McGowen v. Montes, 152 N.E.3d 654; 2020 Ind. App. LEXIS 335; 2020 WL 4516816

McGowen v. Montes, 152 N.E.3d 654; 2020 Ind. App. LEXIS 335; 2020 WL 4516816

Court of Appeals of Indiana

August 6, 2020, Decided; August 6, 2020, Filed

Court of Appeals Case No. 19A-CT-1707

Reporter

152 N.E.3d 654 *; 2020 Ind. App. LEXIS 335 **; 2020 WL 4516816

Eric McGowen and Vision Logistics, Inc., Appellants/Cross-Appellees, v. Bradley Montes, Appellee/Cross-Appellant.

Prior History:  [**1] Appeal from the Tippecanoe Superior Court. The Honorable Steven P. Meyer, Judge. Trial Court Cause No. 79D02-1708-CT-138.

Counsel: ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANTS/CROSS-APPELLEES; William B. Weiler, John A. Masters, Langhenry Gillen Lundquist & Johnson, LLC, Munster, Indiana.

ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE/CROSS-APPELLANT: Christopher G. Stevenson, Wilson Kehoe Winningham LLC, Indianapolis, Indiana; Kyle E. Cray, Kisti Good Risse, Bennett Boehning & Clary LLP Lafayette, Indiana; ATTORNEYS FOR AMICUS CURIAE INDIANA TRIAL LAWYERS ASSOCIATION, Brian A. Karle, Sarah M. Wyatt, Ball Eggleston PC, Lafayette, Indiana.

Judges: Friedlander, Senior Judge. May, J., and Tavitas, J., concur.

Opinion by: Friedlander

Opinion

[*656] 
Friedlander, Senior Judge.

P1 Eric McGowen and Bradley Montes were injured in a vehicle accident after McGowen stopped at the scene of a prior vehicle accident and Montes collided with his vehicle. McGowen sued Montes, and Montes sued McGowen and McGowen’s employer, Vision Logistics, Inc.

P2 In this interlocutory appeal, the parties cross-appeal the trial court’s rulings on their cross-motions for summary judgment, in which the court determined that a dispute of material fact remains to be decided at trial. We affirm in part but also reverse [**2]  in part and remand because we conclude there are no disputes of material fact and McGowen and Vision are entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

P3 On the morning of November 4, 2016, before the sun had risen, there was heavy fog in rural Tippecanoe County. McGowen was driving a semi-tractor (without a trailer) owned by his employer, Vision, on a two-lane county road. Traffic was sparse, but McGowen drove at thirty-five to forty miles per hour, well below the speed limit of fifty miles per hour, due to poor visibility. As he drove east, McGowen saw a truck in a ditch on the side of the road. The truck was upright and its headlights were on, pointing at McGowen’s semi as he approached. The truck’s roof, windshield, and hood were heavily damaged. McGowen also saw another vehicle stopped in the road near the truck, but that vehicle drove off as McGowen approached. McGowen speculated that there had been a two-car accident, and the other vehicle was leaving the scene.

P4 McGowen saw a man, later identified as Ryan Patton, “kind of wandering around” the truck. Appellee/Cross-Appellant’s App. Vol. II, p. 40. McGowen thought Patton “was drunk at first” or possibly injured. Id.

P5 McGowen stopped [**3]  his semi in the road. He kept his foot on the brake, rather than shifting the semi’s transmission to park. The semi’s rear brake lights activated automatically when the driver pressed on the brake pedal. McGowen checked his side mirrors as he slowed to a halt, but he did not see any sign of vehicles approaching from behind.

P6 McGowen rolled down the passenger window and asked Patton, “Are you okay?” Id. Patton climbed up to the semi’s passenger-side window and responded, “Yeah.” Id. Next, McGowen asked Patton if he wanted McGowen to call 911. Patton responded, “Yeah, if you don’t mind.” Id.

P7 Rebecca Higgins was traveling westbound on the same road and she saw the headlights of McGowen’s semi, stopped in the road. She pulled past the semi, parked on the side of the road opposite the semi, and activated her hazard lights. She saw Patton’s truck after she had passed the semi. Higgins also saw the semi’s brake lights.

P8 Meanwhile, Montes was also driving east on the same county road. Higgins saw Montes’ car traveling in her direction. She activated her vehicle’s high beams to warn Montes, but he did not slow down. Higgins also rolled down her window, waved her arms, and yelled, but Montes [**4]  still did not slow down. He instead collided with the rear of McGowen’s semi, without braking, immediately after Patton had asked McGowen to call 911. McGowen estimated no more than fifteen to thirty seconds had elapsed from the time he stopped until the time Montes struck the semi. Another vehicle that was also traveling east on the  [*657]  road, behind Montes, saw McGowen’s semi and stopped before hitting Montes’ car.

P9 Both McGowen and Montes suffered injuries from the collision. Montes later recalled seeing the rear of McGowen’s semi prior to the collision, but he was unsure of the distance at which he first saw it.

P10 This case began on August 24, 2017, when McGowen sued Montes, claiming negligence.1 Montes filed an answer, counter-sued McGowen for negligence, and sued Vision as a third-party defendant, alleging McGowen had been working for Vision at the time of the collision.

P11 In January 2019, McGowen and Vision filed a motion for summary judgment, asking the court to determine that they were immune from Montes’ negligence claims under Indiana Code section 34-30-12-1 (2008), also known as the Good Samaritan Law (“GSL”). Montes responded to the motion and filed a cross-motion for partial summary judgment, asserting [**5]  the GSL did not apply to McGowen’s conduct.

P12 After a hearing, the trial court issued an order determining: (1) there is no dispute of material fact that McGowen was rendering emergency care, for purposes of the GSL, when he stopped and offered to call 911; but (2) there is a dispute of material fact as to whether McGowen’s act in stopping on the road amounted to gross negligence or willful or wanton misconduct, for purposes of the GSL. The court granted in part and denied in part McGowen and Vision’s motion for summary judgment, and denied Montes’ cross-motion for partial summary judgment.

P13 Montes, McGowen, and Vision asked the trial court to certify its order for interlocutory review. The court granted the motion. Next, both sides separately asked the Court to accept this appeal. The Court granted the motions, and this appeal followed.

1. Standard of Review

HN1[] P14 Summary judgment orders are reviewed de novo, applying the same standard of review as the trial court. AM General LLC v. Armour, 46 N.E.3d 436 (Ind. 2015). Summary judgment is appropriate if the evidence designated by the parties demonstrates “there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and . . . the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Ind. Trial Rule 56(C).

HN2[] P15 The [**6]  movant bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Hughley v. State, 15 N.E.3d 1000 (Ind. 2014). If the movant bears its burden, then the nonmovant must present contrary evidence showing an issue for the trier of fact. Id. All evidence must be construed in favor of the nonmovant. Mahan v. Am. Standard Ins. Co., 862 N.E.2d 669 (Ind. Ct. App. 2007), trans. denied.

HN3[] P16 Cross-motions for summary judgment do not alter our standard of review. Alexander v. Linkmeyer Dev. II, LLC, 119 N.E.3d 603 (Ind. Ct. App. 2019). Instead, we consider each motion separately to determine whether the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Mahan, 862 N.E.2d 669.

P17 In addition, this case requires us to review the trial court’s application of the GSL. HN4[] Interpretation of a statute is a question of law reserved for the courts and, as is the case for a summary judgment order, is reviewed under a de novo standard. Ind. State Bd. of Educ. v. Brownsburg Cmty. Sch. Corp., 865 N.E.2d 660 (Ind. Ct. App. 2007).

 [*658] 
2. The Good Samaritan Law

P18 The GSL provides:

(a) This section does not apply to services rendered by a health care provider (as defined in IC 34-18-2-14 or IC 27-12-2-14 before its repeal) to a patient in a health care facility (as defined in IC 27-8-10-1).

(b) Except as provided in subsection (c), a person who comes upon the scene of an emergency or accident, complies with IC 9-26-1-1.5, or is summoned to the scene of an emergency or accident and, in good faith, gratuitously renders emergency care at the scene [**7]  of the emergency or accident is immune from civil liability for any personal injury that results from:

(1) any act or omission by the person in rendering the emergency care; or

(2) any act or failure to act to provide or arrange for further medical treatment or care for the injured person;

except for acts or omissions amounting to gross negligence or willful or wanton misconduct.

(c) This subsection applies to a person to whom IC 16-31-6.5 applies. A person who gratuitously renders emergency care involving the use of an automatic external defibrillator is immune from liability for any act or omission not amounting to gross negligence or willful or wanton misconduct if the person fulfills the requirements set forth in IC 16-31-6.5.

(d) This subsection applies to an individual, business, or organization to which IC 16-31-6.5 applies. An individual, business, or organization that allows a person who is an expected user to use an automatic external defibrillator of the individual, business, or organization to in good faith gratuitously render emergency care is immune from civil liability for any damages resulting from an act or omission not amounting to gross negligence or willful or wanton misconduct by the user or for acquiring [**8]  or providing the automatic external defibrillator to the user for the purpose of rendering the emergency care if the individual, business, or organization and the user fulfill the requirements set forth in IC 16-31-6.5.

(e) A licensed physician who gives medical direction in the use of a defibrillator or a national or state approved defibrillator instructor of a person who gratuitously renders emergency care involving the use of an automatic external defibrillator is immune from civil liability for any act or omission of the licensed physician or instructor if the act or omission of the licensed physician or instructor:

(1) involves the training for or use of an automatic external defibrillator; and

(2) does not amount to gross negligence or willful or wanton misconduct.

Ind. Code § 34-30-12-1.

P19 The GSL has rarely been addressed by Indiana’s appellate courts. HN5[] The statute’s grant of immunity from civil liability under certain circumstances limits a claimant’s right to bring suit, “in derogation of the common law.” Beckerman v. Gordon, 614 N.E.2d 610, 612 (Ind. Ct. App. 1993), reh’g denied, 618 N.E.2d 56 (1993), trans. denied. We strictly construe such statutes against limitations on the right to sue. Id.

HN6[] P20 When applying a statute to a case, “our first task is to give its words their clear and plain [**9]  meaning, while considering the structure of the statute as a whole.” City of Lawrence Utils. Serv. Bd. v. Curry, 68 N.E.3d 581, 585 (Ind. 2017). If a statute contains clear and unambiguous language, it is not subject to judicial interpretation. Yates v. Kemp, 979 N.E.2d 678 (Ind. 2012).

 [*659] 
3. Cross-Appeal: Emergency Care

P21 We first address Montes’ cross-appeal claim because, if it is meritorious, it would be dispositive of the appeal. He argues the trial court should have granted his motion for partial summary judgment because McGowen was not rendering emergency care for purposes of the GSL when he stopped at the accident scene to ask if Patton was okay and whether he should call 911. Montes argues that the GSL applies only to “persons actively participating in rendering care or assistance,” Appellee/Cross-Appellant’s Br. p. 15, and not to people in McGowen’s situation.2 He further argues the facts demonstrate there was no emergency at the time McGowen stopped his semi.

HN7[] P22 The General Assembly has defined the phrase “gratuitously renders emergency care,” as set forth in the GSL, in relevant part:

[t]he giving of emergency care (including the use of an automatic external defibrillator):

(1) that was volunteered without legal obligation on the part of the person rendering the emergency care; and

(2) for [**10]  which the person rendering the emergency care does not expect remuneration.

Ind. Code § 34-6-2-51 (1999). This statute focuses on the element of gratuitousness and does not address what conduct, other than the use of a defibrillator, meets the definition of emergency care.

P23 Similarly, Indiana’s prior cases applying the GSL have not sought to define “emergency care.” In McKinney v. Public Service Company of Indiana, Inc., 597 N.E.2d 1001 (Ind. Ct. App. 1992), trans. denied, a panel of this Court was asked to determine whether a vehicle that was disabled due to a flat tire, where the driver was uninjured, was an “accident” for purposes of the Samaritan Law. The panel determined that those circumstances did not amount to an accident, and the person who stopped to change the flat tire was not immune from civil suit under the GSL. In Beckerman, 614 N.E.2d 610, this Court was similarly asked to determine whether the circumstances of that case amounted to an “accident” for purposes of the GSL. A doctor had been called to a house to treat an ill person, who subsequently died from a heart attack. This Court concluded the victim’s medical condition was not a “sudden calamitous event,” and the GSL did not provide immunity from suit. Id. at 613.

P24 The parties cite several cases from other jurisdictions in support of their claims. Those [**11]  cases are not particularly helpful here because other states’ Good Samaritan laws are drafted differently from Indiana’s, and the courts applying those statutes have reached differing results. See, e.g., McDowell v. Gillie, 2001 ND 91, 626 N.W.2d 666, 675 (N.D. Sup. Ct. 2001) (stopping at an accident to ask if assistance is needed can constitute rendering “aid” for North Dakota’s GSL); Howell v. City Towing Assoc., Inc., 717 S.W.2d 729, 731 (Tex. Ct. App. 1986) (tow truck driver calling his dispatcher after passenger suffered medical emergency did not amount to “emergency care” as defined by Texas’ GSL), writ refused.

P25 In the absence of a statutory definition or prior caselaw, we define “emergency care” in accordance with our principles of statutory application. HN8[] Subsection (b)(2) of the GSL distinguishes between medical treatment and other forms  [*660]  of emergency assistance, providing immunity for persons who “provide or arrange for further medical treatment or care.” Ind. Code § 34-30-12-1(b)(2) (emphasis added). Based on the plain language of the statute, “emergency care” thus encompasses actions other than direct medical treatment. In addition, the Samaritan Law immunizes an “act or failure to act to provide or arrange for further medical treatment or care for the injured person.” Id. In the current case, it is undisputed that McGowen stopped his semi to ask Patton if he [**12]  was okay and if McGowen should contact 911. McGowen was thus seeking to arrange medical treatment, as mentioned in the statute.

P26 Montes and amicus curiae argue that, reading the GSL in its entirety, the statute encompasses only medical care or first aid. We disagree. Subsections (c), (d), and (e) of the GSL address the use of a defibrillator to provide medical assistance. The General Assembly clearly knew how to specify medical care, including specific medical treatments, in the GSL. If the General Assembly had intended to specify that “emergency care” meant only medical treatment or first aid, they could have done so. HN9[] “We cannot add new words to a statute but are bound to apply statutes as the legislature has written them.” Matter of Supervised Estate of Kent, 99 N.E.3d 634, 639 (Ind. 2018). HN10[] We conclude from the unambiguous language of the GSL that stopping and asking if a person who has been involved in an accident needs help is “emergency care.”

P27 Next, Montes argues the scene of the vehicle collision did not qualify as an “objective emergency.” Appellee/Cross-Appellant’s Br. p. 13. HN11[] The Beckerman court defined an “accident” as a “sudden calamitous event.” Beckerman, 614 N.E.2d at 613. In this case, McGowen arrived on the scene of an automobile accident, possibly a two-car collision. Further, [**13]  Patton was wandering around the truck, giving McGowen the impression that he was injured or drunk. This is ample, undisputed evidence of a sudden event, with a potentially injured person, that qualified as an emergency for purposes of the GSL. The trial court did not err in denying Montes’ motion for partial summary judgment.

4. Gross Negligence and Willful and Wanton Misconduct

HN12[] P28 The GSL provides that a person is not shielded from civil liability if the person’s acts or omissions while providing emergency care amounted to “gross negligence or willful or wanton misconduct.” Ind. Code § 34-30-12-1. The trial court determined there was a dispute of material fact as to whether McGowen’s conduct was grossly negligent or willful or wanton. McGowen and Vision argue that the undisputed facts establish that his acts did not meet either standard, and they conclude the trial court should have granted their motion for summary judgment in its entirety.

P29 The General Assembly has frequently used the phrases “gross negligence” and “willful or wanton misconduct” in statutes granting immunity from civil damages. See, e.g., Ind. Code § 21-44.5-2-6 (2019) (administration of auto-injectable epinephrine); Ind. Code § 31-33-6-2 (2018) (reporting child abuse or neglect); [**14] 
Ind. Code § 10-17-13.5-7 (2018) (physicians’ administration of hyperbaric oxygen treatments to veterans). We have not found a statutory definition of those terms for purposes of the GSL, and the parties have not directed us to any.

HN13[] P30 The Indiana Supreme Court has defined gross negligence as “‘[a] conscious, voluntary act or omission in reckless disregard of . . . the consequences to another party.'” N. Ind. Pub. Serv. Co. v.  [*661]  Sharp, 790 N.E.2d 462, 465 (Ind. 2003) (quoting BLACK’S LAW DICTIONARY 1057 (7th ed. 1999)). A finding of gross negligence is predicated on a showing of negligence, as it is the intentional failure to perform a duty in reckless disregard of the consequences. York v. Fredrick, 947 N.E.2d 969 (Ind. Ct. App. 2011), trans. denied.

P31 In Miller v. Indiana Department of Workforce Development, 878 N.E.2d 346 (Ind. Ct. App. 2007), Miller was driving his employer’s truck when he stopped at a stop sign. Upon driving into the intersection, he collided with a vehicle approaching from his right side. Miller’s employer terminated him after the collision, citing a provision of a labor agreement that permitted instant termination for “gross negligence.” Id. at 350.

P32 Miller sought unemployment benefits, and he appealed the denial of his request. HN14[] A panel of this Court applied the definition of gross negligence set forth above, noting “the question of whether an act or omission constitutes gross negligence is generally [**15]  a question of fact, [but] the question may become one of law if ‘the facts are undisputed and only a single inference can be drawn from those facts.'” Id. at 356 (quoting Sharp, 790 N.E.2d at 466). The Court concluded that Miller’s failure to use due care when entering the intersection after stopping at the stop sign was “negligent, but not grossly negligent.” Id. at 357.

P33 In this case, the undisputed facts establish that McGowen was driving at only thirty-five to forty miles per hour when he stopped his semi in the road at the scene of an accident. McGowen did not put his semi in park but merely pressed on the brake, activating his rear brake lights. He was unaware of any vehicles behind him. McGowen asked Patton if he was okay and whether he should call 911, immediately before Montes collided with the rear of the semi. McGowen stated, without contradiction, that only fifteen to thirty seconds elapsed between him stopping his semi and being rear-ended by Montes. These circumstances resemble at worst the mere negligence at issue in Miller, rather than the reckless disregard for others that characterizes gross negligence.

P34 Montes claims there are several material disputes of fact that justify the trial court’s partial denial [**16]  of McGowen and Vision’s motion for summary judgment on the issue of gross negligence. We disagree. He points to evidence that McGowen could have pulled off the road, contradicting Montes’ statement during a deposition that there was no space for his semi along the side of the road. This fact is immaterial due to the short duration of the stop prior to the collision and McGowen’s choice to not put the semi in park, allowing him to move on quickly if needed.

P35 There is also a dispute as to whether McGowen activated his vehicle’s hazard lights after stopping, in the brief interval before Montes collided with him. This factual dispute is also immaterial because it is undisputed that McGowen’s brake lights activated when he stopped, and: (1) the brake lights override the hazard lights, and (2) the brake lights are as bright as the hazard lights.

P36 Finally, Montes claims McGowen violated numerous traffic regulations and commercial driver standards when he stopped in the road. HN15[] Even if McGowen’s acts were contrary to statutes, “violation of a statutory duty creates a presumption of negligence that may be rebutted.” Sandberg Trucking, Inc. v. Johnson, 76 N.E.3d 178, 188-89 (Ind. Ct. App. 2017). A presumption of negligence is dissimilar to a presumption of gross negligence. [**17]  We conclude that there is no dispute  [*662]  of material fact as to whether McGowen was grossly negligent.

HN16[] P37 Turning to willful or wanton conduct, such conduct consists of two elements: “(1) the defendant must have knowledge of an impending danger or consciousness of a course of misconduct calculated to result in probable injury; and (2) the actor’s conduct must have exhibited an indifference to the consequence of his conduct.” Witham v. Norfolk and Western Ry. Co., 561 N.E.2d 484, 486 (Ind. 1990). “The distinction between constructive willfulness and mere negligence depends on the actor’s state of mind.” McKeown v. Calusa, 172 Ind. App. 1, 6-7, 359 N.E.2d 550, 554 (1977).

P38 In Frybarger v. Coffelt, 180 Ind. App. 160, 387 N.E.2d 104 (1979), a passenger in Coffelt’s car died when Coffelt chose to race another driver on a two-lane highway at night and collided with a third car attempting to turn left across the highway. On appeal, the passenger’s estate argued that the trial court erred in determining Coffelt’s conduct did not meet the definition of willful or wanton misconduct. A panel of this Court concluded that, although Coffelt was racing at night at a high rate of speed, a dip in the road made it impossible for him to see the car in time to avoid striking it, and there was no evidence of any other reckless behavior by Coffelt. The Court affirmed the trial court’s determination that [**18]  Coffelt had not behaved willfully and wantonly.

P39 In the current case, the standard of review is different, but McGowen’s conduct is far less reckless than Coffelt’s. On a dark, foggy morning, McGowen drove on a two-lane county road at thirty-five to forty miles per hour due to poor visibility. He came to a stop when he saw Patton and the wrecked truck along the side of the road, pressing on the brake rather than shifting into park. McGowen checked his side mirrors as he slowed to a halt, but he did not see any sign of approaching vehicles. He barely had time to ask Patton if he was okay and whether he should call 911 when Montes collided with the back of the semi. During McGowen’s deposition, when asked if he was concerned that stopping on the road may have been hazardous, he stated, “I was more concerned about [Patton]. I thought it was a two-car accident.” Appellants’/Cross-Appellees’ App. Vol. II, p. 104. There is no evidence that McGowen was indifferent to the results of his conduct. Rather, the undisputed facts demonstrate McGowen was aware of dangerous road conditions and attempted to drive carefully while rendering aid to Patton. As a matter of law, McGowen’s conduct did not [**19]  meet the standard of willful or wanton misconduct. The trial court erred in denying in part McGowen and Vision’s motion for summary judgment, because they are entitled to the protection of the Good Samaritan Law.

P40 For the reasons stated above, we affirm the judgment of the trial court in part, reverse in part, and remand with instructions to grant McGowen and Vision’s motion for summary judgment.

P41 Judgment affirmed in part and reversed in part, and remanded with instructions.

May, J., and Tavitas, J., concur.


What the term “strictly construed” actually means when used to describe how a release will be viewed by the court.

The decision involves several legal issues, the one that concerns us is the issue of a release for a product. In Kansas, releases are strictly construed. In this case that meant that the language of the release did not meet the requirements of state law for a release. However, the court stretched incredibly far to come to that conclusion.

Fee v. Steve Snyder Enterprises, Inc.; Et. Al., 1986 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 28158

State: Kansas, United States District Court for the District of Kansas

Plaintiff: Patricia Fee

Defendant: Steve Snyder Enterprises, Inc.; Russell Young; SSE, Incorporated; Greene County Sport Parachute Center of Wellsville, Kansas, Inc.; and John Doe Corporation

Plaintiff Claims: Wrongful death and survival claims based on negligence, product liability and breach of warranty

Defendant Defenses: Statute of Limitations ran,

Holding: for the plaintiff

Year: 1986

Summary

The lawsuit was brought over the failure of an automatic opener, which did not during a sky dive. The widow sued the manufacture of the device and the sky-diving center who sold the device to the deceased. The deceased signed a release and indemnity agreement, two separate documents when purchasing the automatic opener.

In Kansas, releases are allowed but strictly construed. Here strict construction is used, improperly, to interpret the release in an extremely narrow way to allow the lawsuit to proceed.

Facts

The deceased died when he was sky diving, and his automatic opening device failed to open. The automatic opening device was manufactured by the defendant.

The plaintiff spent eight years attempting to serve the defendant, starting in 1977 and finally serving the defendant in 1985. This lead to a discussion about when the lawsuit actually started, which takes the first half of the decision. Because the defendant had avoided service of process, because he knew about it and made attempts not to get sued, the date of the lawsuit started was the date he was served. However, due to the defendant’s actions, the statute of limitations did not run.

The widow purchased the automatic opener for the deceased, although the dates in the decision must be incorrect. The decision states the device was purchased a year after the deceased died. The device failed the first time it was used by the decedent.

The deceased signed a release for the parachute center. The defendant manufacturer raised the release as a defense to the claims of the plaintiff against the manufacture as well as those claims against the dive center.

The release was on one side of the paper and on the reverse was an assumption of risk language. The deceased also signed a separate indemnify agreement. The decedent signed both agreements.

This decision is that of the Federal District Court in Kansas.

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

The court first looked at release law in Kansas. If not against public policy, then Kansas recognizes exculpatory agreements, releases. However, like many state’s releases, the courts in Kansas use the language that releases “are not favored by the law and are strictly construed against the party relying on them.” Strictly construed does not require the specific term negligence but must clearly appear to express the intent to release from liability the defendant.

It is not necessary; however, that the agreement contained specific or express language covering in so many words the party’s negligence, if the intention to exculpate the party from liability clearly ap-pears from the contract, the surrounding circumstances and the purposes and objects of the parties.

The court in reading the release found it did not stop the plaintiff’s claims.

The court first in looking at the language found the language covered use of the product but did not cover liability for “sale” of the product.

First, a review of the agreement itself shows that, although it specifically releases the Parachute Center from liability for injuries or death arising out of the “ownership, operation, use, maintenance or control” of many devices,” the agreement fails to mention any release of liability revolving around the sale of any product to the parachuter.

The court admitted the deceased understood that parachuting was dangerous, that was not enough. By making the determination that the product was defective when sold, the court found the release would not stand because you cannot release liability for selling a defective product.

Strictly construing the agreement; however, we do not believe that this should be interpreted to exempt the Parachute Center from a failure to use due care in furnishing safe equipment, or should allow it to sell a product in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to the parachuter. To do so would impermissibly extend the terms of the agreement to situations not plainly within its language.

The court then determined the release would also not work to stop the plaintiff’s claims for breach of either express or implied warranty. The court found attempting to release the defendant parachute center from liability was unconscionable. Under Kansas law, a release could be used to stop warranty claims, unless that was found to be unconscionable.

We, therefore, hold that plaintiff’s action is not barred by the release, covenant not to sue and indemnity clause signed by the plaintiff’s decedent. Summary judgment in favor of the defendants Parachute Center and Russell Young is therefore, inappropriate.

The indemnification agreement seemed to be ignored in reaching this determination by the court.

So Now What?

Strict construction is a term that gives leeway to a court to review the language of the release to make sure it conforms to the language required under state law. However, that term was created and applied to release’s decades ago and rarely used now except in rare situations like this. When the judge wants the defendant to pay.

Probably the term was created when courts were first asked to apply releases to a plaintiff’s claims and wanted a way to soften the blow. Now days, in most states it is quoted in the decision at the beginning and never heard of again. Eventually if the courts review enough releases, the term is not even quoted.

Few states allow a release to be used to stop product liability claims. However, several states do and several states allow assumption of risk to stop product liability claims. A well-written release that incorporates assumption of risk language is still effective in many product liability cases.

Here, however, the court reached as far as it could to find that the release was barred from stopping the claims. Part of that desire to allow the suit to proceed was probably because of the actions of the manufacturer who spend eight years avoiding service of the lawsuit.

The rest, however, was simply a stretch to allow the lawsuit to proceed.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Fee v. Steve Snyder Enterprises, Inc.; et. Al., 1986 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 28158

Fee v. Steve Snyder Enterprises, Inc.; et. Al., 1986 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 28158

Patricia Fee, Plaintiff, v. Steve Snyder Enterprises, Inc.; Russell Young; SSE, Incorporated; Greene County Sport Parachute Center of Wellsville, Kansas, Inc.; and John Doe Corporation, Defendants

CIVIL ACTION No. 84-2323

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF KANSAS

1986 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 28158

March 14, 1986

CASE SUMMARY:

CORE TERMS: parachute, sport, summary judgment, decedent, personally, covenant, implied warranties, statute of limitations, service of process, mail service, notice, mail, parachuting, personal injury, personal service, parachuter, consumer, assigns, wrongful death, strict liability, territorial limits, unconscionable, consequential, predecessor, disclaimer, diversity, automatic, warranty, opening, saving

COUNSEL: [*1] John E. McKay, LAW OFFICES OF BENSON & McKAY, 911 Main Street, Suite 1430, Kansas City, Missouri 64105, (816) 842-7604; Mark R. Singer/Micheline Z. Burger ROMAIN, BURGER & SINGER, CHTD., The College View Building, 4500 College Blvd., Suite 103, Overland Park, Kansas 66221, (913)649-5224; Paul v. Herbers, James E. Cooling, Cooling, Herbers & Sears, P.C., P.O. Box 26770, Kansas City, MO 64196, (816) 474-0770; Russell C. Leffel, 7315 Frontage Road, Suite 111, Shawnee Mission, KS 66204, 913-362-9727, Neal E. Millert, Larry J. Tyrl, James, Millert, Houdek, Tyrl & Sommers, 804 Bryant Building, 1102 Grand, Kansas City, Missouri 64106, Randolph G. Austin, Speer, Austin, Holliday, & Ruddick, 261 N. Cherry, P.O. Box 1000, Olathe, Kansas 66061.

OPINION BY: O’CONNOR

OPINION

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

EARL E. O’CONNOR, CHIEF JUDGE.

This matter is before the court on defendants’ motions for summary judgment and plaintiff’s motion for costs. This is a diversity action for wrongful death and survivorship based on claims of negligence, strict liability and breach of express and implied warranties.

I. Motion for Summary Judgment by Defendant SSE, Incorporated.

Defendant SSE, Incorporated, moves for [*2] summary judgment on the ground that plaintiff’s action is barred by the two-year statute of limitations found at K.S.A. 60-513(a). For the following reasons, defendant’s motion must be denied.

[HN1] Summary judgment is appropriate when the matters considered by the court disclose 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.” Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c). The court must look at the record in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. Prochaska v. Marcoux, 632 F.2d 848, 850 (10th Cir. 1980), cert. denied, 451 U.S. 984 (1981). Before summary judgment may be granted, the moving party must establish that it is entitled to summary judgment beyond a reasonable doubt. Ellis v. El Paso Natural Gas Co., 754 F.2d 884, 885 (10th Cir. 1985).

The uncontroverted facts relevant to this motion are as follows:

1. The plaintiff’s decedent died while skydiving on December 11, 1982, when his parachute failed to open. Decedent’s parachute was equipped with an automatic opening device, which was manufactured by the defendant SSE, Incorporated.

2. Plaintiff filed this lawsuit on August 13, [*3] 1984, consisting of wrongful death and survival claims based on negligence, product liability and breach of warranty. Plaintiff named Steve Snyder Enterprises, Inc., as a defendant, claiming that it was a Pennsylvania corporation that designed, manufactured and sold the defective device.

3. On August 14, 1984, the complaint was mailed to Steve Snyder Enterprises, Inc., at a New Jersey address.

4. Steve Snyder Enterprises, Inc., had changed its name to “SSE, Incorporated,” in November of 1977. Its corporate headquarters, however, remained at the same location.

5. SSE, Incorporated, received the complaint at the New Jersey address.

6. ln a telephone conversation with plaintiff’s counsel, the attorney for SSE, Incorporated, advised plaintiff’s counsel that neither SSE nor its predecessor corporation, Steve Snyder Enterprises, Inc., would accept service by mail.

7. On November 1, 1984, counsel for SSE, Incorporated, rated, wrote to plaintiff’s counsel, again informing him that SSE intended not to acknowledge the mail service.

8. On November 14, 1984, the complaint was again mailed to Steve Snyder Enterprises, Inc. SEE, Incorporated, received the complaint, but refused to sign or [*4] return an acknowledgement.

9. On December 7, 1984, plaintiff filed her first amended complaint, adding SSE, Incorporated, as a defendant.

10. From January 1985 to August 28, 1985, plaintiff’s process servers made thirty-three attempts to personally serve SSE, Incorporated.

11. On August 29, 1985, plaintiff successfully served Steve Snyder, the registered agent and president of SSE, Incorporated.

Defendant SSE, Incorporated, argues that summary judgment is appropriate on all of plaintiff’s claims because they are barred by the two-year statute of limitations for wrongful death actions set forth at K.S.A. 60-513(a)(5). The court notes, however, that not all of plaintiff’s claims are for wrongful death — Counts VI through VIII are survival actions based on negligence, strict liability and breach of express and implied warranties. Nevertheless, a similar two-year statute of limitations (see K.S.A. 60-13(a)(4)) applies to the negligence, strict liability and breach of warranty claims. See Grey v. Bradford-White Corp., 581 F.Supp. 725 (D. Kan. 1984). The court will therefore treat defendant’s motion as seeking summary judgment on all of plaintiff’s claims and not merely plaintiff’s [*5] wrongful death claims.

To decide whether plaintiff’s claims are barred by the two-year statute of limitations, we must first determine when plaintiff’s suit was commenced. [HN2] In a diversity action, the court must apply the state law prescribing when an action commences for statute of limitations purposes rather than Rule 3 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Walker v. Armco Steel Corp., 446 U.S. 740 (1980); Ragan v. Merchants Transfer & Warehouse Company, 337 U.S. 530 (1949). [HN3] Kansas law provides that an action is commenced at the time a petition is filed if service of process is obtained within ninety days. See K.S.A. 60-203(a)(1). If service is not obtained during the 90-day period, then the action is commenced at the time of service. Id.

Defendant argues that plaintiff’s action did not com- mence until August 29, 1985, when plaintiff personally served the agent of SSE, Incorporated, Steve Snyder. Accordingly, since plaintiff’s cause of action arose on December 11, 1982, her claims are barred by the two-year statute of limitations. We are not persuaded by defendant’s argument.

We conclude that plaintiff’s action was timely commenced under the saving provisions [*6] of K.S.A. 60-203(b). That section provides:

[HN4] If service of process or first publication purports to have been made within the time specified by subsection (a)(1) but is later adjudicated to have been invalid due to any irregularity in form or procedure or any defect in making service, the action shall nevertheless be deemed to have been commenced by the original filing of the petition if valid service is obtained or first publication is made within 90 days after that adjudication, except that the court may extend that time an additional 30 days upon a showing of good cause by the plaintiff.

Id.

Applying this statute to the facts in this case, we find that plaintiff purported to serve process by mail on August 14, 1984, only one day after the suit was filed. Service by mail is proper under a recent amendment to the Kansas Code of Civil Procedure. 1
See K.S.A. 60-314 (Supp. 1985). We find, however, that plaintiff’s service was invalid due to the defendant’s failure to complete and return the enclosed notice. Under the saving provision of section 60-203(b), we may nevertheless deem plaintiff’s action to have been commenced on the date plaintiff’s complaint was filed, [*7] so long as plaintiff makes personal service on the defendant within ninety days of this order.

1 We must look to the Kansas law prescribing the method of service. This is a diversity action in which plaintiff asserts jurisdiction over the defendant pursuant to the Kansas long-arm statute, K.S.A. 60-308. Fed. R. Civ. P. 4(f) provides that “process other than a subpoena may be served anywhere within the territorial limits of the state in which the district court is held, and when authorized by a statute of the United States or by these rules, beyond the territorial limits of that state.” There is no applicable federal statute that would allow service of process outside the state in this case. Thus, in order to obtain service beyond the territorial limits of the court, there must be authorization in “these rules.” Rule 4(e) provides for service of process on defendants who are not inhabitants of or found within the state. In pertinent part it states:

Whenever a statute or rule of court of the state in which the district is held provides (1) for service of a summons, or of a notice, or of an order in lieu of summons upon a party not an inhabitant of or found within the state, . . . service may . . . be made under the circumstances and in the manner prescribed in the [state] statute or rule.

Clearly, service by mail is a “manner” of service provided by the Kansas statute in this situation. See K.S.A. 60-314 (Supp. 1985).

[*8] Defendant also argues that because plaintiff’s mail service was directed to Steve Snyder Enterprises, Inc., rather than to SSE, Incorporated, it was totally ineffective. We find defendant’s argument meritless for two reasons. First, under the saving provision discussed above, plaintiff’s mistake in naming defendant’s predecessor corporation qualifies as a defect in the service that may be remedied by plaintiff reserving the defendant under its proper name within ninety days of this order. Second, [HN5] both the federal rules (Rule 15(c)) and Kansas law (K.S.A. 60-215(c)) allow for relation back of an amendment changing a party. Under these provisions, [HN6] a change in party relates back so long as the claim asserted arose out of the events set forth in the original complaint and

within the period provided by law for commencing the action against him, the party to be brought in by amendment (1) has received such notice of the institution of the action that he will not be prejudiced in maintaining his defense on the merits, and (2) knew or should have known that, but for a mistake concerning the identity of the proper party, the action would have been brought against him.

Federal Rule [*9] of Civil Procedure 15(c); K.S.A. 60-215(c).

In this case, an amendment changing defendant’s name from Steve Snyder Enterprises, Inc., to SSE, Incorporated, would clearly relate back. First, the claims asserted would be identical to those originally filed. Second, SSE, Incorporated, admits it had notice of this action within the statutory period. Counsel for SSE, Incorporated, informed plaintiff’s counsel in August and November of 1984 that SSE had received the mail service but chose not to acknowledge it. Third, SSE, Incorporated, knew that but for plaintiff’s confusion over the name of its predecessor corporation, the action would have been brought against it.

We therefore hold that plaintiff shall have ninety (90) days from the date of this order to personally serve the defendant SSE, Incorporated. Upon such service, plaintiff’s action will be deemed to have commenced on August 13, 1984, when the case was filed. Plaintiff’s claims will therefore be timely. If, however, plaintiff fails to serve SSE, Incorporated, within the 90-day time period, plaintiff’s action against this defendant will be deemed time-barred. Defendant’s motion for summary judgment will therefore be held in abeyance [*10] for ninety days from the date of this order to allow plaintiff to properly serve the defendant.

II. Plaintiff’s Motion for Costs.

Plaintiff moves for payment of the costs incurred in plaintiff’s previous attempts to personally serve defendant. [HN7] Costs are available pursuant to both Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 4(c)(2)(D) and K.S.A. 60-314:

Unless good cause is shown for not doing so the court shall order the payment of the costs of personal service by the person served if such person does not complete and return within 20 days after mailing, the notice and acknowledgment of receipt of summons.

Defendant in this case has shown no reason why costs should not be assessed against it. Defendant deliberately refused to acknowledge mail service and even went so far as to inform plaintiff that it was electing to assert its “right to service of process in the customary manner and not by mail.” Defendant’s Exhibit 4. Not only did defendant refuse mail service, but it also made every attempt to thwart personal service. Plaintiff was thus forced to attempt service at least thirty-three times against defendant. We therefore hold that plaintiff is entitled to recover costs in [*11] the amount of $1,628.47 as requested in her motion. Furthermore, plaintiff will be entitled to recover costs incurred in serving the defendant again, as discussed in part I above, upon plaintiff’s submission of proof of expenses.

III. Motion for Summary Judgment by Defendants Russell Young and Greene County Sport Parachute Center.

Defendant Russell Young moves for summary judgment on the ground that plaintiff’s decedent signed a release and covenant not to sue in favor of Greene County Sport Parachute Center of Wellsville, Kansas, Inc. (hereinafter the Parachute Center), and its employees and agents. The Parachute Center joins in said motion.

The material uncontroverted facts are as follows:

1. On May 8, 1982, plaintiff’s decedent signed a “Release and Covenant Not To Sue,” which read in pertinent part:

[I] do hereby fully and forever release and discharge the said Greene County Sport Parachute Center of Wellsville, Kansas, Inc. and their employees, servants, stockholders, agents, successors, assigns, and all other persons whomsoever directly or indirectly liable, from any and all other claims and demands, actions and cause of action, damages, costs, loss of services, [*12] expenses and any and all other claims of damages whatsoever, resulting from PERSONAL INJURIES, DEATH OR PROPERTY DAMAGES SUSTAINED BY ME, arising out of AIRCRAFT FLIGHTS, PARACHUTE JUMPS, or any other means of lift, ascent or descent from an aircraft of any nature, or arising out of the ownership, operation, use, maintenance or control of any vehicle, whether motor vehicle, aircraft, or otherwise, or any device, or mooring, while on the ground or in flight, and meaning and intending to include herein all such PERSONAL INJURIES, DEATH OR PROPERTY DAMAGE resulting from or in any way connected with or arising out of instructions, training, and ground or air operations incidental thereto.

This release and covenant not to sue is made and entered in consideration of the permission extended to me by Greene County Sport Parachute Center of Wellsville, Kansas, Inc. to participate in a course of parachuting instructions, parachuting training flying activities, ground or air operations incidental to parachuting and flying.

I further acknowledge that I will not rely on any oral or written representation of Greene County Sports Parachute Center of Wellsville, Kansas, Inc. or any agent thereof. [*13] I fully understand that there are dangerous risks in the sport of parachute jumping, and I assume said risks. . . .

I HAVE READ AND FULLY UNDERSTAND that Release and Covenant Not to Sue and sign the same as my own free act.

2. Plaintiff’s decedent also signed an “Indemnity Clause,” which read:

I acknowledge that Greene County Sport Parachute Center of Wellsville, Ks., Inc., is not an insurer of me. I do, for myself, my heirs, executors, administrators and assigns, hereby expressly stipulate, covenant and agree to indemnify and hold forever harmless the said Greene County Sport Parachute Center of Wellsville, Ks., Inc., and its employees, servants, stockholders, agents, successors, and assigns, and all other persons whomsoever against and from any and all actions, causes of action, claims and demands for damages, judgments, executions, costs, loss of services, expenses, compensation, including reimbursement of all legal costs and reasonable counsel fees incurred or paid by the said indemnified parties or any of them, for the investigation, prosecution or defense of any such action, cause of action or claim or demand for damages, and any and all other claims for damages, whatsoever, [*14] which may hereafter arise, or be instituted or recovered against said Greene County Sport Parachute Center of Wellsville, Ks., Inc., and its servants, employees, stockholders, agents, successors, assigns or any other person or persons whomsoever, by me or by any other person whomsoever, whether for the purpose of making or enforcing a claim for damages, on account of PERSONAL INJURIES, DEATH, OR PROPERTY DAMAGE sustained by me, or whether for the purpose of enforcing a claim for damages of any nature by any person whomsoever, on account of, or in any way resulting therefrom.

3. The decedent signed both the clause and release and certified that he had read them. His signature was witnessed by defendant Russell Young, President of the Parachute Center.

4. On the reverse side of the release, the decedent also signed and certified the following statements:

(9) I understand there are potential dangers and risks involved in this sport and acknowledge that the training I have received is intended to minimize such but is no guarantee or representation that there are none.

(10) I understand that parachuting is a potentially dangerous sport and that the proper functions of these parachutes [*15] or any parachute cannot be and is not guaranteed.

5. The decedent ordered and promised to pay for an automatic parachute opening device from the defendants Parachute Center and Russell Young. Young delivered the device to the decedent in December 1982.

6. The decedent used the device for the first time while skydiving on December 11, 1982. His parachute failed to open, he fell to the ground and was fatally injured.

7. The decedent’s widow paid the Parachute Center $254.60 for the device on January 27, 1983.

[HN8] Kansas courts have long recognized the validity of exculpatory agreements relieving a party from liability unless it would be against the settled public policy to do so. See, e.g., Belger Cartage Service, Inc. v. Holland Construction Co., 224 Kan. 320, 329, 582 P.2d 1111, 1118 (1978); Hunter v. American Rentals, 189 Kan. 615, 617, 371 P.2d 131, 133 (1962). Exculpatory contracts, however, “are not favored by the law and are strictly construed against the party relying on them.” Cason v. Geis Irrigation Co., 211 Kan. 406, 411, 507 P.2d 295, 299 (1973). Accord. Belger, 224 Kan. at 329, 582 P.2d at 1119. The terms of the agreement are not to be extended to [*16] situations not plainly within the language employed. Baker v. City of Topeka, 231 Kan. 328, 334, 644 P.2d 441, 446 (1982); Missouri Pacific Railroad Co. v. City of Topeka, 213 Kan. 658, 664, 518 P.2d 372, 377 (1973). It is not necessary, however, that the agreement contain specific or express language covering in so many words the party’s negligence, if the intention to exculpate the party from liability clearly appears from the contract, the surrounding circumstances and the purposes and objects of the parties. Bartlett v. Davis Corp., 219 Kan. 148, 159, 547 P.2d 800, 806 (1976).

After reviewing the language of the contract and the totality of the circumstances to determine the intent of these parties, we conclude that the release and indemnity clause do not preclude plaintiff’s action. First, a review of the agreement itself shows that, although it specifically releases the Parachute Center from liability for injuries or death arising out of the “ownership, operation, use, maintenance or control” of many device,” the agreement fails to mention any release of liability revolving around the sale of any product to the parachuter. Granted, there is a paragraph in [*17] which the parachuter states that he understands that parachuting is a potentially dangerous sport and that the proper function of the parachute cannot be guaranteed. Strictly construing the agreement, however, we do not believe that this should be interpreted to exempt the Parachute Center from a failure to use due care in furnishing safe equipment, or should allow it to sell a product in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to the parachuter. To do so would impermissibly extend the terms of the agreement to situations not plainly within its language.

Other courts have held that similar releases exempt parachute centers and trainers only from injuries that ordinarily occur without any fault of the defendant. See Diedrich v. Wright, 550 F.Supp. 805 (N.D. Ill. 1982); Gross v. Sweet, 49 N.Y.2d 102, 424 N.Y.S.2d 65, 400 N.E.2d 306 (Ct.App. 1979). We agree with these courts that the language alerting the parachuter to the dangers in parachute jumping is used to drive home to the individual that he must enter into this sport with an apprehension of the risks inherent in the nature of the sport. See 550 F.Supp. at 808; 49 N.Y.2d at
, 424 N.Y.S.2d at 369, 400 [*18] N.E.2d at It does not, however, follow that he must accept enhanced exposure to injury or death based on the carelessness of the defendants in selling him a defective product or failing to warn him about its use.

Furthermore, we hold that the release was ineffective under Kansas law to limit liability for a breach of either an express or implied warranty. [HN9] With respect to disclaimer of express warranties, K.S.A. 84-2-719(3) provides:

Consequential damages may be limited or excluded unless the limitation or exclusion is unconscionable. Limitation of consequential damages for injury to the person in the case of consumer goods is prima facie unconscionable but limitation of damages where the loss is commercial is not.

In this case, the automatic opening device qualifies as a consumer good under K.S.A. 84-9-109. Under section 84-2-719(3), the defendants’ attempt to exclude consequential damages for personal injury was unconscionable and therefore unenforceable.

Furthermore, with respect to disclaimer of implied warranties of merchantability, [HN10] the Kansas Consumer Protection Act flatly prohibits in consumer cases the use of any limitation on remedies or liability for implied [*19] warranties, and declares that any such disclaimers are void. K.S.A. 50-639(a) and (e). See also id. at 84-2-719 (Kansas Comment).

We therefore hold that plaintiff’s action is not barred by the release, covenant not to sue and indemnity clause signed by plaintiff’s decedent. Summary judgment in favor of the defendants Parachute Center and Russell Young is therefore inappropriate.

IT IS THEREFORE ORDERED that defendants’ motion for summary judgment by Russell Young and Greene County Sport Parachute Center of Wellsville, Kansas, Inc., is denied.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that defendant’s motion for summary judgment by SSE, Incorporated, shall be held in abeyance until plaintiff obtains personal service upon SSE, Incorporated. Plaintiff shall have ninety (90) days from the date of this order to personally serve SSE, Incorporated. If plaintiff fails to so serve the defendant, defendant’s motion for summary judgment will be granted.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that plaintiff’s motion for costs to personally serve the defendant SSE, Incorporated, in the amount of $1,628.47, is granted.

Dated this 14th May of March, 1986, at Kansas City, Kansas.