different directions over time, and it really isnt an appropriate thing to do, in my opinion. I dont ride pacelines anymore, and I used to race as a pro. So and Im very familiar with riding in that area. I just dont see if youre going to ride in a paceline, even as a pro, in your 20s and 30s, eventually youre going to wreck riding in one. Its just a very dangerous activity. Its not a safe activity.

***

Q. Would you[r] opinion be different if you assume these facts. That Mr. Nelms says that he was struck by another bicyclist, that Mr. Crisp says that he struck Mr. Nelms and thats what caused him to hit and go over the handlebars, and that he had no time to apply his brakes. If those facts were true, would your opinion differ?

A. Well, those first of all, those arent facts. Those are fact statements. Witness statements. And no, it wouldnt change my opinion, because it does not line up with the engineering data that Ive already given you in the record. The [*10]
two of them for me to accept the fact witness statement its got to agree with the engineering, and the engineering is not supporting that statement. Its not supporting your hypothetical on Nelms or your hypothetical on Crisp.

Nelms and Long filed motions for summary judgment in April and May 2016, respectively. In September 2016 following a hearing, the Trial Court entered an order granting Defendants motions for summary judgment. In its oral ruling attached to its order, the Trial Court stated in part:

This is obviously a very tragic case, loss of life and just theres nothing that anybody can do to obviously change this. My first thought, as I have read through these things, is that there is no difference here in how this proceeded than a stock car race. Everybody bunched together.

You know, back in the old days, Dale Earnhardt, Sr., would run you off the road, and there you were off the track, and there you were in the wall. But by its very nature, NASCAR granted higher speeds is different, but theyve got steel and helmets and everything else. This type of activity, in a sense, is no different than that.

These gentlemen were riding together. It is very reasonable to [*11]
assume and well, its a fact that its not seriously disputed that an accident, when they are riding this closely together, is certainly foreseeable on everybodys part. And unfortunately, something happened up front that caused people to slow. But as it relates to Mr. Crisp, the Court would have to leap to assumptions in order to say what he did or what he didnt do, and he owed himself a duty of reasonable care to see what was in front of him and to understand his surroundings as well.

It would also as I have understood it and read it and counsel, this Court, as Ive said many times, I cannot guarantee you Im right, but I guarantee you I try to be right. From my reading of the record, from the affidavits, that there is no basis other than sheer speculation that would allow a jury to find for the plaintiff in this case.

In fact, speculation is pretty much all there is in this case. We could allow them to speculate about certain facts, but the ultimate conclusion is, is that these types of accidents are foreseeable in bicycle racing, especially this close type of racing. We see it all the time. We pass them on the highways. Im not taking well, I think I could take judicial [*12]
notice that cyclists in group activities wreck.

And so these parties chose to engage in this activity. They chose to ride together. Theres testimony throughout about what happens when these cyclists are riding together, about drafting, about various movements on the surface that they are cycling on.

And the Court hates to do it, but the Court does not see how any jury could reasonably find that either of these defendants were negligent in the cause the cause in fact or the proximate cause of the tragic accident and injury and ultimate death o[f] Mr. Crisp.

***

[T]he Court also holds that no jury that the actions of Mr. Crisp were at least his actions were at least fifty percent of the cause of his own accident.

In October 2016, Plaintiff filed a motion to alter or amend and a request for findings of fact and conclusions of law. In May 2017, the Trial Court entered an order denying Plaintiffs motion, stating:

After considering the plaintiffs motion and the responses thereto, the Court finds as follows:

1. That the Memorandum Opinion was issued by the Court and incorporated in the Order Granting the Motion for Summary Judgment on September 29, 2016.

2. That the plaintiff mistakenly [*13]
understood the Court to infer that the parties were racing. That was not the intention nor finding of this Court. The Court was merely referencing to the fact that bumper to bumper activities by automobiles or bicycles can lead to disastrous consequences.

3. That the plaintiffs basic position is that she does not know what happened, but that she wants a jury to try this matter.

4. That taken in a light most favorably to the plaintiff, there are no genuine issues of material fact upon which a claim of negligence against the defendants could be found.

5. That the unexplained cause or causes of the accident in question could not require a finding of negligence.

6. That because Mr. Crisp chose to ride in the activity of paceline riding where it is certainly foreseeable that an accident could occur, the Court finds that a reasonable jury would have to find that he was at least 50% liable for his own injuries.

From all of which it is hereby ORDERED, ADJUDGED, AND DECREED that the above, along with the Courts Memorandum Opinion, are the findings and fact and conclusions of law, and that no further hearing on this particular issue shall be considered by the Court, and that this order is hereby [*14]
deemed a final order in all respects. Any remaining court costs are hereby taxed to the plaintiff, for which execution shall issue if necessary.

Plaintiff timely appealed to this Court.

Discussion

We restate and consolidate the issues Plaintiff raises on appeal into the following dispositive issue: whether the Trial Court erred in granting summary judgment to Defendants.

As our Supreme Court has instructed regarding appellate review of a trial courts ruling on a motion for summary judgment:

HN1[] Summary judgment is appropriate when the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.
Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.04. HN2[] We review a trial court
s ruling on a motion for summary judgment de novo, without a presumption of correctness. Bain v. Wells, 936 S.W.2d 618, 622 (Tenn. 1997); see also Abshure v. Methodist Healthcare—Memphis Hosps., 325 S.W.3d 98, 103 (Tenn. 2010). In doing so, we make a fresh determination of whether the requirements of Rule 56 of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure have been satisfied. Estate of Brown, 402 S.W.3d 193, 198 (Tenn. 2013) (citing Hughes v. New Life Dev. Corp., 387 S.W.3d 453, 471 (Tenn. 2012)). . . .

* * *

HN3[] [I]n Tennessee, as in the federal system, when the moving party does not bear the burden of proof at trial, the moving party may satisfy its burden [*15]
of production either (1) by affirmatively negating an essential element of the nonmoving partys claim or (2) by demonstrating that the nonmoving partys evidence at the summary judgment stage is insufficient to establish the nonmoving partys claim or defense. We reiterate that HN4[] a moving party seeking summary judgment by attacking the nonmoving partys evidence must do more than make a conclusory assertion that summary judgment is appropriate on this basis. Rather, Tennessee Rule 56.03 requires the moving party to support its motion with a separate concise statement of material facts as to which the moving party contends there is no genuine issue for trial.
Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.03.
Each fact is to be set forth in a separate, numbered paragraph and supported by a specific citation to the record.
Id. When such a motion is made, any party opposing summary judgment must file a response to each fact set forth by the movant in the manner provided in Tennessee Rule 56.03. HN5[]
[W]hen a motion for summary judgment is made [and] . . . supported as provided in [Tennessee Rule 56], to survive summary judgment, the nonmoving party may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of [its] pleading, but must respond, and by affidavits or one [*16]
of the other means provided in Tennessee Rule 56, set forth specific facts
at the summary judgment stage
showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.
Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.06. The nonmoving party
must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.
Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., 475 U.S. at 586, 106 S. Ct. 1348. The nonmoving party must demonstrate the existence of specific facts in the record which could lead a rational trier of fact to find in favor of the nonmoving party. HN6[] If a summary judgment motion is filed before adequate time for discovery has been provided, the nonmoving party may seek a continuance to engage in additional discovery as provided in Tennessee Rule 56.07. However, after adequate time for discovery has been provided, summary judgment should be granted if the nonmoving party
s evidence at the summary judgment stage is insufficient to establish the existence of a genuine issue of material fact for trial. Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.04, 56.06. The focus is on the evidence the nonmoving party comes forward with at the summary judgment stage, not on hypothetical evidence that theoretically could be adduced, despite the passage of discovery deadlines, at a future trial. . . .

Rye v. Womens Care Cntr. of Memphis, MPLLC, 477 S.W.3d 235, 250, 264-65 (Tenn. 2015).

Defendants argue that paceline riding is an inherently risky activity as described [*17]
by the experts and participants, especially for a rider of Decedents age. Nelms argues that Decedent had his own duty to adhere to, as well. Plaintiff argues in response that no rider in a paceline assumes that the person riding in front of him suddenly and inexplicably will slow down. Our initial inquiry is whether a duty of care exists in paceline riding and what the nature of that duty is.

The case of Becksfort v. Jackson is highly instructive. In Becksfort, a woman was injured while participating in a tennis drill at a club. We discussed as follows:

In Perez v. McConkey, 872 S.W.2d 897 (Tenn. 1994), our HN7[] Supreme Court abolished implied assumption of the risk as a complete bar to recovery in a negligence action and held that cases involving implied assumption of the risk issues should be analyzed under the principles of comparative fault and the common law concept of duty. The Court stated that the reasonableness of a partys conduct in confronting a risk should be determined under the principles of comparative fault. Attention should be focused on whether a reasonably prudent person in the exercise of due care knew of the risk, or should have known of it, and thereafter confronted the risk; and whether such a person would have [*18]
behaved in the manner in which the plaintiff acted in light of all the surrounding circumstances, including the confronted risk.
Id. at 905.

HN8[] Everyone has a duty to exercise ordinary and reasonable care in light of the surrounding circumstances to refrain from conduct that could foreseeably injure others, and some locations and circumstances may require a higher degree of care than others. White v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, 860 S.W.2d 49, 51 (Tenn. App. 1993). The term reasonable care must be given meaning in relation to the circumstances. Doe v. Linder Constr. Co., Inc. 845 S.W.2d 173, 178 (Tenn. 1992). HN9[] To establish a claim for negligence a plaintiff must prove: (1) a duty of care owed by the defendant to the plaintiff; (2) conduct falling below the applicable standard of care amounting to a breach of that duty; (3) injury or loss; (4) causation in fact; (5) and proximate causation. Haynes v. Hamilton County, 883 S.W.2d 606, 611 (Tenn. 1994).

***

[B]y participating in the drill, Ms. Becksfort did not confront or accept the risk that another player would act or play unreasonably. The plaintiff offered proof that Ms. Jackson knew or should have known that Ms. Becksfort was not watching Jacksons ball, and was rather watching only her (Becksforts) ball. The plaintiff also offered proof that Ms. Jackson knew or should have known that the ball was traveling in the direction of the plaintiff. [*19]
Kent Shultz stated in his deposition that during the two ball drill the respective sets of players focused on the ball in play on their half of the court. Mr. Shultz also testified that the shot which Ms. Jackson hit into the eye of the plaintiff was a forehand shot with some power behind it. Ms. Jackson contended in her deposition that (apparently due to the speed at which the ball was traveling) there simply was no time to issue a warning; however, that appears to be a question of fact upon considering all the circumstances involved.

We think there is sufficient evidence to create a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Ms. Jackson acted unreasonably by failing to warn of the errant shot. Based upon this record, reasonable minds could differ as to whether Ms. Jackson acted reasonably under the circumstances. Therefore, this question should be resolved by the trier of fact.

Becksfort v. Jackson, No. 02A01-9502-CV-00027, 1996 Tenn. App. LEXIS 257, 1996 WL 208786, at *2-4 (Tenn. Ct. App. April 30, 1996), no appl. perm. appeal filed.

In Becksfort, we elaborated upon the duty of care in a sports context as follows:

The reason many courts have required a plaintiff to prove reckless or intentional conduct on the part of a defendant in order to recover for injuries sustained in an athletic competition, is that [*20]
these courts have feared that an ordinary negligence standard will increase litigation of sports injuries and stifle athletic competition. See, e.g., Hoke v. Cullinan, 914 S.W.2d 335, 337, 42 12 Ky. L. Summary 33 (Ky. 1995) (A view often expressed is that such a standard promotes sound public policy by allowing redress in extraordinary circumstances without permitting fear of litigation to alter the nature of the game.); Knight v. Jewett, 3 Cal. 4th 296, 11 Cal. Rptr. 2d 2, 834 P.2d 696, 710 (Cal. 1992) (The courts have concluded that vigorous participation in sporting events likely would be chilled if legal liability were to be imposed on a participant on the basis of his or her ordinary careless conduct.). We do not share these courts concerns with respect to the imposition of an ordinary negligence standard in cases of sports related injuries, because we think that the recognition that the reasonableness of a persons conduct will be measured differently on the playing field than on a public street, will sufficiently prevent the stifling of athletic competition. We also note that the reasonableness of a persons conduct will be measured differently depending upon the particular sport involved and the likelihood and foreseeability of injury presented by participation in the particular sport. What is reasonable, acceptable, and [*21]
even encouraged in the boxing ring or ice hockey rink, would be negligent or even reckless or intentional tortious conduct in the context of a game of golf or tennis. We should not fashion a different standard of care for each and every sport. We simply recognize that the reasonable conduct standard of care should be given different meaning in the context of different sports and athletic competitions.

Becksfort, 1996 Tenn. App. LEXIS 257, 1996 WL 208786, at *3 n. 4.

In the present case, we respectfully disagree with the apparent position of the Trial Court and Defendants that to participate in paceline riding is to assume the risk of whatever dangerous conduct, however unreasonable, is engaged in by the participants. Many years ago, our Supreme Court abolished implied assumption of the risk as a complete bar to recovery. We decline Defendants invitation to essentially resurrect implied assumption of the risk through a special carve-out exception. Inherently risky or not, a paceline rider still has a duty of care to her fellow riders. For instance, while wrecks can and do happen, a paceline rider has a duty to refrain from abruptly applying her brakes or from hitting the wheel of the rider of front of her without good reason. We conclude that each [*22]
paceline rider in the instant case had a duty to act reasonably under the circumstances.

Having concluded that the paceline riders owed a duty of care, it remains to be established in this case at the summary judgment stage whether that duty was breached and by whom. That is problematic because there are conflicting accounts as to what happened. Chiefly, it never has been established how Nelms came to collide with Longs bicycle. Nelms states that Long suddenly slowed down. Long disputes this. Nelms and Long are, therefore, at odds in their accounts. This is not a trivial dispute but rather goes to the heart of the case—whether a breach of duty occurred and, if so, by whom. This is what juries often are called on to decide in a negligence case where comparative fault is alleged. There are genuine issues of material fact as to whether Defendants acted reasonably under the circumstances, and the issue of fault allocation, if any, should be resolved by the trier of fact. We take no position on the merits of the question, only that it remains a question suitable for trial.

The Trial Court, in its order denying Plaintiffs motion to alter or amend, also stated: [B]ecause [Decedent] chose [*23]
to ride in the activity of paceline riding where it is certainly foreseeable that an accident could occur, the Court finds that a reasonable jury would have to find that he was at least 50% liable for his own injuries. This is a puzzling and unsupported finding. There were five participants in the paceline group at issue, and three of those were involved in the crash. If Decedent is presumed to be at least 50% responsible for his own accident simply for participating in paceline riding, then the other riders involved in the crash also must be at least 50% responsible simply by participating. The math does not add up as, naturally, one cannot exceed 100% in an allocation of fault. Finding or holding that someone who participates with others in an inherently dangerous activity must be at least 50% at fault if he is injured is, once again, an attempt to resurrect the defense of assumption of the risk. We decline to do so.

As genuine issues of material fact remain unresolved in this case, summary judgment is inappropriate. We reverse the judgment of the Trial Court and remand for further proceedings.

Conclusion

The judgment of the Trial Court is reversed, and this cause is remanded to the [*24]
Trial Court for collection of the costs below and for further proceedings consistent with this Opinion. The costs on appeal are assessed one-half equally against the Appellees, Michael Nelms and George Long.

D. MICHAEL SWINEY, CHIEF JUDGE


Even hikers sue for their injuries.

Although I would guess this is a subrogation claim because the plaintiff is now a quadriplegic.

Citation: Kalter, et al., v. Grand Circle Travel, et al., 631 F.Supp.2d 1253 (C.D.Cal. 2009)

State: California, United States District Court, C.D. California

Plaintiff: Jill and Scott Kalter

Defendant: Grand Circle Travel

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Assumption of the Risk

Holding: for the defendant

Year: 2009

Summary

The plaintiff fell trying to climb wet stone steps in Machu Pichu. She sued the travel agency she hired to take her there and lost. Climbing wet stones is an open and obvious risk and the doctrine of assumption of the risk prevented the plaintiff’s recovery.

Facts

Grand Circle is a tour operator that arranges vacation packages to destinations around the world. Jill Kalter (” Kalter” ) purchased a Grand Circle ” Amazon River Cruise & Rain Forest” tour, along with an optional post-trip extension to visit the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu. Prior to departing on her trip, Kalter received from Grand Circle an itinerary of the Machu Picchu trip extension (the ” Itinerary” ), which stated that her group would visit Machu Picchu on two consecutive days, and that on the second day she would have the option of remaining with a guide or exploring the ruins on her own. The Itinerary also stated: ” [t]hese Inca sites are not like ancient squares in Europe; they are spread out over steep hillsides with large stone steps and uneven surfaces…. In the ruins, there are no handrails some places where you might like one.” Kalter received and read the itinerary prior to departing on her trip. In addition, the tour guide, Jesus Cardenas, distributed a map of Machu Picchu to the tour participants prior to entering the park. The map includes a section entitled ” Visit Regulations,” which states, among other things, ” Do not climb the walls,” and ” Follow only designated routes according to arrows.”

It was raining on both days Kalter was at Machu Picchu. The first day, she remained with Cardenas and walked on the stone paths The second day, she opted to explore on her own, and ventured off the established paths. states that he gave verbal warnings to the group to use caution due to wet and slippery conditions. Kalter states that she did not hear Cardenas give these warnings, but that she ” has no reason to doubt” that he did so. Kalter went to an area known as the ” terraces,” filled with vertical rock walls that contain small stone protrusions called ” floating steps.” Some of these terraces are along paths color-coded by length, and no paths at Machu Picchu require traversing floating steps. Approximately one hour after venturing out on her own, Kalter became lost and disoriented, and was concerned about connecting with her group so that she would not miss the train. In an effort to get a better view of where she was, Kalter stepped up onto the bottom two floating steps of a vertical wall. Kalter did not think this was a dangerous act. As a result, Kalter fell and suffered serious injuries, and is now a quadriplegic.

The defendant moved for summary judgment, which was granted.

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

The defense raised by the plaintiff’s was assumption of the risk.

The doctrine of primary assumption of the risk applies where ” the defendant owes no legal duty to protect the plaintiff from the particular risk of harm that caused the injury.” To determine if primary assumption of the risk applies, courts look to the nature of the activity, and the parties’ relationship to that activity. The question turns on whether the plaintiff’s injury is within the ” inherent” risk of the activity. A risk is inherent to an activity if its elimination would chill vigorous participation in the activity and thereby alter the fundamental nature of the activity. Accordingly, ” the doctrine of primary assumption of risk applies where ‘ conditions or conduct that otherwise might be viewed as dangerous often are an integral part’ of the activity itself.” When primary assumption of the risk applies, a defendant is only liable for a plaintiff’s injuries ” if the defendant ‘ engages in conduct so reckless as to be totally outside the range of the ordinary activity involved in the sport or activity’ or increases the inherent risk involved in the activity.”

However…

If, on the other hand, ” the defendant does owe a duty of care to the plaintiff, but the plaintiff proceeds to encounter a known risk imposed by the defendant’s breach of duty,” the doctrine of secondary assumption of the risk applies, which is analyzed under comparative fault principles.

The court found that inherent in the activity of hiking on uneven terrain among ancient ruins is the risk of falling and becoming injured.

The court then looked at the information the plaintiff received prior to going to Machu Picchu.

The Itinerary Kalter received prior to the tour informed her that the Inca sites at Machu Picchu ” are spread out over steep hillsides with large stone steps and uneven surfaces.” (Itinerary 65.) Eliminating tour participants’ access to these large stone steps and uneven surfaces in an attempt to protect against the risk of falling would eliminate the ability to view the Inca sites, and thus ” alter the fundamental nature of the activity.”

…Kalter did not fall while engaging in the activities condoned by Defendants-she chose to leave the established stone pathway, and further endangered herself by stepping onto the floating steps. Accordingly, the Court finds that primary assumption of the risk applies to Kalter’s injuries from falling while hiking at Machu Picchu.

The defendant would be liable for the plaintiff’s injuries only if the defendant’s conduct was so reckless as to be totally outside the range of the ordinary activity involved in hiking among ancient ruins or uneven terrain.

The plaintiff argued that the defendant was liable for encouraging the plaintiff to roam the ruins on her own.

…Grand Circle’s act of allowing Kalter to explore on her own areas she had not been to with Cardenas was not ” so reckless as to be totally outside the range of ordinary activity” involved in the excursion, nor did it increase the inherent risk of falling and sustaining injury involved in hiking in this region.

The next issue was whether or not the defendant had a duty to warn the plaintiff of the dangers equally obvious to both the plaintiff and others. The plaintiff admitted it was raining and admitted the steps were wet. The map she received told her not to climb the walls.

The court found the risks of the floating steps the plaintiff climbed leading to her fall were open and obvious, and she assumed the risk when climbing on them. “Moreover, numerous courts have held that tour companies and guides have no duty to warn of obvious dangers their customer’s encounter on trips.” Consequently, the defendant had no duty to warn the plaintiff of the dangers of climbing on the steps that lead to her fall.

The court held for the defendant.

As explained above, neither Grand Circle nor Cardenas are liable for Kalter’s injuries because the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk applies, and because neither had a duty to warn her of the open and obvious danger of falling while climbing wet stone steps protruding from a vertical wall.

So Now What?

The plaintiff was a quadriplegic, so I suspect here health or disability insurance carrier started the lawsuit to recover the paid on behalf of the plaintiff. Alternatively, the plaintiff could have started the litigation because so much money was involved if they won that it might have been a lottery.

However the simple fact the plaintiff fell while on her own exploring, a ruin in Peru does not give rise to liability in this case.

What keeps coming to the surface in cases over the past couple of years is the defense of assumption of the risk. Looking at this from a different perspective. The more you educate your client, the less likely you will be sued and the less likely you will lose that lawsuit.

I’ve been saying that for more than thirty years, and it seems to come back with greater defenses and benefits for both the guests and the outfitters.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Kalter, et al., v. Grand Circle Travel, et al., 631 F.Supp.2d 1253 (C.D.Cal. 2009)

Kalter, et al., v. Grand Circle Travel, et al., 631 F.Supp.2d 1253 (C.D.Cal. 2009)

631 F.Supp.2d 1253 (C.D.Cal. 2009)

Jill Kalter, et al., Plaintiffs,

v.

Grand Circle Travel, et al., Defendants.

No. CV 08-02252 SJO (AGRx).

United States District Court, C.D. California.

June 24, 2009

David B. Leichenger, Jon Matthew Steiner, Levitt Leichenger and Aberle, Beverly Hills, CA, for Plaintiffs.

John S. Murray, Mary Agnes Watson, Walsworth Franklin Bevins & McCall LLP, Orange, CA, Robert Mueller, Rodney E. Gould, Rubin Hay and Gould PC, Framingham, MA, for Defendants.

ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANT’S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

[Docket No. 57]

S. JAMES OTERO, District Judge.

This matter is before the Court on Defendants Grand Circle, LLC (erroneously sued as Grand Circle Travel, Overseas Adventure Travel and Overseas Adventure Travel Partners, Inc.) and Grand Circle Corporation’s (collectively, ” Grand Circle” ) Motion for Summary Judgment, filed May 13, 2009. Plaintiffs Jill and Scott Kalter (collectively, ” Plaintiffs” ) filed an Opposition, to which Grand Circle replied. The Court found this matter suitable for disposition without oral argument and vacated the hearing set for June 1, 2009. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 78(b). For the following reasons, Grand Circle’s Motion is GRANTED.

I. BACKGROUND

Grand Circle is a tour operator that arranges vacation packages to destinations around the world. (Olson Decl., filed as Gould Decl. Ex D, ¶ ¶ 2, 8; Pls.’ Separate Statement of Undisputed and Disputed Material Fact (” Statement” ) ¶ 1.) Jill Kalter (” Kalter” ) purchased a Grand Circle ” Amazon River Cruise & Rain Forest” tour, along with an optional post-trip extension to visit the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu. (Olson Decl. ¶ 13; Pls.’ Statement ¶ 2.) Prior to departing on her trip, Kalter received from Grand Circle an itinerary of the Machu Picchu trip extension (the ” Itinerary” ), which stated that her group would visit Machu Picchu on two consecutive days, and that on the second day she would have the option of remaining with a guide or exploring the ruins on her own. (Kalter Dep., filed as Gould Decl. Ex. A, 35:5-35:7, 36:15-20; 44:19-45:22; Itinerary, filed as Leichenger Decl. ” Kalter Dep. Ex. 20″ ; Pls.’ Statement ¶ ¶ 3-4.) The Itinerary also stated: ” [t]hese Inca sites are not like ancient squares in Europe; they are spread out over steep hillsides with large stone steps and uneven surfaces…. In the ruins, there are no handrails some places where you might like one.” (Itinerary at 65.) Kalter received and read the itinerary prior to departing on her trip. (Kalter Dep. 36: 15-20.) In addition, the tour guide, Jesus Cardenas, distributed a map of Machu Picchu to the tour participants prior to entering the park.[1] (Cardenas Decl. ¶ 20; Kalter Dep. 59:18-20.) The map includes a section entitled ” Visit Regulations,” which states, among other things, ” Do not climb the walls,” and ” Follow only designated routes according to arrows.” (Map, filed as Cardenas Decl. Ex. C.)

It was raining on both days Kalter was at Machu Picchu. (Kalter Dep. 54:12-16, 71:8-11.) The first day, she remained with Cardenas and walked on the stone paths. Id. 52:22-25, 64:11-16. The second day, she opted to explore on her own, and ventured off the established paths. Id. 67:24-68:1, 126:4-6; Supplemental Cardenas Decl. ¶ 11-12. Cardenas states that he gave verbal warnings to the group to use caution due to wet and slippery conditions. (Cardenas Decl. ¶ 13.) Kalter states that she did not hear Cardenas give these warnings, but that she ” has no reason to doubt” that he did so. (Kalter Decl. ¶ 7; Kalter Dep. 54:24-55:2.) Kalter went to an area known as the ” terraces,” filled with vertical rock walls that contain small stone protrusions called ” floating steps.” (Kalter Dep. 8:5-14; Pls.’ Statement ¶ 10; see Supplemental Cardenas Decl. ¶ 12, Ex. C (photographs of only set of floating steps above the location where Kalter was found after the fall).[2]) Some of these terraces are along paths color-coded by length, and no paths at Machu Picchu require traversing floating steps. (Cardenas Decl. ¶ 5.) Approximately one hour after venturing out on her own, Kalter became lost and disoriented, and was concerned about connecting with her group so that she would not miss the train. (Kalter Decl. ¶ 10; Kalter Dep. 85:11-13, 101:20-21.) In an effort to get a better view of where she was, Kalter stepped up onto the bottom two floating steps of a vertical wall. (Kalter Decl. ¶ ¶ 10-11; Kalter Dep. 8:16-20; Supplemental Cardenas Decl. Ex. C.) Kalter did not think this was a dangerous act. (Kalter Decl. ¶ 11.) As a result, Kalter fell and suffered serious injuries, and is now a quadriplegic.[3] (Pl.’s Opp’n 3.)

Grand Circle now moves for summary judgment on the grounds that: (1) Plaintiffs’ claims are barred under the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk; (2) Grand Circle had no duty to warn Kalter of the dangerous nature of the floating steps because it was open and obvious; and (3) Grand Circle is not liable for the actions of Cardenas because he is an independent contractor.

II. DISCUSSION

Summary judgment is proper only if ” the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). A ” material” fact is one that could affect the outcome of the case, and an issue of material fact is ” genuine” if ” the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). In determining whether a genuine issue of material fact exists, courts view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Id. at 255, 106 S.Ct. 2505.

A. Primary Assumption of the Risk Bars Plaintiffs’ Claims.

” The question of the existence and scope of a defendant’s duty of care is a legal question which depends on the nature of the sport or activity in question and on the parties’ general relationship to the activity, and is an issue to be decided by the court, rather than the jury.” Knight v. Jewett, 3 Cal.4th 296, 313, 11 Cal.Rptr.2d 2, 834 P.2d 696 (1992). The doctrine of primary assumption of the risk applies where ” the defendant owes no legal duty to protect the plaintiff from the particular risk of harm that caused the injury.” Id. at 314-315, 11 Cal.Rptr.2d 2, 834 P.2d 696. To determine if primary assumption of the risk applies, courts look to the nature of the activity, and the parties’ relationship to that activity. Branco v. Kearny Moto Park, Inc., 37 Cal.App.4th 184, 190, 43 Cal.Rptr.2d 392 (1995). The question turns on whether the plaintiff’s injury is within the ” inherent” risk of the activity. Neinstein v. Los Angeles Dodgers, Inc., 185 Cal.App.3d 176, 182, 229 Cal.Rptr. 612 (1986). A risk is inherent to an activity if its elimination would chill vigorous participation in the activity and thereby alter the fundamental nature of the activity. Knight, 3 Cal.4th at 318, 11 Cal.Rptr.2d 2, 834 P.2d 696. Accordingly, ” the doctrine of primary assumption of risk applies where ‘ conditions or conduct that otherwise might be viewed as dangerous often are an integral part’ of the activity itself.” Andia v. Full Serv. Travel, No. 06-437, 2007 WL 4258634, at *4, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 88247, at *13 (S.D.Cal. Nov. 29, 2007) (citing Knight, 3 Cal.4th at 315, 11 Cal.Rptr.2d 2, 834 P.2d 696). When primary assumption of the risk applies, a defendant is only liable for a plaintiff’s injuries ” if the defendant ‘ engages in conduct so reckless as to be totally outside the range of the ordinary activity involved in the sport or activity’ or increases the inherent risk involved in the activity.” Id. (citing Saville v. Sierra College, 133 Cal.App.4th 857, 866, 36 Cal.Rptr.3d 515 (Cal.Ct.App.2005)).

If, on the other hand, ” the defendant does owe a duty of care to the plaintiff, but the plaintiff proceeds to encounter a known risk imposed by the defendant’s breach of duty,” the doctrine of secondary assumption of the risk applies, which is analyzed under comparative fault principles. Knight, 3 Cal.4th at 315, 11 Cal.Rptr.2d 2, 834 P.2d 696. In such a case, ” the trier of fact, in apportioning the loss resulting from the injury, may consider the relative responsibility of the parties.” Id.

Here, Kalter was engaged in the activity of hiking on uneven terrain amongst ancient ruins. Inherent in this activity is the risk that one will fall and become injured. ( SeeAndia, 2007 WL 4258634, at *5, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 88247, at *15) (holding that ” falling is always a risk when engaging in any kind of strenuous hike on steep and uneven terrain” ). The Itinerary Kalter received prior to the tour informed her that the Inca sites at Machu Picchu ” are spread out over steep hillsides with large stone steps and uneven surfaces.” (Itinerary 65.) Eliminating tour participants’ access to these large stone steps and uneven surfaces in an attempt to protect against the risk of falling would eliminate the ability to view the Inca sites, and thus ” alter the fundamental nature of the activity.” SeeKnight, 3 Cal.4th at 318, 11 Cal.Rptr.2d 2, 834 P.2d 696. In other words, ” hiking across uneven and challenging natural terrain is an inherent risk of hiking to [the ancient ruins at Machu Picchu], without which the general public would be substantially deprived of viewing the … phenomenon.” Seeid. Moreover, as discussed further below, Kalter did not fall while engaging in the activities condoned by Defendants-she chose to leave the established stone pathway, and further endangered herself by stepping onto the floating steps. Accordingly, the Court finds that primary assumption of the risk applies to Kalter’s injuries from falling while hiking at Machu Picchu. Therefore, Grand Circle is only liable for only liable for Kalter’s injuries ” if [it] engage[d] in conduct so reckless as to be totally outside the range of the ordinary activity involved in [hiking amongst ancient ruins on uneven terrain] or increase[d] the inherent risk involved in the activity.” SeeSaville, 133 Cal.App.4th at 866, 36 Cal.Rptr.3d 515.

Plaintiffs argue that Grand Circle breached its duty to Kalter by ” encouraging and permitting her to roam the ruins of Machu Picchu on her own, then directing her to an area unknown, i.e. which was not explored with her Trip Leader the prior day, and given the conditions of that day, was dangerous and confusing.” (Pls.’ Opp’n 10.) Kalter was an experienced hiker, and prior to electing to explore the ruins on her own instead of remaining with Cardenas, she had read Grand Circle’s Itinerary informing her that she would encounter steep hillsides, large stone steps, and uneven surfaces. (Itinerary 65; Kalter Dep. 36: 15-20, 48:9-14.) She also received the map from Cardenas which stated ” Do not climb the walls” and ” Follow only designated routes according to arrows.” (Kalter Dep. 59:18-20; Cardenas Decl. Ex. C.) Moreover, Plaintiffs do not dispute that visitors to Machu Picchu often wander the ruins on their own, and that park regulations do not prohibit them from doing so. ( See Cardenas Decl. ¶ 15; Pls.’ Statement ¶ 26.) In addition, Plaintiffs provide no evidence that Cardenas or Grand Circle knew Kalter would attempt to climb the floating steps, and do not dispute Cardenas’ statement that Kalter ” never asked me if she could climb down from or up to any terraces. At no time did I tell Ms. Kalter that she should climb down or up the series of terraces, and at no time did I tell Ms. Kalter that it would be okay for her to climb up or down the stone terrace walls or on the ‘ floating steps.’ ” (Cardenas Decl. ¶ 16.)

Given these undisputed facts, Grand Circle’s act of allowing Kalter to explore on her own areas she had not been to with Cardenas was not ” so reckless as to be totally outside the range of ordinary activity” involved in the excursion, nor did it increase the inherent risk of falling and sustaining injury involved in hiking in this region. SeeSaville, 133 Cal.App.4th at 866, 36 Cal.Rptr.3d 515. The Court also notes that other participants in the tour stated that Cardenas was ” outstanding and the accident was not at all [his] fault. And of course, [Kalter] fell on a day of totally independent activities.” ( See Dobbins Dep. 13-25; see also Garvey Dep. 121:21- 25.) Moreover, even if Grand Circle or Cardenas erred in estimating Kalter’s ability to hike on her own across the uneven terrain at Machu Picchu in rainy weather, ” an instructor’s assessment errors-either in making the necessarily subjective judgment of skill level or the equally subjective judgment about the difficulty of conditions-are in no way ‘ outside the range of the ordinary activity involved in the sport.’ ” Kane v. Nat’l Ski Patrol, 88 Cal.App.4th 204, 214, 105 Cal.Rptr.2d 600 (Cal.Ct.App.2001); see alsoAndia, 2007 WL 4258634, at *5, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 88247, at *16 (holding that tour guide’s ” decision to allow Plaintiff to return to the Rangers station alone [during a guided hike to a lava flow] … at most constituted ‘ assessment errors,’ but these ‘ subjective judgments about the difficulty of the conditions were ‘ in no way so reckless as to be totally outside the range of the ordinary activity involved’ in the activity of lava hiking” ).

Plaintiffs have submitted a declaration by Alexander Anolik, a travel and tourism attorney, stating that Cardenas ” failed to insist, explain the need for or put together a ‘ buddy system’ whereby Ms. Kalter would not have to be in this strange and dangerous area by herself,” and contending that his conduct of allowing Kalter to explore on her own fell below the standard of care in the travel industry. (Anolik Decl. ¶ 4.) Anolik submits no case law or any other information to suggest that such conduct falls below a standard of care, or that any other tour companies or guides employ such practices. ( See Supplemental Cardenas Decl. ¶ 3, stating that he is unaware of any other tour guide at Machu Picchu that requires a buddy system.) Further, as explained above, allowing tour participants to hike on their own, even off trail on uneven terrain, is not so reckless as to be totally outside the range of the ordinary activity involved in hiking. SeeAndia, 2007 WL 4258634, at *5, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 88247, at *16. As such, the Court finds Anolik’s bare assertions insufficient to create a triable issue of fact regarding whether Defendants’ conduct was so reckless as to be totally outside the range of the ordinary activity or otherwise increased the inherent risk involved in the activity of hiking amongst ancient ruins in an undeveloped area. Accordingly, Grand Circle is not liable for Kalter’s injuries under the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk.

B. Grand Circle Had No Duty to Warn Kalter of the Open and Obvious Danger Posed by the Wet Floating Steps.

” It is established law, at least in the exercise of ordinary care, that one is under no duty to warn another of a danger equally obvious to both.” Andia, 2007 WL 4258634, at *6, 2007 U.S. Dist. 88247, at *18 (citing Marshall v. United Airlines, 35 Cal.App.3d 84, 90, 110 Cal.Rptr. 416 (1973)). Here, it was obvious to both Kalter and Cardenas that it was raining, and Kalter admitted at her deposition that she ” knew [the stones] were slippery and wet.” (Kalter Dep. 64:19-65:3, 71:14-15.) Moreover, the danger of slipping and falling from stepping on a small wet stone step protruding from a vertical wall is undoubtedly an obvious danger.

Plaintiffs conclusorily state that ” there are genuine issues of material fact regarding whether the conditions that caused Ms. Kalter’s injuries were open and obvious,” but offer no evidence to support this claim. (Pls.’ Opp’n 13.) Indeed, Kalter admits that it was ” raining on and off,” that she ” knew the rocks could be slippery” , and that before she started climbing she could see the third step was missing. (Kalter Dep. 71:8-15, 101:12-18.) Kalter offers no evidence to suggest that she believed climbing the floating steps was allowed or common, or that she saw anyone else climbing them. Further, it appears that the danger of climbing the steps was obvious to other members of Kalter’s tour; when asked whether he saw anyone climbing the steps, one member responded, ” Good Lord. Someone, probably the guide, said that the Indians might have used them.” (Dobbins Dep. 24:23-25.) In addition, the map Kalter received prior to entering the park instructed her not to climb the walls. (Cardenas Decl. Ex. C.) Kalter also testified at her deposition that she ” thought there would be some risk in climbing up the floating steps.” (Kalter Dep. 110:12-22.) Further, Plaintiffs offer no evidence that the risk of slipping on the wet floating steps was any less obvious to Kalter than to Cardenas, especially in light of the fact that Kalter had walked on stone with Cardenas the previous day and noted that the stone was ” slippery at times.” (Kalter Dep. 64:15-18.)

Plaintiffs also cite case law holding that ” although the obviousness of a danger may obviate the duty to warn of its existence, if it is foreseeable that the danger may cause injury despite the fact that it is obvious (e.g. when necessity requires persons to encounter it), there may be a duty to remedy the danger, and the breach of that duty may in turn form the basis for liability.” (Pls.’ Opp’n 12), citing Martinez v. Chippewa Entrps., Inc., 121 Cal.App.4th 1179, 1184, 18 Cal.Rptr.3d 152 (Cal.Ct.App.2004) (emphasis in original) (holding that trial court erred in granting summary judgment based on obvious danger where plaintiff slipped on water covering defendant landowner’s driveway.) While a landowner may be required to remedy a dangerous but obvious condition on his property, the situation differs with regards to a tour guide and tour company, where, as here, the dangerous condition is neither on the guide or company’s property nor within their control. Further, in Martinez, the plaintiff slipped on water in a defendant’s driveway that she had to cross to get by; in contrast, ” necessity” did not ” require [Kalter] to encounter” the floating steps. SeeMartinez, 121 Cal.App.4th at 1184, 18 Cal.Rptr.3d 152.

Moreover, numerous courts have held that tour companies and guides have no duty to warn of obvious dangers their customers encounter on trips. See, e.g.,Tei Yan Sun v. Governmental Auths. of Taiwain, 2001 U.S. Dist. 1160, at *31-32 (finding no liability for failure to disclose dangers of ” severe undertow, high waives, and strong surf” at beach, and noting that travel agents have no duty to disclose obvious dangers to travelers) (citing McCollum v. Friendly Hills Travel Ctr., 172 Cal.App.3d 83, 95, 217 Cal.Rptr. 919 (Cal.Ct.App.1985)); Passero v. DHC Hotels & Resorts, 981 F.Supp. 742, 744 (D.Conn.1996)(” A tour operator may be obligated, under some circumstances, to warn a traveler of a dangerous condition unknown to the traveler but known to it…. This doctrine applies to situations where a tour operator is aware of a dangerous condition not readily discoverable by the plaintiff. It simply does not apply to an obvious dangerous condition equally observable by plaintiff.” ); Stafford v. Intrav, Inc., 841 F.Supp. 284, 287 (E.D.Mo.1993) (noting that travel agents owe no duty to disclose information that is obvious and apparent to the traveler). Plaintiffs cite no cases in which courts have found tour companies or guides liable for failing to warn of or remedy open and obvious dangers.

Accordingly, the Court finds that Grand Circle had no duty to warn Kalter that the floating steps might be slippery and dangerous in the rain, as this danger was readily observable.

C. Since Neither Grand Circle Nor Cardenas Are Liable for Kalter’s Injuries, the Court Need Not Reach the Issue of Whether Cardenas Is an Employee or Independent Contractor.

As explained above, neither Grand Circle nor Cardenas are liable for Kalter’s injuries because the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk applies, and because neither had a duty to warn her of the open and obvious danger of falling while climbing wet stone steps protruding from a vertical wall. Further, Plaintiffs do not argue that Cardenas’ actions after Kalter fell caused or contributed to her injury. As such, whether Cardenas is Grand Circle’s employee or an independent contractor does not affect Grand Circle’s liability, and the Court need not reach the issue.

III. RULING

For the foregoing reasons, the Court GRANTS Grand Circle’s Motion for Summary Judgment.

IT IS SO ORDERED.

———

Notes:

[1] The map is produced by the Peru National Institute of Culture, not Grand Circle.

[2] Plaintiffs object to these photographs on the grounds that they ” lack proper foundation, are misleading in that the angles from which most are taken (particularly the closeups) and the two-dimensional nature of them cannot fairly (and accurately) depict how Ms. Kalter viewed the conditions at the time that she stepped on the two lowest steps.” (Pls.’ Objections to Evidence 2.) However, Cardenas states in his declaration that he took all of the photographs, and that they fairly and accurately reflect the conditions and terrain at Machu Picchu. (Supplemental Cardenas Decl. ¶ 8.) The Court finds these photographs to fairly and accurately represent the floating steps.

[3] It is unclear exactly how Kalter fell, as she does not remember and there were apparently no witnesses. (Kalter Dep. 12:22-13:5.)


Kabogoza v. Blue Water Boating, Inc., et al.,

Kabogoza v. Blue Water Boating, Inc., et al.,

Mary Bacia Kabogoza, on behalf of herself and the Estate of Davies Khallit Kabogoza, Plaintiff,

v.

Blue Water Boating, Inc., et al., Defendants.

No. 2:18-cv-02722-JAM-KJN

United States District Court, E.D. California

April 5, 2019

ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANTS’ MOTION TO DISMISS AND DECLARING PLAINTIFFS’ CROSS-MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT MOOT

JOHN A. MENDEZ, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

On October 9, 2018, Mary Kabogoza (“Plaintiff”) filed a complaint against Blue Water Boating, Inc., Skip Abed, and ten “Roe” defendants (“Defendants”). Compl., ECF No. 1. Plaintiff brought a wrongful death claim on her own behalf, and a survival action for negligence on behalf of her deceased husband, Davies Kabogoza. Compl. ¶¶ 8-17. She amended the complaint a month later to replace the negligence claim with a claim for gross negligence. See First Am. Compl. (“FAC”) ¶ 22-29, ECF No. 4. Plaintiff properly invokes the Court’s diversity jurisdiction and admiralty jurisdiction. FAC ¶ 1 (citing 28 U.S.C. §§ 1332, 1333).[1]

Defendants filed a motion to dismiss both of Plaintiff’s claims. Mot. to Dismiss (“Mot.”), ECF No. 6. Plaintiff opposed Defendants’ motion, and filed a Motion for Partial Summary Judgment. Opp’n to Mot. to Dismiss and Cross-Mot. for Partial Summ. J. (“Cross-Mot.”), ECF No. 8. Defendants opposed Plaintiff’s motion. Opp’n to Cross-Mot. and Reply (“Opp’n”), ECF No. 9. Plaintiff, however, never filed a reply to Defendants’ opposition.

For the reasons discussed below, the Court grants in part and denies in part Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss. The Court denies Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment.

I. FACTUAL ALLEGATIONS

In April 2017, Davies Kabogoza and his friend, Laura Tandy, rented stand-up paddleboards from Defendant Blue Water Boating. FAC ¶ 6. Kabogoza had rented paddleboards from this rental company before. FAC ¶ 7. He was familiar with the staff, but had never told them that he could not swim. FAC ¶ 14.

Kabogoza and Tandy signed a rental agreement before taking out the paddleboards. FAC ¶ 18. The one-page agreement included several general and SUP-specific safety rules, along with a release of liability. FAC, Ex. A. Upon signing the agreement, the rental company-per Kabogoza’s request-gave him and Tandy intermediate-level paddleboards and belt-pack flotation devices. FAC ¶¶ 7, 10, 15. Regular life vests were also available, but Defendants allow their customers to choose between the two options. FAC ¶ 14. Belt-pack flotation devices are “very popular” among paddle boarders, but customers often wear them incorrectly, with the flotation portion of the device facing backwards. Id. Plaintiff alleges that Kabogoza was wearing his incorrectly at the time of the accident. FAC. ¶ 13.

Defendants also gave its customers the option of using a paddleboard leash. FAC ¶ 16. Defendant Skip Abed, the owner of Blue Water Boating, told an investigator that 9 out of 10 times, customers do not want a leash. Id. Neither Kabogoza nor Tandy used a leash while paddleboarding. FAC ¶ 19.

Shortly after Kabogoza and Tandy began using their paddleboards in the Santa Barbara Harbor, the wind increased, and the water became choppy. FAC ¶ 9. Tandy was in front of Kabogoza when she heard a splash behind her. Id. When she turned around, she saw that Kabogoza had fallen off his board, and was struggling to keep his head above water. Id. Tandy was unable to reach Kabogoza and prevent him from drowning. Id. A dive team later found his body at the bottom of the ocean in about 30 feet of water. Id. When the divers found him, Kabogoza’s flotation device was attached to his waist, but in the backwards position. FAC ¶ 12. An inspection revealed that the device was in “good working order.” Id.

II. OPINION

A. Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss

1. Legal Standard

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) requires a “short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” A court will dismiss a suit if the plaintiff fails to “state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). When considering a motion to dismiss, the Court “must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). It is not, however, “bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation.” Id. A court may consider documents whose contents are alleged in or attached to the complaint if no party questions the documents’ authenticity. Knievel v. ESPN, 393 F.3d 1068, 1076 (9th Cir. 2005).

2. Analysis

a. Choice of Law

Plaintiff’s claims arise out of this Court’s admiralty jurisdiction as well as its diversity jurisdiction. A claim arising in admiralty is governed by federal admiralty law. Yamaha Motor Corp., U.S.A. v. Calhoun, 516 U.S. 199, 206 (1996). Ordinarily, a court may not supplement maritime law with state law when the state’s law “will not work material prejudice to the characteristic features of the general maritime law, nor interfere with the proper harmony and uniformity of that law.” Id. at 207 (quoting Western Fuel Co. v. Garcia, 257 U.S. 233, 242 (1921)). However, admiralty law does not provide a cause of action for wrongful death or survival suits independent of the remedies provided by state law. Id. at 206. Thus, in admiralty, “state statutes provide the standard of liability as well as the remedial regime” for wrongful death and survival actions. Id. To the extent that Plaintiff’s claims arise under the Court’s admiralty jurisdiction, California law applies.

When a claim arises out of the court’s diversity jurisdiction, the court applies the substantive law of the forum state. Erie R. Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 78 (1938). But if the dispute is covered by a valid choice-of-law clause, the laws of the contractually-designated state applies. PAE Government Services, Inc. v. MPRI, Inc., 514 F.3d 856, 860 (9th Cir. 2007). Here, the law of the forum and the law designated by the rental agreement’s choice-of-law clause are the same. See FAC, Ex. A. California law applies to the claims arising out of this Court’s diversity jurisdiction.

b. Gross Negligence

Plaintiff has not stated a claim for gross negligence. Gross negligence is defined as “the want of even scant care or an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.” Id. (quoting Kearl v. Board of Med. Quality Assurance, Cal.App.3d 1040, 1052-53 (1986). The California Supreme Court has emphasized “the importance of maintaining a distinction between ordinary and gross negligence, ” and disposing of cases on that bases “in appropriate circumstances.” City of Santa Barbara, 41 Cal.4th at 766.

Defendants first argue that Plaintiff’s claim should be dismissed because it is barred by the assumption-of-risk doctrine. Mot. at 9-11. The Court disagrees. To the extent that the claim is arising out of the Court’s admiralty jurisdiction, maritime tort law does not adopt California’s approach to this doctrine. Barber v. Marina Sailing, Inc., 36 Cal.App.4th 558, 568-69 (1995). Assumption of risk, be it express or implied, may not serve as a bar to claims that arise under admiralty law. Id. at 568 (“Numerous federal cases have held in a variety of contexts that assumption of [] risk is not permitted as an affirmative defense in admiralty law.”). While true that California law governs the standard of liability and the remedial regime for survival actions, Defendants do not identify any cases to suggest that Yamaha likewise intended state law to modify the defenses available in admiralty. To the extent that Plaintiff’s gross negligence claim arises under the Court’s admiralty jurisdiction, assumption of risk does not bar the action.

Assumption of risk likewise does not preclude Plaintiff’s gross negligence claim arising under the Court’s diversity jurisdiction. Although California law recognizes assumption of risk as a bar to recovery under some circumstances, it does not allow a party to release itself from liability for gross negligence. City of Santa Barbara v. Super. Ct., 41 Cal.4th 747, 779 (2007). To the extent that Plaintiff’s gross negligence claim arises under the Court’s diversity jurisdiction, assumption of risk, again, does not bar the action. For the same reason, the exculpatory clause in Defendants’ rental agreement does not bar Plaintiff’s survival action for gross negligence. So long as the allegations in the complaint support a plausible claim for relief, Plaintiff’s claim must survive Defendant’s motion to dismiss.

But even when accepted as true, Plaintiff’s allegations do not state a plausible gross negligence claim. Plaintiff alleges that Defendants’ gross negligence is reflected in the following omissions:

• Failing to ask Kabogoza about his swimming abilities before renting him a paddleboard;

• Failing to warn Kabogoza of the danger of using and/or misusing the paddleboard and belt-pack flotation device;

• Failing to ensure that Kabogoza was leashed to the paddleboard while using it; and

• Failing to ensure that Kabogoza knew how to use the paddleboard and belt-pack flotation device.

FAC ¶ 25.[2]

These omissions, when viewed in light of the circumstances surrounding this incident, might give rise to a colorable negligence claim had Kabogoza not released Defendants of liability. But they do not rise to the level of culpability found in the cases Plaintiff cites where gross negligence claims survived motions to dismiss. See Cross-Mot. at 10-11. In City of Santa Barbara, the court found that the plaintiff’s claim for gross negligence properly fell outside the defendant’s exculpatory clause when a young girl with epilepsy drowned at defendant’s camp for developmentally-disabled children. 41 Cal.4th at 751-52. The girl’s parents had told the city that their daughter was prone to seizures while in the water and required constant supervision. Id. at 752. Even so, a camp supervisor- knowing the girl had suffered from a seizure less than an hour earlier-diverted her attention while the child was swimming. Id. The girl had a seizure and drowned. Id.Mayall v. USA Water Polo,Inc., 909 F.3d 1055 (9th Cir. 2018) and Lewis v. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, No. 1:07-cv-00497-OWW-GSA, 2009 WL 426595 (E.D. Cal. Feb. 20, 2009) involved similarly culpable omissions.

The defendants here differ from the defendants in City of Santa Barbara, Mayall, and Lewis in several important respects. First, Defendants knew that Kabogoza had safely engaged in paddleboarding before. FAC ¶ 9. Unlike in City of Santa Barbara, where defendant knew the decedent had a history of having seizures in the water; Mayall, where defendant knew water-polo players were dangerously returning to play after suffering concussions; and Lewis, where the employee knew he was leading beginner snowmobilers, Defendants had no reason to know that Kabogoza was at an increased risk of harm. In fact, Defendants knew that he had a history of safely participating in this activity. FAC ¶ 9. Kabogoza rented paddleboards from Blue Water Boating on up to three previous occasions. Id.

Furthermore, Defendants equipped all of their customers with safety information and safety equipment regardless of their skill level. FAC ¶¶ 6, 16. Defendants made sure that each renter signed a rental agreement that included clear safety instructions about the products it rented. FAC, Ex. A. Defendants gave each of their customers flotation devices to protect against the inherent and inevitable risk of falling into the ocean. FAC ¶ 6. They also made paddleboard leashes available to all their customers even though nine out of ten renters opted not to use them. FAC ¶ 16.

Plaintiff makes much of the fact that Defendants did not ask about each customer’s swimming abilities or require each customer to have use a leash. FAC ¶ 25; Cross-Mot. at 11. Nor did Defendants specifically work with its customers to ensure they were correctly using the flotation devices. FAC ¶ 25; Cross-Mot. at 11. Rental companies can, of course, always do more to ensure that their customers have the safest possible experience. And when those companies’ rentals involve the level of risk that gives way to this sort of tragedy, they likely should. But the law does not task the Court with answering that question today. Here, the question is whether Defendants acted with “a ‘want of even scant care’ or ‘an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.’ ” Based on Plaintiff’s pleadings, the Court cannot find that they did.

The Court dismisses Plaintiff’s gross negligence claim without prejudice.

c. Wrongful Death

Plaintiff has not stated a wrongful death claim. Nor did she meaningfully oppose Defendants’ motion to dismiss this claim. California law governs wrongful death claims regardless of whether the claim arises under the court’s diversity or admiralty jurisdiction. Yamaha Motor Corp., 516 U.S. At 206-07. To support a claim of negligent wrongful death under California law, “a plaintiff must establish the standard elements of negligence: defendants owed a duty of care; defendants breached their duty; and defendants’ breach caused plaintiff’s injury.” Hayes v. Cnty.of San Diego, 736 F.3d 1223, 1231 (9th Cir. 2013) (citing Wright v. City of Los Angeles, 219 Cal.App.3d 318, 344 (1990)).

A wrongful death action-unlike claims brought under the state’s survival statute-belong to the decedent’s heirs, not to the decedent. Madison v. Super. Ct., 203 Cal.App.3d 589, 596 (1988). All the same, “a plaintiff in a wrongful death action is subject to any defenses which could have been asserted against the decedent.” Id. at 597. These defenses include a decedent’s decision “to waive the defendant’s negligence and assume all risks.” Id.

Here, Kabogoza signed a rental agreement where he expressly assumed the risks of paddleboarding and released Defendants of liability. FAC, Ex. A. To the extent that the assumption-of-risk and exculpatory clauses purport to release Defendants from liability for ordinary negligence, they are valid. See FAC, Ex. A. See also City of Santa Barbara, 41 Cal.4th at 755-58; Knight v. Jewett, 3 Cal.4th 296, 319-21 (1992). And as already discussed, Plaintiff does not make a showing of gross negligence that would bring her wrongful death action outside the rental agreement’s scope.

The rental agreement precludes Plaintiff from making out a claim of ordinary negligence. To the extent that her wrongful death claim is predicated on Defendants’ ordinary negligence, the Court dismisses it with prejudice.

B. Plaintiff’s Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment

The Court has dismissed the gross negligence claim covered by Plaintiff’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment. The arguments raised in Plaintiff’s motion are, therefore, moot.

III. ORDER

For the reasons set forth above, the Court GRANTS Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss. Plaintiff’s gross negligence claim is DISMISSED WITHOUT PREJUDICE. If Plaintiffs elect to amend their complaint with respect to these claims, they shall file a Second Amended Complaint within twenty (20) days of this Order. Defendants’ responsive pleading is due twenty (20) days thereafter. Plaintiff’s wrongful death claim is DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE to the extent that it is based on Defendants’ ordinary negligence.

The Court DENIES AS MOOT Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment on her gross negligence claim.

IT IS SO ORDERED.

———

Notes:

[1] This motion was determined to be suitable for decision without oral argument. E.D. Cal. L.R. 230(g). The hearing was scheduled for February 19, 2019.

[2] Plaintiff also alleges that Defendants breached a duty to Kabogoza by failing to safely manufacture the paddleboard and flotation device, and by failing to timely issue recalls of the defective products. FAC ¶ 25. But to date, Plaintiff has not joined any manufacturers or distributors as defendants.


New Book Aids Both CEOs and Students

“Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management, and Law” is a definitive guide to preventing and overcoming legal issues in the outdoor recreation industry

Denver based James H. Moss, JD, an attorney who specializes in the legal issues of outdoor recreation and adventure travel companies, guides, outfitters, and manufacturers, has written a comprehensive legal guidebook titled, “Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management, and Law”. Sagamore Publishing, a well-known Illinois-based educational publisher, distributes the book.

Mr. Moss, who applied his 30 years of experience with the legal, insurance, and risk management issues of the outdoor industry, wrote the book in order to fill a void.

There was nothing out there that looked at case law and applied it to legal problems in outdoor recreation,” Moss explained. “The goal of this book is to provide sound advice based on past law and experience.”

The Reference book is sold via the Summit Magic Publishing, LLC.

While written as a college-level textbook, the guide also serves as a legal primer for executives, managers, and business owners in the field of outdoor recreation. It discusses how to tackle, prevent, and overcome legal issues in all areas of the industry.

The book is organized into 14 chapters that are easily accessed as standalone topics, or read through comprehensively. Specific topics include rental programs, statues that affect outdoor recreation, skiing and ski areas, and defenses to claims. Mr. Moss also incorporated listings of legal definitions, cases, and statutes, making the book easy for laypeople to understand.

PURCHASE

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Table of Cases

Introduction

Outdoor Recreation Law and Insurance: Overview

Risk

    Risk

        Perception versus Actual Risk

        Risk v. Reward

        Risk Evaluation

    Risk Management Strategies

        Humans & Risk

        Risk = Accidents

        Accidents may/may not lead to litigation

    How Do You Deal with Risk?

    How Does Acceptance of Risk Convert to Litigation?

    Negative Feelings against the Business

Risk, Accidents & Litigation

        No Real Acceptance of the Risk

        No Money to Pay Injury Bills

        No Health Insurance

        Insurance Company Subrogation

        Negative Feelings

Litigation

    Dealing with Different People

    Dealing with Victims

        Develop a Friend & Eliminate a Lawsuit

        Don’t Compound Minor Problems into Major Lawsuits

    Emergency Medical Services

    Additional Causes of Lawsuits in Outdoor Recreation

        Employees

        How Do You Handle A Victim?

        Dealing with Different People

        Dealing with Victims

Legal System in the United States

    Courts

        State Court System

        Federal Court System

        Other Court Systems

    Laws

    Statutes

    Parties to a Lawsuit

    Attorneys

    Trials

Law

    Torts

        Negligence

            Duty

            Breach of the Duty

            Injury

            Proximate Causation

            Damages

        Determination of Duty Owed

        Duty of an Outfitter

        Duty of a Guide

        Duty of Livery Owner

        Duty of Rental Agent

        Duty of Volunteer Youth Leader

        In Loco Parentis

    Intentional Torts

    Gross Negligence

    Willful & Wanton Negligence

    Intentional Negligence

    Negligence Per Se

    Strict Liability

    Attractive Nuisance

    Results of Acts That Are More than Ordinary Negligence

    Product Liability

    Contracts

        Breach of Contract

        Breach of Warranty

        Express Warranty

        Implied Warranty

            Warranty of Fitness for a Particular Purpose

            Warranty of Merchantability

            Warranty of Statute

    Detrimental Reliance

    Unjust Enrichment

    Liquor Liability

    Food Service Liability

    Damages

        Compensatory Damages

        Special Damages

        Punitive Damages

Statutory Defenses

    Skier Safety Acts

    Whitewater Guides & Outfitters

    Equine Liability Acts

 

Legal Defenses

    Assumption of Risk

        Express Assumption of Risk

        Implied Assumption of Risk

        Primary Assumption of Risk

        Secondary Assumption of Risk

    Contributory Negligence

    Assumption of Risk & Minors

    Inherent Dangers

    Assumption of Risk Documents.

        Assumption of Risk as a Defense.

        Statutory Assumption of Risk

        Express Assumption of Risk

    Contributory Negligence

    Joint and Several Liability

Release, Waivers & Contracts Not to Sue

    Why do you need them

    Exculpatory Agreements

        Releases

        Waivers

        Covenants Not to sue

    Who should be covered

    What should be included

        Negligence Clause

        Jurisdiction & Venue Clause

        Assumption of Risk

        Other Clauses

        Indemnification

            Hold Harmless Agreement

        Liquidated Damages

        Previous Experience

        Misc

            Photography release

            Video Disclaimer

            Drug and/or Alcohol clause

            Medical Transportation & Release

                HIPAA

        Problem Areas

    What the Courts do not want to see

Statute of Limitations

        Minors

        Adults

Defenses Myths

    Agreements to Participate

    Parental Consent Agreements

    Informed Consent Agreements

    Certification

    Accreditation

    Standards, Guidelines & Protocols

    License

Specific Occupational Risks

    Personal Liability of Instructors, Teachers & Educators

        College & University Issues

    Animal Operations, Packers

        Equine Activities

    Canoe Livery Operations

        Tube rentals

Downhill Skiing

Ski Rental Programs

Indoor Climbing Walls

Instructional Programs

Mountaineering

Retail Rental Programs

Rock Climbing

Tubing Hills

Whitewater Rafting

Risk Management Plan

    Introduction for Risk Management Plans

    What Is A Risk Management Plan?

    What should be in a Risk Management Plan

    Risk Management Plan Template

    Ideas on Developing a Risk Management Plan

    Preparing your Business for Unknown Disasters

    Building Fire & Evacuation

Dealing with an Emergency

 

Insurance

    Theory of Insurance

    Insurance Companies

    Deductibles

    Self-Insured Retention

    Personal v. Commercial Policies

    Types of Policies

        Automobile

            Comprehension

            Collision

            Bodily Injury

            Property Damage

            Uninsured Motorist

            Personal Injury Protection

            Non-Owned Automobile

            Hired Car

    Fire Policy

        Coverage

        Liability

        Named Peril v. All Risk

    Commercial Policies

    Underwriting

    Exclusions

    Special Endorsements

    Rescue Reimbursement

    Policy Procedures

    Coverage’s

    Agents

    Brokers

        General Agents

        Captive Agents

    Types of Policies

        Claims Made

        Occurrence

    Claims

    Federal and State Government Insurance Requirements

Bibliography

Index

The 427-page volume is sold via Summit Magic Publishing, LLC.

 


What is a Risk Management Plan and What do You Need in Yours?

Everyone has told you, you need a risk management plan. A plan to follow if you have a crisis. You‘ve seen several and they look burdensome and difficult to write. Need help writing a risk management plan? Need to know what should be in your risk management plan? Need Help?

This book can help you understand and write your plan. This book is designed to help you rest easy about what you need to do and how to do it. More importantly, this book will make sure you plan is a workable plan, not one that will create liability for you.

 

                                             Table of Contents

Chapter 1    Outdoor Recreation Risk Management, Law, and Insurance: An Overview

Chapter 2    U.S. Legal System and Legal Research

Chapter 3    Risk 25

Chapter 4    Risk, Accidents, and Litigation: Why People Sue

Chapter 5    Law 57

Chapter 6    Statutes that Affect Outdoor Recreation

Chapter 7    PreInjury Contracts to Prevent Litigation: Releases

Chapter 8    Defenses to Claims

Chapter 9    Minors

Chapter 10    Skiing and Ski Areas

Chapter 11    Other Commercial Recreational Activities

Chapter 12    Water Sports, Paddlesports, and water-based activities

Chapter 13    Rental Programs

Chapter 14    Insurance

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Need a Handy Reference Guide to Understand your Insurance Policy?

This book should be on every outfitter and guide’s desk. It will answer your questions, help you sleep at night, help you answer your guests’ questions and allow you to run your business with less worry.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1    Outdoor Recreation Risk Management, Law, and Insurance: An Overview

Chapter 2    U.S. Legal System and Legal Research

Chapter 3    Risk 25

Chapter 4    Risk, Accidents, and Litigation: Why People Sue

Chapter 5    Law 57

Chapter 6    Statutes that Affect Outdoor Recreation

Chapter 7    PreInjury Contracts to Prevent Litigation: Releases

Chapter 8    Defenses to Claims

Chapter 9    Minors

Chapter 10    Skiing and Ski Areas

Chapter 11    Other Commercial Recreational Activities

Chapter 12    Water Sports, Paddlesports, and water-based activities

Chapter 13    Rental Programs

Chapter 14    Insurance

             $99.00 plus shipping


Marino v. Morrison, 2008 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 10971, 2008 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 10971, 2016 NY Slip Op 31876(U

Marino v. Morrison, 2008 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 10971, 2008 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 10971, 2016 NY Slip Op 31876(U

Michael Marino, an infant under the age of 18, by his Mother and Natural Guardian, Elena Marino, and Elena Marino, Individually, Plaintiffs,

v.

Richard Morrison, Jr, Carmela Morrison and Richard Bedrosian, Defendants.

No. 2016-31876

Index No. 10-11831

CAL. No. 15-00738OT

Supreme Court, Suffolk County

September 8, 2016

Unpublished Opinion

MOTION DATE 9-15-15

ADJ. DATE 3-1-16

SURIS & ASSOCIATES, P.C. Attorney for Plaintiffs.

JOHN T. McCARRON, PC Attorney for Defendant C. Morrison.

PENINO & MOYNIHAN, LLP Attorney for Defendant Bedrosian.

PRESENT: Hon. PETER H. MAYER, Justice

PETER H. MAYER, J.S.C.

Upon the reading and filing of the following papers in this matter: (1) Notice of Motion/Order to Show Cause by defendant Carmela Morrison, dated August 19, 2015, and supporting papers; (2) Notice of Cross Motion by defendant Richard Bedrosian, dated August 19, 2015, and supporting papers; (3) Affirmation in Opposition by plaintiffs, dated December 1, 2015, and supporting papers; (4) Reply Affirmations by defendants, dated February 28, 2016 and January 4, 2016, and supporting papers; (and after hearing counsels’ oral arguments in support of and opposed to the motion); and now

UPON DUE DELIBERATION AND CONSIDERATION BY THE COURT of the foregoing papers, the motion is decided as follows: it is

ORDERED that the motion (seq. 001) by defendant Carmela Morrison and the motion (seq, 002) by defendant Richard Bedrosian are consolidated for purposes of this determination; and it is

ORDERED that the motion by defendant Carmela Morrison for summary judgment dismissing the complaint against her is granted; and it is further

ORDERED that the motion by defendant Richard Bedrosian for summary judgment dismissing the complaint against him is granted.

This action was commenced by plaintiff to recover damages for injuries infant plaintiff Michael Marino allegedly sustained as a result of an accident involving an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) on July 28. 2009. The complaint alleges that Mr. Marino was a passenger on the rear seat of the ATV, that he was caused to be ejected from the ATV, and that the accident took place on property located behind the address known as 29 Buckingham Drive, Dix Hills, New York. Elena Marino individually asserts a derivative claim for loss of love, services, companionship, and household support. Defendant Richard Bedrosian asserts cross claims against defendant Richard Morrison, Jr., who has tailed to appear in this action.

Defendant Carmela Morrison now moves for summary judgment in her favor on the grounds that sh