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Defendant was not sanctioned for failing to preserve broken bicycle parts, but only because the plaintiff could not prove the defendant’s acts were willful and contumacious.

Preservation of evidence has become a major issue of lots of litigation. Every business not needs to create a plan for how long to retain  documents, email, records, etc., and why those records are destroyed when they are.

John v. CC Cyclery, 2017 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 3213; 2017 NY Slip Op 31810(U)

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

Plaintiff: Hywel John

Defendant: CC Cyclery and CO LLC and William Svenstrup 

Plaintiff Claims: Motion to strike defenses of the defendant for failing to preserve evidence

Defendant Defenses: failure to preserve the evidence was not willful

Holding: for the Defendant

Year: 2017

Summary

When you are placed on notice of possible litigation, you must preserve all evidence surrounding the facts of the litigation. That includes in this case, broken bicycle parts. Failing to preserve evidence can result in sanctions, including denial of your defenses. 

Facts 

The plaintiff had his bicycle serviced at the defendant’s bicycle shop. While riding his bicycle one day the front wheel of the bike dislodged causing him to fall to the ground.

After the accident, he took his bicycle back to the defendant. While the plaintiff was at the shop, he requested information about the defendant’s insurance policy. The defendant did not provide that information to the plaintiff. The plaintiff later emailed the defendant an ask for the same information and again was not provided it.

The defendant repaired the damages to the bike. After replacing the broken parts, he eventually threw them away. 

In his post-accident repair of plaintiff’s bicycle, Mr. Underwood stated that he replaced several of the parts, including a device called a quick release. Mr. Underwood further admitted that upon showing plaintiff which bicycle parts he fixed, he threw away the broken parts including the quick release. Additionally, Mr. Underwood testified that he held onto the defective parts “until the trash came” on the week that plaintiff picked up his bicycle….

Again, the plaintiff asked for information about the shop’s insurance policy. Again, the shop refused to provide that information. The shop also claimed that it never touched the plaintiff’s quick release, so therefore the shop could not be
at fault for the plaintiff’s accident. 

The plaintiff then filed this lawsuit. Upon being placed on notice of a potential litigation, the law requires all parties to preserve evidence. Because the broken parts of the bicycle were thrown away, the plaintiff filed a motion asking for sanctions against the defendant for failing to preserve the evidence.

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

The basis of the plaintiff’s motion was:

Plaintiff contends that defendants’ Answer should be stricken pursuant to CPLR § 3126 because Mr. Underwood disposed of the bicycle
parts without first “advis[ing] plaintiff or anyone else that he intended to throw out or destroy the purportedly defective parts”. Plaintiff asserts that “Mr. Underwood threw out these parts in spite of having preserved and retained exclusive possession and control over these parts at CC Cyclery from November 28, 2014 (DOA) and continuing until sometime after the plaintiff returned to the shop to pick up his bicycle on January 23, 2015”. According to plaintiff, defendants “knew or should have known that the parts removed and replaced from
plaintiff’s bicycle were significant and material evidence in a reasonably foreseeable litigation, based upon plaintiff’s repeated requests for insurance information in order for him to effectuate a claim for the damages he sustained in this accident”

In order for the court to grant any sanctions against the defendant, the plaintiff must prove the acts of the defendant were done in a willful or contumacious manner.

The issue then resolves around the point in time that the defendant should have known that possible litigation was imminent. The plaintiff argued this occurred, and the defendant was placed on notice when he asked for the defendant’s
insurance information. The defendant argued that since the defendant was a lay person, how could he interpret this as being placed on notice.

Additionally, defendants aver that Mr. Underwood–an unrepresented layperson at the time–would not have interpreted plaintiff’s request for insurance as notice that he was required to preserve the replaced bicycle parts

The defense also argued that loss of the broken bicycle parts was more damaging to them because they could not show how the plaintiff failed to keep his bicycle in proper condition and failed to provide for proper maintenance for his bike.

The court denied the plaintiff’s motion for several reasons. First, the plaintiff could not show that the destruction of the evidence, the broken parts was not “willful, contumacious or in bad faith.” Nor at the time of the destruction of the evidence was the defendant on notice of possible litigation.

Moreover, under the common law, “when a party negligently loses or intentionally destroys key evidence, thereby depriving the non-responsible party from being able to prove its claim or defense, the responsible party may be sanctioned by the striking of its pleading”
Additionally, a pleading may be stricken where the evidence lost or destroyed is so central to the case .that it renders the party seeking the evidence “prejudicially bereft of appropriate means to confront a claim with incisive evidence”. Notably, “even if the evidence was destroyed before the spoliator became a party, [the pleading may nonetheless be stricken] provided [the party] was on notice that the evidence might be needed for future litigation

The plaintiff’s motion was denied. 

So Now What? 

Although not a new area of the law, destruction of evidence has taken on new meaning and value in the digital age. Communications by phone never needed to be kept because there was no way to keep them. Emails can be preserved indefinitely, and this has created tons of litigation setting out the rules for when evidence must be preserved and when it can be destroyed. 

When in doubt, unless told to destroy it by your attorney or your insurance company, keep it. Better, give the broken parts back to your customer. 99% of the time the parts will be thrown away by the time the customer gets back home.

However, this is an area you need to check with your attorney about. Create a plan for how long you are going to hold on to documents, preserve emails and other digital information and what to with broken parts.

Sanctions for failing to preserve evidence in many other states do not have such a high bar to protect the defendant. Willful
and contumacious in most other states is far beyond what is required. So, in many other locals, sanctions are easily levied.

By the way Contumacious means stubbornly or willfully disobedient to authority or is a stubborn refusal to obey authority or, particularly in law, the willful contempt of the order or summons of a court. The term is derived from the Latin word contumacia, meaning firmness or stubbornness.[i]

 What do you think? Leave a comment.

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shop, repair, contumacious, stricken, willful, pick, material evidence, prima
facie case, failed to demonstrate, negligently, discarding, layperson,
destroyed, destroy, threw, front wheel, confirmed, repaired, riding, asking,
email, bike, preservation of evidence, Willful and contumacious, Willful,
contumacious, quick release, bicycle parts,

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

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John v. CC Cyclery, 2017 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 3213; 2017 NY Slip Op 31810(U)

John v. CC Cyclery, 2017 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 3213; 2017 NY Slip Op 31810(U)

Hywel John, Plaintiff, -VS- CC Cyclery and CO LLC and William Svenstrup, Defendants. Index No. 501255/15

501255/15

SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, KINGS COUNTY

2017 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 3213; 2017 NY Slip Op 31810(U)

August 22, 2017, Decided

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

CORE TERMS: bicycle, subject accident, notice, deposition, replaced, shop, repair, contumacious, stricken, willful, pick, material evidence, prima facie case, failed to demonstrate, negligently, discarding, layperson, destroyed, destroy, threw, front wheel, confirmed, repaired, riding, asking, email, bike

JUDGES: [*1] PRESENT: HON. LARRY D. MARTIN, J.S.C.

OPINION BY: LARRY D. MARTIN

OPINION

Upon the foregoing papers, plaintiff Hywel John (“plaintiff”) moves for an order: (1) pursuant to CPLR § 3126, striking the Answer of defendants CC Cyclery and Co LLC and William Svenstrup (collectively, “defendants”) on the grounds of negligent and/or intentional spoliation of material evidence; and (2) extending the time to file a Note of Issue (NOI).

Brief Facts & Procedural History

Plaintiff commenced the instant action to recover compensatory damages for personal injuries he allegedly sustained on. November 28, 2014, when the front wheel of a bicycle (the “subject bicycle”) he was riding dislodged, causing him to be flung from the bicycle onto the ground (the “subject accident”). In the verified bill of particulars, plaintiff alleges, among other things, that defendants “negligently repaired and maintained” (Bill of Particulars, ¶ 13) the subject bicycle.

At his January 11, 2016 deposition, plaintiff testified that he initially went to defendants’ repair shop, CC Cyclery and Co. LLC (“Cyclery”), to have guards placed on the subject bicycle’s wheels and a rack fitted onto the back (Plaintiff’s Affirmation, exhibit E, Hywel Deposition, 26: 24-25; [*2] 27: 13-14; 22-23). Plaintiff returned to Cyclery on the date of the subject accident to pick up his bicycle, and was riding along Avenue A, in Brooklyn, New York, when the subject accident occurred [**2] (id. at 31: 22-25; 32:2-11). Plaintiff testified that immediately after his accident, he returned to Cyclery, informed an individual named Mr. Jeff Underwood (“Mr. Underwood”) of what transpired and left the bicycle in the shop’s possession for further repairs to be performed (id. at 64: 7-12).

Thereafter, plaintiff emailed Mr. Underwood on December 3, 2014 asking for the company’s insurance information, claiming that he was “pretty concerned about [his] healthcare contribution going forward” as well as his “lack of ability to work properly over the next couple of months” due to his injuries (id. at exhibit M). Mr. Underwood responded to plaintiff in an email dated December 9, 2014 stating, among other things, “your front wheel had to be straightened and the tire had to be replaced . . .” and “I also switched out the quick release on the front to a Allen bolt . . .” (id. at exhibit L). Mr. Underwood did not address plaintiff’s request for insurance information in his email. According to plaintiff, he returned [*3] to Cyclery on January 23, 2015 to pick up his bike and, once again, asked Mr. Underwood for the company’s insurance information (id. at 68: 15-17). However, plaintiff claims that Mr. Underwood refused to comply with plaintiff’s request for insurance information (id. at 68: 18-20).

At Mr. Underwood’s deposition on July 26, 2016, he stated that he is the former owner of Cyclery and, among other things, was working as a mechanic for the company at the time of the subject accident (id. at exhibit H, Underwood Deposition, 17: 5-9; 18: 12-14). Mr. Underwood confirmed that he made repairs to plaintiff’s bicycle both before and after the subject accident. Moreover, during his deposition, Mr. Underwood identified a photo of the subject bicycle (previously marked as Defendants’ exhibit A) and confirmed that it accurately depicted the condition of the bike on the date of the accident (id. at 53: 23-25; 54: 2-3; see exhibit K).

In his post-accident repair of plaintiff’s bicycle, Mr. Underwood stated that he replaced several of the parts, including a device called a quick release (id. at 60: 5-22). Mr. Underwood further admitted that upon showing plaintiff which bicycle parts he fixed, he threw away the broken parts including the quick [*4] release (id. at 61: 15-23). Additionally, Mr. Underwood testified that he held onto the defective parts “until the trash came” on the week that plaintiff picked up his bicycle [**3] (id. at 64: 5-9).

According to Mr. Underwood, plaintiff asked him to talk to the shop owner about submitting an insurance claim on plaintiff’s behalf, and Mr. Underwood replied that the company could not do so (id. at 63: 16-19). Mr. Underwood asserted that he never touched the quick release device prior to the subject accident, and, therefore, defendants could not be at fault for plaintiff’s accident (id. at exhibit H, 52: 3-5; 8; 19-21).

Plaintiff thereafter commenced the instant action on February 4, 2015. On March 1, 2016, plaintiff served defendants with a notice to “preserve and retain any and all parts and equipment f[ro]m the plaintiff’s bicycle . . .” (see id. at exhibit F). On May 5, 2016, a compliance conference was held and an order was issued directing, among other things, for plaintiff to “preserve the bicycle at issue for inspection by defendants” (id. at exhibit G).

Discussion

Plaintiff contends that defendants’ Answer should be stricken pursuant to CPLR § 3126 because Mr. Underwood disposed of the bicycle parts without first “advis[ing] plaintiff or [*5] anyone else that he intended to throw out or destroy the purportedly defective parts” (Plaintiff’s Affirmation, ¶ 45). Plaintiff asserts that “Mr. Underwood threw out these parts in spite of having preserved and retained exclusive possession and control over these parts at CC Cyclery from November 28, 2014 (DOA) and continuing until sometime after the plaintiff returned to the shop to pick up his bicycle on January 23, 2015” (id.). According to plaintiff, defendants “knew or should have known that the parts removed and replaced from plaintiff’s bicycle were significant and material evidence in a reasonably foreseeable litigation, based upon plaintiff’s repeated requests for insurance information in order for him to effectuate a claim for the damages he sustained in this accident” (id. at ¶ 54).

In response, defendants assert that they did not act in a willful or contumacious manner in discarding the bicycle parts. Rather, defendants contend that plaintiff’s act in asking Mr. Underwood about insurance was “merely a request for insurance information that [plaintiff] could use to obtain additional health care contributions” and did not constitute notice “that the accident would result [*6] in [**4] litigation with claims of negligence on the part of the defendants” (see Defendants’ Affirmation in Opp, ¶ 4). Additionally, defendants aver that Mr. Underwood–an unrepresented layperson at the time–would not have interpreted plaintiff’s request for insurance as notice that he was required to preserve the replaced bicycle parts (see Defendants’ Affirmation in Opp, ¶ 4). In any event, defendants argue that striking their Answer is not an appropriate sanction in this instance because the missing bicycle parts do not prejudice or impede plaintiff’s ability to make out his prima facie case (id. at ¶ 5). In fact, defendants assert that the loss of such evidence is more prejudicial to them, “as it will be evidence that they now lack to show that plaintiff failed to keep his bicycle in proper condition and failed to request a proper maintenance from defendants at the time that he [initially] brought the bicycle in to be repaired” (id. at ¶ 6).

Based upon a review of the record submitted by the parties and the relevant law, the Court denies plaintiff’s motion. CPLR § 3126 provides for the striking out of a party’s pleadings when that party “refuses to obey an order for disclosure or wilfully fails [*7] to disclose information which the court finds ought to have been disclosed . . .” (CPLR § 3126 [3]). However, such a drastic remedy is “unwarranted absent a ‘clear showing that the failure to comply with discovery demands was willful, contumacious or in bad faith'” (Foncette v LA Express, 295 AD2d 471, 472, 744 N.Y.S.2d 429 [2d Dept 2002]). Moreover, under the common law, “when a party negligently loses or intentionally destroys key evidence, thereby depriving the non-responsible party from being able to prove its claim or defense, the responsible party may be sanctioned by the striking of its pleading” (Baglio v St. John’s Queens Hosp., 303 AD2d 341, 342, 755 N.Y.S.2d 427 [2d Dept 2003]). Additionally, a pleading may be stricken where the evidence lost or destroyed is so central to the case .that it renders the party seeking the evidence “prejudicially bereft of appropriate means to confront a claim with incisive evidence” (Foncette, 295 AD2d at 472; see Awon v Harran Transp. Co., Inc., 69 AD3d 889, 890, 895 N.Y.S.2d 135 [2d Dept 2010]). Notably, “even if the evidence was destroyed before the spoliator became a party, [the pleading may nonetheless be stricken] provided [the party] was on notice that the evidence might be needed for future litigation” (Baglio, 303 AD2d at 342).

[**5] As an initial matter, the Court notes that a Notice to Preserve Evidence was not served on defendants until more than one year after the subject accident occurred and the instant action was commenced (see MetLife Auto & Home v Joe Basil Chevrolet, Inc., 1 NY3d 478, 484, 807 N.E.2d 865, 775 N.Y.S.2d 754 [2004]) [*8] . Absent such notice, the Court finds that plaintiff’s act in requesting insurance information was insufficient to put a layperson such as Mr. Underwood on notice that litigation was contemplated.

Moreover, the Court finds that plaintiff has failed to demonstrate that Mr. Underwood’s act in discarding the removed bicycle parts was willful and contumacious (see Di Domenico v C & S Aeromatik Supplies, 252 AD2d 41, 52, 682 N.Y.S.2d 452 [2d Dept 1998]). Plaintiff also fails to establish that Mr. Underwood’s actions have completely deprived him of the ability to prove his prima facie case (cf. Baglio, 303 AD2d at 342). As defendants note, plaintiff still has at his disposal the photograph reflecting the defective condition of the bicycle at the time of the accident, as well as Mr. Underwood’s undisputed deposition testimony detailing which portions of the bicycle he fixed and which portions he discarded. Thus, while it cannot be said that plaintiff is not adversely affected by the loss of the defective bicycle parts, the Court finds that plaintiff has failed to demonstrate that he is prejudiced by this loss (see Awon, 69 AD3d at 890; Foncette, 295 AD2d at 472).

Conclusion

Accordingly, that portion of plaintiff’s motion seeking to strike defendants’ Answer is denied. That portion of plaintiff’s motion seeking an order providing for the filing of [*9] the NOI is denied as moot. A review of the court’s record indicates that plaintiff filed the NOI herein on October 14, 2016. The parties are reminded of their September 6, 2017 appearance in JCP.

The foregoing constitutes the decision and order of the Court.

ENTER,

/s/ Larry Martin

HON. LARRY MARTIN

J.S.C.


Connecticut court rejects motion for summary judgment because plaintiff claimed he did not have enough time to read the release before he signed it

Plaintiff successfully argued he did not have enough time to read the release before he signed it. The court bought it.

DeWitt, Jr. v. Felt Racing, LLC et al., 2017 Conn. Super. LEXIS 235

State: Connecticut, Superior Court of Connecticut, Judicial District of New Haven at New Haven

Plaintiff: Guy DeWitt, Jr.

Defendant: Felt Racing, LLC and Pedal Power, LLC 

Plaintiff Claims: no time to read the release, not told he needed to sign a release

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: for the plaintiff 

Year: 2017 

Summary

This case looks at demoing a bike in Connecticut. The rider/plaintiff argued that he did not have enough time to read the release, and the bike shop was chaotic creating confusing for him. He was injured when the handlebars broke causing him to fall. 

Facts

The plaintiff participated in the Wednesday night right put on by Pedal Power, LLC, one of the defendants. That night Pedal Power made arrangements for people to demo Felt Bicycles. Most people did so and sent their information to Felt Racing so the bikes were fit and ready to go when they arrived.

The plaintiff arrived with his own bike. However, once he got there he decided to demo a felt bicycle. While the bike was being fitted for him, he was handed a release to sign. The plaintiff stated the place was chaotic, and he did not have time to read the release

During the ride, the handlebar failed or cracked causing the plaintiff to fall and hit a tree.

What is disputed is whether the plaintiff was given sufficient time to read and consider the Release and Waiver. The plaintiff claims that he did not read it because there wasn’t time to do so. “Everything was very chaotic and rushed there What is disputed is whether the plaintiff was given sufficient time to read and consider the Release and Waiver. The plaintiff claims that he did not read it because there wasn’t time to do so. “Everything was very chaotic and rushed there to make the ride. I just did not have the time to read that . . .” Further, the plaintiff claims that there was no mention of it until his bike was taken, and the Felt employees had begun custom fitting the Felt bike to him. The defendants, on the other hand, denied during oral argument that the scene was “chaotic” or that the plaintiff was coerced into riding the Felt bike because he had his own personal bike that he could ride. to make the ride. I just did not have the time to read that . . .” Further, the plaintiff claims that there was no mention of it until his bike was taken, and the Felt employees had begun custom fitting the Felt bike to him. The defendants, on the other hand, denied during oral argument that the scene was “chaotic” or that the plaintiff was coerced into riding the Felt bike because he had his own personal bike that he could ride.

 The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, and this was the analysis of the motion by the court. 

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

Each state has its own requirements for when a court can grant a motion for summary judgment. The court in this case set forth those requirements before starting an analysis of the facts as they applied to the law.

“A motion for summary judgment is designed to eliminate the delay and expense of litigating an issue when there is no real issue to be tried. Practice Book section 17-49 provides that summary judgment shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, affidavits and any other proof submitted show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the trial court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.”

Most states apply similar standards to deciding motions for summary judgment. The major point is there is no genuine issue of fact’s material to the case. Meaning no matter how you look at the facts, the motion is going to win because the law is clear.

Additional statements in the case indicated the court was not inclined to grant any motion for summary judgment.

“Summary judgment is particularly ‘ill-adapted to negligence cases, where . . . the ultimate issue in contention involves a mixed question of fact and law . . . [T]he conclusion of negligence is necessarily one of fact . . .”

“The courts hold the movant to a strict standard. To satisfy [their] burden the movant[s] must make a showing that it is clear what the truth is, and that excludes any real doubt as to the existence of any genuine issue of material fact, the nonmoving party has no  obligation to submit documents establishing the existence of such an issue . . . Once the moving party has met its burden, however, the opposing party must present evidence that demonstrates the existence of some disputed factual issue.”

The court then analyzed the entire issue of why summary judgments are rarely granted in this judge’s opinion.

“[T]he fundamental policy purposes of the tort compensation system [are] compensation of innocent parties, shifting the loss to responsible parties or distributing it among appropriate entities, and deterrence of wrongful conduct . . . It is sometimes said that compensation for losses is the primary function of tort law . . . [but it] is perhaps more accurate to describe the primary function as one of determining when tort system is the prophylactic factor of preventing future harm . . . The courts are concerned not only with compensation of the victim, but with admonition of the wrongdoer.” “Thus, it is consistent with public policy ‘to posit the risk of negligence upon the actor’ and, if this policy is to be abandoned, ‘it has generally been to allow or require that the risk shift to another party better or equally able to bear it, not shift the risk to the weak bargainer.’

The writing on the wall, or in the opinion, makes it pretty clear this judge was not inclined to grant motions for summary judgment in tort cases when the risk of the injury would transfer to the plaintiff.

The court then reviewed the requirements of what is required in a release under Connecticut law. 

…requirements for an enforceable agreement as well as the elements which demonstrate that an agreement violates public policy and renders the agreement unenforceable: the agreement concerns a business of a type suitable for regulation; the party seeking to enforce the agreement is engaged in performing a service of great importance to the public; the party holds itself out as willing to perform a service for any member of the public; there is an economic component to the transaction; the agreement is an adhesive contract; and as a result of the transaction, the plaintiff is placed under the control of the seller. 

Nowhere in the requirements does it state a requirement that the plaintiff have enough time to read the release, even if did go ahead and sign the release. 

The language quoted sounds like similar language found in other decisions in other states regarding releases. 

Connecticut also requires “that in order for an exculpatory clause to validly release the defendant, it must be clear and contain specific reference to the term “negligence.” 

In this release, the term negligence is only found once. 

The plaintiff argued that he did not have time to sign the release, and the place was chaotic. This was enough for the court to say there were material facts at issue in this case. “If the plaintiff was not afforded the opportunity to read and consider the Waiver and Release, then the agreement cannot be enforced. It is for the trier of fact to determine this.”

The defendants created the conditions under which the plaintiff could participate in the ride on a Felt bicycle. Enforcement of an agreement requiring the plaintiff to assume the risk of the defendants’ actions when there is a question of fact regarding whether the plaintiff had been given sufficient time to read and consider the Waiver and Release, would violate public policy, even if the language of the agreement was explicit and clear. For this reason, this court denies the defendants’ motions for summary judgment.

The motion for summary judgment was denied. 

So Now What? 

This is the first time I have read a decision where the claim there was not enough time to read the release was upheld by a court. Normally, the court states if the release is signed the signor read and agreed to the terms.

This is one more argument that will eliminate releases in Connecticut. There have been several already, and although there are several decisions that support releases, there is a growing list of decisions that are providing opportunities for the courts to throw them out. 

The final issue to be aware of is the language in this case is identical to language in most other release cases. However, here that language was used to throw out a release rather than support it.

Other Connecticut Decisions Involving Releases

Connecticut court works hard to void a release for a cycling event

Poorly written release failing to follow prior state Supreme Court decisions, employee statement, no padding and  spinning hold send climbing wall gym back to trial in Connecticut.

Connecticut court determines that a release will not bar a negligent claim created by statute.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2017 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

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bike, ride, summary judgment, public policy, relieve,
bicycle, quotation marks omitted, disputed, participating, chaotic, riding,
custom, rider, tort law, moving party, entitled to judgment, nonmoving party,
question of fact, primary function, exculpatory, unambiguous, genuine, movant,
entities, sufficient time, sponsored, pre-sized, arranged, sponsors, borrow,
Felt Racing, LLC, Pedal Power, LLC, Products Liability, Release,

 

 

 


DeWitt, Jr. v. Felt Racing, LLC et al., 2017 Conn. Super. LEXIS 235

DeWitt, Jr. v. Felt Racing, LLC et al., 2017 Conn. Super. LEXIS 235

Guy DeWitt, Jr. v. Felt Racing, LLC et al.

CV136040482

SUPERIOR COURT OF CONNECTICUT, JUDICIAL DISTRICT OF NEW HAVEN AT NEW HAVEN

2017 Conn. Super. LEXIS 235

February 6, 2017, Decided

February 6, 2017, Filed

NOTICE: THIS DECISION IS UNREPORTED AND MAY BE SUBJECT TO FURTHER APPELLATE REVIEW. COUNSEL IS CAUTIONED TO MAKE AN INDEPENDENT DETERMINATION OF THE STATUS OF THIS CASE.

CORE TERMS: bike, ride, summary judgment, public policy, relieve, bicycle, quotation marks omitted, disputed, participating, chaotic, riding, custom, rider, tort law, moving party, entitled to judgment, nonmoving party, question of fact, primary function, exculpatory, unambiguous, genuine, movant, entities, sufficient time, sponsored, pre-sized, arranged, sponsors, borrow

JUDGES: [*1] Angela C. Robinson, J.

OPINION BY: Angela C. Robinson

OPINION

MEMORANDUM OF DECISION RE MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENTS #149 AND #150

Guy DeWitt, Jr., the plaintiff, claims that on June 18, 2013, he was injured as a direct result of the negligence and/or actions of the defendants, Felt Racing, LLC and Pedal Power, LLC, in violation of the products liability statute. At the time of the incident, the plaintiff was participating in a group ride of bicyclists that was sponsored by Pedal Power. During the ride, at the time he was injured, the plaintiff was riding a bike he borrowed from Felt Racing. Prior to participating in the ride, and before he was allowed to borrow the Felt bike, the plaintiff signed a Waiver and Release.

The defendants both now move for summary judgment based upon the Waiver and Release, which they argue releases them from all liability. The plaintiff objects to the defendants’ motion claiming that the language of the Release and Waiver does not sufficiently relieve the defendants of liability; and that it violates public policy.

Most of the facts pertinent to the resolution of the motion are not in dispute. Pedal Power sponsored a group ride in Middletown, Connecticut. Felt Racing arranged [*2] to have a Felt bicycle demonstration at the Pedal Power store, and brought 35 Felt bikes to loan out for the ride. The plaintiff had brought his own bike to ride during the activity, but decided to try a Felt bike. The plaintiff was provided with a Felt AR2, which was selected and custom fit to him by a Felt employee. He had not arranged to ride the bike ahead of time. According to Mr. Rudzinsky, Certified USA Cycling Professional Mechanic and agent of Felt Racing, the plaintiff was not one of “the guys that was pre-sized . . .” Rather, “he showed up late.” (Rudzinsky Depo p. 57.) In order to borrow the bike, the plaintiff signed a Waiver, provided a copy of his driver’s license and left his personal bike as collateral. As the plaintiff was riding the Felt AR2 eastbound on Livingston Street in Middletown, Connecticut the right side of the handle bars failed and/or cracked, ejecting him off the bike and causing him to violently hit the ground and collide with a tree.

What is disputed is whether the plaintiff was given sufficient time to read and consider the Release and Waiver. The plaintiff claims that he did not read it because there wasn’t time to do so. “Everything was very chaotic [*3] and rushed there to make the ride. I just did not have the time to read that . . .” (Deposition of Plaintiff attached to Plaintiff’s Objection.) Further, the plaintiff claims that there was no mention of it until his bike was taken, and the Felt employees had begun custom fitting the Felt bike to him. The defendants, on the other hand, denied during oral argument that the scene was “chaotic” or that the plaintiff was coerced into riding the Felt bike because he had his own personal bike that he could ride.

The defendants request that judgment enter in their favor on the plaintiff’s complaint based upon the Release and Waiver.

“A motion for summary judgment is designed to eliminate the delay and expense of litigating an issue when there is no real issue to be tried. Wilson v. New Haven, 213 Conn. 277, 279, 567 A.2d 829 (1989). Practice Book section 17-49 provides that summary judgment shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, affidavits and any other proof submitted show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the trial court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Webster Bank v. Oakley, 265 Conn. 539, 545, 830 A.2d 139 (2003).

“Summary [*4] judgment is particularly ‘ill-adapted to negligence cases, where . . . the ultimate issue in contention involves a mixed question of fact and law . . . [T]he conclusion of negligence is necessarily one of fact . . .” Michaud v Gurney, 168 Conn. 431, 434, 362 A.2d 857 (1975).

“The courts hold the movant to a strict standard. To satisfy [their] burden the movant[s] must make a showing that it is clear what the truth is, and that excludes any real doubt as to the existence of any genuine issue of material fact, the nonmoving party has no obligation to submit documents establishing the existence of such an issue . . . Once the moving party has met its burden, however, the opposing party must present evidence that demonstrates the existence of some disputed factual issue.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Zielinski v Kotsoris, 279 Conn. 312, 318-9, 901 A.2d 1207 (2006).

The defendants claim to be entitled to judgment because the Waiver contains language transferring all the risks of participating in the group ride from Felt Bicycles, and sponsors of the ride to the participant rider borrowing the Felt bike. Specifically, the Waiver provides:

I HEREBY WAIVE, RELEASE, DISCHARGE, AND COVENANT NOT TO SUE Felt Bicycles, Felt Racing, or its . . . agents . . . members, volunteers and employees, and/or other participants, sponsors [*5] . . . and/or where applicable, owners and lessors or (Sic) premises on which the Event takes place . . . from liability, claims, demands, losses or damages.

Though term “negligence” appears only once in the waiver, in paragraph 1, the defendants maintain that this is not determinative of their motion regarding the negligence claims. Further, the defendants argue that the language of the waiver sufficiently covers the actions of the agents and/or employees of Felt, LLC and Pedal Power, LLC, as well as the legal entities, themselves.

To support their arguments, both the defendants and the plaintiff rely primarily upon Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corp., 276 Conn. 314, 885 A.2d 734, (2005). The plaintiff also cites and relies upon Hyson v. White Water Mountain Resorts of Connecticut, 265 Conn. 636, 829 A.2d 827 (2003); Lewis v. Habitat for Humanity of Greater New Haven, Superior Court, Judicial District of New Haven, docket no. CV 095030268 (January 9, 2012, Frechette, J.) [53 Conn. L. Rptr. 512, 2012 Conn. Super. LEXIS 146]; Kelly v. Deere & Co, 627 F.Sup. 564 (D.C. 1986).

In Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant, Corp, the Supreme Court held that because exculpatory agreements relieve a party of liability, they undermine public policy considerations governing our tort system, and should be enforced judiciously, only when certain factors are present. First and foremost, the agreement should be enforced only when “an ordinary person of reasonable intelligence would understand that [*6] by signing the agreement, he or she was releasing the defendants from liability from their future negligence.” Id. at 324-5. But, even if it is clear and unambiguous, it should not be enforced if it violates the principles that undergird Tort Law.

“[T]he fundamental policy purposes of the tort compensation system [are] compensation of innocent parties, shifting the loss to responsible parties or distributing it among appropriate entities, and deterrence of wrongful conduct . . . It is sometimes said that compensation for losses is the primary function of tort law . . . [but it] is perhaps more accurate to describe the primary function as one of determining when tort system is the prophylactic factor of preventing future harm . . . The courts are concerned not only with compensation of the victim, but with admonition of the wrongdoer.” (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Lodge v. Arett Sales Corp., 246 Conn. 563, 578-79, 717 A.2d 215 (1998). “Thus, it is consistent with public policy ‘to posit the risk of negligence upon the actor’ and, if this policy is to be abandoned, ‘it has generally been to allow or require that the risk shift to another party better or equally able to bear it, not shift the risk to the weak bargainer.’ Tunkl v. Regents of the Univ. Of Cal., 60 Cal.2d 92, 101, 383 P.2d 441, 32 Cal.Rptr. 33 (1963).” Hanks v. Powder Ridge Rest. Corp., 276 Conn. 314, 327, 885 A.2d 734.

Hanks sets forth the [*7] requirements for an enforceable agreement as well as the elements which demonstrate that an agreement violates public policy and renders the agreement unenforceable: the agreement concerns a business of a type suitable for regulation; the party seeking to enforce the agreement is engaged in performing a service of great importance to the public; the party holds itself out as willing to perform a service for any member of the public; there is an economic component to the transaction; the agreement is an adhesive contract; and as a result of the transaction, the plaintiff is placed under the control of the seller. These are not the exclusive elements to consider. The “ultimate determination of what constitutes the public interest must be made considering the totality of the circumstances of any given case against the backdrop of current societal expectations.” Id. at 330.

Also, the Hyson v. Whitewater Mountain Resorts court required that in order for an exculpatory clause to validly release the defendant, it must be clear and contain specific reference to the term “negligence.” Id. at 643.

The plaintiff argues that the language of the release is not clear; and that there are insufficient references to the [*8] word “negligence.” Also, the plaintiff asserts that the circumstances under which he was required to sign the release prevented him from reading it or considering the ramifications of it. Defense counsel disputed the characterization of the transaction as “chaotic.”

Because of this factual dispute, the court concludes that the motions should be denied. It is irrelevant to the court’s consideration whether the transaction was commercial or not; whether the language was sufficiently clear and unambiguous; or whether the plaintiff could have ridden his own bike during the ride. If the plaintiff was not afforded the opportunity to read and consider the Waiver and Release, then the agreement cannot be enforced. It is for the trier of fact to determine this.

There is no dispute that Felt Racing brought the bikes to the ride for the specific purpose of demonstrating and loaning them to interested riders and potential future customers. They were prepared for and anticipated last minute requests for bikes. Additionally, they custom fitted the bikes to the riders, regardless of whether the bikes had been pre-sized for them or not.

There are certainly instances in which it may be appropriate and [*9] in line of public policy to enforce contractual agreements which relieve one party of liability to another for injuries. However, Connecticut has a long history of requiring courts to carefully scrutinize such contracts. See e.g., Reardon v. Windswept Farm, LLC, 280 Conn. 153, 905 A.2d 1156 (2006) (“[T]he law does not favor contract provisions which relieve a person from his own negligence . . . Hyson v. White Water Mountain Resorts of Conn., Inc. . . .”).

The defendants created the conditions under which the plaintiff could participate in the ride on a Felt bicycle. Enforcement of an agreement requiring the plaintiff to assume the risk of the defendants’ actions when there is a question of fact regarding whether the plaintiff had been given sufficient time to read and consider the Waiver and Release, would violate public policy, even if the language of the agreement was explicit and clear. For this reason, this court denies the defendants’ motions for summary judgment.

Robinson, A., J.


Crashing while mountain biking is an inherent risk under Indiana’s law.

The plaintiff also admitted that he knew the risks of mountain biking and as such were contributorily negligent which barred his claims against the park owner.

Hoosier Mountain Bike Association, Inc., et. al., v. Kaler, 73 N.E.3d 712; 2017 Ind. App. LEXIS 133

State:  Indiana, Court of Appeals of Indiana

Plaintiff: (At Trial) Richard Kaler 

Defendant: (At Trial) Hoosier Mountain Bike Association, Inc., City of Indianapolis, and Indy Parks and Recreation

Plaintiff Claims: Premises Liability 

Defendant Defenses: No liability and Contributory Negligence 

Holding: For the Defendants (at Trial) 

Year: 2017 

Summary

Crashing while mountain biking is an inherent risk under Indiana’s law. The plaintiff, an experienced mountain biker could not recover from the park because he knew and had crashed mountain biking and his knowledge of mountain biking also made him contributorily negligent. Contributory negligence under Indiana Law is a complete bar to recovery when suing a municipality.

Facts 

This decision the parties in the heading is reversed. The plaintiff is listed second in this case at the appellate court heading and the defendants are listed first. The reason is the defendants are appealing the trial court’s ruling and they the defendants are prosecuting the case to the appellate court. Few states work this way in titling their decisions. 

The City of Indianapolis, through its Indy Parks and Recreation department owns Town Run Trail Park. It has numerous mountain bike trails through the park which are managed by the Hoosier Mountain Bike Association.

The plaintiff had been mountain biking for five or six years. An Eagle Scout had created a berm in the park as part of a “merit badge” in the park. While riding the berm the plaintiff crashed and sued.

He described himself as an “experienced” and “better than average” bicyclist. Although he was familiar with the trails at Town Run, he had not been on the mountain-bike trail since the berm had been constructed several months earlier. “Oftentimes,” Kaler would “try to get an idea of the technical requirements of the trail” and would step off his bike, especially if he saw something within his view “as a danger.”

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

All states have Premises Liability statutes. These statutes set out the duties of land owners relative to people on their land. If the land owner fails to meet those duties, the landowner is liability. An injury to a person on someone’s land is called a premises liability claim.

The plaintiff mountain biker brought a premises liability claim for his injuries. To win a premises liability claim in Indiana the plaintiff must prove the landowner. 

(a) Knows or by the exercise of reasonable care would discover the condition, and should realize that it involves an unreasonable
risk of harm to such invitees, and

(b) Should expect that they will not discover or realize the danger, or will fail to protect themselves against it, and

(c) Fails to exercise reasonable care to protect them against the danger. 

The plaintiff failed to prove this to the appellate court on two different arguments. First, the plaintiff’s experience as a mountain bike showed he knew that crashing was a possibility mountain biking, and he crashed often. 

He admitted that a fall “was just a general consequence of the sport.” Although he had ridden the trail the first time without any problems, when Kaler decided to make a second run, it was getting dark, but he was insistent that he “wanted to ride the higher grade because [he] knew it was more challenging.” At no point, did Kaler step off his bike and inspect the berm’s high grade prior to riding it in the approaching darkness. Accordingly, pursuant to Kaler’s own statements, the City could objectively and reasonably have expected an experienced bicyclist to realize the risks a beginner to intermediate trail would present and take appropriate precautions. 

Second he had ridden the wooden berm once before that day, electing to take a lower ride through the berm. The second time he went faster taking the higher edge of the berm when he crashed.

The plaintiff could not prove that actual or constructive knowledge that the City knew the trail created an unreasonable risk of harm to the plaintiff. Not because of the lack of the cities’ knowledge, but because crashing was part of the sport. Therefore, there was no unreasonable risk. The plaintiff had testified that crashing was part of the sport.

As the expectation of a bicycle crash is a risk inherent to riding trails, it cannot serve to establish the sort of unreasonable risk of harm contemplated in the first Burrell element.

Having the plaintiff admit crashing was part of the sport, the court held that while mountain biking crashing was an inherent risk of the sport. If a risk is inherent to the sport, then you could not sue for injuries from an inherent risk.

The second defense brought by the City on appeal was the plaintiff was contributorily negligent. Contributory negligence 

“[c]ontributory negligence is the failure of a person to exercise for his own safety that degree of care and caution which an ordinary, reasonable, and prudent person in a similar situation would exercise.

If you can prove the plaintiff was responsible for his own injuries, then the defendant is not liable. In some states, this could act to reduce the plaintiff’s damages. In Indiana, it was a complete bar to the plaintiff’s claims. 

Reviewing the testimony of the plaintiff, the court found that the plaintiff was not completely free of all negligence. Meaning the plaintiff was also negligent and therefore, barred from suing for his claims.

So Now What? 

Two great ideas came out of this for land owners in Indiana. The first is crashing is an inherent risk of the mountain biking. Most mountain bikers already knew this; however, having a court make the statement is great. 

Second premises liability statute in Indiana has been interpreted to allow the defendant to introduce the knowledge and skill of the plaintiff as a defense to the plaintiff’s claims and as a denial of his claims. 

What do you think? Leave a comment. 

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Hoosier Mountain Bike Association, Inc., et. al., v. Kaler, 73 N.E.3d 712; 2017 Ind. App. LEXIS 133

Hoosier Mountain Bike Association, Inc., et. al., v. Kaler, 73 N.E.3d 712; 2017 Ind. App. LEXIS 133

Hoosier Mountain Bike Association, Inc., City of Indianapolis, and Indy Parks and Recreation,1 Appellants-Defendants, v. Richard Kaler, Appellee-Plaintiff.

1 On February 23, 2017, Hoosier Mountain Bike Association, Inc. filed a notice of settlement with Richard Kaler and, as part of the settlement, dismissed this appeal. Accordingly, Hoosier Mountain Bike Association, Inc. is no longer a party in this cause. We will still include facts with respect to the Hoosier Mountain Bike Association, Inc. where necessary for our decision.

Court of Appeals Case No. 49A04-1604-CT-865

COURT OF APPEALS OF INDIANA

73 N.E.3d 712; 2017 Ind. App. LEXIS 133

March 23, 2017, Decided

March 23, 2017, Filed

PRIOR HISTORY: [**1] Appeal from the Marion Superior Court. The Honorable Cynthia J. Ayers, Judge. Trial Court Cause No. 49D04-1209-CT-35642

COUNSEL: ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANTS: Donald E. Morgan, Lynne D. Hammer, Kathryn M. Box, Office of Corporation Counsel, Indianapolis, Indiana.

ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEE: John F. Townsend, III, Townsend & Townsend, LLP, Indianapolis, Indiana.

JUDGES: Riley, Judge. Crone, J. and Altice, J. concur.

OPINION BY: Riley

OPINION

[*714] Riley, Judge.

STATEMENT OF THE CASE2

2 We held oral argument in this cause on March 7, 2017, in the Indiana Court of Appeals Courtroom in Indianapolis, Indiana. We thank both counsel for their advocacy.

P1 Appellants-Defendants, the City of Indianapolis and Indy Parks and Recreation (the City),3 appeal the trial court’s denial of their motion for summary judgment with respect to Appellee-Plaintiff’s, Richard Kaler (Kaler), claims of negligence after Kaler sustained injuries in riding the City’s mountain bike trail at Town Run Trail Park.

3 For all practical purposes, Appellant is the City of Indianapolis as the City’s Indy Parks and Recreation department cannot be sued outside the Access to Public Records Act context. See City of Peru v. Lewis, 950 N.E.2d 1, 4 (Ind. Ct. App. 2011) (noting that units of local government, but not their individual departments, are suable under Indiana law), trans. denied.

P2 We reverse.

ISSUES

P3 The City presents us with four issues on appeal, which we consolidate and restate as follows:

(1) Whether a genuine issue of material fact precluded the entry of summary judgment on Kaler’s claim of premises liability; and

(2) Whether a genuine issue of material fact precluded the entry of summary judgment based on the City’s claim that Kaler was contributorily negligent.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY [**2]

P4 The City of Indianapolis owns and operates the Town Run Trail Park through its Indy Parks and Recreation department. The Hoosier Mountain Bike Association, Inc. (HMBA) is responsible for maintaining the trails, which have a difficulty rating from beginner through intermediate. In the spring of 2011, an Eagle Scout, as part of his merit badge project, built a new technical trail feature along Town Run’s mountain bike trail. The feature can best be described as a banked wooden turn, also known as a berm. A rider, approaching the berm, has three options for completing the turn. First, riders can avoid the berm by staying on the dirt path on its left side. Second, riders can elect to enter the berm and ride it on the low grade, or third, riders can negotiate the turn by riding the berm’s more challenging high grade. The entrance onto the wooden turn is fully tapered with the ground, while the exit is only partially tapered. A rider [*715] choosing the low grade would exit the berm with a “little jump” off the end of the feature. (City’s App. Vol. II, pp. 100-01). A rider exiting on the high grade would have to make a two-foot jump back down to the trail.

P5 By July 9, 2011, Kaler had been mountain [**3] biking for approximately four to five years. He described himself as an “experienced” and “better than average” bicyclist. (City’s App. Vol. II, pp. 90, 91). Although he was familiar with the trails at Town Run, he had not been on the mountain bike trail since the berm had been constructed several months earlier. “Oftentimes,” Kaler would “try to get an idea of the technical requirements of the trail” and would step off his bike, especially if he saw something within his view “as a danger.” (City’s App. Vol. II, p. 89). He understood that “on a mountain bike trail there’s multiple paths that you can take, one being more dangerous or less dangerous than another.” (City’s App. Vol. II, p. 89). In fact, Kaler had ridden a “fairly sophisticated” trail before which had a “four or five foot drop.” (City’s App. Vol. II, pp. 95, 96). While riding a mountain bike, Kaler was “never [] a casual rider. [He] always enjoyed the obstacles[.]” (City’s App. Vol. II, p. 100). He “expected to get in a wreck at least every other time [he] rode, and [he] would routinely fall off the bike over obstacles.” (City’s App. Vol. II, p. 95). “[I]t was just a general consequence of the sport.” (City’s App. Vol. II, [**4] p. 95).

P6 On July 9, 2011, Kaler and his girlfriend took their first trip on the trail. The mountain bike trail is shaped as a “figure 8,” with an approximate length of 6 miles. (City’s App. Vol. II, p. 92). When he first approached the berm, Kaler “took the low grade” on the feature. (City’s App. Vol. II, p. 95). As he approached the end of the turn, Kaler could see “there was a drop” so he “pull[ed] up on the fork and [did] a little bunny hop[.]” (City’s App. Vol II, pp. 102, 101). On their second trip around the course, Kaler’s girlfriend decided to take a shorter loop back to the trailhead. She was not as “adventurous” as Kaler and was concerned about getting back to the trailhead before dusk. (City’s App. Vol II, p. 92). Despite the approaching darkness, Kaler “wanted to ride the higher grade because [he] knew it was more challenging.” (City’s App. Vol. II, p. 101). He reached the berm again around 9:30 p.m. Feeling “capable of riding that high line,” Kaler sped up and rode the berm “as high as [he] could possibly ride it with [his] skill set.” (City’s App. Vol. II, p. 101). As he was near the end of the berm’s high grade, he “just saw [him]self lose control [] and just knew he was dropping.” [**5] (City’s App. Vol. II, p. 101). Kaler “didn’t see the drop, [nor] was he aware of the drop” at the end of the high grade turn, instead he “thought it tapered off.” (City’s App. Vol. II, p. 104). Due to the fall, Kaler sustained lacerations to his spleen and kidney. After calling his mother and girlfriend to inform them that he had crashed, he rode his bicycle back to the trail head. That evening, Kaler and his girlfriend went out for dinner.

P7 Around 1:30 a.m. on the following morning, Kaler went to the hospital where he was diagnosed with lacerations to his spleen and kidney. On discharge, Kaler was offered physical therapy but refused it because he “didn’t feel it was necessary.” (City’s App. Vol. II, p. 99). Kaler’s recovery did not last long and he participated in a 100-mile bicycle ride later that summer.

P8 On September 7, 2012, Kaler filed his Complaint against the City, sounding in premises liability. On August 21, 2015, the City filed its motion for summary judgment. (City’s App. Vol II, p. 46). In turn, Kaler submitted his response to the City’s motion, as well as his designation of evidence. On January 6, 2016, the trial court [*716] conducted a hearing on the City’s motion for summary [**6] judgment. On February 2, 2016, the trial court issued its Order, summarily denying the motion. The trial court certified its Order for interlocutory appeal and the City sought this court’s permission to appeal. We granted the request and accepted the interlocutory appeal on May 19, 2016.

P9 Additional facts will be provided as necessary.

DISCUSSION AND DECISION

I. Standard of Review

P10 Summary judgment is appropriate only when there are no genuine issues of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Ind. Trial Rule 56(C). “A fact is material if its resolution would affect the outcome of the case, and an issue is genuine if a trier of fact is required to resolve the parties’ differing accounts of the truth . . . , or if the undisputed facts support conflicting reasonable inferences.” Williams v. Tharp, 914 N.E.2d 756, 761 (Ind. 2009).

P11 In reviewing a trial court’s ruling on summary judgment, this court stands in the shoes of the trial court, applying the same standards in deciding whether to affirm or reverse summary judgment. First Farmers Bank & Trust Co. v. Whorley, 891 N.E.2d 604, 607 (Ind. Ct. App. 2008), trans. denied. Thus, on appeal, we must determine whether there is a genuine issue of material fact and whether the trial court has correctly applied the law. Id. at 607-08. In doing so, we consider all of [**7] the designated evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Id. at 608. The party appealing the grant of summary judgment has the burden of persuading this court that the trial court’s ruling was improper. Id. When the defendant is the moving party, the defendant must show that the undisputed facts negate at least one element of the plaintiff’s cause of action or that the defendant has a factually unchallenged affirmative defense that bars the plaintiff’s claim. Id. Accordingly, the grant of summary judgment must be reversed if the record discloses an incorrect application of the law to the facts. Id.

P12 We observe that in the present case, the trial court did not enter findings of fact and conclusions of law in support of its judgment. Special findings are not required in summary judgment proceedings and are not binding on appeal. AutoXchange.com. Inc. v. Dreyer and Reinbold, Inc., 816 N.E.2d 40, 48 (Ind. Ct. App. 2004). However, such findings offer this court valuable insight unto the trial court’s rationale for its review and facilitate appellate review. Id.

II. Premises Liability

P13 In support of its argument that the trial court erred in denying its motion for summary judgment, the City relies on Burrell v. Meads, 569 N.E.2d 637 (Ind. 1991), and Pfenning v. Lineman, 947 N.E.2d 392 (Ind. 2011). In Burrell,4 [*717] Indiana’s seminal case for premises liability, [**8] our supreme court imposed a three-part test to determine a landowner’s liability for harm caused to an invitee5 by a condition of its land. Under the Burrell test, a landowner can be held responsible only if the landowner:

(a) Knows or by the exercise of reasonable care would discover the condition, and should realize that it involves an unreasonable risk of harm to such invitees, and

(b) Should expect that they will not discover or realize the danger, or will fail to protect themselves against it, and

(c) Fails to exercise reasonable care to protect them against the danger.

Burrell, 569 N.E.2d at 639-40.

4 We acknowledge that on October 26, 2016, our supreme court redrew the premises liability landscape with its decision in Rogers v. Martin, 63 N.E.3d 316, 321 (Ind. 2016), in which the court issued a new test with respect to the situation where an invitee’s injury occurs not due to a dangerous condition of the land but due to claims involving activities on the land. In Rogers, our supreme court distinguished Burrell as follows:

When a physical injury occurs as a condition of the land, the three elements described in the Restatement (Second) of Torts Section 343 accurately describe the landowner-invitee duty. And because Burrell involved an injury due to a condition on the land, it accordingly framed the landowner-invitee duty broadly. [] [W]hile Section 343 limits the scope of the landowner-invitee duty in cases involving injuries due to conditions of the land, injuries could also befall invitees due to activities on a landowner’s premises unrelated to the premises’ condition–and that landowners owe their invites the general duty of reasonable care under those circumstances too.

Rogers, 63 N.E.3d at 322-23. Because Kaler’s injury occurred when riding a mountain bike trail feature, we find the cause more properly analyzed pursuant to Burrell [**9] as it involved a condition of the land.

5 All parties agree that Kaler is an invitee of the City.

P14 On May 18, 2011, our supreme court issued Pfenning v. Lineman, 947 N.E.2d 392 (Ind. 2011), which applied the Burrell test in the realm of premises liability while participating in sports activities. In Pfenning, Cassie Pfenning was injured by a golf ball at a golf outing when she was sixteen years old. Id. at 396. At the time of the incident, Pfenning drove a beverage cart and after making several trips around the golf course “was suddenly struck in the mouth by a golf ball while driving the beverage cart on the cart path approaching the eighteenth hole’s tee pad from its green.” Id. at 397. The ball was a low drive from the sixteenth tee approximately eighty yards away. Id. The golfer’s drive traveled straight for approximately sixty to seventy yards and then severely hooked to the left. Id. The golfer noticed the roof of another cart in the direction of the shot and shouted “fore.” Id. But neither the plaintiff nor her beverage-serving companion heard anyone shout “fore.” Id. After hearing a faint yelp, the golfer ran in the direction of the errant ball and discovered the plaintiff with injuries to her mouth, jaw, and teeth. Id.

P15 Pfenning brought, among others, a premises liability claim against the Elks, the fraternal lodge that owned and [**10] operated the golf course. Id. at 405. Finding that the injury arose from a condition on the premises, the supreme court turned to Burrell in its articulation of the contours of the Elks’ duty. Id. at 406. In applying the Burrell test, the court held that the two first aspects of premises liability were not established by the designated evidence. Id. at 407. First, turning to the second element–the discovery or realization of danger–the court concluded that “for the purpose of our premises liability jurisprudence, the issue here is [] whether the Elks objectively should have expected that [Pfenning] would be oblivious to the danger or fail to protect herself from it.” Id. at 406. In applying this principle the court found “no genuine issue of fact to contravene the objectively reasonable expectation by the Elks that persons present on its golf course would realize the risk of being struck with an errant golf ball and take appropriate precautions.” Id. Addressing Burrell‘s first element–unreasonable [*718] risk of harm–the Pfenning court reasoned that “the risk of a person on a golf course being struck by a golf ball does not qualify as the ‘unreasonable risk of harm’ referred to in the first two components of the Burrell three-factor [**11] test.” Id.

P16 Likewise, here, we conclude that the designated evidence does not satisfy the Burrell requirements with respect to the duty component of premises liability. Initially, we find that it was objectively reasonable for the City under the facts of this case to expect Kaler to appreciate the risks of riding the trail and take suitable protections. The trail’s difficulty was advertised as appropriate for beginner through intermediate. Kaler’s own deposition characterized himself as an “experienced” bicyclist, who had ridden “a fairly sophisticated” trail before and who “always enjoyed the obstacles.” (City’s App. Vol. II, pp. 91, 95, 100). He conceded that to “try to get an idea of the technical requirements of the trail,” he would get off his bike, especially if he noticed something “as a danger.” (City’s App. Vol. II, p. 89). He admitted that a fall “was just a general consequence of the sport.” (City’s App. Vol. II, p. 95). Although he had ridden the trail the first time without any problems, when Kaler decided to make a second run, it was getting dark but he was insistent that he “wanted to ride the higher grade because [he] knew it was more challenging.” (City’s App. Vol. [**12] II, p. 101). At no point did Kaler step off his bike and inspect the berm’s high grade prior to riding it in the approaching darkness. Accordingly, pursuant to Kaler’s own statements, the City could objectively and reasonably have expected an experienced bicyclist to realize the risks a beginner to intermediate trail would present and take appropriate precautions.

P17 We also conclude that the designated evidence fails to establish that the City had actual or constructive knowledge of a condition on the trail that involved an unreasonable risk of harm to Kaler. Kaler’s own deposition unequivocally affirms that being involved in a bicycle crash “was just a general consequence of the sport.” (City’s App. Vol. II, p. 95). In fact, Kaler “expected to get in a wreck at least every other time [he] rode, and [he] would routinely fall off the bike over obstacles.” (City’s App. Vol. II, p. 95). As the expectation of a bicycle crash is a risk inherent to riding trails, it cannot serve to establish the sort of unreasonable risk of harm contemplated in the first Burrell element. See Pfenning, 947 N.E.2d at 407.

P18 Finding that the designated evidence conclusively established that two of the elements of the premises liability [**13] test are not satisfied, we conclude that the trial court erred by denying summary judgment to the City. We reverse the trial court’s decision and now find summary judgment for the City.

II. Contributory Negligence

P19 Next, the City maintains that Kaler is foreclosed from any recovery because of his failure to exercise the care a reasonable, prudent mountain biker should have exercised. It should be noted that Kaler brought his claim against the City, a governmental entity, and therefore, his claim falls under the common law defense of contributory negligence, as the Indiana Comparative Fault Act expressly excludes application to governmental entities. See I.C. § 34-51-2-2. Consequently, even a slight degree of negligence on Kaler’s part, if proximately contributing to his claimed damages, will operate as a total bar to his action for damages against the City, even though, as against nongovernmental defendants, any fault of Kaler would only operate to reduce the damages he might obtain.

[*719] P20 A plaintiff is contributorily negligent when the plaintiff’s conduct “falls below the standard to which he should conform for his own protection and safety.” Funston v. School Town of Munster, 849 N.E.2d 595, 598 (Ind. 2006). Lack of reasonable care that an ordinary person would [**14] exercise in like or similar circumstances is the factor upon which the presence or absence of negligence depends. Id. Expressed another way, “[c]ontributory negligence is the failure of a person to exercise for his own safety that degree of care and caution which an ordinary, reasonable, and prudent person in a similar situation would exercise.” Id. at 599. Contributory negligence is generally a question of fact and is not an appropriate matter for summary judgment “if there are conflicting factual inferences.” Id. “However, where the facts are undisputed and only a single inference can reasonably be drawn therefrom, the question of contributory negligence becomes one of law.” Id.

P21 In Funston, the plaintiff sued the school after incurring injuries caused by a fall when he leaned backwards while sitting on the top row of a set of bleachers. Id. at 599. Funston had been at the gym for about four hours, watching two basketball games while sitting on lower rows on other sets of identical bleachers. Id. For the third game, he moved to the top row of one of the bleachers. Id. It was clearly visible that there was no back railing for spectators sitting on the top row, but Funston leaned back anyway because he “thought there [**15] was something back there[.]” Id. Our supreme court concluded that Funston was contributorily negligent as a matter of law, finding that:

It certainly is understandable that [Funston] would be distracted as he engaged his attention on his son’s basketball game. But being understandable does not equate with being completely free of all negligence.

Id. at 600.

P22 In his deposition, Kaler affirmed that in trying to build a skill, it would not be unusual for him “to get off [his] bike and look at the [] obstacles.” (City’s App. Vol. II, p. 89). He also acknowledged that he knew the berm’s high grade would be challenging because he had just started riding high berms and had never ridden a berm as steep as the one at Town Run. As he approached the end of the turn during his first ride on the berm, Kaler could see “there was a drop[.]” (City’s App. Vol. II, p. 103). After a successful first run on the berm’s low grade, Kaler decided to ride the feature again. Despite the approaching darkness, he planned to ride the berm’s high grade as high as he possibly could because it would be “really cool to ride it and get that speed[.]” (City’s App. Vol. II, p. 101). Notwithstanding the coolness factor, Kaler conceded [**16] that riding obstacles posed a risk of bodily injury as crashes were a general consequence of the sport. Typically, to get an idea of the technical requirements of a trail, the biker “would get off his bike.” (City’s App. Vol. II, p. 89).

P23 Based on the designated evidence, we cannot conclude that Kaler was “completely free of all negligence.” See id. Kaler knew and understood the precautions a reasonably prudent mountain biker should take–inspect the feature prior to riding it–but chose not to follow them. There is no evidence that the jump from the high grade was obscured from view and Kaler conceded that he could have anticipated the drop from the high grade had he taken the precaution a reasonable bicyclist riding an unfamiliar trail would take. Accordingly, we find Kaler contributorily negligent.

[*720] CONCLUSION

P24 Based on the foregoing, we hold that there is no genuine issue of material fact that precludes the entry of summary judgment in the City’s favor on Kaler’s claim of premises liability; and Kaler was contributorily negligent when riding the City’s mountain bike trail at Town Run.

P25 Reversed.

P26 Crone, J. and Altice, J. concur


The safety precautions undertaken by the defendant in this mountain bike race were sufficient to defeat the plaintiff’s claims of gross negligence in this Utah mountain bike fatality.

Tour of the Canyonlands was an 18-mile mountain bike race near Moab, Utah. Six miles of the course were on roads. The course was an open course meaning, there might be automobile traffic on the roads; the roads would not be closed to traffic.
Two plaintiffs’ struck a truck on the road, killing one of the mountain bikers.

Milne v. USA Cycling Inc., et. al., 575 F.3d 1120; 2009 U.S. App. LEXIS 17822

State: Utah, United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit

Plaintiff: Robert J. Milne, an individual; Timothy K. Sorrow, individually and as personal representative on behalf of his deceased son, Samuel B. Hall,

Defendant: USA Cycling Inc., a Colorado corporation, d/b/a National Off-road Bicycle Association; Cycle Cyndicate Inc.,

Plaintiff Claims: negligence, gross negligence, and wrongful death

Defendant Defenses: release, failure to state a claim to prove gross negligence

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2009

This is an attempt to recover damages by parents for the injuries they suffer when a son is hurt or dies. It probably involves as many emotional issues as it does legal ones such as how and why did my son die, why didn’t they do more to keep my son alive and possibly even some desire to protect others from the same
fate.

Two mountain bikers entered the Tour of the Canyonlands mountain bike race. Both had entered the race before and were classified as expert racers. They both signed a release prior to the race and had been told the first six miles of the course would be an open course.

An “open course” is one that is not closed to automobile traffic. Cycling on an “open course,” whether on a mountain bike or road bike, you will be encountering cars and be passed by cars. Approximately 25% of all mountain bike races are open course and a majority of road bike races in the US.

The race organizers had put up signs before the racing telling motorists that there was going to be a race. The organizers had volunteers along the route and first aid people to assist riders. They had made the effort to notify all campers on the race route about the race. The defendant driving the truck involved in the collision stated he was not notified about the race, but other people camping with him stated they had been notified.

The accident occurred when one racer attempted to pass another racer on the open part of the course while passing the automobile coming from the opposite direction. The automobile was a Ford Excursion pulling a 30’ trailer. The mountain bikers tangled, and one of the plaintiffs’s crashed into the truck.

Mr. Konitshek testified that, when he saw the oncoming bikers, he veered as far right in his lane of travel as possible, and remained on the right side of the road the entire time. He was going about 5 miles per hour when one of the bikers hit his left sideview mirror, causing it to bang into his window and shatter.

Mr. Hall had attempted to pass both himself and Mr. Milne. Mr. Byrd was immediately behind Mr. Milne, so Mr. Hall passed him first. Mr. Byrd testified that Mr. Hall passed very closely and, because of his proximity and his speed–Mr. Hall was riding about 25 miles per hour at that time–Mr. Casey could feel the wind coming off him as he passed. Then, as Mr. Hall began to pass Mr. Milne, their handlebars locked together, causing them to veer left and strike Mr. Konitshek’s camper. It is not entirely clear what happened next, but at least one racer testified that he saw the trailer run over Mr. Hall.

The release stopped the claims based on simple negligence and wrongful death of the plaintiffs. That left the claims for gross negligence. The Federal District Court (trial court) dismissed the plaintiff’s claims because the plaintiff had not pled any facts to prove their claim of gross negligence.

On the plaintiff’s gross negligence claims, the court determined that the undisputed facts showed that defendants had taken a number of steps to protect the racers’ safety, and even if those steps were taken negligently, they were not grossly negligent.

There was also an issue of the plaintiff’s expert witness whom the trial court had prevented from testifying because the trial court found him to not have any experience as a mountain bike race expert.

The plaintiff’s appealed the trial court’s decision.

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

The appellate court had a long discussion on the courts process to dismiss cases based on motions for summary judgment. The court then started into the analysis of the facts in this case and how they applied to the law.

Gross negligence in Utah is a failure on the part of the defendant to observe even slight care. “Under Utah law, “[g]ross negligence is the failure to observe even slight care; it is carelessness or recklessness to a degree that shows utter indifference to the consequences that may result.” The plaintiff to prove the defendant was grossly negligent must proof “conduct substantially more distant from the appropriate standard of care than does ordinary negligence.”

The facts argued by the plaintiff can then only be interpreted in one way for a court to determine gross negligence cannot be proved. However, even if there are different ways of viewing the facts, gross negligence claims can be beat if there is evidence the defendant did show care or was not lacking care.

However, appeals courts have affirmed grants of summary judgment on gross negligence claims where the undisputed evidence showed that the defendants took precautionary measures and did not ignore known and obvious risks.

In this case, the court could point out numerous instances where the defendant was not careless. “… the plaintiffs have fallen short of producing evidence upon which a jury could conclude that the defendants failed to exercise “even slight care” in organizing and administering this race.

The court also looked at the knowledge of the racers and the fact they assumed the risk of the sport and injuries they encountered.

Mountain bike racing is an inherently dangerous sport, so the defendants cannot be considered grossly negligent merely because they organized a race that placed the racers at risk of injury and even death. Rather, the court must look at the specific steps the defendants took to ensure the racers’ safety in order to determine whether a jury could decide that they
were grossly negligent.

Although the issue of assumption of the risk was reviewed by the court and it obviously factored into the court’s analysis, it was not stated by the court as a reason for its decision.

The plaintiff argued the driver’s statements showed the defendant not done anything. However, the court seemed to discount the driver’s statements and found everyone else did know about the race. A defendant in the case looking not to lose a lawsuit would be more inclined to state he had not been notified.

Mr. Konitshek claimed that the organizers’ efforts to warn people in the area of the upcoming race were ineffective, because he did not know about the race until moments before the accident. Mr. Konitshek’s complaints about the sufficiency of the race organizers’ warnings do not rise to the level of creating a material issue of fact with regard to gross
negligence for two reasons. First, even if the race organizers’ warnings were imperfect, that does not negate the fact that they made rather substantial efforts to warn people, and their failure to reach every person in the area is insufficient to show gross negligence. Second, although Mr. Konitshek testified that he would have changed his plans if he had known about the race in advance, the plaintiffs presented no reason for this court to think that most drivers would change their plans to avoid a bicycle race on a 6-mile stretch of open road.

Utah requires a high disregard of safety issues to constitute gross negligence. Since automobile accidents were rare in mountain bike racing, this being the only one in the ten years of running this event, automobile accidents were not considered a serious threat to the participants. The issues were brought up by the plaintiff’s expert witness whom the court dismissed in one paragraph.

Thus, the organizers’ failure to shut down the road, mark and enforce a center line on the road, more closely monitor vehicular traffic, or more thoroughly warn other area drivers of the upcoming race cannot, as a matter of law, amount to gross negligence in light of the other safety steps taken by the organizers of this race.

Nor is gross negligence proved by 20/20 hindsight.

An examination of cases in other jurisdictions shows that courts have been reluctant to find that race organizers have been grossly negligent for failing to take every precaution that 20/20 hind-sight might counsel.

The court found the plaintiff’s had not presented evidence that could prove to a jury that the race organizers were grossly negligent and the actions of the race organizers in attending to the safety issues discounted or eliminated the plaintiff’s gross negligence claim.

We therefore agree with the district court’s determination that the plaintiffs in this case have failed to provide evidence upon which a reasonable jury could conclude that the race organizers were grossly negligent.

The court then went on to support the trial courts exclusion of the plaintiff’s expert witness because the expert witness did not have sufficient experience in mountain bike racing. 

There was a concurring opinion in this case. A concurring opinion is one where a justice sitting on the appeal agrees with the outcome of the decision but for a different reason than the majority of the justices. In this case, the concurring judge felt the plaintiff’s expert witness statements were enough to beat the gross negligence claim.

In this case, he would have excluded the plaintiff’s expert witness testimony, but would have used his testimony where he stated the defendants exercised some degree of care for the participants as a reason to dismiss the gross negligence claim.

The dismissal of the claims of the plaintiff by the trial court was upheld.

So Now What?

I am seeing case after case where gross negligence claims are made to defeat a release. Twenty years ago, few cases pleaded a claim for gross negligence, and now every case does. As such part of your preparation for any activity, trip or program is to make sure you do not do anything that could support a gross negligence claim.

Gross negligence claims rarely proved at trial, extremely rare. As such their main reason they are pled is to get passed the motion for summary judgment, which increases the cost of continuing the case substantially. Therefore, any settlement offer will be increased significantly. A gross negligence claim hanging over the head of a defendant is also a real threat as some insurance companies will not pay to defend such a claim judgment based on gross negligence are not dischargeable in Bankruptcy.

Planning what safety precautions you should undertake should first start with understanding what your industry does. Know how other races are put on and what precaution to take is the first step. Then looking at your course, your participants or your ability to respond, you should modify the safety program to meet those differences. 

Finally, have a release and fully inform every one of the risks. Most importantly inform them of all risks, maybe even repeatedly, that are different from everyone else or that substantially increase the risk. Assumption of the Risk is the second most-used defense to negligence claims in recreation cases after a release. Always use both.

If you are interested in having me write your release, fill out this Information Form and Contract and send it to me.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law

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