The path down from the road to a river is an open and obvious danger that the plaintiff assumes before walking down the path.

Plaintiff worked hard to come up with any possible legal theory to win.

Rooney v. Battenkill River Sports & Campground Holding Co. (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 2022)

State: New York; Supreme Court of New York, Third Department

Plaintiff: Jessica Rooney

Defendant: Battenkill River Sports & Campground Holding Company, LLC

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Assumption of the Risk

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2022

Summary

Plaintiff sued for injuries she received while walking down a path to the river to go tubing. Defendant tube rental company proved the risks were open and obvious, and the plaintiff assumed the risks.

Facts

In July 2018, plaintiff sustained injuries when she slipped on a rock located on an access path while attempting to access the Battenkill River to go water tubing.

This is a case out of New York so the facts are few, and the decision is short.

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

Not all the legal arguments made by the plaintiff are going to be discussed here. The case is easy to read, and you understand them on your own.

The plaintiff was walking down an embankment to the river, which was not owned by the tubing company, when she fell. She sued for negligence and argued the defendant owed her a high duty of care because the defendant was a common carrier.

The trail court adopted that position and upheld the plaintiffs’ claims on that theory; however, the trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims because she assumed the risk causing her injury. The plaintiff appealed. The appellate court did not review the common carrier question.

(It would be extremely rare and unlikely that any transportation that was incidental to the recreational activity and only taking people from the shop to the put in would be found to be a common carrier by any court in any state.)

The gravamen of plaintiff’s contention is that the doctrine of primary assumption of risk is inapplicable here because, although she had traversed the at-issue access path on a prior occasion, such activity is not an inherent risk associated with water tubing. “Under the assumption of risk doctrine, a person who elects to engage in a sport or recreational activity consents to those commonly appreciated risks which are inherent in and arise out of the nature of the sport generally and flow from such participation”

The duty of the defendant in this situation is to exercise reasonable care to make sure the conditions are as safe as they appear. The defendant has a duty to search for unknown risks that may not be obvious to the guest. Meaning any risk that is visible is assumed by the guest, those risks that are hidden are not assumed by the guest.

The duty owed under these circumstances is a duty to exercise care to make the conditions as safe as they appear to be. If the risks of the activity are fully comprehended or perfectly obvious, plaintiff has consented to them and defendant has performed its duty”

The court found that the defendant had met its burden and showed there were no hidden risks and the risks the plaintiff encountered were open and obvious.

Given this evidence, we find that defendant established its prima facie entitlement to judgment as a matter of law that plaintiff, who had prior experience water tubing and who had on a prior occasion used the same access path, assumed the inherent risk of her injuries. The risk of falling on uneven and rocky terrain while traversing the river’s embankment to access the river is a commonly appreciated and an obvious risk inherent in and arising out of the nature of the sport of river tubing…

Under New York law, when the defendant meets this threshold then the burden of proof shifts to the plaintiff to prove the defendant hid the risks or made the risk greater than they appeared.

Thus, the burden shifted to plaintiff to raise a triable issue of fact as to whether the defendant concealed or unreasonably enhanced the danger, engaged in reckless or intentional conduct or created conditions that were unique and not inherent in river water sports activities

The plaintiff failed to do so in two different ways. First, the plaintiff was unable to prove the defendant had anything to do with the path leading to the water, or that the path was in terrible condition with hidden dangers. Second, the plaintiff walked the same path in prior years without incident when tubing.

The court then summed up its analysis on why the plaintiff could not overcome her burden.

“One who engages in water sports assumes the reasonably foreseeable risks inherent in the activity” and it is foreseeable that, in order to gain access to the river, plaintiff needed to traverse down an uneven embankment consisting of rock and gravel. Although plaintiff encountered less than optimal conditions on the river embankment access path in July 2018, the risk of falling on the natural, rocky terrain is interwoven with and inherent in the sport of river water tubing and therefore was assumed by her. Plaintiff’s vague and equivocal testimony that defendant unreasonably increased the risk of traversing the path was insufficient to create a question of fact. Moreover, although plaintiff testified that there was no warning sign at the access point, a warning sign is unnecessary as “[t]he duty to warn… does not extend to open and obvious dangers – particularly those encompassing natural geographic phenomena which can readily be observed by those employing the reasonable use of their senses”

So Now What?

In New York, it is always an issue as to whether or not an activity will fall within the purview of New York General Obligations Law § 5-326 which prohibits a place of amusement from using a release. Several courts have interpreted New York General Obligations Law § 5-326 to mean a physical place and so a river may not qualify. However, based on several other decisions it might be worth putting release language into a written agreement for guests to sign.

At the very least, the defendant could use an assumption of risk agreement where the agreement points out the risk of tubing, including accessing the river, reinforce those risks in a safety talk and protect from more than the inherent risks of tubing.

It might not bring closure any quicker; however, it might deter a plaintiff from starting a case to begin with.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Rooney v. Battenkill River Sports & Campground Holding Co. (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 2022)

Rooney v. Battenkill River Sports & Campground Holding Co. (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 2022)

Jessica Rooney, Appellant-Respondent,
v.
Battenkill River Sports & Campground Holding Company, LLC, Respondent-Appellant.

No. 2022-02606

Supreme Court of New York, Third Department

April 21, 2022

Calendar Date:February 10, 2022

Basch & Keegan, LLP, Kingston (Derek J. Spada of counsel), for appellant-respondent.

Mark D. Goris, Cazenovia, for respondent-appellant.

Before: Egan Jr., J.P., Clark, Aarons, Reynolds Fitzgerald and McShan, JJ.

Reynolds Fitzgerald, J.

Cross appeals from an order of the Supreme Court (McGrath, J.), entered July 1, 2021 in Rensselaer County, which granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment dismissing the complaint.

In July 2018, plaintiff sustained injuries when she slipped on a rock located on an access path while attempting to access the Battenkill River to go water tubing. Plaintiff subsequently commenced this negligence action against defendant, the company that rented her the tube and shuttled her by van to the river’s access point. Following joinder of issue and discovery, defendant moved for summary judgment dismissing the complaint on the basis that defendant did not owe or breach any duty to plaintiff and that plaintiff’s claim was barred by the doctrine of primary assumption of risk. Plaintiff opposed the motion arguing, among other things, that defendant was a common carrier and, as such, it owed a duty of care to maintain the access path. Supreme Court found that defendant operated as a common carrier, and that questions of fact existed as to whether the embankment’s access path was primarily used for defendant’s business and whether defendant assumed a duty of care. Nevertheless, Supreme Court granted defendant’s motion and dismissed the complaint, finding that the doctrine of primary assumption of risk applied to bar plaintiff’s claims. Plaintiff appeals and defendant cross appeals from those portions of the order that found defendant to be a common carrier and that questions of fact exist as to whether defendant owed plaintiff a duty of care. [1]

The gravamen of plaintiff’s contention is that the doctrine of primary assumption of risk is inapplicable here because, although she had traversed the at-issue access path on a prior occasion, such activity is not an inherent risk associated with water tubing. “Under the assumption of risk doctrine, a person who elects to engage in a sport or recreational activity consents to those commonly appreciated risks which are inherent in and arise out of the nature of the sport generally and flow from such participation” (Schorpp v Oak Mtn., LLC, 143 A.D.3d 1136, 1137 [2016] [internal quotation marks and citations omitted]; see Morgan v State of New York, 90 N.Y.2d 471, 484-485 [1997]; Thompson v Windham Mtn. Partners, LLC, 161 A.D.3d 1366, 1366 [2018]; Youmans v Maple Ski Ridge, Inc., 53 A.D.3d 957, 958 [2008]). “The duty owed under these circumstances is a duty to exercise care to make the conditions as safe as they appear to be. If the risks of the activity are fully comprehended or perfectly obvious, plaintiff has consented to them and defendant has performed its duty” (Youmans v Maple Ski Ridge, Inc., 53 A.D.3d at 958 [internal quotation marks and citations omitted]).

In support of its motion, defendant submitted photographs [2] of the access path used by plaintiff and the particular rock that plaintiff identified as the one on which she slipped. Defendant also relied on the depositions of plaintiff and Suzanne Piekarz, the daughter of defendant’s owner. Plaintiff’s testimony confirmed that she had previously used the same access path on a prior water tubing excursion. Piekarz, who has worked at the business since she was a child, testified that the access path consisted of dry dirt and was not particularly rocky, and that the business did not own or maintain the river’s embankment access path. Her testimony also revealed that customers were warned by posted and written materials to walk and not run to the river, and that they assumed the risk for all river water activities, including one sign, which read:” you assume risk of injury and/or death when participating in river activities .” Given this evidence, we find that defendant established its prima facie entitlement to judgment as a matter of law that plaintiff, who had prior experience water tubing and who had on a prior occasion used the same access path, assumed the inherent risk of her injuries. The risk of falling on uneven and rocky terrain while traversing the river’s embankment to access the river is a commonly appreciated and an obvious risk inherent in and arising out of the nature of the sport of river tubing (see Sara W. v Rocking Horse Ranch Corp., 169 A.D.3d 1342, 1343-1344 [2019]; Martin v State of New York, 64 A.D.3d 62, 64 [2009], lv denied 13 N.Y.3d 706 [2009]; Youmans v Maple Ski Ridge, Inc., 53 A.D.3d at 959).

Thus, the burden shifted to plaintiff to raise a triable issue of fact as to whether defendant concealed or unreasonably enhanced the danger, engaged in reckless or intentional conduct or created conditions that were unique and not inherent in river water sports activities (see Morgan v State of New York, 90 N.Y.2d at 487). Plaintiff testified at her deposition that she previously rented a tube from defendant on two prior occasions and that she was taken by shuttle van to an access point, including on one occasion to the same access point where the accident occurred. Plaintiff recalled receiving documentation to fill out, viewing some warning signs at or near the rental office and receiving some general instructions during the shuttle van ride, but she did not recall any specific discussions, warnings or instructions regarding the access point or how to traverse from the shuttle van down to the river’s embankment access path to the river. Plaintiff described the river’s embankment access path as a narrow, rocky path that was difficult to navigate while holding a tube. Plaintiff stated that she was wearing flip flops and did not know what caused her to fall. Lastly, plaintiff asserted that when she went river tubing in 2017, the river embankment access path was a much smoother surface consisting of hard packed dirt and gravel.

“One who engages in water sports assumes the reasonably foreseeable risks inherent in the activity” Sartoris v State of New York, 133 A.D.2d 619, 620 [1987] [citation omitted]), and it is foreseeable that, in order to gain access to the river, plaintiff needed to traverse down an uneven embankment consisting of rock and gravel. Although plaintiff encountered less than optimal conditions on the river embankment access path in July 2018, the risk of falling on the natural, rocky terrain is interwoven with and inherent in the sport of river water tubing and therefore was assumed by her. Plaintiff’s vague and equivocal testimony that defendant unreasonably increased the risk of traversing the path was insufficient to create a question of fact. Moreover, although plaintiff testified that there was no warning sign at the access point, a warning sign is unnecessary as “[t]he duty to warn… does not extend to open and obvious dangers – particularly those encompassing natural geographic phenomena which can readily be observed by those employing the reasonable use of their senses” (Arsenault v State of New York, 96 A.D.3d 97, 101 [2012] [internal quotation marks and citations omitted]). In view of the foregoing, we find that Supreme Court’s award of summary judgment to defendant dismissing the complaint was proper (see Martin v State of New York, 64 A.D.3d at 65; Youmans v Maple Ski Ridge, Inc., 53 A.D.3d at 959-960).

Egan Jr., J.P., Clark, Aarons and McShan, JJ., concur.

ORDERED that the order is affirmed, without costs.

ORDERED that the cross appeal is dismissed, without costs.

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Notes:

[1] As Supreme Court granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment dismissing the complaint, defendant is not aggrieved by Supreme Court’s July 2021 order (see CPLR 5511), and defendant’s cross appeal must therefore be dismissed (see Matter of Village Green Hollow, LLC v Assessor of the Town of Mamakating, 145 A.D.3d 1134, 1135 n 2 [2016]; Maldonado v DiBre, 140 A.D.3d 1501, 1503 n 3 [2016], lv denied 28 N.Y.3d 908 [2016]). Although defendant’s arguments are properly before us as alternative grounds for affirmance, our decision renders them academic (see Ford v Rifenburg, 94 A.D.3d 1285, 1285 n 1 [2012]; McCormick v Bechtol, 68 A.D.3d 1376, 1378 n 2 [2009], lv denied 15 N.Y.3d 701 [2010], cert denied 562 U.S. 1063 [2010]).

[2] Said photographs reflect the position and size of the rock, neither of which is particularly remarkable, and confirm plaintiff’s contention that the rocks located on this river access path were “not even.”

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