Church was not liable for injuries on a canoe trip because the church did not control the land along the river.

There can be no negligence if there is no duty; no control means no duty.

Clark, v. Lumbermans Mutual Insurance Company, 465 So. 2d 552; 1985 Fla. App. LEXIS 12832; 10 Fla. L. Weekly 596

State: Florida, Court of Appeal of Florida, First District

Plaintiff: John Clark

Defendant: Lumbermans Mutual Insurance Company and Orange Park Assembly of God

Plaintiff Claims: duty to warn of the shallowness of the water in the beach area, failed to determine in advance the safe and unsafe areas to swim along the St. Mary’s River, and failed to point out proper sites for swimming and diving by the trip members, failed to adequately supervise the canoeing trip

Defendant Defenses: No duty

Holding: for the defendant

Year: 1985

This is a simple and sad case. A church organized a canoe trip through a livery. One of the obvious benefits of a summer canoe trip was swimming and playing in the water. The plaintiff and his friend in their canoe got to a beach first, beached their canoe and dove into the water.

The friend dove into the water first, and the plaintiff followed in the same direction and dove second. The plaintiff’s dive was different, not a shallow dive. He broke his neck and rendered himself a quadriplegic.

There were no obstructions in the water where the accident occurred and the 21-year-old plaintiff was knowledgeable about water sports and activities.

The plaintiff sued the church and the church’s insurance company. The trial court dismissed the complaint. The canoe livery was not part of this suit, and it is unknown if they were ever defendants. This appeal followed.

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

The basics of the plaintiff’s claims were the defendant church organized the trip. Therefore, they were responsible of all aspects of the trip. That control allegedly included the land along the trip as well as the participants. The plaintiff was 21 and argued the church was in control of him, even though he acted without the church’s knowledge or consent and before the “church” through an assistant minister arrived on the scene.

The court first went through the steps under Florida’s law to determine the requirements to dismiss a case. Motions to dismiss are rarely granted.

In order to prevail on a motion for summary judgment in a negligence action, the defendant must show either no negligence on his part proximately resulting in injury to the plaintiff, or that the plaintiff’s negligence was the sole proximate cause of his injury. 

Negligence requires more than the mere occurrence of an accident.

The plaintiff argued that the defendant church was in control of the trip, acting as a guide for the trip and by allowing he to access the beach was liable as a landowner for the beach. The plaintiff argued defendant church constructively possessed the beach.

The court did not accept this argument because the plaintiff arrived at the beach first and before the leader of the trip; the assistant minister who was a paid employee, arrived minutes later. Upon the “church’s” arrival no one tried to exercise defacto control over the beach or the activity which argued was control over the beach.

The next argument was the church was liable for not making sure the beach was safe. However, the plaintiff found the beach and dove without the church’s permission. On top of that, there were not obstructions in the river, which would make the beach or river unsafe.

The court also looked at the age of the plaintiff. The plaintiff “possessed sufficient maturity to appreciate the danger, and was not in a dependency relationship with the appellee church.”

Another argument was the one that created concern and interest. “Appellant also maintains that the church assumed a duty of due care by voluntarily acting as a “tour guide” in organizing and conducting the canoeing trip upon which appellant was injured…”

A prior case Florida case on appeal had held a tour service liable for the accident that occurred in a museum because they had the ability to check out where the tour was going. This legal theory is based on “an action undertaken for the benefit of another, even if performed gratuitously, must be performed in accordance with the duty to exercise due care.”

The court held that the tour company was a common carrier in the other decision, and it did not apply in this case because the circumstances did not create a duty on the part of the church. The liability of a common carrier is the highest owed to a party. Common carriers are usually defined as airlines, trains those transportation services where the customer has no ability to protect themselves or control their situation. The court also found:

Even assuming, arguendo, that the church owed a duty of adequate supervision to appellant, the breach of which would render it liable for ordinary negligence, appellant can be barred from recovery if his own action in diving into the shallow water was the sole proximate cause of his accident.

This statement sounds like an assumption of the risk argument, but is actually a duty statement. There is no liability, unless there is a duty. There cannot be a duty when one is acting on one’s own. “A plaintiff is barred from recovering damages for loss or injury caused by the negligence of another only when the plaintiff’s negligence is the sole legal cause of the damage.”

So Now What?

Sad when a young man spends the rest of his live in a wheel chair. However, the actions that caused his injuries were solely those of his own doing.

The argument that you are a guide when you undertake to organize a trip was interesting. A lot of this would hinge on how you are accomplishing this, what you were saying to get the trip put together. It is important when creating outings or trips like this to identify the responsibilities of the parties. Identify in advance, who is responsible for what. You should always identify that adults are always responsible for themselves.

That division of responsibility is best explained in writing and accepted in writing by the customer. That document is normally called a release.

The way you outline the responsibilities you or the organization you represent when you start organizing a trip will create the duties you will owe. The younger the people on the trip, (kids), and the more the people rely on your statements, the greater the chance you will be held to a duty. If you imply you are creating a duty, then you have created a duty and you will be liable for breaching that duty.

The bigger issue is the assigning of a greater duty by the courts based upon the type of tour being offered. You need to identify in advance that your actions in moving your customers from one location to the activity are done as part of the activity, not as a common carrier. Your liability in the transportation is incidental to the activity, or you may be held to a higher standard of care for all parts of the activity.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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You probably are not liable, but the PR cost of not making sure your guests are going to be safe could swamp your business.

Strainer traps several and creates near drowning on Ohio river that is canoed regularly.

I first saw this from a FB post which described more than the article does.

Canoe liveries are big business in Ohio and the Midwest. They provide a great way to all types of people to get on a river and enjoy nature and the water. The Big Darby Creek in central Ohio is one of those rivers.

In this case a strainer stretched most of the way across the river. It caught canoe after canoe which eventually forced one woman under the strainer where she was held for several minutes. CPR brought her back and everyone was saved. However the harrowing minutes on the river, 911 calls and the press reported the story.

The article at the end identifies the canoe livery who had rented the boats.

Whether or not the livery had any knowledge of the problem in advance is not known. However this is a great teaching situation where you can see the bad public relations costing more than possible litigation. Ohio has great release law and even allows a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue. See States that allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue.

If you owned or ran a canoe livery should you send a boat down in the morning to check things out? Granted the tree could have fallen after the first staff boat went through and before the first rented canoe came down the river. However the odds are better that the tree fell overnight.

The next issue is whether the canoe livery had the right to remove the tree even if they did find it. I don’t remember Ohio water law enough to know.

If you know of the situation, should you inform you guests? Could you have posted a sign upstream of the strainer? What else can you do?

See: 9 canoeists pulled from Big Darby; 1 seriously hurt

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Clark, v. Lumbermans Mutual Insurance Company, 465 So. 2d 552; 1985 Fla. App. LEXIS 12832; 10 Fla. L. Weekly 596

Clark, v. Lumbermans Mutual Insurance Company, 465 So. 2d 552; 1985 Fla. App. LEXIS 12832; 10 Fla. L. Weekly 596

John Clark, Appellant, v. Lumbermans Mutual Insurance Company and Orange Park Assembly of God, Appellees

No. AU-168

Court of Appeal of Florida, First District

465 So. 2d 552; 1985 Fla. App. LEXIS 12832; 10 Fla. L. Weekly 596

March 7, 1985

COUNSEL: Adam H. Lawrence of Lawrence & Daniels, Miami; and Brent M. Turbow, Jacksonville, for Appellant.

Charles Cook Howell, III of Howell, Liles, Braddock & Milton, Jacksonville, for Appellee.

JUDGES: Smith, L., J. Mills and Nimmons, JJ., concur.

OPINION BY: SMITH

OPINION

[*553] John Clark, plaintiff below, appeals a final summary judgment in favor of the appellees in this negligence action. After an examination of the whole record, we conclude that no interpretation of the undisputed material facts would support a finding of liability for negligence on the part of the appellee Orange Park Assembly of God (hereinafter “church”). We affirm.

The following facts, taken from depositions filed in this cause, are germane to this appeal. Appellant suffered a broken neck and was rendered a quadriplegic during a diving accident on the St. Mary’s River, located in Nassau County, Florida. The accident occurred during a canoe trip and picnic sponsored, planned and conducted by the appellee church. The church had hired Mr. Gary Hines to be its “minister of youth.” Hines, [**2] a paid, full-time employee of the church, was to direct and coordinate the activities of the church’s youthful members. The trip in question took place June 13, 1981. Its logistics were planned and coordinated by Hines. Approximately 40 to 50 people, including appellant, ultimately participated in the trip. Appellant, a high school graduate, was twenty-one years of age at the time of his injury. He was, in his own words, in excellent health, a good swimmer who was familiar with various water sports.

On the day of appellant’s accident, trip members were transported by church bus and van to a canoe rental establishment located on the St. Mary’s River called the Canoe Outpost. Hines did not attempt extensive instructions to trip members regarding canoe operation or the physical characteristics of the river they were about to traverse. Trip members were instructed by Hines that suitable beaches for swimming existed on the river; however, Hines acknowledged that he had not made inquiries prior to the trip as to the location or suitability of any of the river’s beaches.

During the trip, appellant and a canoeing companion, Lee Brannen, sighted what they thought was a suitable place [**3] for swimming, and beached their canoes. Brannen testified that he ran out into the water approximately three steps and then executed a shallow, racing-type dive into the water, which was approximately chest deep on Brannen, who was six feet one inch tall. Brannen testified he felt it would be “crazy” to attempt a “deep dive,” as he had not yet ascertained the exact depth of the water. Appellant then attempted to execute a similar dive, following what both he and Brannen testified was essentially the same path Brannen had taken in making his dive. Both testified that appellant’s dive differed from Brannen’s. Brannen testified that appellant had not run as far into the water as Brannen had, and that appellant jumped somewhat higher prior to the dive in a manner Brannen characterized as a “piking” of appellant’s body, with the result that appellant’s head and arms preceded the rest of his body into the water. Unfortunately, the result of appellant’s attempted dive was a broken neck and consequent paralysis. The record is unclear as to what, exactly, caused appellant’s injuries, since appellant was unable to state categorically that he hit his head on the river bottom as a result [**4] of his dive. However, all deponents testified that the river bottom area where appellant dove was clear of obstructions.

Appellant instituted the pending action alleging, among other things, that the appellee church had violated its duty to warn of the shallowness of the water in the beach area, where appellant had attempted his dive, failed to determine in advance the safe and unsafe areas to swim along the [*554] St. Mary’s River, and failed to point out proper sites for swimming and diving by the trip members. Appellant also alleged that the church had failed to adequately supervise the canoeing trip.

Appellees moved for summary judgment, asserting that the church breached no legal duty owed the appellant; that appellant had actual knowledge of the allegedly dangerous condition of the beach where his accident occurred; and that appellant’s actions constituted the sole proximate cause of his injury. The trial court granted the motion for summary judgment, finding that the beach area where appellant’s accident occurred contained no latent or unknown dangers; that the appellee church did not breach any legal duty owed the appellant; and that appellant’s actions were the [**5] sole proximate cause of his injury. This appeal followed.

We are governed by certain well known principles applicable in negligence actions. [HN1] Issues of negligence and probable cause will normally be answerable only by a jury, and not by motion for summary judgment, unless the facts adduced “point to but one possible conclusion.” Cassel v. Price, 396 So.2d 258, 260 (Fla. 1st DCA 1981) (citations omitted), rev. den. mem., 407 So.2d 1102 (Fla. 1981). In order to prevail on a motion for summary judgment in a negligence action, the defendant must show either no negligence on his part proximately resulting in injury to the plaintiff, or that the plaintiff’s negligence was the sole proximate cause of his injury. Goode v. Walt Disney World Co., 425 So.2d 1151, 1154 (Fla. 5th DCA 1982), rev. den. mem., 436 So.2d 101 (Fla. 1983). However, as often stated, “the mere occurrence of an accident does not give rise to an inference of negligence, and is not sufficient for a finding of negligence on the part of anyone.” Cassel v. Price, supra, at 264 (citations omitted). Judged by these standards, we find that the trial court correctly granted appellees’ motion for summary judgment.

[**6] Initially, we find without merit appellant’s attempt to affix liability based upon breach of a duty of due care by the church as a “possessor” or “occupier” of land. Appellant contends that the church, by allowing appellant and other members of the trip to utilize the beach where appellant was injured, constructively “possessed” this portion of the beach area, citing Arias v. State Farm Fire and Casualty Company, 426 So.2d 1136 (Fla. 1st DCA 1983). We disagree. In Arias, the plaintiff was injured after a “john boat” in which she was a passenger collided with a partially submerged diving dock located in a lake directly in front of lakefront property owned by a defendant on Lake Hampton, in Bradford County. The defendant in Arias argued that since the land beneath the lake was owned by the state, rather than by the defendant, he was not in a position to exercise control over the land upon which the submerged dock rested, and hence he owed the plaintiff no duty to warn of the hazard. The Arias court rejected this contention, stating:

[HN2] The liability of an occupant of real property for injuries caused by an alleged dangerous defective condition on the premises [**7] depends generally upon his control of the property, regardless of whether he had title thereto, or whether he has a superior right to possession of property which is in the possession and control of another. (citation omitted)

Id. at 1138.

There are no facts in this case which would tend to satisfy the elements of “possession” or “control” which led to the court’s decision in Arias. The facts in Arias were that the nearly submerged dock was located several hundred feet directly in front of the defendant’s lakefront property, and that while it was located in the lake before defendant bought the property, the defendant had modified it by placing a thin shelled cement surface on the dock. The Arias court held that it could not be determined, as a matter of law, that the defendant had “failed to maintain the requisite control over the boat dock.” 426 So.2d at 1138. Here, by contrast, the church had no actual or constructive “presence” at the beach prior to the accident. [*555] Appellant and Brannen were the first two canoeists to reach the beach, and hence “occupy” it. Hines arrived a number of minutes after the appellant and other members of the group, [**8] and made no attempt to exercise “de facto” control over the beach or over activities on the beach.

Moreover, the view that potential liability may exist under facts such as found in Arias is premised upon the existence of a hidden danger of which the land owner or occupier has or should have superior knowledge, as compared to the injured party. Here, no evidence was produced to establish the existence of any hidden dangers at the situs of the accident. It was uncontradicted that the river bottom and the beach contained no rocks or obstructions. Nor can the depth of the water itself have been considered a hidden danger, since both appellant and Brannen testified that they were well aware of its relatively shallow depth. Switzer v. Dye, 177 So. 2d 539 (Fla. 1st DCA 1965). Appellant testified that he was aware of the danger of diving into shallow water, and was aware that the water depth at the beach where he was injured was indeed properly characterized as shallow. Hence, there existed in the case at bar no “hidden danger” so as to trigger the rule in Arias.

We think the same result is required here if the potential liability of the church is considered in relation [**9] to its duty to investigate the river for dangerous conditions. The “harmful condition” of the beach (assuming, without accepting, the correctness of this characterization by appellant) was recognized and hence was obvious to all who testified below. Therefore, no breach of duty occurred, since the “harmful condition” was in fact obvious to appellant, who indisputably possessed sufficient maturity to appreciate the danger, and was not in a dependency relationship with the appellee church. See Bradshaw v. Rawlings, 612 F.2d 135 (3d Cir. 1979), cert. den., 446 U.S. 909, 100 S. Ct. 1836, 64 L. Ed. 2d 261 (1980); cf. Rupp v. Bryant, 417 So.2d 658 (Fla. 1982) (school children between the ages of seventeen and eighteen considered to be under an in loco parentis relationship vis-a-vis school officials).

Appellant also maintains that the church assumed a duty of due care by voluntarily acting as a “tour guide” in organizing and conducting the canoeing trip upon which appellant was injured, citing Kaufman v. A-1 Bus Lines, Inc., 416 So.2d 863 (Fla. 3d DCA 1982) (Kaufman II). There, the plaintiff was injured when she fell off a cat-walk while touring a museum visited by [**10] tour groups sponsored by the defendant. The Third District had previously affirmed the Kaufman trial court’s dismissal of Ms. Kaufman’s initial complaint, but did so without prejudice to her right to file an amended complaint alleging defendant’s actual knowledge of the allegedly dangerous condition that caused her injury. Kaufman v. A-1 Bus Lines, Inc., 363 So. 2d 61 (Fla. 3d DCA 1978) (Kaufman I). Subsequently, Ms. Kaufman filed an amended complaint alleging that the defendant’s actual knowledge of the allegedly dangerous condition causing her injury created a duty to warn on the defendant’s part. The court in Kaufman II found that the defendant could be held liable for negligence while acting as a tour guide, based on the well-known proposition that [HN3] an action undertaken for the benefit of another, even if performed gratuitously, must be performed in accordance with the duty to exercise due care. 416 So. 2d at 864; see also Padgett v. School Board of Escambia County, 395 So.2d 584 (Fla. 1st DCA 1981).

We agree with appellant that a church’s sponsorship and organization of a canoeing trip could give rise to a legal duty to exercise reasonable care in exercising [**11] these responsibilities. Padgett, supra. We observe, however, that Kaufman II is distinguishable from the case at bar due to the Kaufman II defendant’s status as a common carrier. Furthermore, in view of the undisputed evidence concerning the circumstances under which the accident occurred, we do not find it necessary to examine the [*556] extent of the church’s duty in this case, or to categorize the relationship between plaintiff and defendant here, which would otherwise guide our decision in determining whether the church carried its burden of showing the absence of evidence indicating a breach of duty by the church causing injury to appellant, as required to entitle it to summary judgment. 1

1 Cf., Section 768.13, Florida Statutes (1981), the “Good Samaritan Act,” with commercial transactions (Kaufman II, the “tour guide” situation) and dependency relationships (Rupp; schools in an in loco parentis relationship with students).

Even assuming, arguendo, that the church [**12] owed a duty of adequate supervision to appellant, the breach of which would render it liable for ordinary negligence, appellant can be barred from recovery if his own action in diving into the shallow water was the sole proximate cause of his accident. Phillips v. Styers, 388 So. 2d 221 (Fla. 2d DCA 1980), quoting Hoffman v. Jones, 280 So. 2d 431, 438 (Fla. 1973): ” [HN4] A plaintiff is barred from recovering damages for loss or injury caused by the negligence of another only when the plaintiff’s negligence is the sole legal cause of the damage.” We hold that appellant was properly barred from proceeding further with his claim because the evidence below is susceptible to no conclusion other than that he had sufficient intelligence, experience, and knowledge to – and in fact did – both detect and appreciate the physical characteristics of the swimming place in question and the potential danger involved in attempting his shallow water dive. See, Lister v. Campbell, 371 So. 2d 133 (Fla. 1st DCA 1979), Hughes v. Roarin 20’s, Inc., 455 So. 2d 422 (Fla. 2d DCA 1984). 2

2 See, also, Bourn v. Herring, 225 Ga. 67, 166 S.E.2d 89 (1969), appeal dismissed, 400 U.S. 922, 91 S. Ct. 192, 27 L. Ed. 2d 183 (1970) (church and its representatives held not liable for negligent supervision of Sunday school picnic at lake resort during which youth drowned while attempting to swim from platform in deep water back to shore).

[**13] For the foregoing reasons, the judgment below is

AFFIRMED.

MILLS and NIMMONS, JJ., CONCUR.


The basics of winning a negligence claim is having some facts that show negligence, not just the inability to canoe by the plaintiff

Plaintiff’s rented a canoe and sued when they did not make the takeout and became stuck. The plaintiff’s took 4 hours to paddle 2.5 miles

Ferrari v. Bob’s Canoe Rental, Inc., 2014 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 3768; 2014 NY Slip Op 32209(U)

State: New York, Supreme Court of New York, Suffolk County

Plaintiff: Kathleen Ferrari, as Administratrix of the Estate of Dennis Ferrari, and Kathleen Ferrari, Individually

Defendant: Bob’s Canoe Rental, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: negligent in permitting them to rent the canoe and launch so close in time to low tide, and in advising them that it was safe to begin their canoe trip when the defendant knew or should have known it was unsafe to do so.

Defendant Defenses: Assumption of the Risk and Release

Holding: Defendant

Year: 2014

The facts are pretty simple, even if expanded by the plaintiffs. The plaintiff wanted to rent a canoe on the Nissequogue River in Suffolk, New York. The Nissequogue River is affected by tides. At low tide, the river disappears and the ocean rushes in. The plaintiff/deceased/husband had canoed the river several times before. The plaintiff/husband and wife contacted the defendant the day before and arrived the day of the incident in the morning. However, the defendant was not at the put in, but located at the takeout. The plaintiff’s drove to the take out where they left their car and were taken back to the put in by the defendant where they started canoeing.

Prior to starting the trip each plaintiff signed a release, and the wife signed a rental agreement for the canoe.

A canoe livery if you are not familiar with one is really a rental operation like a car rental operation where you rent a car and go anywhere you want. A canoe livery you rent the canoe and paddle down a specific section of a specific river. At the end of the trip, the livery picks you up and takes you back to your car. Some liveries start by taking you upriver where you paddle down to your car.

Generally, courts look at canoe liveries as outfitters, not as rental shops. Consequently, liveries are held to a slightly higher degree of care for their guests because of their control over the boat, the river and transportation.

The time prior to putting in, the husband questioned the employee of the defendant about whether they had enough time to canoe the river before the low tide. The employee confirmed they did.

From the put in to the take out is a distance of five miles. Witnesses and the defendant testified it could easily be canoed in 2.5 hours.

After 4 hours of canoeing, the plaintiffs on the day in question had made it 2.5 miles. The tide went out leaving them stranded. According to the wife, the pair started drinking the vodka and wine they had with them to stay warm.

Eventually, they were found and treated for hyperthermia.  

The plaintiff sued for basically not stopping them from renting the canoe. The court also looked at their complaint and defined one of their allegations as a negligent misrepresentation claim.

At the time of the trial, the husband had died; however, his death was not part of this case or caused by the facts in this case.

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

The court looked at the degree of care the defendant owed to the plaintiff and found the plaintiff was voluntarily participating in a sporting or recreational activity. As such, the participants “consent to the commonly appreciated risks that are inherent in and arise out of, the nature of the sport generally and flow from participation therein.” Consequently the participants consent to injury caused by events which are “known, apparent, or reasonably foreseeable risks of the participation.”

If the plaintiff fully comprehends the risks, then the plaintiff consents to them. Stated another way “the duty of the defendant is to protect the plaintiff from injuries arising out of unassumed, concealed, or unreasonably increased risks…”

The court found the defendant husband was an experience canoeist and understood the tides, and the risks presented by both. Therefore, the plaintiff’s assumed the risk of injury.

The court then looked at the releases.

It must appear absolutely clear that the agreement extends to negligence or other fault of the party. “That does not mean that the word ‘negligence’ must be employed for courts to give effect to an exculpatory agreement; however, words conveying a similar import must appear”

Under New York law once the defendant has presented the release, and it has passed the test to exclude negligence the plaintiff must produce evidence, admissible at trial, “sufficient to require a trial of the material issues of fact.”

Here the plaintiff had not submitted any evidence other than the testimony of the plaintiff’s. More importantly the court wanted to know why it took four hours to go half way on the trip.

The court then looked at the remaining allegations and determined those sounded like a claim of negligent misrepresentation. To prevail on a negligent misrepresentation claim the plaintiff must prove “a special relationship existing between the parties, that the information provided by plaintiff was incorrect or false, and that the plaintiff reasonably relied upon the information provided

Here the court found that no evidence had been submitted by the plaintiff to prove the information supplied by the defendant was false.

The plaintiff’s complaint was dismissed.

So Now What?

This case was short but very interesting. The plaintiff did not attack the releases. The court even commented about the fact the plaintiff did not try to have the releases thrown out or voided. Additionally, the plaintiff simply tried to say that the defendant was liable because they got stuck. This is a belief that many plaintiffs have now days. I suffered an injury; therefore, you must be liable.

To win a negligence claim you must prove negligence. Here the plaintiff had not argued there was a breach of the duty owed to them.

There are several abnormally that make this interesting. The first is the standard of care applied to this case is significantly lower than normally that a canoe livery must meet. However, that same standard of care was only at issue on a small part of the claim so the claim would have failed anyway.

The second is the experience of the husband as a canoeist was held to prevent the plaintiff wife from her claims also. Normally, assumption of the risk must be known and understood by each injured plaintiff.  Here, because there were two people in the canoe both working together, the court applied the experience and knowledge of one party in the canoe to the other party in the canoe.

The court did not rely on the release or any other document to make this decision as to the wife assuming the risk that caused their injuries.

Granted, the defendants should have clearly won this case. Whenever in a deposition, the plaintiff argues, they did not start drinking until after they had run out of water to canoe, to stay warm, you should be a little suspect.  

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Ferrari v. Bob’s Canoe Rental, Inc., 2014 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 3768; 2014 NY Slip Op 32209(U)

Ferrari v. Bob’s Canoe Rental, Inc., 2014 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 3768; 2014 NY Slip Op 32209(U)

[**1] Kathleen Ferrari, as Administratrix of the Estate of Dennis Ferrari, and Kathleen Ferrari, Individually. Plaintiffs, – against – Bob’s Canoe Rental, Inc., Defendant. INDEX No. 09-6690

09-6690

SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, SUFFOLK COUNTY

2014 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 3768; 2014 NY Slip Op 32209(U)

July 31, 2014, Decided

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

CORE TERMS: river, canoe, trip, low tide, summary judgment, stranded, deposition, tide, rented, canoeing, paddling, safe, launch, minutes, mile, issue of fact, nonparty, high tide, entitlement, newspaper, decedent, halfway, paddle, facie, launched, arrived, canoed, times, stuck, woman

COUNSEL: [*1] For Plaintiffs: ELOVICH & ADELL, ESQS., Long Beach, New York.

For Defendant: GORDON & SILBER, P.C., New York, New York.

JUDGES: PRESENT: Hon. DENISE F. MOLIA, Acting Justice of the Supreme Court.

OPINION BY: DENISE F. MOLIA

OPINION

ORDERED that these motions are hereby consolidated for purposes of this determination; and it is further

ORDERED that the motion by the defendant for an order pursuant to CPLR 3212 granting summary judgment dismissing the complaint is granted, and it is further

ORDERED that the motion by the defendant for an order pursuant to CPLR 1021 dismissing the complaint for failure to substitute a representative on behalf of the decedent Dennis Ferrari is denied as academic.

This action was commenced to recover damages for personal injuries allegedly sustained by the plaintiff Kathleen Ferrari, and her husband, the decedent Dennis Ferrari, when they were exposed to the elements after becoming stranded at low tide while canoeing on the Nissequogue River in Suffolk County, New York. The Ferraris had rented the canoe used by them that day from the defendant. In the complaint, the Ferraris allege, among other things, that the defendant was negligent in permitting them to rent the canoe and launch so close in time to low [*2] tide, and in advising them that it was safe to begin their canoe trip when the defendant knew or should have known it was unsafe to do so.

[**2] The following facts involving this incident are undisputed. The Ferraris rented a canoe from the defendant on October 27, 2008, intending to make a one-way trip on the Nissequogue River from a launching site located in a park in Smithtown, New York to a park in Kings Park, New York. Both sites were used by the defendant in its business of renting canoes to the public. The defendant’s employee, Geoffrey Lawrence, met the Ferraris, both signed the defendant’s release of liability form, and Dennis Ferrari signed a written lease agreement for the canoe.

The defendant now moves for summary judgment on the grounds that the Ferraris assumed the risk of their activities and that the defendant did not breach a duty of care. In support of the motion, the defendant submits, among other things, the pleadings, the deposition transcripts of the parties, the deposition transcripts of three nonparty witnesses, and an affidavit from an expert. The proponent of a summary judgment motion must make a prima facie showing of entitlement to judgment as a matter of law, [*3] tendering sufficient evidence to eliminate any material issue of fact (see Alvarez v Prospect Hospital, 68 NY2d 320, 501 N.E.2d 572, 508 NYS2d 923 [1986]; Winegrad v New York Univ. Med. Ctr., 64 NY2d 851, 476 N.E.2d 642, 487 NYS2d 316 [1985]). The burden then shifts to the party opposing the motion which must produce evidentiary proof in admissible form sufficient to require a trial of the material issues of fact (Roth v Barreto, 289 AD2d 557, 735 NYS2d 197 [2d Dept 2001]; Rebecchi v Whitmore, 172 AD2d 600, 568 NYS2d 423 [2d Dept 1991]; O’Neill v Fishkill, 134 AD2d 487, 521 NYS2d 272 [2d Dept 1987]). Furthermore, the parties’ competing interest must be viewed “in a light most favorable to the party opposing the motion” (Marine Midland Bank, N.A. v Dino & Artie’s Automatic Transmission Co., 168 AD2d 610, 563 NYS2d 449 [2d Dept 1990]).

At his deposition, Dennis Ferrari testified that he had canoed approximately 12 times when he was younger and a Boy Scout, and that, before this incident, he had canoed as an adult on the Nissequogue River two times. He indicated that his first trip took four to four and one-half hours to travel the length of the river, and that his second trip took five hours to complete. He stated that he rented canoes for those trips, that he “believes” they were rented from the defendant, and that the rental company “schedule[s] you around the tides.” Dennis Ferrari further testified that he called the defendant the day before this trip to rent a canoe, that he believes that he was told it would be high tide for his trip at either 9:00 or 10:00 a.m, and that he was aware that low tide was generally six hours [*4] after high tide. He stated that he himself checked the time of high tide in the local newspaper, and that he does so “every day, because I do a lot of fishing.” He indicated that, on the day of this incident, he awoke at 7:30 or 8:00 a.m. and had breakfast, that he packed a lunch with wine and vodka, that he left his home at 9:30 a.m. to travel to Smithtown to rent the canoe, and that no one from the defendant was there when he arrived at approximately 10:00 a.m. He declared that neither he or his wife had cell phones, that they waited approximately one hour and then contacted the defendant by pay phone, and that he was told to travel to the mouth of the river in Kings Park. Dennis Ferrari further testified that he arrived at Kings Park at 11:30 or 11:45 a.m., that “there was somebody waiting there,” and “by this time, I’m thinking that its getting a little late, and I asked him if it was going to be a problem.” He stated that the person then drove them back to Smithtown, that they arrived “probably close to 12:30,” and “I just asked if we had enough time to make it down river. He said, yeah, it won’t be a problem.” He indicated that he and his wife launched the canoe a little after [*5] 12:30, that both were paddling the canoe, and that they did not eat or drink anything before they “got stuck” at approximately 4:30 p.m. Dennis Ferrari further testified that, for the approximately four hours before they were stranded, he and his wife were paddling [**3] “leisurely, because the river … takes you,” and that he noticed the tide “going out fast” approximately 20 minutes before they got stuck in the mud. He indicated that he and his wife paddled “maybe a couple of hundred yards” in that last 20 minutes, that, “as the water started to go out,” he tried to paddle closer to the shore, and that they became stranded near the Smithtown Landing Country Club. He stated that the Country Club was approximately three or four miles from the launch site in Smithtown and more than halfway to Kings Park, that he did not have any difficulties with the canoe before he and his wife were stranded, and that, after they were stuck, he got out of the canoe to attempt to pull it to shore. He was unsuccessful and re-entered the canoe. He declared that the sun went down at approximately 5:00 or 5:30 p.m., and that he and his wife were not rescued for hours after they were stranded.

At her deposition, [*6] Kathleen Ferrari testified that she had never been canoeing before, that her husband told her that he had canoed on the Nissequogue River twice before, and that he rented a canoe and said that they had to be at Smithtown at either 9:00 or 10:00 a.m. on the day of this incident. She stated that they waited approximately 15 minutes for someone from the defendant to show up, that they called from a pay phone, and that they were told that they had to go to Kings Park. She indicated that they met the man in Kings Park at approximately 11:00 a.m., that her husband asked if they were getting out too late and if it was safe, that the man said that they were fine, and the man told them to leave their car so that he could drive them back to Smithtown. Kathleen Ferrari further testified that, because they were approximately 20 minutes away from Smithtown, her husband kept asking about the tides and told the man that “we’re not going to be actually going out until 11:30,” and that the man kept assuring him that it was safe. She stated that they launched from Smithtown at approximately 12:00 p.m., that they paddled at “quite a pace” because her husband was “concerned that we kept moving,” and that [*7] when her husband mentioned that tide was changing fast they were almost at the end of their trip. She indicated that she and her husband did not have any alcohol to drink until well after they were stranded and in order to combat the cold, and that it took hours before they were rescued.

Geoffrey Lawrence (Lawrence) was deposed on March 7, 2011, and testified that he was a seasonal full-time employee of the defendant in 2008, that he canoed the Nissequogue River daily that year, and that the length of the river from Smithtown to Kings Park is five and one-half miles. He stated that the defendant always launches its canoes from Smithtown, and that the average time to complete the trip to Kings Park at a moderate rate of paddling is two and one-half hours. He indicated that high tide was at approximately 10:30 a.m. on October 27, 2008, that low tide was at 4:30 p.m., and that the time for return of canoes was 4:30 p.m., as it is always at the time of low tide. Lawrence further testified that the Ferraris signed the releases and lease agreement in his truck at Kings Park, that he gave them general instructions, and that Dennis Ferrari said he was experienced, he had done this before, and [*8] he knew where he was going. He stated that he recalled Dennis Ferrari asking if they still had time to launch, and that, generally, the latest time that he would rent a canoe to someone, depending on the tide and time of sunset, would be 2:00 p.m. He indicated that he advised Dennis Ferrari that they could not be in later than 4:30 p.m. that day, that he did not know of any other incidents where someone was stranded on the river, and that he waited in Kings Park for the Ferraris after they launched. He declared that he became anxious when the Ferraris did not arrive at 4:30 p.m., that he went looking for them in his truck, and that he found them stranded near the Smithtown Landing Country Club.

[**4] Nonparty witness Ann Schumacher was deposed on September 3, 2010, and testified that she was employed by the Smithtown Fire Department as an EMT-B in 2008, that she was also a registered nurse, and that she had training in hypothermia and intoxication. She stated that she and her crew responded to an emergency call on October 27, 2008, that this was the first time she had been called to rescue someone stuck on the Nissequogue River, and that she completed a patient care record regarding Dennis [*9] Ferrari. She indicated that Dennis Ferrari did not appear intoxicated, that she did not smell alcohol on his breath, and that he was not slurring his speech.

At his deposition, nonparty witness Edward Springer (Springer) testified that he was employed by the Smithtown Fire Department as an EMT-Critical Care in 2008, that he responded to an emergency call on October 27, 2008, and that he completed a care record regarding Kathleen Ferrari that date. He indicated that he recorded her blood pressure as 80/60, that she was hypothermic, and that her pupils were normal. He stated that if she was intoxicated her pupils would be “different [than] normal,” and that he did not smell alcohol on her breath. Springer further testified that he has rented canoes on the Nissequogue River, that he was verbally told when high tide would be, and that he was aware that low tide is six hours later. He stated that “he believed” it took him three hours to complete a trip on the river, and that the Smithtown Landing Country Club is a little more than halfway to the end of the river.

Nonparty witness Greg Krockta (Krockta) was deposed on September 1, 2011, and testified that he was fishing on the Nissequogue [*10] River on the day of this incident, that he observed a man and a woman in a canoe, and that the woman was slumped over and looked “ill or something.” He stated that the man was paddling the canoe, that the woman was not paddling, and that the man was yelling at the woman to “get up and paddle.” He indicated that he did not know if the couple that he saw are “the same two people [involved in this lawsuit],” that he thinks that the two were the only “male and female combination” that he saw that day, and that he believes that he could identify the couple if shown photographs. Krockta further testified that he lives near the river less than one mile from the launching area, that he often fishes and boats on the river, and that it would take a novice approximately two hours to get from the Smithtown … launching area to the end of the river.”

In an affidavit dated December 8, 2011, the defendant’s expert witness, David Smith (Smith), swears that he is a retired commander with the United States Coast Guard and, among other things, a member of the National Safe Boating Council. He states that he has reviewed the complaint and bill of particulars, the depositions of the Ferraris, Lawrence [*11] and Krockta, and the tidal data for the Nissequogue River. He indicates that he inspected the river on June 14, 2011, when he paddled a canoe from the Smithtown launch site to the vicinity of the Smithtown Landing Country Club. Smith further swears that he chose the June date because the tidal times were substantially the same as on the date of this incident, that he was provided a 17-foot aluminum canoe, and that he took a companion but that “he was the sole paddler of the canoe at all times.” He states that he was 73 years old at the time, and that the combined weight of he and his companion was 426 pounds. He indicates that his review of the Ferraris depositions reveals that their combined weight was 302 pounds, and that Dennis Ferrari was 49 years old on the day of this incident. Smith further swears that he launched his canoe at 11:38 a.m., encountered a headwind of 5-10 miles per hour, and arrived at the Smithtown Landing Country Club at 1:03 p.m. having covered a distance of 3.2 miles in 1 hour and 25 minutes. He states that he estimates that he would have completed the 5 Vi miles from Smithtown to Kings Park in 2 hours and 26 minutes. Smith [**5] opines that, with a reasonable degree [*12] of boating and aquatic safety certainty, the Ferraris had “ample time to complete the course of the Nissequogue River well before the onset of low tide” on the date of this incident.

As a general rule, a plaintiff who voluntarily participates in a sporting or recreational event is held to have consented to those commonly-appreciated risks that are inherent in, and arise out of, the nature of the sport generally and flow from participation therein (see Morgan v State of New York, 90 NY2d 471, 685 N.E.2d 202, 662 NYS2d 421 [1997]; Mendoza v Village of Greenport, 52 AD3d 788, 861 NYS2d 738 [2d Dept 2008]; Paone v County of Suffolk, 251 AD2d 563, 674 NYS2d 761 [2d Dept 1998]), including the injury-causing events which are the known, apparent, or reasonably foreseeable risks of the participation (see Cotty v Town of Southampton, 64 AD3d 251, 880 NYS2d 656 [2d Dept 2009]; Rosenbaum v. Bayis Ne’Emon, Inc.., 32 AD3d 534, 820 NYS2d 326 [2d Dept 2006]). In addition, the plaintiff’s awareness of risk is to be assessed against the background of the skill and experience of the particular plaintiff (see Maddox v City of New York, 66 NY2d 270, 487 N.E.2d 553, 496 NYS2d 726 [1985]; Kremerov v. Forest View Nursing Home, Inc.., 24 AD3d 618, 808 NYS2d 329 [2d Dept 2000] Dept 2005]; Gahan v Mineola Union Free School Dist., 241 AD2d 439, 660 NYS2d 144 [2d Dept 1997]). If the risks of the activity are fully comprehended or perfectly obvious, plaintiff has consented to them and defendant has performed its duty” (Turcotte v Fell, 68 NY2d 432, 502 N.E.2d 964, 510 NYS2d 49 [1986]). Stated otherwise, the duty of the defendant is to protect the plaintiff from injuries arising out of unassumed, concealed, or unreasonably increased risks (see Manoly v City of New York, 29 AD3d 649, 816 NYS2d 499 [2d Dept 2006]; Lapinski v Hunter Mountain Ski Bowl, 306 AD2d 320, 760 NYS2d 549 [2d Dept 2003]; Pascucci v Town of Oyster Bay, 186 AD2d 725, 588 NYS2d 663 [2d Dept 1992]).

Here, the defendant has established [*13] that Dennis Ferrari was an experienced canoeist, with experience regarding the tides on the Nissequogue River, and with knowledge about the risk involved in canoeing at low tide. Dennis Ferrari testified that he had specific knowledge that low tide would occur at approximately 4:30 p.m. that date, and he indicated that it was his experience that a trip on the river could take five hours. Nonetheless, he decided to launch the rented canoe as late as 12:30 p.m., and apparently urged his wife to paddle at “quite a pace” to ensure that they accounted for the tides. It is determined that getting stranded at low tide, whether in a river or on a sand bar near a beach, is an inherent risk in canoeing and arises out of the nature of the sport. Accordingly, the defendant has established its prima facie entitlement to summary judgment on the ground that the Ferraris assumed the risk of canoeing on the river.

In addition, it is undisputed that, prior to their commencing their trip on the river, the Ferraris signed a release of liability form which states, in part:

2. I KNOWINGLY AND FULLY ASSUME ALL SUCH RISKS, both known and unknown, EVEN IF ARISING FROM THE NEGLIGENCE OF THE RELEASES or others, [*14] and assume full responsibility for my participation; and

* * *

[**6] 4. I, for myself and on behalf of my heirs … HEREBY RELEASE, INDEMNIFY, AND HOLD HARMLESS THE Bob’s Canoe Rental, Inc. … WITH RESPECT TO ANY AND ALL INJURY, DISABILITY, DEATH, or loss or damage to person or property associated with my presence or participation, WHETHER ARISING FROM THE NEGLIGENCE OF THE RELEASEES OR OTHERWISE, to the fullest extent of the law.

Exculpatory provisions in a contract, including a release or a covenant not to sue, are generally enforced although they are disfavored by the law and closely scrutinized by the courts (Lago v Krollage, 78 NY2d 95, 575 N.E.2d 107, 571 NYS2d 689 [1991]). Thus, the language of the exculpatory agreement must express the intention of the parties in unequivocal terms in order to relieve a defendant from liability for negligence (Lago v Krollage, id.; Gross v Sweet, 49 NY2d 102, 400 N.E.2d 306, 424 NYS2d 365 [1979]). It must appear absolutely clear that the agreement extends to negligence or other fault of the party (Gross v Sweet, id., Van Dyke Prods. v Eastman Kodak Co., 12 NY2d 301, 189 N.E.2d 693, 239 NYS2d 337 [1963], Ciofalo v Vic Tanney Gyms, 10 NY2d 294, 177 N.E.2d 925, 220 NYS2d 962 [1961]). “That does not mean that the word ‘negligence’ must be employed for courts to give effect to an exculpatory agreement; however, words conveying a similar import must appear” (Gross v Sweet, supra). Here, the defendant has established its prima facie entitlement to summary [*15] judgment on the ground that the Ferraris are bound by the release of liability herein.

Having established its entitlement to summary judgment dismissing the complaint, it is incumbent upon the plaintiff to produce evidence in admissible form sufficient to require a trial of the material issues of fact (Roth v Barreto, supra; Rebecchi v Whitmore, supra; O’Neill v Fishkill, supra). In opposition to the defendant’s motion, the plaintiff submits, among other things, four newspaper articles, the pleadings and bill of particulars, the deposition transcripts of the parties, and the affirmation of her attorney. The newspaper articles relied on by the plaintiff are plainly inadmissible and they have not been considered by the Court in making this determination (Young v Fleary, 226 AD2d 454, 640 NYS2d 593 [2nd Dept 1996] [newspaper articles submitted on summary judgment motion constitute inadmissible hearsay]; see also P & N Tiffany Props. Inc. v Maron, 16 AD3d 395, 790 NYS2d 396 [2d Dept 2005]; Platovsky v City of New York, 275 AD2d 699, 713 NYS2d 358 [2d Dept 2000]).

In his affirmation, counsel for the plaintiff contends that the defendant had a duty to warn the Ferraris that it was essential that they complete their trip on the river “well before the 4:30 low tide,” and that the Ferraris justifiably relied on the defendant’s material misrepresentation that it was safe to leave as late [*16] as they did that day. The affidavit of an attorney who has no personal knowledge of the facts is insufficient to raise an issue of fact on a motion for summary judgment (Sanabria v. Paduch, 61 AD3d 839, 876 NYS2d 874 [2d Dept 2009]; Warrington v Ryder Truck Rental, Inc., 35 AD3d 455, 826 NYS2d 152 [2d Dept 2006]; 9394, LLC v Farris, 10 AD3d 708, 782 NYS2d 281 [2d Dept 2004]; Deronde Prods., Inc. v. Steve Gen. Contr., Inc., 302 AD2d 989, 755 NYS2d 152 [4th Dept 2003]). The plaintiff has not submitted any evidence that individuals canoeing on the Nissequogue River must fully complete the trip “well before” low tide, or that the Ferraris could not have completed their trip on the river having left as late as 12:30. In addition, the plaintiff has not submitted any evidence why it took approximately four hours to traverse a little more than halfway on their trip, or to rebut the [**7] testimony of Lawrence and the nonparty witnesses, as well as the opinion of the defendant’s expert, that the entire trip takes three hours or less to complete, paddling at a moderate rate.

The plaintiff’s remaining contention sounds in negligent misrepresentation. In order to prevail on her claim, the plaintiff must establish that the defendant had a “duty to use reasonable care to impart correct information due to a special relationship existing between the parties, that the information provided by plaintiff was incorrect or false, and that the plaintiff reasonably relied upon the information provided [*17] (J.A.O. Acquisition Corp. v Stavitsky, 8 NY3d 144, 863 N.E.2d 585, 831 NYS2d 364 [2007]; MatlinPatterson ATA Holdings LLC v Federal Express Corp., 87 AD3d 836, 929 NYS2d 571 [1st Dept 2011]; Fleet Bank v Pine Knoll Corp., 290 AD2d 792, 736 NYS2d 737 [3d Dept 2002]; see also Fresh Direct, LLC v Blue Martini Software, 7 AD3d 487, 776 NYS2d 301 [2d Dept 2004]; Grammer v. Turits, 271 AD2d 644, 706 NYS2d 453 [2d Dept 2000]). As noted above, the plaintiff has failed to submit any evidence that the information provided by Lawrence was incorrect or false. In addition, the testimony of Dennis Ferrari and Kathleen Ferrari establishes that they did not reasonably rely on Lawrence’s general statement that it was safe to leave as late as 12:30 p.m. that day. Dennis Ferrari testified as to his knowledge that low tide was at 4:30 p.m. that day, and that, according to him, the trip could take five hours. Kathleen Ferrari testified that her husband was concerned that they paddle at more than a moderate pace. Despite this, the plaintiff has failed to submit any evidence why they were only able to traverse a little more than halfway on their trip before becoming stranded, and how Lawrence’s general statements mislead them.

In addition, despite the fact that this is not a wrongful death case, counsel for the plaintiff also contends that the Ferraris are entitled to every inference that can reasonably be drawn from the evidence in determining whether a prima facie case of negligence is made as against the defendant (see Noseworthy v City of New York, 298 NY 76, 80, 80 NE2d 744 [1948]). Setting [*18] aside the issue whether the doctrine is applicable herein, even with the reduced burden of proof thereunder, the plaintiff is required to submit proof from which the defendant’s negligence may be inferred (see Sanchez-Santiago v Call-A-Head Corp., 95 AD3d 1292, 945 NYS2d 716 [2d Dept 2012]; Barbaruolo v DiFede, 73 AD3d 957, 900 NYS2d 671 [2d Dept 2010]; Martone v Shields, 71 AD3d 840, 899 NYS2d 249 [2d Dept 2010], and the plaintiff is not absolved from demonstrating the existence of a triable issue of fact to avoid summary judgment (Albinowski v Hoffman, 56 AD3d 401, 868 NYS2d 76 [2d Dept 2008]; Blanco v Oliveri, 304 AD2d 599, 600, 758 NYS2d 376 [2d Dept 2003]). In any event, the subject doctrine is not applicable under the circumstance herein as the defendant’s knowledge as to the cause of the decedent’s accident is no greater than that of the plaintiff (Knudsen v Mamaroneck Post No. 90, Dept. of N.Y. – Am. Legion, Inc., 94 AD3d 1058, 942 NYS2d 800 [2d Dept 2012]; Zalot v Zieba, 81 AD3d 935, 917 NYS2d 285 [2d Dept 2011]; Martone v Shields, supra; Kuravskaya v Samjo Realty Corp., 281 AD2d 518, 721 NYS2d 836 [2d Dept 2001]).

Finally, the plaintiff has not submitted any evidence to dispute the efficacy of the signed release of liability, and does not address the issue in her opposition to the defendant’s motion. New York Courts have held that the failure to address arguments proffered by a movant or appellant is equivalent to a concession of the issue (see McNamee Constr. Corp. v City of New Rochelle, 29 AD3d 544, 817 NYS2d 295 [2d Dept 2006]; Weldon v Rivera, 301 AD2d 934, 754 NYS2d 698 (3d Dept 2003]; Hajderlli v Wiljohn 59 LLC, 24 Misc3d 1242[A], 901 N.Y.S.2d 899, 2009 NY Slip Op 51849[U] [Sup Ct, Bronx County 2009]) [**8] . Accordingly, the defendant’s motion for summary judgment dismissing the complaint is granted. [*19]

The Court now turns to the defendant’s motion for an order pursuant to CPLR 1021 dismissing the complaint for failure to substitute a representative on behalf of the decedent Dennis Ferrari. The computerized records maintained by the Court indicate that the parties entered into a stipulation to amend the caption to reflect Kathleen Ferrari’s appointment as the executrix of the estate of Dennis Ferrari. Said stipulation was so-ordered by the undersigned on October 17, 2013, and recorded with the Clerk of the Court on October 21, 2013. Accordingly, the defendant’s motion is denied as academic.

Dated: 7-31-14

/s/ Denise F. Molia

A.J.S.C.


Common Mistakes made by Outfitters and Insurance Companies

BACKGROUND

An eastern canoe livery operation was open during high water after Hurricane Floyd. A canoe livery is a hybrid between an Outfitter and a Rental operation. Courts have determined that because the Livery is in charge of the pickup and return of the guest as well as only allowing the rental of the canoe on one river, the livery is not a rental program but more closely aligned to an outfitter. Although customers rent canoes, the livery controls every aspect of the customer’s experience, as such, the livery owner is held to the standard of an outfitter.

At a canoe livery, the customer pays for a canoe, paddles, life jacket and transportation. The customer is fitted with a life jacket, handed a paddle and escorted to his/her canoe. At the end of the specified trip the canoeist pulls over and is driven back to the rental operation by the livery operator. In some cases, a customer is transported up river and floats back to the livery operation. The canoe livery controls where the activity takes place, the time the participant is on the river, and transportation to and from the river. Most liveries operate on class 0 or 1 rivers, rivers with current but no rapids.

Liveries are mainly located in the eastern United States, usually within 2-3 hours of large cities. Church, school and youth groups are a large part of their business. Most are family run businesses that have been in operation for twenty years or more.

Instruction is generally not provided and rarely requested. The rivers are calm. Sitting in the canoe and holding on, will normally allow you to arrive at the takeout unscathed.

Ten years ago, life jackets where an “add on” – provided if the customer requested one. Normally, customers were handed a floating seat cushion. Since then, the standard in the industry has evolved to giving every customer a life jacket which buckles or straps on, even though most states by law do not require them in canoes.

FACTS OF THE CASE

An elderly canoe trailer near Nashville, Michi...

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1. Livery Statement: In this case, a recent storm had increased the river flow. The river was higher than normal but not closed. The customer called the livery the day before to see if the river was open. The customer was informed the river was high, but still open. The customer claims they were told the river was “safe.” Four customers arrived, rented two canoes for $54.00 and paid with a credit card. The livery transported the customers and the equipment upriver to float down to the livery office. The bus driver reiterated to the customers that the water was high.

The customers over-turned their canoes. They came back to the operation, cold, wet and mad. At the livery, the customers claimed they had lost a wallet containing $600.00 in cash, prescription glasses, and other items. They had minor scratches, but refused medical treatment.

Customer Complaint: Soon after the incident, the customers filed a complaint with a State Consumer Agency. In the complaint, they stated they had rented the canoes 2 days after Hurricane Floyd. While they were concerned the river might be too high, too dangerous or obstructed, they assumed the campground would have checked for these things and suspended their trips if the trip was too dangerous for their skill level. The customers informed the livery they were novices. They did not receive instructions or warnings from the livery.

According to the complaint: “In fact they [the livery] broadly proclaimed we could ‘float back’ in 4 hours. The river was so high that we were over our heads and the banks were under water. When we complained to the livery they admitted that no one had checked the river since the storm, yet they sent us out in these canoes…. They refused to refund our money for the rentals or compensate us for our losses…. They took a chance with our lives to make a lousy $54.00! … We could have easily been seriously injured or died as a result of their blatant negligence.”

Over a month later the customer sent a complaint letter to the livery. In the letter they claimed $840.00 in lost cash and one day of lost work because of a physician visit. The lost work was valued at $200.00. The customer also complained that “no advice or instructions were offered by your representative” concerning canoeing. They also claimed that no warning given about the high water conditions.

3. Documents: The livery’s brochure offers no information as to risk or whether a release must be signed. Another brochure advises that “If you are unable to swim – a life jacket will be available.” There is no risk or release information in the second brochure either. The only notice is about failure to return equipment.

The customers did sign a rental contract, which they relied upon in making their compliant. However, a rental contract is in fact and in law not a contract; it is a receipt. A receipt contains information about the renter and the return of the items rented, including life jackets. At the very bottom of this rental contract, there is a statement about returning equipment on time. There is also a line for the customer’s signature below the return policy.

4: Insurance Company: The customer’s complaint was forwarded to the livery’s insurance company. The insurance company wrote the complaining customer. [Starting the lawsuit!] The insurance company letter said in part:

“The insurance available to the Livery is liability insurance. Under this type of insurance payments are made on behalf of the insured for situations in which the insured would be at fault for damages. That is, if the matter were taken to court, they could be found responsible.”
“The duties owed you by the Livery are to: (1) Exercise reasonable care in the maintenance of the premises for your safety; (2) Warn you of any dangerous condition which are not open and obvious and of which the owner has knowledge; (3) Make a reasonable inspections of the premises and remedy any dangerous conditions the inspections reveals.”

The insurance company denied any claim.

5. Complaint: Approximately 2 months after the original rental, the customer filed a complaint in the Small Claims court requesting $1,408.00.

The Plaintiff in the Complaint stated as follows: “XXX Campground operates a canoe rental concession. On XX/XX/XX myself & three others rented a canoe for a pleasure trip. Defendant was asked in advance if the conditions were safe to allow canoeing. The stated condition was safe. All four of us were thrown from our canoes into the river as the result of surging waters well above normal state. I ____ lost of personal goods and work time. They were negligent in not checking conditions on river & allowing anyone to navigate the river.”

LIVERY MISTAKES

Canoes along the Au Sable River (Michigan), USA

Image via Wikipedia


Basic Mistakes: No properly written release. No pre-trip safety talk. No pre-trip National Livery Safety System video. No information in their brochure about risk, loss of property or that a release had to be signed.

Less obvious with respect to defending a lawsuit, but much more critical in preventing a lawsuit: No thorough knowledge of their insurance policy and no understanding of how their insurance company would react; not dealing with the complaint immediately; not dealing with the complaint when a complaint was filed with the state; knowing the customer was lying; and, basing their response on the “customer lied” rather than focusing the bigger problem.

The customer in two documents states they were told the river was safe. This guarantees a lawsuit and a loss for the livery or any outfitter. No river is safe. Life is not safe. By stating that your river, trip or activity is safe you are making a promise you cannot meet. It might have been safe for the previous 1 million people who went down the river, but the next person who goes down and may be injured and will not have a safe trip. Your promise of “safe” makes their suit for negligence golden. The outfitter denies making those claims. However, something was said that induced the people to come to the river, even after they called to confirm the river was open during high water.

A complaint based on the concept that a livery should check river conditions is rare – and relatively new. Some livery owners inspect the river each day; however, the vast majorities do not. There are definitely situations when an inspection is warranted, i.e., when a customer or third party notifies you of a problem, or if your canoes quit coming down river. At the beginning of the season and possibly after high water, you might also require a check. However, checking river conditions each day is probably not necessary.

To alleviate the need to check daily, a statement regarding your policy should be included in the release, along with language about who owns the river and what is and is not within your control. Similarly, a statement that Mother Nature controls the river – not the livery owner – should also be included. You might want to place a similar statement in your brochure and on your website.

Another complaint is the “lack of instruction.” The customer claimed they were not given adequate instruction to navigate the river. No liveries provide instruction except in answering basic questions. However, this area is changing with the use of the National Livery Safety System video. The NLSS video provides several minutes of instruction that would have helped the customer in this case. Possibly guests should be prompted to ask questions or if they have any questions, maybe even a sign at the check in that asks the customer to ask questions.

Another statement that stands out is the one about the water being over the customer’s heads. Either the customer was under the belief the river was shallow or someone had implied this was so. No customer should ever enter a river with the belief they can stand up in the river. Two reasons exist for this: (1) river bottoms change. A river can be six inches deep one day and the next be 20 feet deep; (2) Foot entrapments. Foot entrapments are a major cause of death in canoeing and rafting river deaths. A person walking along the riverbed steps in a hole and the current keeps them from being able to remove their foot. As such, they can be quickly shoved under the water and drowned. Here again, the NLSS video speaks about foot entrapments.

Brochures: Every brochure should do three things to prevent litigation: (1) the brochure should state the livery is not responsible for any injury or death. (2) The brochure should state the livery is not responsible for lost property. (3) The brochure should state the customer will be required to sign a release before undertaking the trip. Failure to inform your guests of the risks and the potential losses they are going to be taking on is weak at best and leads to lawsuits.

Releases: In this day and age, a properly written release is a must for any livery, outfitter or risk operation.

INSURANCE COMPANY MISTAKES

English: Canoeing on the Shenandoah River.

Image via Wikipedia


This is the scariest part of the entire situation. The insurance company in an effort to save a nickel could have cost themselves millions. They took legalese and attempted to use it to stop a lawsuit. A common technique of insurance companies is to deny coverage and provide the upset customers with the information for them to sue.

Fatal Insurance Company Error 1: No one had mentioned a lawsuit until the insurance company brought it up: “That is, if the matter were taken to court, they could be found responsible.” Let’s translate this for the common man: “You can’t get any money from the livery or us unless you sue us.” Small claims court is easy. It is easier still to stay up late and watch TV, make a toll free call in the morning and find an attorney to take on the arrogant insurance company. That is what those late night ads are all about.

Fatal Insurance Company Error 2: “The duties owed you by Livery are to: (1) Exercise reasonable care in the maintenance of the premises for your safety; (2) Warn you of any dangerous condition which are not open and obvious and of which the owner has knowledge; (3) Make reasonable inspections of the premises and remedy any dangerous conditions the inspections reveal.” The insurance company denied any claim. Let’s interpret this as a reasonable man would.

Reasonable Care: It was blatantly obvious to the customer that “reasonable” would have been for the livery to canoe the river and check it out. “Reasonable” legally means what every other outfitter is doing. The customer, however, does not care what every other outfitter is doing. They only care about what the one they paid did as compared to what they believe or were led to believe would happen.

Open and Obvious: To a competent canoeist, a strainer is obvious. To novice canoer’s, strainers may not be obvious until they are caught in one.

Owner has knowledge: The customer believed the livery should have had knowledge of the river conditions.

Reasonable Inspection: It was blatantly obvious that the customer believed it was reasonable to canoe the river.

Premises. The insurance company defined this as the land area being insured, probably only as that land owned by the livery. The customer defined this as everything the customer was upon while paying the livery for the day, the land, the river and the bus.

The legal paragraph quoted above said this to the customer: It was reasonable for the livery to check out the river. Once they did they should have told us more about the river.

The insurance company gave the customer the reason to go to court on a silver platter. While this letter might not afford the customer solid legal grounds in a higher court, in small claims court, they could hold up the insurance company letter and make an augment that will likely win. Because it is small claims court, the insurance company has no liability and will not pay to defend. The insurance company ducked out, costing the livery some money but it could have cost them both thousands.

More importantly, the insurance company told the customer to sue! The insurance company letter stated the only way they customer could recover was if they sued, so the customer did. In fact, they were told to sue by the livery’s insurance company.

Isn’t this the opposite of everything you expect from your insurance company and what your insurance company stands for? Aren’t your insurance companies supposed to assist you in stopping lawsuits, in making sure you do not go to court? Yet the insurance company sent a letter that told the angry customer that they could sue and get money.

INTERESTING LEGAL ISSUES

The customer made a claim for negligence in the complaint. If the judge finds negligence the judge can award more than the damages requested, kick the case to another court, or ignore the negligence claim.

ANALYSIS

The livery dodged a bullet; the insurance company dodged a bullet. Wet, cold angry customers came into the operation after their trip and could have been dealt with then. However, they were sent on their way, still wet, cold and angry. Angry customers, who feel their lives have been put at risk don’t stop complaining and don’t let go of their angry easily. These customers spent six months dealing with the anger. Each time they received an unsatisfactory answer, they kept going till they got an answer.

They never got the answer they wanted, “We’re sorry, here is your money back.” They got a lot more money, but that is the only thing the court could give them. See It’s Not Money.

The livery also got angry. A customer was stupid enough to take valuables down a river and then demanded compensation when they lost then. That anger increased when each time a claim was made, the value of the items lost increased.

Two angry people are now fighting each other. One because they felt they were treated badly, their lives put at risk. The other because they felt someone was trying to cheat them.

SUMMARY

English: A canoe in the BWCA

Image via Wikipedia


This case is a miracle. The customer, if they could prove they were told the trip was safe could sue for negligence, and probably win. This case could have been settled for $54.00 or less, instantly. It could have been settled easily at any stage along the way, until the insurance company became involved. Any settlement of less than $10,000 is probably a good deal.

  • The customer should never be told the river was safe.
  • The customer should have been told to leave their valuables in their car and their keys in the livery office. This should have been confirmed in writing in a release
  • It is better to have no money and somewhat satisfied customers rather than $54.00 and angry customers.
  • The conditions and acknowledgment of the river should have been in writing
  • The customers should have been informed in advance in the brochure or website that instruction is not provided; it is just a rental, not training.
  • The river should have been checked by the livery if not regularly, at least every time the river flow changes to look for problems, strainers and ascertain the river is still runable.
  • The letter sent by the insurance company was an invitation to sue the livery. The livery should have handled the problem because it is their customer. Insurance companies have no empathy and are better at starting lawsuits than they are at stopping them. The insurance company basically told the customers to sue.

Deal with your own problems because no one will deal with them as well as you will.

Videos

I don’t know of anyone making videos you can use to point out the risks and dangers of your sports. Stay in touch with Quietwater Films, who maybe is working on some.

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