“Marketing makes promises Risk Management has to pay for” in this case, the marketing eliminated the protection afforded by the warning labels

Cornell and a manufacturer of a piece of equipment used in a gym at Cornell were being sued by an injured student who used the equipment. The court definitely was leaning towards the student; however, the student had come to court prepared, (and backed by a lot of money I’m guessing.)

Duchesneau v. Cornell University, et al., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106412

State: Pennsylvania, United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania

Plaintiff: Randall Duchesneau

Defendant: Cornell University and Tumbltrak

Plaintiff Claims: Product Liability, Failure to Warn, requesting punitive damages

Defendant Defenses:

Holding: No duty, Failure to state a claim, Assumption of Risk & Release?

Year: 2012

This case spent four years getting to this point, and it is obvious the court is a little tired of the litigation. Consequently, the facts are difficult to determine.

It seems the plaintiff was a beginning gymnast and injured himself on a piece of equipment at the Cornell University gym called the Tumbletrak. The extents of his injuries are never clear, but based on the number of experts the plaintiff hired and the lengthy fight; I guess his injuries were extensive.

This case was being heard in a Pennsylvania Federal Court with a Michigan and a New York Defendant. That fact alone is confusing.

The decision is based on motions for summary judgment filed by both Cornell and the manufacturer Tumbletrak.

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

The court first examines the manufacture’s motion for summary judgment. The first issue the manufacturer claimed the plaintiff failed to establish the minimum facts necessary to go to trial; the plaintiff is not entitled to punitive damages, and the plaintiff assumed the risk. The court first looked at what was required to establish a failure to warn case. Meaning a manufacturer has a duty to warn users of the product of the risks and failed to do so.

Under New York law, 2 to establish a prima facie case of failure to warn, a Plaintiff must show that (1) the defendant-manufacturer had a duty to warn; (2) the manufacturer breached such duty and so the product is rendered defective, i.e., reasonably certain to be dangerous; (3) the product’s defect was the proximate cause of the injury to plaintiff; and (4) the plaintiff suffered loss or damage.

The burden is on the plaintiff to prove the failure to warn of the risk by the manufacturer was the cause of the plaintiff’s injury.

This burden includes adducing proof that a user of the product at issue would have read and heeded a warning had one been given. Conversely, failure to warn claims can be decided as a matter of law against an injured party where the injured party was “fully aware of the hazard through general knowledge, observation, or common sense” or where the hazard is “patently dangerous.”

Failure to warn can be denied both by proving the plaintiff read and heeded the risk or knew of the risk prior to using the equipment. The manufacturer argued the risk was open and obvious, which does not require proof because the plaintiff should have seen the risk.

T-Trak contends that Plaintiff cannot establish a prima facie case of failure to warn where (1) the risk of injury was open and obvious and (2) Plaintiff did not actually read the warnings that were on the TTA. First T-Trak argues that “the risk of injury while performing a back flip was open and obvious and readily discernable to Plaintiff.” More specifically, T-Trak opines that general knowledge dictates that “an individual might land on his head if he attempts a back flip on a rebounding

In a footnote at this point, the court states the plaintiff signed a release stating he understood the risks; however, nothing else is mentioned about the release in the rest of the decision.

One way to defend against a motion for summary judgment is to argue there are enough facts or issues that make the facts relied upon by the defendant an issue.  Meaning if enough facts are in dispute, the motion for summary judgement cannot be granted. This is what the plaintiff did through his experts.

Plaintiff has produced the report of warnings expert Dr. William J. Vigilante Jr., which, inter alia, cited numerous deficiencies in the warnings on the TTA: the warnings on the TTA were blurred and could not be read even at a close distance; the warnings were located on either end of the TTA, not in the middle where a user would mount it; and the warnings were located adjacent to a cartoon depicting teddy bears conducting unspotted, unsupervised backflips on the TTA. [Emphasize added]

Here the manufacturer shot his defense down before the product left the assembly plant by confusing risk management and marketing. Teddy bears doing the activities unspotted that the warning allegedly warns against eliminated the warning in the court’s eyes. (And rightfully so!) If the manufacturer shows cartoons doing the act without regard for safety, then the act must be safe, no matter what the warning says. If the warning can be located.

In a scary statement, the court held that failure to read the warnings on the product is not an issue in a failure to warn case.

However, failure to read the TTA’s warnings “does not necessarily sever the causal connection between the alleged inadequacy of those warnings, on the one hand, and the occurrence of the accident, on the other.”

The court based this analysis on the many different statements by witnesses who seemed to go in every direction, but all stated they never saw the warning.

Indeed, there is more than just that fact here. According to the summary judgment record none of the many fact witnesses in this case (including Plaintiff) testified that they ever saw any warning on the TTA. Furthermore, Plaintiff himself has submitted sworn testimony that if he had seen what Dr. Vigiliante characterized as a proper warning, Plaintiff would have heeded the proper warning and either never have attempted a backflip or done so only with the assistance of a qualified coach or spotter.

A warning does not exist unless the consumer can’t miss it. Meaning the warning must be in the consumer’s face every time they go to use a product. On top of that the warning must be in the manual, in some states on the packaging and maybe on a hangtag with the product.

The failure to warn claim was sustained and would be decided at trial.

The court then looked at the assumption of the risk defense brought by the defendant manufacturer. The court started this analysis looking at the requirements to prove a negligence claim in a product case.

To prove a prima facie case of negligence, a plaintiff must establish (1) existence of a duty of the defendant to the plaintiff; (2) breach of the duty; and (3) that the breach of the duty was a proximate cause of the injury to the plaintiff.

However, assumption of the risk in a product’s case is a little more stringent then in a recreation case. “Assumption of risk is frequently applied to claims arising out of participation in sporting events.” In sporting or recreation cases, the risk is clear and understood by all involved and to be effective the risk was not altered or enhanced by the defendant. In a product’s case the requirements are slightly different.

Assumption of risk operates to eliminate the duty of care to a plaintiff, and can therefore be a complete bar to recovery for negligence. To establish assumption of risk, a defendant bears the burden of establishing that the “plaintiff was aware of the defective or dangerous condition and the resultant risk.” This determination depends in part on the openness and obviousness of the risk.

Again, the case goes back to did the plaintiff know of the risks. Where the risks open and obvious or can you prove under the law the plaintiff knew of the risk. Because no one ever saw the warning, the warning had no value. That left it up to a jury to decide if the plaintiff knew the risk of the sport or activity.

The next argument was a motion to eliminate a punitive damages claim by the manufacturer arguing the case should be tried under Michigan’s law because the manufacturer was based in Michigan. Michigan does not allow punitive damages, unless they are expressly authorized by statute.

There has been a prior argument about the jurisdiction and venue of the case decided by a prior judge. (Which is alone confusing since none of the defendants are located in Pennsylvania where the court sits, however, the court is applying New York law?) Because of the prior decision, this court followed it and ruled that New York law would be applied to the facts of the case, and punitive damages were going to be at issue.

Cornell University was then giving a shot at its motions starting with the punitive damages issue. Cornell claimed the plaintiff had not presented any evidence that could support a punitive damages claim. The plaintiff responded arguing facts that could prove a punitive damages claim against the university.

(1) Cornell ran its own gymnasium without rules, standards, coaching, instruction, screening, supervision, and spotting; (2) multiple experts have opined that Cornell’s conduct in that regard was, inter alia, “highly dangerous,” “indefensible,” “outrageous,” “reckless,” and “an accident waiting to happen”; and (3) Cornell violated “every applicable mainstream gymnastics safety standard, [and] systematically allowed a wholly-incompetent individual to supervise the gymnasium.”

The court defined the requirements to prove a punitive damages claim.

As discussed supra, New York law allows a plaintiff to recover punitive damages, so as to punish gross misbehavior for the public good. An award of punitive damages would be proper “where the conduct of the party being held liable evidences a high degree of moral culpability, or where the conduct is so flagrant as to transcend mere carelessness, or where the conduct constitutes willful or wanton negligence or recklessness.”

The court found there was sufficient evidence to support a possible punitive damages claim.

There is substantial evidence of record concerning purported behavior of Cornell that could be found to rise to the level of egregious recklessness and moral culpability necessary to trigger punitive damages. There are major disputes of fact as to whether Cornell failed to exhibit care to such a degree as would amount to wanton behavior or recklessness. Cornell’s argument primarily rests on its self-serving conclusion that — despite evidence offered to the direct contrary — this case just does not involve one of those rare, egregious instances of recklessness that is punishable by punitive damages. That, however, is properly the jury’s decision. Summary judgment is inappropriate, and the claim for punitive damages shall remain.

Cornell next argued that the plaintiff assumed the risk and there was no evidence proving causation. Cornell was arguing a breach of a duty was not related to the injury. There was no causation between the two which is required to prove negligence.

The court found that Cornell’s case law did not apply correctly to the facts of this case. That means the case law facts were sufficiently different from the facts of this case, that the law could not be interpreted the same way. “Cornell’s caselaw presents numerous, distinct factual circumstances, none of which are analogous here.”

On the causation issues the judge found the plaintiff had presented enough evidence that there could be an issue leading to punitive damages against the college.

Nor can I conclude that Cornell is entitled to summary judgment based upon causation. There is extensive, often-conflicting evidence concerning causation. Plaintiff has adduced significant amounts of evidence concerning Cornell’s systemic negligent conduct leading up to the accident. In addition, Plaintiff has offered evidence from multiple experts that goes directly to duty of care and causation (e.g., that the lack of spotting equipment and spotters proximately caused Plaintiff’s injuries; that the lack of warnings failed to notify Plaintiff of the risks associated with the TTA; that Cornell’s “outrageous” conduct in organizing and supervising Plaintiff’s use of the gymnasium directly contributed to Plaintiff’s accident). Cornell may strongly disagree with these experts, but it is not entitled to have them ignored in favor of summary judgment.

Both defendants failed in their motion for summary judgment, and the decision was to allow the case to proceed to trial.

So Now What?

I have not been able to find the outcome of this case. Meaning it probably settled. The entire issue was the warning on the product; it was not clear; it was not visible, and it could not be seen in normal use.

If you manufacture products and your product poses a risk to the user, then you need to notify the consumer as often and as many were possible that you can. User manuals, hangtags, the container or bag the product is shipped in and on the product itself. It is also not enough that you can say the label or warning is there; the user must be able to see the warning……every time.

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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Duchesneau v. Cornell University, et al., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106412

Duchesneau v. Cornell University, et al., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106412

Randall Duchesneau, Plaintiff, v. Cornell University, et al., Defendants.

CIVIL ACTION NO. 08-4856

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA

2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106412

July 31, 2012, Decided

July 31, 2012, Filed

PRIOR HISTORY: Duchesneau v. Cornell Univ., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 135211 (E.D. Pa., Nov. 22, 2011)

CORE TERMS: warning, summary judgment, trampoline’s, assumption of risk, punitive damages, unaware, gymnasium, warn, partial, failure to warn, novice, user, assumed risk, inappropriate, punitive, flip, matter of law, warning label, recklessness, supervision, performing, gymnastic, enhanced, hazard, adduce, facie, causation, choice of law, applicable law, case of failure

COUNSEL:  [*1] For RANDALL DUCHESNEAU, Plaintiff: STEWART J. EISENBERG, LEAD ATTORNEY, DANIEL JECK, DANIEL JOSEPH SHERRY, JR., DINO PRIVITERA, KENNETH MICHAEL ROTHWEILER, EISENBERG, ROTHWEILER, WINKLER, EISENBERG & JECK, P.C., PHILADELPHIA, PA; MICHAEL CHOI, CHOI & ASSOCIATES, ELKINS PARK, PA.

For CORNELL UNIVERSITY, Defendant, Cross Claimant: RICHARD B. WICKERSHAM, JR., LEAD ATTORNEY, POST & SCHELL, P.C., PHILADELPHIA, PA; JOE H. TUCKER, JR., THE TUCKER LAW GROUP, ONE PENN CENTER AT SUBURBAN STATION, PHILADELPHIA, PA.

For TUMBLTRAK, Defendant, Cross Defendant: DANIEL J. MCCARTHY, SUSAN R. ENGLE, LEAD ATTORNEYS, MINTZER, SAROWITZ, ZERIS, LEDVA & MEYERS LLP, PHILADELPHIA, PA.

JUDGES: C. DARNELL JONES, II, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

OPINION BY: C. DARNELL JONES, II

OPINION

Jones, II, U.S.D.J.

MEMORANDUM

Before the Court is Defendant Tumbl Trak’s (“T-Trak”) Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Docket No. 169); Cornell University’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 171); Cornell University’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on Punitive Damages (Docket No. 172); and extensive briefing related thereto. 1

1 This matter has been crawling along, with a stunning amount of motion practice and briefing, for years now. The parties and  [*2] this Court are well aware of the tortured factual and procedural background of this case, and setting it forth at length again here would be a waste of judicial resources. Rather, I limit the discussion herein to specific facts as may be relevant to resolution of the Motion.

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c), summary judgment is appropriate “if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). To defeat a motion for summary judgment, disputes must be both (1) material, meaning concerning facts that will affect the outcome of the issue under substantive law, and (2) genuine, meaning the evidence must be “such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986). Summary judgment is mandated “against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party’s case, and on which  [*3] that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. An issue is genuine if the fact finder could reasonably return a verdict in favor of the nonmoving party with respect to that issue. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. In reviewing a motion for summary judgment, the court does not make credibility determinations and “must view facts and inferences in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion.” Siegel Transfer, Inc. v. Carrier Express, Inc., 54 F.3d 1125, 1127 (3d Cir. 1995).

T-Trak’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment

T-Trak seeks partial summary judgment on three bases: (1) Plaintiff cannot establish a prima facie case of failure to warn; (2) Plaintiff is not entitled to punitive damages; and (3) Plaintiff assumed the risk of serious injury when using the Tumbl Trak apparatus (“TTA”). I address these seriatim.

Failure to Warn

Under New York law, 2 to establish a prima facie case of failure to warn, a Plaintiff must show that (1) the defendant-manufacturer had a duty to warn; (2) the manufacturer breached such duty and so the product is rendered defective, i.e., reasonably certain to be dangerous; (3) the product’s defect was the proximate cause  [*4] of the injury to plaintiff; and (4) the plaintiff suffered loss or damage. Humphrey v. Diamant Boart, Inc., 556 F. Supp. 2d 167, 179 (E.D.N.Y. 2008); McCarthy v. Olin Corp., 119 F.3d 148, 156 (2d Cir. 1997). The duty to warn can be breached by either “the complete absence of warnings as to a particular hazard,” or “the inclusion of warnings which are insufficient.” Johnson v. Johnson Chem. Co., 183 A.D.2d 64, 588 N.Y.S.2d 607, 610 (N.Y. App. Div. 1992). The adequacy of a warning is normally a question of fact to be determined at trial. Nagel v. Bros. Int’l Foods, Inc., 34 A.D.3d 545, 825 N.Y.S.2d 93, 95 (N.Y. App. Div. 2006).

2 On November 23, 2011, U.S. Magistrate Judge Lynne A. Sitarski analyzed choice of law inquiries in this case and determined New York law applies throughout. Additionally, no party disputes the application of New York law to the failure to warn and assumption of risk claims here. Accordingly, I apply New York law to those claims.

Plaintiff has the burden of proving that T-Trak’s failure to warn was a proximate cause of his injury. See Mulhall v. Hannafin, 45 A.D.3d 55, 841 N.Y.S.2d 282, 285 (N.Y. App. Div. 2007). This burden includes adducing proof that a user of the product at issue would have read and heeded  [*5] a warning had one been given. Sosna v. Am. Home Prods., 298 A.D.2d 158, 748 N.Y.S.2d 548, 549 (N.Y. App. Div. 2002). Conversely, failure to warn claims can be decided as a matter of law against an injured party where the injured party was “fully aware of the hazard through general knowledge, observation, or common sense” or where the hazard is “patently dangerous.” Humphrey, 556 F. Supp. 2d at 179-80 (citing Liriano v. Hobart Corp. (Liriano I), 92 N.Y.2d 232, 700 N.E.2d 303, 308, 677 N.Y.S.2d 764 (1998)).

T-Trak contends that Plaintiff cannot establish a prima facie case of failure to warn where (1) the risk of injury was open and obvious and (2) Plaintiff did not actually read the warnings that were on the TTA. First T-Trak argues that “the risk of injury while performing a back flip was open and obvious and readily discernable to Plaintiff.” Def.’s Mot. Part. Summ. J. (hereinafter “Def.’s Br.”) 21. More specifically, T-Trak opines that general knowledge dictates that “an individual might land on his head if he attempts a back flip on a rebounding [TTA].” Id. T-Trak relies on, inter alia, the following record evidence:

o “Plaintiff, educated in physics, knew that what goes up will come down.” Id. 22; see id. Ex. H, at 380-81.

o Plaintiff  [*6] signed a waiver that stated he understood the risks and dangers associated with gymnastics. Id. Ex. F.

o There was a small warning label on the TTA which stated that any activity “creates the possibility of catastrophic injury, including paralysis or even death from falling on the head or neck. Id. Ex. G.

o Plaintiff “was aware of the safety concept of spotting and had done it in high school as a member of the cheerleading squad.” Id. 23; see id. Ex. H, at 432.

 

Based on these facts, T-Trak contends that “common sense” would have informed an individual that he or she was risking landing on their head by using the TTA, and, as such, T-Trak had no legal duty to warn Plaintiff. Id. 24.

However, there are significant disputes of material fact as to which, if any, hazards associated with the TTA were open and obvious (i.e., could be objectively ascertained) by a similarly-situated novice gymnast. Notably, Plaintiff has produced the report of warnings expert Dr. William J. Vigilante Jr., which, inter alia, cited numerous deficiencies in the warnings on the TTA: the warnings on the TTA were blurred and could not be read even at a close distance; the warnings were located on either end of the TTA,  [*7] not in the middle where a user would mount it; and the warnings were located adjacent to a cartoon depicting teddy bears conducting unspotted, unsupervised backflips on the TTA. Pl.’s Resp. Def. T-Trak’s Mot. Part. Summ. J. (hereinafter “Pl.’s Resp. Br.”) Ex. D, at 8-9. Dr. Vigilante’s report clearly suggests there were conflicting messages as to (1) the dangers associated with particular uses of the TTA; (2) how novices should perform backflips off the TTA; and (3) what is the appropriate level of supervision for safety purposes while using the TTA. Dr. Vigilante’s view of the facts is obviously in conflict with that of T-Trak. Cf. Repka v. Arctic Cat, Inc., 20 A.D.3d 916, 798 N.Y.S.2d 629, 631 (N.Y. App. Div. 2005) (triable issue of fact concerning sufficiency of warnings raised through expert).

Apparently as a fallback position, T-Trak also asserts that because Plaintiff never sought to view the warnings prior to his accident, he cannot advance a failure to warn claim. However, failure to read the TTA’s warnings “does not necessarily sever the causal connection between the alleged inadequacy of those warnings, on the one hand, and the occurrence of the accident, on the other.” Johnson, 588 N.Y.S.2d at 611.  [*8] This fact alone is insufficient to secure summary judgment. See Humphrey, 556 F. Supp. 2d at 180-81 (holding plaintiff’s admission that he did not read the warning label or operating instructions on equipment not dispositive under New York law in connection with failure to warn claim). Indeed, there is more than just that fact here. According to the summary judgment record none of the many fact witnesses in this case (including Plaintiff) testified that they ever saw any warning on the TTA. 3 Furthermore, Plaintiff himself has submitted sworn testimony that if he had seen what Dr. Vigiliante characterized as a proper warning, Plaintiff would have heeded the proper warning and either never have attempted a backflip or done so only with the assistance of a qualified coach or spotter. 4 See Pl.’s Resp. Br. Ex. T.

3 This evidence is buttressed by the fact that T-Trak’s own warnings expert testified at his deposition that the warnings on the TTA were deficient, illegible, and violative of relevant industry standards pertaining to size. Pl.’s Resp. Br. Ex. S.

4 I do not find T-Trak’s argument that Plaintiff submitted a “sham affidavit” to be convincing.

In sum, this evidence of record establishes  [*9] sufficient material disputes of fact as to the level of awareness Plaintiff or any other objective, novice gymnast would have had concerning the danger of specific injuries while performing specific maneuvers on the TTA. Moreover, T-Trak has been unable to adduce undisputed evidence that Plaintiff would have disregarded a proper warning. Accordingly, summary judgment on the failure to warn claim is inappropriate.

Assumption of Risk

T-Trak contends it is entitled to summary judgment on Plaintiff’s negligence claim based on the principle of assumption of risk. 5 To prove a prima facie case of negligence, a plaintiff must establish (1) existence of a duty of the defendant to the plaintiff; (2) breach of the duty; and (3) that the breach of the duty was a proximate cause of the injury to the plaintiff. Martinez v Capital One, N.A.,     F. Supp. 2d    , 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 42214, No. 10 Civ. 8028(RJS), 2012 WL 1027571, at *10 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 27, 2012). Assumption of risk operates to eliminate the duty of care to a plaintiff, and can therefore be a complete bar to recovery for negligence. Anderson v. Hedstrom Corp., 76 F. Supp. 2d 422, 431 (S.D.N.Y. 1999); Turcotte v. Fell, 68 N.Y.2d 432, 502 N.E.2d 964, 967-68, 510 N.Y.S.2d 49 (1986). To establish  [*10] assumption of risk, a defendant bears the burden of establishing that the “plaintiff was aware of the defective or dangerous condition and the resultant risk.” Hedstrom, 76 F. Supp. 2d at 432 (citing Lamey v. Foley, 188 A.D.2d 157, 594 N.Y.S.2d 490, 495 (N.Y. App. Div. 1993)). This determination depends in part on the openness and obviousness of the risk. Id.

5 This argument applies only to Plaintiff’s negligence claim, as New York law does not favor an assumption of risk defense to strict liability claims. Auto. Ins. Co. of Hartford v. Electrolux Home Prods., Inc., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 12652, 2011 WL 1434672, at *2 (W.D.N.Y. 2011).

Assumption of risk is frequently applied to claims arising out of participation in sporting events. See, e.g., Goodlett v. Kalishek, 223 F.3d 32, 34 (2d Cir. 2000) (airplane racing); Rochford v. Woodloch Pines, Inc., 824 F. Supp. 2d 343, 349-51 (E.D.N.Y. 2011) (golf); Ducrepin v. United States, 964 F. Supp. 659, 664-65 (E.D.N.Y. 1997) (basketball); Mc Duffie v. Watkins Glen Int’l, Inc., 833 F. Supp. 197, 201-02 (W.D.N.Y. 1993) (auto racing); Morgan v. State, 90 N.Y.2d 471, 481-82, 685 N.E.2d 202, 662 N.Y.S.2d 421 (1997) (bobsledding and karate, but not tennis where facility’s negligence in failing to repair torn net unduly increased  [*11] the risk); Benitez v. N.Y.C. Bd. of Educ., 73 N.Y.2d 650, 541 N.E.2d 29, 33-34, 543 N.Y.S.2d 29 (1989) (football); Joseph v. N.Y. Racing Ass’n, 28 A.D.3d 105, 809 N.Y.S.2d 526, 529 (N.Y. App. Div. 2006) (horseback riding); Hawley v. Binghamton Mets Baseball Club Inc., 262 A.D.2d 729, 691 N.Y.S.2d 626, 627-28 (N.Y. App. Div. 1999) (baseball). It has even been applied in some (but not all) cases involving jumping on a trampoline. 6 However these cases have a unifying theme — clear risks that were known yet disregarded by the plaintiff, with no negligence by the defendant that enhanced the risk. In cases where the plaintiff was unaware of the risk, or where the defendant’s negligence amplified the risk, summary judgment has not been granted. See, e.g., Clarke v. Peek ‘N Peak Recreation, Inc., 551 F. Supp. 2d 159, 163 (W.D.N.Y. 2008) (ski resort owner’s alleged negligence may have enhanced assumed risk); Hedstrom, 76 F. Supp. 2d at 435-36 (beginning trampoline user unaware and not sufficiently warned of risks); Repka, 798 N.Y.S.2d at 632-33 (assumed risk unduly increased by use of defective snowmobile without adequate warnings); Kroll, 764 N.Y.S.2d at 731 (plaintiff unaware of risk of trampoline’s defect). T-Trak argues vociferously that “Plaintiff  [*12] should have been aware of the risk of injury.” Def.’s Br. 31 (emphasis added). While it is true that Plaintiff had some experience with cheerleading and gymnastics, there is evidence he was a novice nonetheless. Additionally, as discussed supra, there is direct testimony that Plaintiff did not view any warnings and thus was not made explicitly aware of the contents thereof. There is further, disputed testimony as to the reasons why Plaintiff was unaware of the warnings, including evidence that the warnings were patently insufficient and no participant saw or became aware of their contents that day. The survey of trampoline cases herein makes it clear that the use of a trampoline has not been deemed inherently risky as a matter of New York law. All of these relevant disputes — namely, as to Plaintiff’s expertise, knowledge, the sufficiency and quality of the warnings, and the obvious nature of the risk to a casual user of the TTA — preclude this Court from absolving T-Trak on the grounds of assumption of risk. T-Trak’s duty to Plaintiff, if any, is properly an issue for trial.

6 Application of assumption of risk is a fact-specific endeavor, including in trampoline cases, which tend to  [*13] be decided depending on whether the plaintiff was aware of and appreciated the risk in using the trampoline. A plaintiff may prevail where he adduces evidence that he was unaware of the risk of using a trampoline and that he used the trampoline in an ordinary fashion. See, e.g., Hedstrom, 76 F. Supp. 2d at 427, 435 (finding no assumption of risk where plaintiff was a total beginner who did not see warning label and who used trampoline in a “fairly typical manner”); Kroll v. Watt, 309 A.D.2d 1265, 764 N.Y.S.2d 731, 731 (N.Y. App. Div. 2000) (affirming denial of summary judgment on assumption of risk where plaintiff’s awareness of risk of trampoline tipping over and thus causing plaintiff’s injury was a triable issue of fact). On the other hand, assumption of risk applies where the risk of the activity is inherent or where the injured party fully understands, appreciates, and voluntarily assumes the risk through participation. Goodlett, 223 F.3d at 36-37. New York courts have barred the recovery of plaintiffs injured while jumping on a trampoline where the plaintiff was aware of the risk or performed a particularly risky maneuver. See, e.g., Yedid v. Gymnastic Ctr., 33 A.D.3d 911, 824 N.Y.S.2d 299, 300 (N.Y. App. Div. 2006)  [*14] (affirming application of assumption of risk where plaintiff failed to provide evidence that he was unaware of risk of performing front flip on trampoline); Koubek v. Denis, 21 A.D.3d 453, 799 N.Y.S.2d 746, 747 (2005) (finding assumption of risk where plaintiff was aware and appreciative of risk of using trampoline and used it nonetheless); Liccione v. Gearing, 252 A.D.2d 956, 675 N.Y.S.2d 728, 728 (N.Y. App. Div. 1998) (holding assumption of risk applicable where plaintiff ignored sign warning against use of trampoline by two or more participants at the same time and then engaged in such activity).

Punitive Damages

U.S. Magistrate Judge Lynne A. Sitarski thoroughly and cogently examined choice of law issues in this case in deciding Defendant Cornell University’s Motion to Establish Applicable Law. See Duchesneau v. Cornell Univ., No. 08-4856, 2011, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 135211, WL 5902155, at *1 (E.D. Pa. Nov. 23, 2011) (order granting applicable law). T-Trak did not participate in the Motion to Establish Applicable Law. Rather, T-Trak asserts in the instant Motion that, while New York law is almost universally applicable in this case, Michigan law operates to bar recovery of punitive damages. In short, T-Trak contends that because it is domiciled  [*15] in Michigan and the alleged punitive conduct (design and labeling of the product) occurred in Michigan, Michigan law should apply to Plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages. Unsurprisingly, Michigan law bars punitive damage awards unless expressly authorized by statute, which is not the case here. See Gilbert v. DaimlerChrysler Corp., 470 Mich. 749, 685 N.W.2d 391, 400 (2004). Plaintiff maintains that New York law properly governs all aspects of this matter, including his punitive damages claim. New York law allows a plaintiff to recover punitive damages, so as to punish gross misbehavior for the public good. Clinton v. Brown & Williamson Holdings, Inc., 498 F. Supp. 2d 639, 653 (S.D.N.Y. 2007).

Judge Sitarski aptly laid out the applicable conflicts of law framework and conducted a thorough analysis of asserted interests, and this Court need not repeat the legal discussion at length here. Judge Sitarski concluded that New York law applied to Plaintiff’s claims against Cornell, including with regard to punitive damages and contributory negligence. I reach the same conclusion as to T-Trak for substantially the same reasons. Here, T-Trak knew the TTA was to be delivered and used in New York, and, indeed,  [*16] the TTA was used continuously in New York for many years prior to the accident. Generally speaking, courts applying the Pennsylvania choice of law contacts analysis to product liability matters have applied the law of the state where the product was used and where the accident occurred. Shields v. Consol. Rail Corp., 810 F.2d 397, 399-400 (3d Cir. 1987); U.S. Airways, Inc. v. Elliott Equip. Co., Inc., 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 76043, 2008 WL 4461847 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 29, 2008). Plaintiff’s accident was non-fortuitous, and therefore great deference is given to New York as to the law which should apply. LeJeune v. Bliss-Salem, Inc., 85 F.3d 1069 (3d Cir. 1996).

Under the contacts analysis, New York has many compelling interests here: (1) the TTA is located in New York; (2) the accident occurred in New York; (3) Cornell contracted to purchase the TTA in New York; (4) Plaintiff was a student in New York; (5) Plaintiff, although a Pennsylvania resident, received treatment for his injuries in New York; and (6) the key Waiver Agreement in this case governs activities in New York and has its validity determined by New York law. The contacts with Michigan are markedly less. T-Trak’s headquarters is in Michigan. Some design and  [*17] testing of the TTA took place in Michigan. However, the TTA and its warnings were designed by a Washington resident, and the component parts of the TTA were manufactured in multiple states other than Michigan (including the pads which containing the warnings). The actual T-Trak dealer who negotiated the New York contract of sale for the TTA with Cornell was based in Georgia. Finally, the TTA was assembled in New York by Cornell from constituent pieces delivered from various locations. 7

7 These circumstances are readily distinguishable from those in Kelly v. Ford Motor Co., 933 F. Supp. 465 (E.D. Pa. 1996), upon which T-Trak heavily relies. In Kelly, much of the design, testing, assembly, and warning label placement occurred in various Michigan locales under the close coordination of Ford. As mentioned above, T-Trak did not even manufacture or assembly any parts of the TTA in Michigan. Kelly is not persuasive.

Accordingly, I conclude New York law applies to the question of punitive damages against T-Trak. Upon review of the record, I find Plaintiff has adduced sufficient evidence to allow the claim for punitive damages to proceed.

Cornell’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on Punitive [*18] Damages

Cornell claims that Plaintiff has failed to adduce any evidence that could justify punitive damages under New York law. Plaintiff responds that “Cornell’s relevant conduct is textbook-appropriate” in terms of punitive damages for multiple reasons: (1) Cornell ran its own gymnasium without rules, standards, coaching, instruction, screening, supervision, and spotting; (2) multiple experts have opined that Cornell’s conduct in that regard was, inter alia, “highly dangerous,” “indefensible,” “outrageous,” “reckless,” and “an accident waiting to happen”; and (3) Cornell violated “every applicable mainstream gymnastics safety standard, [and] systematically allowed a wholly-incompetent individual to supervise the gymnasium.” See Pl.’s Resp. Opp’n Def. Cornell’s Mot. Summ. J. Punit. Damages 2-3.

As discussed supra, New York law allows a plaintiff to recover punitive damages, so as to punish gross misbehavior for the public good. Clinton, 498 F. Supp. 2d at 653. An award of punitive damages would be proper “where the conduct of the party being held liable evidences a high degree of moral culpability, or where the conduct is so flagrant as to transcend mere carelessness, or where the conduct  [*19] constitutes willful or wanton negligence or recklessness.” Buckholz v. Maple Garden Apts., LLC, 38 A.D.3d 584, 832 N.Y.S.2d 255, 256 (N.Y. App. Div. 2007); see also Mahar v. U.S. Xpress Enters., 688 F. Supp. 2d 95, 110 (N.D.N.Y. 2010) (allowing punitive damages in rare cases of egregious and willful conduct that is morally culpable); Black v. George Weston Bakeries, Inc., No. 07-CV-853S, 2008, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 92031, WL 4911791, at *7 (W.D.N.Y. Nov. 13, 2008) (permitting punitive damages where conduct constitutes conscious disregard of others); Bohannon (ex rel. Estate of Dolik) v. Action Carting Envtl. Servs., Inc., No. 06-CV-5689 (JG), 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 40516, 2008 WL 2106143, at *3 (E.D.N.Y. May 20, 2008) (recognizing utter indifference to the safety of others warrants granting punitive damages).

Upon review of the record, I concur with Plaintiff that there is more than enough evidence to allow Plaintiff’s punitive damages claim to proceed. There is substantial evidence of record concerning purported behavior of Cornell that could be found to rise to the level of egregious recklessness and moral culpability necessary to trigger punitive damages. There are major disputes of fact as to whether Cornell failed to exhibit care to such a degree as would  [*20] amount to wanton behavior or recklessness. Cornell’s argument primarily rests on its self-serving conclusion that — despite evidence offered to the direct contrary — this case just does not involve one of those rare, egregious instances of recklessness that is punishable by punitive damages. That, however, is properly the jury’s decision. Summary judgment is inappropriate, and the claim for punitive damages shall remain.

III. Cornell’s Motion for Summary Judgment

Cornell moves for summary judgment on two bases: (1) Plaintiff assumed the risk of using the TTA and Cornell had no duty to supervise the use of gymnastic equipment by novices, and (2) there is no evidence as to causation concerning Cornell. There are so many material disputes of fact between Plaintiff and Cornell that a lengthy explication of them would be a waste of resources. Suffice it to say that, despite occasional rhetoric to the contrary, Plaintiff and Cornell disagree about nearly every major fact or opinion of record that relates to the issues raised in the Motion. 8 Specific to assumption of risk (discussed supra), there are considerable disputes over whether Plaintiff knew or appreciated the risks of the TTA. Cornell’s  [*21] assertions to the contrary appear to be mostly self-serving statements. Because Plaintiff has adduced plentiful evidence (testimony, admissions, experts) in support of the position that he was not aware of the relevant risk and could not be expected to be aware of that risk, summary judgment is obviously inappropriate. 9

8 These two parties have repeatedly filed briefs of excessive length (50-100 pages each), including unnecessary bolded or italicized text for emphasis, in which they highlight disputes of fact ad infinitum.

9 This conclusion is buttressed by the fact that, as discussed supra, there are even disputes of material fact as to whether (1) the risk of harm was obvious, open, or hidden, and (2) the risk of harm was enhanced by Cornell’s own actions.

Cornell’s caselaw presents numerous, distinct factual circumstances, none of which are analogous here. See, e.g., Yedid v. Gymnastic Ctr., 33 A.D.3d 911, 824 N.Y.S.2d 299, 300 (N.Y. App. Div. 2006) (finding experienced gymnast with six years of instruction assumed known risk of performing front flip on trampoline); Koubek v. Denis, 21 A.D.3d 453, 799 N.Y.S.2d 746, 747 (N.Y. App. Div. 2005) (holding plaintiff assumed risk of using trampoline where she failed to  [*22] adduce evidence that she was unaware of the potential for injury); Palozzi v. Priest, 280 A.D.2d 986, 720 N.Y.S.2d 676, 676 (N.Y. App. Div. 2001) (affirming application of assumption of risk to teenager injured while “fake wrestling” on trampoline); Liccione v. Gearing, 252 A.D.2d 956, 675 N.Y.S.2d 728, 729 (N.Y. App. Div. 1998) (noting plaintiff assumed risk of “double jumping” despite warnings on trampoline that were deemed adequate as a matter of law); Williams v. Lombardini, 38 Misc. 2d 146, 238 N.Y.S.2d 63, 64-65 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1963) (determining plaintiff assumed risk where he admitted seeing rule that prohibited “difficult tricks” but attempted front flip on trampoline anyway). As discussed supra, summary judgment based on assumption of risk is inappropriate where there is a question as to appreciation or understanding of risk. 10 See Hedstrom, 76 F. Supp. 2d at 435-36 (recognizing no assumption of risk by beginning trampoline user who was unaware and not sufficiently warned of risks); Kroll, 764 N.Y.S.2d at 731 (deciding plaintiff did not assume risk because she was unaware of trampoline’s defect). Application of assumption of risk at summary judgment is especially inappropriate here because New York law disfavors using the  [*23] doctrine in cases where there are allegations of reckless or intentional conduct, or concealed or unreasonably increased risks. 11 Morgan, 90 N.Y.2d at 485; see, e.g., Charles v. Uniondale Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ., 91 A.D.3d 805, 937 N.Y.S.2d 275, 276-77 (N.Y. App. Div. 2012) (denying summary judgment where issues of fact existed as to whether defendant unreasonably increased risk by failing to provide head and face protection to plaintiff lacrosse player); Miller v. Holiday Valley, Inc., 85 A.D.3d 1706, 925 N.Y.S.2d 785, 788 (N.Y. App. Div. 2011) (rejecting summary judgment because plaintiff submitted evidence that defendant’s negligent failure to stop ski lift caused plaintiff’s injuries); Repka, 798 N.Y.S.2d at 632-33 (dismissing summary judgment motion because lack of adequate warnings may have unduly enhanced snowmobile’s concealed defect). In short, I do not find that Cornell is entitled to judgment as a matter of law based on the assumption of risk doctrine.

10 Cornell argues that the warning notice on the TTA itself establishes total assumption of risk. However, a vast portion of the evidence in this case (almost all of it disputed) is about whether the TTA’s warnings were seen, sufficient, or effective. In  [*24] other words, Cornell relies on a highly disputed factual conclusion concerning the adequacy of the warning to justify summary judgment on assumption of risk grounds. This Court cannot follow.

11 I am completely unpersuaded by Cornell’s argument concerning its total lack of a duty of care to a novice student using equipment in the Teagle Gymnasium. N.Y. Gen. Oblig. Law § 5-326 (McKinney 1976) (voiding gymnasium waivers); Eddy v. Syracuse Univ., 78 A.D.2d 989, 433 N.Y.S.2d 923 (App. Div. 1980) (concluding questions of negligence, foreseeability of injury, and duty to protect gym users are all proper issues for a jury); Lorenzo v. Monroe Comm. Coll., 72 A.D.2d 945, 422 N.Y.S.2d 230 (1979) (finding questions of fact existed as to whether defendant provided adequate supervision in gymnasium). Much of Cornell’s arguments are bootstrapped onto a conclusion of assumption of risk — i.e., because a student assumed the risk, the defendant college owes no duty with respect to the dangers inherent in the activity. As discussed, this Court cannot conclude at this stage that there was any assumption of risk. In addition, this Court will not revisit its previous rulings as to the issue of the prior academic year waiver despite Cornell’s  [*25] apparent invitation.

Nor can I conclude that Cornell is entitled to summary judgment based upon causation. There is extensive, often-conflicting evidence concerning causation. Plaintiff has adduced significant amounts of evidence concerning Cornell’s systemic negligent conduct leading up to the accident. In addition, Plaintiff has offered evidence from multiple experts that goes directly to duty of care and causation (e.g., that the lack of spotting equipment and spotters proximately caused Plaintiff’s injuries; that the lack of warnings failed to notify Plaintiff of the risks associated with the TTA; that Cornell’s “outrageous” conduct in organizing and supervising Plaintiff’s use of the gymnasium directly contributed to Plaintiff’s accident). 12 Cornell may strongly disagree with these experts, but it is not entitled to have them ignored in favor of summary judgment.

12 Cornell spends considerable time “debunking” these experts in briefs, often by reference to the testimony of others. By doing so, Cornell highlights some of the very disputes that preclude summary judgment.

Conclusion

Tumbl Trak maintains that Plaintiff cannot prove it inadequately warned him against use of its product.  [*26] Cornell suggests that this case involves nothing more than a “luckless accident” that resulted from Plaintiff’s voluntary participation in vigorous athletic activity. Plaintiff disagrees. He believes that he was harmed by (1) a device with grossly inadequate warnings, and (2) an institution which engaged in a course of conduct of gymnasium operation and supervision which was reprehensible and reckless. Based on the record before me, Plaintiff is entitled to put these questions to a jury.

An appropriate Order follows.

ORDER

AND NOW, this 31st day of July, 2012, it is hereby ORDERED that:

  1. Defendant Tumbl Trak’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Docket No. 169) is DENIED.
  2. Cornell University’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 171) is DENIED.
  3. Cornell University’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on Punitive Damages (Docket No. 172) is DENIED.
  4. The Case Management Order dated April 20, 2012 remains in force.

In addition, this Court has briefly reviewed the initial pre-trial filings in this matter and noticed that they do not conform with the Chambers Policies and Procedures, available at http://www.paed.uscourts.gov. The rules contained therein are not optional, and are to be followed  [*27] to the letter. No party has ever represented to this Court that they cannot work with their colleagues to fulfill their responsibilities under these procedures. Here, it appears the parties have, at least, failed to properly prepare their joint proposed jury instructions and joint proposed voir dire. Instead, three different versions of each document were separately filed by three different parties — a situation that the Chambers Policies obviously sought to preclude. The parties are specifically directed to review the Chambers Policies and Procedures, Civil Cases, Subsection E, which provide two pages of instructions as to the proper preparation and presentation of these and other pre-trial submissions. 13 It is ORDERED that the parties promptly withdraw any non-conforming filings and submit appropriately-prepared ones by August 31, 2012.

13 Parties are expected to be familiar with all Policies and Procedures by the time of the final pre-trial conference, especially the items concerning exhibits, courtroom operation, and attorney conduct during a trial.

BY THE COURT:

/s/ C. Darnell Jones, II

  1. DARNELL JONES, II, U.S.D.J.

 


An ugly case balancing the marketing program to make people feel safe, which is then used to prove the incident giving rise to the negligence claim, was foreseeable.

YMCA summer camp sued in Indiana for sexual assault on a minor by a predator hiding in the woods. The brochure marketing the program specifically outlined how bathroom procedures were to be done. The procedure was not followed in this case, which led to a successful lawsuit.

A.M.D., a Minor, vs. Young Men’s Christian Association of Greater Indianapolis, 2013 Ind. App. Unpub. LEXIS 913; 990 N.E.2d 527

State: Indiana, Court of Appeals of Indiana

Plaintiff: A.M.D., a Minor, by his Parents and Guardians, John Doe and Jane Doe, and John Doe and Jane Doe, individually

Defendant: Young Men’s Christian Association of Greater Indianapolis

Plaintiff Claims: 1) The YMCA negligently supervised A.M.D.; 2) the YMCA failed to prevent foreseeable intentional conduct by a third-party; 3) the YMCA did not have to be the sole cause of A.M.D.’s injuries; and 4) the YMCA is not released from its responsibility to A.M.D. and his parents by virtue of the exculpatory clause contained in the camper application form signed by Jane Doe.

Defendant Defenses: Release and Superseding or Intervening Cause

Holding: for the Plaintiff

Year: 2013

First, this is a case based on a sexual assault of a minor at a day or summer camp offered by the defendant. The case is awful, ugly, and sad.

Second, the issue of whether or not the release was valid for the minor’s injuries was never part of the case. The issue is how the defendant’s rules created a small issue for the situation that of course blew up when the problem the rules attempted to prevent occurred.

The minor was enrolled in a day camp offered by the defendant. The camp was for kids in kindergarten through sixth grade. On the day of the incident, 20 minors and three counselors went to a park to go rafting. The group arrived at the park around 2:00 PM.

The park was not known for any incidents, and no one was spotted that day that gave any concern to the counselors.

When the rafting began, one counselor was stationed at the start and two counselors at the end. Shortly after the rafting started the plaintiff minor told one of the counselors he had to go to the bathroom. The public restrooms were a 10-15-minute walk away. The counselor instructed the minor to go pee on a bush that was within her view. The counselor new about the defendant’s bathroom policy.

Raab [counselor] instructed A.M.D. [minor] to urinate in the bushes, she knew that the YMCA’s bathroom policy required at least one counselor and one buddy to go with a camper to the restroom. No campers were to go to the bathroom by themselves.

When the counselor turned her attention to the creek to check on the other children the minor disappeared.

Unknown to A.M.D. and the YMCA counselors, there was a sexual predator hiding in the woods near where A.M.D. was going to the bathroom. It was later determined that Stephen Taylor was the person hiding in the woods, and who attacked A.M.D. Taylor was so well hidden that A.M.D. did not see Taylor approach him from the front until after he had finished going to the bathroom.

Once Taylor emerged from the woods, he approached A.M.D., told him he was a doctor, and offered to give A.M.D. a piggy-back ride, which A.M.D. accepted. Taylor successfully lured A.M.D. farther into the woods where they were both alone and out of sight from any of the YMCA camp counselors. While hidden in the woods, Taylor sexually assaulted A.M.D.

Once the counselor knew the minor was missing she started screaming his name and looking for him.

The family of the minor filed suit against the defendant YMCA alleging negligence. The YMCA filed a motion for summary judgment claiming:

1) The YMCA was not the proximate cause of A.M.D.’s injuries because Taylor’s criminal actions were not reasonably foreseeable; and 2) the exculpatory clause contained in the camper application signed by Jane Doe released the YMCA from any and all claims.

The plaintiff’s opposed the motion for summary judgment claiming four theories:

…1) The YMCA negligently supervised A.M.D.; 2) the YMCA failed to prevent foreseeable intentional conduct by a third-party; 3) the YMCA did not have to be the sole cause of A.M.D.’s injuries; and 4) the YMCA is not released from its responsibility to A.M.D. and his parents by virtue of the exculpatory clause contained in the camper application form signed by Jane Doe.

The trial court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, and the plaintiff’s appealed.

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

The appellate court started by establishing the elements the plaintiff’s must prove to win their case. Indiana uses a three-part test to establish negligence.

A plaintiff seeking damages for negligence must establish (1) a duty owed to the plaintiff by the defendant, (2) a breach of the duty, and (3) an injury proximately caused by the breach of duty. Absent a duty, there can be no breach, and therefore, no recovery for the plaintiff in negligence.

Whether or not there was a duty owed is also a 3-part test in Indiana.

…(1) the relationship between the parties, (2) the reasonable foreseeability of harm to the person injured, and (3) public policy concerns, but that analysis is not necessary where the duty is well settled.

The trial court found the defendant owed a duty to the minor, and this issue was not argued during the appeal. The issue then was causation.

We have held that causation is an essential element of a negligence claim. The injurious act must be both the proximate cause and the cause, in fact, of an injury. Generally, causation, and proximate cause, in particular, is a question of fact for the jury’s determination.

Causation can be broken by a superseding and intervening causation. This means a third party or third action caused the real injury or interrupted the chain of events for the original cause so that the defendant is not longer liable.

The doctrine of superseding or intervening causation has long been part of Indiana’s common law. It provides that when a negligent act or omission is followed by a subsequent negligent act or omission so remote in time that it breaks the chain of causation, the original wrongdoer is relieved of liability. A subsequent act is “superseding” when the harm resulting from the original negligent act “could not have reasonably been foreseen by the original negligent actor.” Whether the resulting harm is “foreseeable” such that liability may be imposed on the original wrongdoer is a question of fact for a jury.

Meaning that the action of the predator in attacking the minor was a superseding and intervening cause of action.

However, if the superseding or intervening cause of action was foreseeable by the defendant, then it does not relieve the defendant of liability. The Restatement (Second) of Torts §449, known as the very duty doctrine, provides an example.

If the likelihood that a third person may act in a particular manner is the hazard or one of the hazards which makes the actor negligent, such an act, whether innocent, negligent, intentionally tortious, or criminal does not prevent the actor from being liable for harm caused thereby. At the heart of these concepts is the necessity for an analysis of foreseeability.

The brochure the defendant created, stated the rules for the camper’s bathroom procedure. This was obviously not followed by the counselor.

No camper is ever alone, and no camper is ever alone with a staff member. All campers will take trips to the bathroom with entire camp and/or camp groups and camp staff. Campers will only use bathrooms inspected for safety by camp staff.

There was additional information requiring the day campers to go to the bathroom in pairs. The defendant also had a code of conduct covering restroom supervision.

[Why is a restroom procedure in a code of conduct?]

3. Restroom supervision: Staff will make sure the restroom is not occupied by suspicious or unknown individuals before allowing children to use the facilities. Staff will stand in the doorway while children are using the restroom. This policy allows privacy for the children and protection for the staff (not being alone with a child). If staff are assisting younger children, doors to the facility must remain open. No child, regardless of age, should ever enter a restroom alone on a field trip. Always send children in pairs, and whenever possible, with staff.

Finally, the court found that counselors were instructed to never leave a child unsupervised.

In particular, a day camp counselor, the position Raab held with the YMCA at the time of the molestation, has the general function of directly supervising approximately twelve campers and taking responsibility for each child’s safety.

The counselor at her deposition testified she knew the procedures.

The court found this information, provided by the defendants own documents and training, showed the defendant knew this type of incident was foreseeable.

We disagree that only one conclusion can be drawn or inferred from the undisputed facts. “[A]n actor need not foresee the exact manner in which harm occurs, but must, in a general way, foresee the injurious consequences of his act.”

The court found three factors were important in the analysis of the issue.

First, courts on review have examined whether the intervening actor is independent from the original actor. Id. Next, we examine whether the instrumentality of harm was under the complete control of the intervening actor. Id. Third, we examine whether the intervening actor as opposed to the original actor is in a better position to prevent the harm.

Consequently, the appellate court held that whether or not the criminal act by the third party was foreseeable was for a jury to decide.

Whether the criminal assault on A.M.D. by a stranger, Taylor, was foreseeable by the YMCA such that the chain of causation was broken, should be decided by a trier of fact and not as a matter of law.

The case was sent back to trial for a jury trial to determine if the actions of the third party were foreseeable.

So Now What?

First, it sucks to have a case like this; however, it has a lot of useful information.

Fifteen to twenty children, some as young as kindergartener’s and three adults for an activity around water, the first issue I suspect most of you thought of was, there are not enough counselors.

Second, with all the written documentation that the defendant created, I don’t believe foreseeability will be difficult to find by the jury. In fact, anyone can argue that the paper was created in response to this possibility, and then obviously the issue was foreseeable.

At the same time, how do you get across to the members of your staff the issues at play here without creating your own noose? Some documentation is required. Create it under the write heading, in the right document if needed. More importantly, train your staff. Don’t just throw paper at them.

Documentation is proof of just being lazy over the winter in this type of situation. Probably because the documentation was found in at least three different places, it was “make work” for three different people. Writing rules down over the winter is easy and lasts for years (decades in too many situations). However, training your staff lasts a lifetime.

Look at who you need to understand what you are writing down. In most cases young men and women who seem not to read much but who can absorb a lot of information. If you expect 20 year olds to read a book for a job, you are your own worst enemy. You are only creating documentation that will be used to prove you or your staff was negligent.

Training allows the information to be absorbed in the way necessary and provides the understanding of the rules. Training says this is how you do it, now show me you know how to do it, and then tell me why you do it this way. Training is a pain for you, and your senior staff, but if you want to solve problems and really help the people, your employees, trains them. Let them know why you have to do things this way and then teach them to do things this way.

Think about it. What is going to be more effective. Giving everyone a book to read at night or creating a scenario from this incident and having your staff act it out and go through the issues.

Don’t create documentation because you have nothing else to do over the winter, or you are trying not to train your staff.

Never create documentation just to punish employees. Those will always come back to haunt you. You can’t sue an employee as a defense anyway, except in extremely rare cases, so why create a situation that will come back to haunt you in other ways.

This is a sad case all around.

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

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A.M.D., a Minor, vs. Young Men’s Christian Association of Greater Indianapolis, 2013 Ind. App. Unpub. LEXIS 913; 990 N.E.2d 527

A.M.D., a Minor, vs. Young Men’s Christian Association of Greater Indianapolis, 2013 Ind. App. Unpub. LEXIS 913; 990 N.E.2d 527

A.M.D., a Minor, by his Parents and Guardians, John Doe and Jane Doe, and John Doe and Jane Doe, individually, Appellants, vs. Young Men’s Christian Association of Greater Indianapolis, Appellee.

No. 49A04-1211-CT-551

COURT OF APPEALS OF INDIANA

2013 Ind. App. Unpub. LEXIS 913; 990 N.E.2d 527

July 19, 2013, Decided

July 19, 2013, Filed

NOTICE: PURSUANT TO INDIANA APPELLATE RULE 65(D), THIS MEMORANDUM DECISION SHALL NOT BE REGARDED AS PRECEDENT OR CITED BEFORE ANY COURT EXCEPT FOR THE PURPOSE OF ESTABLISHING THE DEFENSE OF RES JUDICATA, COLLATERAL ESTOPPEL, OR THE LAW OF THE CASE.

PUBLISHED IN TABLE FORMAT IN THE NORTH EASTERN REPORTER.

SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Transfer denied by A.M.D. v. YMCA of Greater Indianapolis, 997 N.E.2d 356, 2013 Ind. LEXIS 883 (Ind., Nov. 7, 2013)

PRIOR HISTORY: [*1]

APPEAL FROM THE MARION SUPERIOR COURT. The Honorable Heather Welch, Judge. Cause No. 49D12-0805-CT-20350.

Taylor v. State, 891 N.E.2d 155, 2008 Ind. App. LEXIS 1678 (Ind. Ct. App., 2008)

CORE TERMS: summary judgment, camper, causation, counselor, bathroom, staff, proximate cause, restroom, superseding, intervening, exculpatory clause, foreseeability, foreseeable, bush, rafting, looked, matter of law, superseding cause, reasonably foreseeable, duty to supervise, chain of causation, omission, sexual assaults, suspicious, violent, negligent act, question of fact, supervision, supervising, designated

COUNSEL: ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANTS:DANIEL S. CHAMBERLAIN, Doehrman Chamberlain, Indianapolis, Indiana.

ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE: MARK D. GERTH, JEFFREY D. HAWKINS, MICHAEL WROBLEWSKI, Kightlinger & Gray, LLP, Indianapolis, Indiana.

JUDGES: FRIEDLANDER, Judge. ROBB, C.J., and KIRSCH, J., concur.

OPINION BY: FRIEDLANDER

OPINION

MEMORANDUM DECISION – NOT FOR PUBLICATION

FRIEDLANDER, Judge

A.M.D., a minor, by his parents and guardians, John Doe and Jane Doe, and John Doe and Jane Doe individually, appeal from the trial court’s order granting summary judgment in favor of Young Men’s Christian Association of Greater Indianapolis and YMCA of Greater Indianapolis (collectively, the YMCA) in an action brought by the Does alleging negligence against the YMCA. The following issue is presented in this appeal: Did the trial court err by granting summary judgment in favor of the YMCA under the doctrine of superseding causation?

We reverse.

The facts designated to the trial court for purposes of ruling on the motion for summary judgment follow. When A.M.D. was eight years old, he participated in a summer day camp through the YMCA’s Day Camp [*2] Program at Lions Park in Zionsville, Indiana. The camp was offered to children in grades kindergarten through sixth grade. On June 27, 2006, YMCA camp counselors accompanied A.M.D. and the other camp participants to Creekside Park, which is a park immediately adjacent to Lions Park. On that particular day there were fifteen to twenty children, ranging in age from six years old to twelve years old, and three camp counselors at the park.

The purpose of the trip to Creekside Park was to give the children the opportunity to enjoy rafting and playing in and around the water. The camp began that day at 7:00 a.m. and the group walked over to Creekside Park at approximately 2:00 p.m. Until the time of the incident giving rise to this appeal, there was nothing out of the ordinary at the park and there were no activities or individuals that gave anyone at the YMCA cause for concern. In particular, there was no one at the park who was lingering around, looked out of place, or generally looked suspicious.

During the rafting excursion, the counselors were situated such that one counselor, Megan Donaldson, was positioned where the rafting began, and two counselors, Melissa Raab and Jay Binkert, were [*3] positioned where the rafting ended. Shortly after the rafting began, A.M.D. told Raab that he needed to go to the bathroom. Since the public restroom was a ten-to-fifteen minute walk away, Raab allowed A.M.D. to urinate by some bushes that were within Raab’s direct and unobstructed view. Raab instructed A.M.D. to remain by the bush and to return when he was finished. At the time Raab instructed A.M.D. to urinate in the bushes, she knew that the YMCA’s bathroom policy required at least one counselor and one buddy to go with a camper to the restroom. No campers were to go to the bathroom by themselves.

A.M.D. went to the bathroom by the bushes as instructed and was within Raab’s line of sight. Raab momentarily turned her attention towards the creek to check on the other children, and turned her attention away from A.M.D. for less than a minute. When Raab looked back to check on A.M.D., he was gone. Unknown to A.M.D. and the YMCA counselors, there was a sexual predator hiding in the woods near where A.M.D. was going to the bathroom. It was later determined that Stephen Taylor was the person hiding in the woods, and who attacked A.M.D. Taylor was so well hidden that A.M.D. did not see Taylor [*4] approach him from the front until after he had finished going to the bathroom.

Once Taylor emerged from the woods, he approached A.M.D., told him he was a doctor, and offered to give A.M.D. a piggy-back ride, which A.M.D. accepted. Taylor successfully lured A.M.D. farther into the woods where they were both alone and out of sight from any of the YMCA camp counselors. While hidden in the woods, Taylor sexually assaulted A.M.D. Once Raab noticed that A.M.D. was not by the bushes, she immediately began looking for A.M.D. and screaming his name. Ultimately, A.M.D. was found, but the perpetrator had run away. Approximately six months later, Taylor was arrested on an unrelated charge and was subsequently identified as the person who had sexually assaulted A.M.D. Taylor was convicted of a class A felony and was sentenced to fifty years in the Department of Correction. See Taylor v. State, 891 N.E.2d 155 (Ind. Ct. App. 2008), trans. denied, cert. denied, 555 U.S. 1142, 129 S. Ct. 1008, 173 L. Ed. 2d 301 (2009), reh’g denied, 556 U.S. 1148, 129 S. Ct. 1665, 173 L. Ed. 2d 1032; Taylor v. State, No. 06A04-1009-PC-557, 951 N.E.2d 312 (July 29, 2011), trans. denied.

Prior to June 27, 2006, the YMCA was not aware of any criminal incidents or crimes that [*5] were committed at the Lions or Creekside Parks. Prior to June of 2006, there were no other incidents of violent or sexual assaults reported at Creekside Park. There have been no incidents of violent or sexual assaults reported at Lions Park for at least the past twenty-five years.

On May 7, 2008, the Does individually, and on behalf of A.M.D., filed a negligence action against the YMCA. The YMCA filed a motion for summary judgment in the action presenting the following two claims: 1) The YMCA was not the proximate cause of A.M.D.’s injuries because Taylor’s criminal actions were not reasonably foreseeable; and 2) the exculpatory clause contained in the camper application signed by Jane Doe released the YMCA from any and all claims. The Does filed their opposition to the YMCA’s motion for summary judgment claiming that the following four theories precluded the entry of summary judgment in the YMCA’s favor: 1) The YMCA negligently supervised A.M.D.; 2) the YMCA failed to prevent foreseeable intentional conduct by a third-party; 3) the YMCA did not have to be the sole cause of A.M.D.’s injuries; and 4) the YMCA is not released from its responsibility to A.M.D. and his parents by virtue [*6] of the exculpatory clause contained in the camper application form signed by Jane Doe.

On September 17, 2012, the trial court held a hearing on the YMCA’s motion for summary judgment. In part, the trial court’s order on summary judgment reads as follows:

The Court hereby finds that the Defendant, YMCA, is entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law and the Court hereby GRANTS the Defendant, YMCA’s, Motion for Summary Judgment. The Court hereby DENIES the Plaintiffs’ Partial Motion for Summary Judgment regarding the exculpatory clause. The Court further notes that the Defendant never disputed that they had a duty to supervise A.M.D. Thus, the Court does not find this issue was before the Court and the Court declines to address the Plaintiffs[sic] Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on this issue as it is moot due to the Court’s ruling on the issue of proximate cause. There is no just reason for delay, and [the YMCA] is entitled to judgment in their favor and against A.M.D., a Minor, by His Parents and Guardians, JOHN DOE AND JANE DOE, and JOHN DOE AND JANE DOE, Individually on the Plaintiffs’ Complaint as a matter of law. This Judgment is a full, complete, and final Judgment on the [*7] Plaintiffs’ Complaint as to [the YMCA] in this case. The Clerk of this Court shall enter the Judgment in the Judgment Docket.

Appellant’s Appendix at 21. A.M.D. and the Does appeal. Additional facts will be supplied where necessary.

A.M.D. and the Does contend that the trial court erred by granting the YMCA’s motion for summary judgment and by denying their motion for partial summary judgment on the issue of the impact of the exculpatory clause in the camper application signed by Jane Doe. The trial court included in its summary judgment order specific findings of fact and conclusions of law. A trial court’s specific findings and conclusions are not required, and, while they offer insight into the trial court’s rationale for the judgment entered, and facilitate our review, we are not limited to reviewing the trial court’s reasons for granting or denying summary judgment. Trustcorp Mortg. Co. v. Metro Mortg. Co., Inc., 867 N.E.2d 203 (Ind. Ct. App. 2007). A trial court’s order granting summary judgment may be affirmed upon any theory supported by the designated materials. Id. Additionally, the fact that the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment does not alter our standard of [*8] review. Id. In that situation, we consider each motion separately in order to determine whether the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Id.

A plaintiff seeking damages for negligence must establish (1) a duty owed to the plaintiff by the defendant, (2) a breach of the duty, and (3) an injury proximately caused by the breach of duty. Pfenning v. Lineman, 947 N.E.2d 392 (Ind. 2011). “Absent a duty, there can be no breach, and therefore, no recovery for the plaintiff in negligence.” Vaughn v. Daniels Co. (West Virginia), Inc., 841 N.E.2d 1133, 1143 (Ind. 2006). Where the action involves negligent supervision of a child, we have made the following observation:

[T]here is a well-recognized duty in tort law that persons entrusted with children have a duty to supervise their charges. The duty is to exercise ordinary care on behalf of the child in custody. The duty exists whether or not the supervising party has agreed to watch over the child for some form of compensation. However, the caretaker is not an insurer of the safety of the child and has no duty to foresee and guard against every possible hazard.

Davis v. LeCuyer, 849 N.E.2d 750, 757 (Ind. Ct. App. 2006). Our Supreme [*9] Court announced the three-part test for determining whether to impose a duty at common law in Webb v. Jarvis, 575 N.E.2d 992 (Ind. 1991), viz. (1) the relationship between the parties, (2) the reasonable foreseeability of harm to the person injured, and (3) public policy concerns, but that analysis is not necessary where the duty is well settled. Northern Ind. Pub. Serv. Co. v. Sharp, 790 N.E.2d 462 (Ind. 2003). Furthermore, the trial court found and the parties do not contest the finding that the YMCA owed a duty to supervise A.M.D.

In this case, the question presented on appeal concerns the issue of causation. We have held that causation is an essential element of a negligence claim. Bush v. N. Ind. Pub. Serv. Co., 685 N.E.2d 174, 178 (Ind. Ct. App. 1997). “The injurious act must be both the proximate cause and the cause in fact of an injury. Generally, causation, and proximate cause in particular, is a question of fact for the jury’s determination.” Correll v. Ind. Dep’t of Transp., 783 N.E.2d 706, 707 (Ind. Ct. App. 2002). In the present case, the trial court entered summary judgment in favor of the YMCA after engaging in an analysis of causation, which we reproduce in pertinent [*10] part as follows:

Summary Judgment Standard

. . . .

11. This Court notes the issue presented by YMCA’s Motion for Summary Judgment only addresses the element of causation. The Court does find under well-settled Indiana Law that the YMCA had a duty to supervise A.M.D. However, the issue for this Court is whether there is a material dispute of fact on the element of proximate cause.

12. In order to prevail in a negligence action, the plaintiff must demonstrate all the requisite elements of a cause of action: “(1) a duty owed by the defendant to the plaintiff, (2) a breach of that duty by the defendant, and (3) an injury to the plaintiff as a proximate result of the breach.” Ford Motor Co. v Rushford, 868 N.E.2d 806, 810 (Ind. 2007). The question of whether the defendant owes the plaintiff a legal duty is generally one of law for the court. Stephenson v. Ledbetter, 596 N.E.2d 1369, 1371 (Ind. 1992).

. . . .

17. Causation is an essential element of a negligence claim. Bush v. Northern Indiana Pub. Serv. Co., 685 N.E.2d 174, 178 (Ind. Ct. App. 1997), trans. denied (1999). “Proximate cause has two components: causation-in-fact and scope of liability. City of Gary ex rel. King v. Smith & Wesson Corp., 801 N.E.2d 1222, 1243-44 (Ind. 2003). [*11] To establish factual causation, the plaintiff must show that but for the defendant’s allegedly tortious act or omission, the injury at issue would not have occurred. Id. The scope of liability doctrine asks whether the injury was a “natural and probable consequence” of the defendant’s conduct, which in the light of the circumstances, should have been foreseen or anticipated. Id. at 1244. Liability is not imposed on the defendant if the ultimate injury was not “reasonably foreseeable” as a consequence of the act or omission. Id. Therefore, the fundamental test of proximate cause is “reasonable foreseeability”. Lutheran Hospital of Indiana, Inc v. Blaser, 634 N.E.2d 864, 871 (Ind. Ct. App. 1994).

18. Generally, causation, and proximate cause in particular, is a question of fact for the jury’s determination. Adams Twp. Of Hamilton County v. Sturdevant, 570 N.E.2d 87, 90 (Ind. Ct. App. 1991). However, “Where only a single conclusion can be drawn from the set of facts, proximate cause is a question of law for the court to decide.[“] Merchants National Bank v. Simrell’s, 741 N.E.2d 383, 389 (Ind. Ct. App. 2000).

19. In this case, the facts are undisputed and only a single conclusion can be [*12] drawn or inferred from the facts. Therefore, the Court finds that the issue of proximate cause is a question of law not fact.

Appellant’s Appendix at 13-16. The trial court then analyzed cases addressing the issue whether intentional criminal acts of third parties break the chain of causation under the doctrines of superseding and intervening causation.1

1 The Supreme Court described the doctrine as follows:

The doctrine of superseding or intervening causation has long been part of Indiana common law. It provides that when a negligent act or omission is followed by a subsequent negligent act or omission so remote in time that it breaks the chain of causation, the original wrongdoer is relieved of liability. A subsequent act is “superseding” when the harm resulting from the original negligent act “could not have reasonably been foreseen by the original negligent actor.” Whether the resulting harm is “foreseeable” such that liability may be imposed on the original wrongdoer is a question of fact for a jury.

Control Techniques, Inc. v. Johnson, 762 N.E.2d 104 (Ind. 2002) (internal citations omitted)(emphasis supplied).

Our Supreme Court in Control Techniques examined whether Indiana’s Comparative [*13] Fault Act2 had subsumed or abrogated the doctrines of superseding and intervening causation, and the impact of the viability of those doctrines, such that error could be predicated upon the refusal to instruct the jury thereon. In concluding that no instruction on the doctrine of superseding causation was warranted, the Supreme Court stated as follows:

For the reasons expressed below, we agree with the Court of Appeals that no separate instruction is required. In capsule form, we conclude that the doctrines of causation and foreseeability impose the same limitations on liability as the “superseding cause” doctrine. Causation limits a negligent actor’s liability to foreseeable consequences. A superseding cause is, by definition, one that is not reasonably foreseeable. As a result, the doctrine in today’s world adds nothing to the requirement of foreseeability that is not already inherent in the requirement of causation.

Control Techniques, Inc. v. Johnson, 762 N.E.2d at 108. The court went on to hold that the adoption of the Comparative Fault Act did not affect the doctrine of superseding cause. Id.

2 Ind. Code Ann. § 34-51-2-1 et seq. (West, Westlaw current through June 29 2013, excluding [*14] P.L. 205-2013).

The YMCA argues that the trial court correctly found that Taylor’s criminal conduct was a superseding or intervening cause of the harm to A.M.D. and cites Restatement (Second) of Torts § 448 in support. The Restatement provides as follows:

The act of a third person in committing an intentional tort or crime is a superseding cause of harm to another resulting therefrom, although the actor’s negligent conduct created a situation which afforded an opportunity to the third person to commit such a tort or crime, unless the actor at the time of his negligent conduct realized or should have realized the likelihood that such a situation might be created, and that a third person might avail himself of the opportunity to commit such a tort or crime.

The YMCA claims that it was not foreseeable that a sexual predator would be lying in wait in the woods in an attempt to sexually molest one of their campers, and in particular, A.M.D.

Restatement (Second) of Torts §449, known as the very duty doctrine, provides as follows: If the likelihood that a third person may act in a particular manner is the hazard or one of the hazards which makes the actor negligent, such an act whether innocent, [*15] negligent, intentionally tortious, or criminal does not prevent the actor from being liable for harm caused thereby. At the heart of these concepts is the necessity for an analysis of foreseeability.

The YMCA’s bathroom procedure for the camp, as set forth in the camp brochures provides as follows:

No camper is ever alone and no camper is ever alone with a staff member. All campers will take trips to the bathroom with entire camp and/or camp groups and camp staff. Campers will only use bathrooms inspected for safety by camp staff.

Appellant’s Appendix at 179. Additionally, day campers were to go to the bathroom in pairs, with one counselor present. The YMCA’s Code of Conduct for Day Camp Counselors provided as follows with respect to restroom supervision:

3. Restroom supervision: Staff will make sure the restroom is not occupied by suspicious or unknown individuals before allowing children to use the facilities. Staff will stand in the doorway while children are using the restroom. This policy allows privacy for the children and protection for the staff (not being alone with a child). If staff are assisting younger children, doors to the facility must remain open. No child, regardless [*16] of age, should ever enter a restroom alone on a field trip. Always send children in pairs, and whenever possible, with staff.

Id. at 213.

Further, the counselors were instructed that they shall never leave a child unsupervised. In particular, a day camp counselor, the position Raab held with the YMCA at the time of the molestation, has the general function of directly supervising approximately twelve campers and taking responsibility for each child’s safety. Several of the major responsibilities of the Camp Site Director involved the protection of the campers, such as personally supervising the campers at all times, being directly responsible for the daily safety and schedule of the campers, and maintaining a clean, neat, and safe campsite.

Raab’s deposition testimony indicated her understanding that an eight-year-old child should not be allowed to go to the restroom by himself or wander off because the YMCA did not want the child to get lost, suffer any harm, or be attacked. She further attested to the fact that under the YMCA’s rules campers are allowed to use only those bathrooms inspected by staff to make sure there was no one suspicious lurking around or lingering. Another YMCA employee [*17] attested as follows:

Q: What are the bathroom procedures for the YMCA?

A: For one staff person to accompany two children to the restroom.

Q: And why do you have that procedure or policy?

A: To protect children and to protect the staff.

Q: Protect children from what?

A: Potential child-on-child abusers or any interaction of any kind that’s inappropriate, fighting.

Q: Well, you would also have that policy and procedure for the one staff and two children to prevent sexual molestation from third parties, correct?

A: Correct.

Q: And that’s exactly what happened here; Mr. Taylor came upon the scene, found this child and assaulted him?

A: I can’t . . . .

Id. at 181.

Other designated evidence before the trial court suggested that until the time of the incident giving rise to this appeal, there was nothing out of the ordinary at the park and there were no activities or individuals that gave anyone at the YMCA cause for concern on the day in question. In particular, there was no one at the park who was lingering around, looked out of place, or generally looked suspicious. Furthermore, prior to June 27, 2006, the YMCA was not aware of any criminal incidents or crimes that were committed at the Lions or Creekside [*18] Parks. Additionally, prior to June of 2006, there were no other incidents of violent or sexual assaults reported at Creekside Park. There have been no incidents of violent or sexual assaults reported at Lions Park for at least the past twenty-five years.

We disagree that only one conclusion can be drawn or inferred from the undisputed facts. “[A]n actor need not foresee the exact manner in which harm occurs, but must, in a general way, foresee the injurious consequences of his act.” Rauck v. Hawn, 564 N.E.2d 334, 339 (Ind. Ct. App. 1990). Furthermore, a determination of whether Taylor’s act was a superseding or intervening cause of A.M.D.’s harm such that the original chain of causation has been broken depends on a determination of whether it was reasonably foreseeable under the circumstances that an actor would intervene in such a way as to cause the resulting injury. Scott v. Retz, 916 N.E.2d 252 (Ind. Ct. App. 2009).

In order to make that determination, three factors are pertinent to the analysis. First, courts on review have examined whether the intervening actor is independent from the original actor. Id. Next, we examine whether the instrumentality of harm was under the complete [*19] control of the intervening actor. Id. Third, we examine whether the intervening actor as opposed to the original actor is in a better position to prevent the harm. Id. At a minimum, the facts pertinent to the third factor are in dispute. Whether the criminal assault on A.M.D. by a stranger, Taylor, was foreseeable by the YMCA such that the chain of causation was broken, should be decided by a trier of fact and not as a matter of law.3

3 The trial court did not resolve the issue of whether the exculpatory clause in the camper application signed by Jane Doe released YMCA from liability because the issue was moot. We do not address the arguments pertaining to the release of liability because there is no ruling on this issue subject to our review.

Judgment reversed.

ROBB, C.J., and KIRSCH, J., concur.


No one saw the deceased drown; no one could prove what happened. Campground was not liable for death of a swimmer.

Legally if a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to see it fall it does not make any noise.

De Castro v. Odetah Camping Resort, Inc., 2015 Conn. Super. LEXIS 2297

State: Connecticut, Superior Court of Connecticut, Judicial District of Fairfield at Bridgeport

Plaintiff: Adelson Luiz De Castro, Administrator of the Estate of Jose Luiz De Castro

Defendant: Odetah Camping Resort, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: failure to provide lifeguards and knew or should have known of the danger associated with encouraging its guests to swim to its recreational flotation devices, yet failed to take reasonable steps to secure their safety in doing so.

Defendant Defenses: No proximate causation

Holding: for the Defendant

Year: 2015

The defendant is a camping area that allows day users in order to access other recreational opportunities at the campground.

The defendant is an approximately 100-acre campground that offers multiple recreational activities. In addition to facilities to accommodate overnight camping, the defendant offers sporting facilities, which include a pool as well as volleyball, tennis, and basketball courts. The defendant abuts a large, thirty-two-acre freshwater lake, which includes a small beach, and offers swimming and boating activities. A portion of the lake that is adjacent to the beach has a designated swim area. The boundaries of the swim area are designated by a rope line and buoys. Just beyond the roped off swimming area are two inflatable platforms. One was described as a platform or trampoline, and the other was described as an “iceberg.” Both inflatable devices were attractions to be used by the resort guests. T

The plaintiff and friends entered the defendant’s campground and paid an entrance fee. The campground was adjacent to a large lake. There was a swimming area on the campground and roped off in the lake. Outside of the roped area were two large inflatable platforms, one described as a trampoline and the other described as an “iceberg.”

There were no lifeguards at either the defendant’s pool or the lake area. A single sign was posted that warned that there were no lifeguards at the lake.

The plaintiff and a friend entered the designated swimming area for the purpose of swimming out to the trampoline. The trampoline was just beyond the buoy line. The friend made it to the trampoline. However, the plaintiff, deceased never did.

When it was noticed he was missing 911 was called. A firefighter found the deceased floating just below the surface inside the swimming area. A postmortem autopsy determined the cause of death to be “asphyxia due to submersion.”

No one saw the deceased struggling or in distress, and no one saw him drown.

The case went to trial on two theories:

The first allegation was that the defendant was negligent in failing to provide lifeguards. The second allegation was that the defendant was negligent when it knew or should have known of the danger associated with encouraging its guests to swim to its recreational flotation devices, yet failed to take reasonable steps to secure their safety in doing so.

The jury returned a verdict based on the second issue. The defendant filed an appeal.

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

Under Connecticut law to establish a basic or prima facie case, the plaintiff must:

[T]o establish a prima facie case, the proponent must submit evidence which, if credited, is sufficient to establish the fact or facts which it is adduced to prove . . . [T]he evidence offered by the plaintiff is to be taken as true and interpreted in the light most favorable to [the plaintiff], and every reasonable inference is to be drawn in [the plaintiff’s] favor.

To win its case the plaintiff must prove negligence.

“In order to make out a prima facie case of negligence, the plaintiff must submit evidence that, if credited, is sufficient to establish duty, breach of duty, causation, and actual injury . . . A defendant’s duty and breach of duty is measured by a reasonable care standard, which is the care [that] a reasonably prudent person would use under the circumstances . . . After the plaintiff establishes that the defendant did not exercise reasonable care, the plaintiff has the burden of proving that the defendant’s negligence caused the plaintiff’s injuries. To do so, the plaintiff must first establish causation in fact, that is, that the injury would not have occurred but for the actor’s conduct . . . The plaintiff then must show proximate cause . . . Proximate cause requires that the defendant’s conduct [was] a substantial factor in bringing about the plaintiff’s injuries and that there was an unbroken sequence of events that tied [the plaintiff’s] injuries to the [defendant’s conduct] . . . Proximate cause does not require the plaintiff to remove from the realm of possibility all other potential causes of the accident . . . Instead, the plaintiff must establish that it is more likely than not that the cause on which the plaintiff relies was in fact a proximate cause of the accident. The more likely than not standard ensures that the causal connection . . . [is] based [on] more than conjecture or surmise.”

The defendants’ defense was no one saw the deceased drown. There was thus no proof of causation.

Interrogatories were provided to the jury. Interrogatories are questions the jury must answer in reaching its decision or in deciding the case. The interrogatory answers seemed to focus on the fight the owner’s manual of the trampoline warned that users should wear life jackets. Life jackets were available to swimmers in a shed on the beach; however, they were not required to be worn.

The plaintiff hired an expert witness who opined that the defendant campground was liable for failing to have safety measures in place, failing to have life guards and failing to have an emergency safety plan. However, these breaches of duty, if true, still had no link to how the decedent died. There was no way to say having one of the missing items identified by the expert witness was not proof that the plaintiff might have lived. “To do so, the plaintiff must first establish causation in fact, that is, that the injury would not have occurred but for the actor’s conduct…

The court reversed the jury’s decision because there was no evidence of what happened to the plaintiff. Consequently, there was no relationship, no causal link between the failures to require life jackets to the deceased’s death.

The plaintiff failed to present any evidence to establish an unbroken sequence of events causally flowing from the defendant’s conduct that the jury found negligent to the decedent’s drowning. “The establishment of proximate cause is an essential element of a negligence claim and the parties recognize that if proximate cause is lacking, the plaintiff cannot prevail.”

The appellate court reversed the jury findings.

Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, based on the evidence presented by the plaintiff, no reasonable juror could find that the negligence of the defendant caused or was a substantial factor in causing the decedent’s death by drowning. The lack of any evidence as to what caused this drowning is fatal to the plaintiff’s case.

So Now What?

It is sad when someone dies. However, just because someone dies or a bandage is used, does not mean there is liability and the need to write a check. There must be a connection between something the defendant did wrong and the injury to the victim.

That connection in Connecticut must be an unbroken string of events linking the plaintiff’s injuries to the defendant’s conduct.

 

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De Castro v. Odetah Camping Resort, Inc., 2015 Conn. Super. LEXIS 2297

De Castro v. Odetah Camping Resort, Inc., 2015 Conn. Super. LEXIS 2297

Adelson Luiz De Castro, Administrator of the Estate of Jose Luiz De Castro v. Odetah Camping Resort, Inc.

FBTCV126026625

SUPERIOR COURT OF CONNECTICUT, JUDICIAL DISTRICT OF FAIRFIELD AT BRIDGEPORT

2015 Conn. Super. LEXIS 2297

September 2, 2015, Decided

September 2, 2015, 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.

JUDGES: [*1] Michael P. Kamp, J.

OPINION BY: Michael P. Kamp

OPINION

MEMORANDUM OF DECISION RE DEFENDANT’S MOTION TO SET ASIDE THE VERDICT AND MOTION FOR JUDGMENT NOTWITHSTANDING THE VERDICT

PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

The defendant, Odetah Camping Resort, Inc., has filed a renewal of its motion for directed verdict and a motion to set aside the jury’s verdict.1 The trial commenced on April 28, 2015, and evidence concluded on May 6, 2015, when the defense rested its case. The jury received the charge on the law on May 6, 2015. On May 6, 2015, the jury returned a verdict for the plaintiff, Adelson Luiz DeCastro, Administrator of the Estate of Jose Luiz DeCastro, and awarded total damages of $229,155.96. Regarding the question of comparative negligence, the jury found the plaintiff’s decedent, Jose DeCastro, was 49% responsible for his own injuries.

1 The defendant originally moved for a directed verdict at the close of the plaintiff’s case in chief. At that time, the court reserved decision, and the defendant commenced its defense. On close of the defendant’s case, the matter was submitted to the jury.

The defendant filed its motion to set aside the verdict on May 15, 2015. The plaintiff filed its objection to the defendant’s motion [*2] on May 19, 2015. On June 22, 2015, the court heard the matter at short calendar and took the papers.

The defendant argues in its motion that the plaintiff failed to prove beyond the realm of surmise and speculation that the defendant’s negligence was the proximate cause of the death of the decedent. This argument is based upon a lack of evidence as to what actually caused the decedent to drown.

II

FACTS

After a trial, the jury could have found as follows. On July 7, 2011, the decedent and a group of friends went to the defendant resort located in Bozrah, Connecticut. In order to gain entrance, the decedent paid an entrance fee. The defendant is an approximately 100-acre campground that offers multiple recreational activities. In addition to facilities to accommodate overnight camping, the defendant offers sporting facilities, which include a pool as well as volleyball, tennis, and basketball courts. The defendant abuts a large, thirty-two-acre freshwater lake, which includes a small beach, and offers swimming and boating activities. A portion of the lake that is adjacent to the beach has a designated swim area. The boundaries of the swim area are designated by a rope line and buoys. Just [*3] beyond the roped off swimming area are two inflatable platforms. One was described as a platform or trampoline, and the other was described as an “iceberg.” Both inflatable devices were attractions to be used by the resort guests. The defendant did not provide lifeguards at the pool or lake swim area. A single sign was posted at one end of the beach area, indicating: “No Lifeguard on Duty. Swim at Your Own Risk.” No employees of the defendant directly supervised the lake swimming area.

On July 9, 2011, the decedent and his friend, Saulo Sousa, entered the designated swimming area for the purpose of swimming out to the trampoline just beyond the buoy line. When Sousa reached the rope line, he observed the decedent immediately behind him in the water. The depth of the water at this location was approximately six feet. As Sousa lifted the rope line to duck under it, he observed the decedent diving forward and under the rope. When Sousa reached the trampoline, he climbed on it but did not observe the decedent. After spending a few minutes on the trampoline, Sousa reentered the water and swam to the shore. After unsuccessfully attempting to locate the decedent, employees of the defendant [*4] were notified that he was missing. After a brief search, 911 emergency services were dispatched, and Bozrah firefighters and rescue personnel responded to the scene. When notified that the decedent was last seen in the designated swim area near the buoy line, firefighter Colin Laffey entered the water and located the decedent floating unresponsive just below the surface of the water just inside the buoy line. Laffey testified that he located the decedent in an area where the depth of the water was less than six feet. The decedent was brought to shore, and CPR was administered. The decedent was then transported by ambulance to Backus Hospital, but never regained consciousness and was pronounced dead. A postmortem autopsy determined the cause of death to be asphyxia due to submersion. The postmortem examination was negative for any signs of illness, traumatic injury, or any preexisting medical condition or disease. A toxicology examination was negative for the presence of any drugs, alcohol, or medication.

The decedent’s drowning was unwitnessed despite the fact that there were numerous people in the water and on the beach. Although other members of the decedent’s group, including his [*5] girlfriend, were on the beach adjacent to the swimming area, no one saw him in distress or struggling in the water. He was identified by his friends as a good or strong swimmer.

III

DISCUSSION

Practice Book §16-37 provides, in relevant part: “Whenever a motion for a directed verdict made at any time after the close of the plaintiff’s case in chief is denied or for any reason is not granted, the judicial authority is deemed to have submitted the action to the jury subject to a later determination of the legal questions raised by the motion.” “Directed verdicts are not favored . . . A trial court should direct a verdict only when a jury could not reasonably and legally have reached any other conclusion . . . In reviewing the trial court’s decision to direct a verdict in favor of a defendant we must consider the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff . . . Although it is the jury’s right to draw logical deductions and make reasonable inferences from the facts proven . . . it may not resort to mere conjecture and speculation . . . A directed verdict is justified if . . . the evidence is so weak that it would be proper for the court to set aside a verdict rendered for the other party.” (Internal [*6] quotation marks omitted.) Riccio v. Harbour Village Condominium Assn., Inc., 281 Conn. 160, 163, 914 A.2d 529 (2007). “A verdict may be directed . . . where the claim is that there is insufficient evidence to sustain a favorable verdict.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Beale v. Yale-New Haven Hospital, 89 Conn.App. 556, 565-66, 874 A.2d 259 (2005).

Likewise, “[a] trial court may set aside a verdict on a finding that the verdict is manifestly unjust because, given the evidence presented, the jury mistakenly applied a legal principle or because there is no evidence to which the legal principles of the case could be applied . . . A verdict should not be set aside, however, where it is apparent that there was some evidence on which the jury might reasonably have reached its conclusion . . . This limitation on a trial court’s discretion results from the constitutional right of litigants to have issues of fact determined by a jury.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Deas v. Diaz, 121 Conn.App. 826, 841, 998 A.2d 200, cert. denied, 298 Conn. 905, 3 A.3d 69 (2010), rev’d on other grounds, Saleh v. Ribeiro Trucking, LLC, 303 Conn. 276, 32 A.3d 318 (2011).

“[T]o establish a prima facie case, the proponent must submit evidence which, if credited, is sufficient to establish the fact or facts which it is adduced to prove . . . [T]he evidence offered by the plaintiff is to be taken as true and interpreted in the light most favorable to [the plaintiff], and every reasonable inference is to be drawn in [the plaintiff’s] [*7] favor.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Cadle Co. v. Errato, 71 Conn.App. 447, 455-56, 802 A.2d 887, cert. denied, 262 Conn. 918, 812 A.2d 861 (2002). “The credibility and weight to be attributed to any evidence offered [at trial] is solely within the province of the jury.” Murteza v. State, 7 Conn.App. 196, 208-09, 508 A.2d 449, cert. denied, 200 Conn. 803, 510 A.2d 191 (1986). “[I]t is not the function of [the trial] court to sit as the seventh juror when [it] review[s] the sufficiency of the evidence . . . rather, [it] must determine, in the light most favorable to sustaining the verdict, whether the totality of the evidence, including reasonable inferences therefrom, supports the [trier’s] verdict . . . In making this determination, [t]he evidence must be given the most favorable construction in support of the verdict of which it is reasonably capable . . . In other words, [i]f the [trier] could reasonably have reached its conclusion, the verdict must stand, even if [the trial] court disagrees with it.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) O’Connor v. Larocque, 302 Conn. 562, 612, 31 A.3d 1 (2011).

“In order to make out a prima facie case of negligence, the plaintiff must submit evidence that, if credited, is sufficient to establish duty, breach of duty, causation, and actual injury . . . A defendant’s duty and breach of duty is measured by a reasonable care standard, which is the care [that] a reasonably prudent person would use under [*8] the circumstances . . . After the plaintiff establishes that the defendant did not exercise reasonable care, the plaintiff has the burden of proving that the defendant’s negligence caused the plaintiff’s injuries. To do so, the plaintiff must first establish causation in fact, that is, that the injury would not have occurred but for the actor’s conduct . . . The plaintiff then must show proximate cause . . . Proximate cause requires that the defendant’s conduct [was] a substantial factor in bringing about the plaintiff’s injuries and that there was an unbroken sequence of events that tied [the plaintiff’s] injuries to the [defendant’s conduct] . . . Proximate cause does not require the plaintiff to remove from the realm of possibility all other potential causes of the accident . . . Instead, the plaintiff must establish that it is more likely than not that the cause on which the plaintiff relies was in fact a proximate cause of the accident. The more likely than not standard ensures that the causal connection . . . [is] based [on] more than conjecture or surmise.” (Citations omitted; emphasis omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Rawls v. Progressive Northern Insurance Company, 310 Conn. 768, 776-77, 83 A.3d 576 (2014).

The defendant’s primary argument is that no one [*9] witnessed the decedent’s drowning, and there was no evidence offered as to what caused him to drown. The defendant relies on Wu v. Fairfield, 204 Conn. 435, 528 A.2d 364 (1987). In Wu, the plaintiff’s decedent who was fifteen years old, went to Lake Mohegan, a freshwater lake, with her mother and two brothers for an afternoon of swimming. Id., 437. There was a designated swim area marked by a buoy line. At the time of the occurrence, there were four lifeguards on duty. Id. Those lifeguards had observed that the plaintiff’s decedent was a poor swimmer and had warned her twice to return to the shallow portion of the designated swim area. Id. When an approaching storm prompted the lifeguards to clear the water, the plaintiff’s decedent did not return to shore. Id. After a search, one of the lifeguards found the decedent’s body at the bottom of the lake in the designated swim area but beyond the shallow portion. Id., 437-38. The plaintiff alleged that the town and several of its employees, the lifeguards, were negligent in the performance of their duties. Id., 436. A jury returned a verdict for the defendants. Id. The plaintiff then filed a motion to set aside the verdict, which motion was denied. Id. In affirming the trial court’s denial of the plaintiff’s [*10] motion to set aside the verdict, the court held that “[w]hile it is undisputed that the decedent drowned, there was no evidence tying any negligence on the defendant lifeguards’ part to her death . . . Here, the plaintiff presented no evidence other than that the victim perished in an unwitnessed drowning. The plaintiff failed to establish an unbroken sequence of events causally flowing from the defendant lifeguards’ arguably negligent supervision to the decedent’s drowning.” Id., 440.

In this case, the plaintiff’s May 4, 2015 amended complaint contained two specifications of negligence as to the conduct of the defendant. The first allegation was that the defendant was negligent in failing to provide lifeguards. The second allegation was that the defendant was negligent when it knew or should have known of the danger associated with encouraging its guests to swim to its recreational flotation devices, yet failed to take reasonable steps to secure their safety in doing so. In response to jury interrogatories submitted by the court the jury found that the defendant was negligent with regard to the second specification but not the first. With regard to the claim of negligence concerning encouraging [*11] swimmers to use the flotation devices, the plaintiff relied on testimony that the owner’s manual for the two devices contained warnings that recommended users wear life vests. Although life vests were available in a shed adjacent to the lake swim area, the defendant did not require guests entering the lake or using any of the flotation devices to wear them. In addition, the plaintiff argued that the defendant failed to properly supervise and monitor the swimming area and had an inadequate emergency rescue plan.

The plaintiff offered the testimony of Gerald Dworkin, an aquatic safety expert. Dworkin offered opinion testimony regarding the defendant’s lack of safety measures including its failure to have lifeguards monitoring the swim area. Dworkin was also critical of the defendant’s lack of an emergency safety plan. Dworkin did not, however, offer any opinion testimony as to what actually caused the decedent to drown. He affirmed that it was an unwitnessed drowning. In addition, although the owner’s manuals for the flotation devices recommended the use of life vests, the decedent was not using either device when he drowned; the little evidence there is indicates he never left the designated [*12] swim area. The flotation devices were located outside that designated area.

Here, as in Wu, the plaintiff presented no evidence other than that the decedent died in an unwitnessed drowning. There was no evidence as to what caused the decedent to drown. In the absence of any such evidence, any number of factual possibilities could explain this accident. Without any evidence as to what caused this unfortunate incident, only speculation and conjecture could link the plaintiff’s drowning to the negligent conduct of the defendant. The plaintiff failed to present any evidence to establish an unbroken sequence of events causally flowing from the defendant’s conduct that the jury found negligent to the decedent’s drowning. “The establishment of proximate cause is an essential element of a negligence claim and the parties recognize that if proximate cause is lacking, the plaintiff cannot prevail.” Wu v. Town Of Fairfield, supra, 204 Conn. 441.

Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, based on the evidence presented by the plaintiff, no reasonable juror could find that the negligence of the defendant caused or was a substantial factor in causing the decedent’s death by drowning. The lack of any evidence as to what [*13] caused this drowning is fatal to the plaintiff’s case.

IV

CONCLUSION

Because the plaintiff failed to establish that the negligent conduct of the defendant was the proximate cause of the decedent’s drowning, the defendant’s motion to set aside the verdict is granted. Judgment may enter for the defendant.

KAMP, J.


Skier is unable to hold ski area liable in Vermont for injuries received in an unknown way from an unknown person.

Second Circuit bends over backwards to assist pro se plaintiff who fails to prove his case.

Gemmink v. Jay Peak Inc., 807 F.3d 46; 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 20768

State: Vermont, United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

Plaintiff: Paul A. Gemmink,

Defendant: Jay Peak Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: negligently permitted dangerous jumps on its ski trails and that, in consequence of such a constructed jump at the Kokomo-Northwest Passage intersection, Gemmink suffered a collision with another skier resulting in harm to his left side

Defendant Defenses: No Duty and No Negligence

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2015

This case is a rarity; it is a decision by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. That court is one step below the US Supreme Court and one of the highest courts in the land. Consequently, to have any of the federal appellate courts issue an opinion about a skiing case is very rare. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals hears appeals from federal courts in New York, Connecticut, and Vermont.

The second issue making this case rare but sort of explains the reason why the Second Circuit heard the case, is the case is Pro Se. That means the Plaintiff was representing himself without an attorney. Pro Se cases are rarely successful and are very difficult for all the parties involved because of the procedural issues a litigant must follow to stay in court. Lawyers take a yearlong class on civil procedure in law school and work overtime not to miss procedural deadlines.

At the same time, judges bend over backwards and here the Second Circuit did too, to make sure the Pro Se litigant has the best opportunity to have his or her day in court.

Consequently, when the plaintiff, Gemmink, who was pro se lost at the trial level and successfully filed an appeal to the Second Circuit, the court based on the decision bent over backwards to respond to the plaintiff’s claims.

The plaintiff and his daughter were skiing at the defendant ski area Jay Peak. The plaintiff was following his daughter down the hill. The daughter reached the bottom of the hill and realized her father was not with her.

The plaintiff was found unconscious or regaining consciousness and combative up on the hill by the ski patrol. The plaintiff had no memory of what happened.

The plaintiff was found near trees. The daughter had seen a ski jump close to the location of where her father was found “leading her and her father to surmise that another patron “fl[ew] of[f] the jump” and collided with Gemmink.” The plaintiff’s injuries were such that he attributed them to someone coming from the right and were consistent with the theory that someone going over the jump hit him.

Gemmink suffered fractures to his left ribs and left transverse processes in the incident, injuries that, according to Gemmink, are usually attributable to a significant impact coming from right to left, and are therefore, at least consistent with the theory that a skier jumped from the right of the intersection into Gemmink.

The trial court dismissed the claims of the plaintiff for failing to establish that the defendant’s alleged negligence was the cause of his injuries. The plaintiff successfully filed this appealed to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.

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

The court, as usual started its decision with the requirements for a party to defeat a motion for summary judgment.

Where, as here, the party opposing summary judgment bears the burden of proof at trial, summary judgment should be granted if the moving party can “point to an absence of evidence to support an essential element of the nonmoving party’s claim.” The court draws all inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, but the opposing party “must come forward with specific evidence demonstrating the existence of a genuine dispute of material fact.”

The court adopted the theory relied upon by the trial court, that the structure and maintenance of the alleged ski jump was sufficient to cause the injuries the plaintiff claimed based on the facts the plaintiff alleged. Again, this is rarely done when all parties are represented by attorneys. The attorney relying on this assumption would have to prove it using evidence.

The court then summarized its requirements in this case to determine whether the plaintiff presented enough evidence for a jury to rule in his favor.

The issue before us, then, is a not-infrequent one in tort cases: whether the plaintiff proffered sufficient evidence for a jury to find, more probably than not, that the ground for liability (here, the assumed negligence) was the cause of the plaintiff’s injury.

Thus the issue was explained to require a showing of evidence sufficient to prove that the defendant was the reason why the plaintiff was injured, and that injury was based on a breach of duty to the plaintiff by the defendant ski area.

Thus, in considering whether a plaintiff has proven causation, a trier of fact asks whether it is likely that the harm that occurred resulted from the negligence (or from another basis of liability) attributed to the defendant. In other words, is the reason that the defendant’s behavior is deemed risky, and the defendant deemed potentially liable, the harm that, in fact, occurred?

Here the court obviously looked at the issue as to whether the plaintiff assumed the risk, not based on what the defendant had done or failed to do, but based on whether the sport or the actions of the plaintiff were the cause for his injuries.

In essence, the greater the risk that the defendant’s conduct will result in the harm the plaintiff suffered, the more likely that a jury will be allowed to find that such conduct was the cause of that harm.

Here the evidence was solely circumstantial. There was no video, no witnesses, and no pictures, nothing to assist the plaintiff in proving his case other than the plaintiff and his daughter’s opinion and the injuries which could be been occurred as the plaintiff surmised. When only circumstantial evidence is available at trial, then the burden to prove the facts falls on the party using the evidence, but that burden is greater because of the nature of the evidence.

First, where one party has knowledge or access to information that renders that party better able than his adversary to explain what actually transpired, courts have tended to put the onus on that party to do so. This principle–that the party with superior knowledge bears the burden of coming forward with evidence–has always served as a basis of finding negligence under the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur.

In this case, the only party with any knowledge or access to the information was the plaintiff, thus the plaintiff had the sole burden to prove his circumstantial evidence.

Thus, the requirement that the plaintiff be able circumstantially to show a link between the expected risk of defendant’s conduct and what actually occurred tends to be greater when the plaintiff is better able to explain what happened, and is considerably less when, instead, it is the defendant who can better or more easily proffer evidence of what, in fact, occurred.

The court then brought in another issue, whether the circumstantial evidence offered by the plaintiff under the law of the state that is being applied, Vermont, allows for an error in determining the value or likelihood of the evidence. Meaning if there is a gray area in valuing the evidence does state law fall one way or the other, in making the final determination on its value.

If an erroneous finding of causation is, in the law of the jurisdiction, more harmful than an erroneous finding of no causation, the requirements of circumstantial evidence and knowledge grow stronger. Conversely, where the law of the jurisdiction makes clear that an erroneous finding of no causation is more harmful, the requirements are diminished.

The court then applied the three factors to this case. The first was whether there was a legal link between the maintenance of the ski jump and the injuries of the plaintiff. Maintenance in this case does not mean creation or grooming of the jump as in a terrain park, but whether the jump was allowed to exist by the defendant. The court found that any link was too tenuous to allow.

The first factor favors the defendant. The causal link between Jay Peak’s assumed negligence in its maintenance of ski jumps and the injury incurred by the plaintiff is far too attenuated to sustain Gemmink’s claim. Our common experience does not tell us that this kind of lack of maintenance results in accidents of this sort with any frequency.

This, the first argument, went in favor of the defendant. The court added in reaching this decision, that the plaintiff offered no additional evidence or expert witness to show a stronger link.

Generally, expert . . . testimony is required to support a finding of causation where the link is obscure and abstruse such that a layperson can have no well-founded knowledge and can do no more than indulge in mere speculation.

The second issue, who had evidence on what happened, the court found neither side won or actually it was a neutral result based on an analysis. “The second is, at most, neutral. Neither Gemmink nor Jay Peak has greater knowledge or access to information concerning what actually happened on the Kokomo trail.”

The third factor was interesting. Applying the test of how the state wanted the court to decide when faced with an issue that was “close call” or in a very small gray area. Here the court found that under Vermont law, the liability of a ski area is almost strict liability. That means liability with no room for error or limited if any defenses. Own a ski area and you own the safety of the people you invite to ski on the mountain.

We turn, then, to the third factor: Is this an area where, in Vermont, liability of ski operators to skiers is close to strict, so that whether negligence was the cause of the alleged injury is a matter that, in uncertainty, should be decided in favor of the skier? Or is this an area where the risk of injury, even in the presence of negligence on the part of the ski operator, is assumed primarily by the skier, so that the requirement of causation is fairly placed on the skier (unless either (a) the evidentiary link between the evidence of negligence and causation of the kind of harm that occurred is particularly strong, or (b) the defendant is in a distinctly better position to tell us what happened)? Or, finally, is Vermont relatively indifferent to error in one direction or the other, offering no reason to favor either the plaintiff or defendant?

The court determined that Vermont follows the approach of symmetrical indifference. Vermont still allowed the defense of assumption of the risk for injuries caused by engaging in a sport. The court then found that Vermont prefers to err on the side of finding no causation. Meaning any cause of the injury must be proven not just alleged. If there was a gray area after analysis by the court, meaning if there was no clear decision, then Vermont law held there was not caused, thus no negligence.

By statute, although assumption of risk has generally been subsumed in comparative negligence, 12 V.S.A. § 1036, it has been expressly retained as to sporting events, 12 V.S.A. § 1037. This would suggest that Vermont prefers to err on the side of finding no causation with respect to sport injuries like the one that here occurred.

The Vermont law concerning ski areas was proof of that issue. (See Vermont Skier Safety Act.)  Vermont law was interpreted by Vermont courts to offer a symmetrical approach how Vermont wants a court to consider the facts.

The court then applying the factors controlling how Vermont law was to be applied and found it could not find a link between the defendant ski area Jay Peak and the plaintiff’s injuries. There was no causation or link between the two that could be upheld legally.

Consequently, we are left to infer causation, then, from only the placement of the ski jumps and the nature of Gemmink’s injuries. We cannot infer a causal link between Jay Peak’s assumed negligence in its maintenance of ski jumps and the injury incurred on the facts presented, and the plaintiff does not provide sufficient evidence to support a link between his injuries and alleged theory of causation. Under these circumstances, the district court was clearly correct in its holding that the evidence adduced by Gemmink was not sufficient to raise a question for the jury.

For negligence to exist, there must be a duty, a breach of that duty and injury and proximate causation. Here the court did not look at whether or not there was a duty, but just focused on whether there is a legal relationship, causation, between the injuries and anything the defendant had done.

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the trial court decision and affirmed the dismissal of the plaintiff’s case.

So Now What?

As you can tell the court jumped through narrow hoops to provide a way to say to the plaintiff you did not prove your case and based on what you have provided cannot prove your case. I seriously doubt the court has ever created such a difficult to write and understand, yet reasoned decision before.

When confronted with a pro se plaintiff, I constantly begged them to find an attorney. I wanted someone other than the opposing attorney to explain what was going on and why. I copied and sent the law, sent notices of deadlines and requirements all in an attempt to allow the court to rule in my favor. Not because of what I did, but because the opposing side had no case and the court did not need to extend the case any longer than necessary before ruling to make sure the opposing party received a fair and just hearing.

This decision also would have been much different in most other states that allow skiing. Vermont, the largest ski state in the East has always held that ski resorts are liable for the injuries of its patrons. (See The very first lawsuit against a ski area reviewing Wright et al. v. Mt. Mansfield Lift, Inc., et al. 96 F. Supp. 786; 1951 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 2524) Because of Vermont’s unique view of the responsibility of a ski area, to dismiss a case against a ski resort creates a difficult decision when explaining a case clearly without any evidence of fault against the defendant ski area.

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Email: Rec-law@recreation-law.com

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Mobile Site: http://m.recreation-law.com

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

 

 

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