Cannon v. Rock Climb Fairfield, LLC, 2020 Conn. Super. LEXIS 261Posted: August 19, 2020 Filed under: Climbing Wall, Connecticut, Release (pre-injury contract not to sue) | Tags: adhesion, apportionment, bargaining, Birthday Party, Climb, Climbing Gym, Climbing Wall, common law, Common-Law Indemnification, contractual, discovery, genuine, Horseback, Indemnification, Indemnification Clause, indemnify, Indemnity, negotiation, patron's, quotation, recreational, riding, rock, safe, signor, Snow Tubing, Third Party, training, visitor Leave a comment
Cannon v. Rock Climb Fairfield, LLC, 2020 Conn. Super. LEXIS 261
Superior Court of Connecticut, Judicial District of Fairfield At Bridgeport
February 13, 2020, Decided; February 13, 2020, Filed
2020 Conn. Super. LEXIS 261 *
Cindy Cannon PPA Emma Cannon v. Rock Climb Fairfield, LLC et al.
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.
Prior History: Cannon v. Rock Climb Fairfield Llc, 2019 Conn. Super. LEXIS 1819 (Conn. Super. Ct., Feb. 11, 2019)
Judges: [*1] Richard E. Arnold, Judge Trial Referee.
MEMORANDUM OF DECISION RE MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT #142
The third-party defendant Kate Licata has moved for summary judgment on Counts One and Two of the Cross Complaint filed by the defendants third-party plaintiffs, Rock Climb Fairfield, LLC, Carabiners Fairfield, LLC and Matthew Conroy.1 Count One of the cross complaint alleges contractual indemnification and Count Two alleges common-law indemnification. The cross complaint is dated February 22, 2019. The third-party defendant Licata’s motion for summary judgment is dated September 9, 2019. The defendant third-party plaintiff’s objection is dated October 14, 2019.2 Licata’s reply to the objection is dated October 17, 2019. The court heard oral argument on October 21, 2019.
The case arises from an incident where the minor plaintiff, Emma Cannon, fell from a climbing wall at the Rock Climb defendant’s indoor rock climbing facility located in Fairfield, Connecticut. The minor plaintiff claims she sustained personal injuries. On behalf of her minor child, Cindy Cannon instituted the present action alleging the facility, its agents and employees were negligent in supervising the rock [*2] climbing activities, thereby causing the minor plaintiff’s injuries.3 The defendants have filed an answer and eight special defenses to the amended complaint.
Thereafter, the Rock Climb defendants filed an apportionment complaint against the defendant Kate Licata, who brought the minor plaintiff, Emma Cannon, and several other girls to the facility for a group birthday party event. The apportionment complaint is dated February 6, 2019.4 The apportionment complaint alleges that Licata was negligent in numerous ways and seeks an apportionment of liability and damages as to Licata for the percentage of negligence attributable to her. The apportionment complaint is not the subject of the motion for summary judgment that is presently before the court. The Rock Climb defendants also filed a cross claim against Licata alleging contractual and common-law indemnity. The cross claim, which is the subject of Licata’s motion for summary judgment, is dated February 22, 2019.
The cross claim alleges that the Rock Climb defendants, who are the third-party plaintiffs, require all invitees to its facility to complete a “Release of Liability and Assumption of Risk” form before participating in rock climbing [*3] activities. If the participant is a minor, the form must be signed by the minor’s parent or court-appointed guardian, which Licata was not. The release form contains language to the effect that the parent or guardian of the minor has explained the inherent risks of the activity to the minor and the minor understands the said risks and that the minor, nonetheless, wishes to participate in the activities. The release form further provides that “the parent of the minor visitor . . . forever discharge, and agree to indemnify . . . Carabiners Fairfield, LLC, its agents, owners, officers, volunteers, employees, and all other persons or entities acting in any capacity on its behalf . . . from any and all claims, suits, demands, causes of action, which are in any way connected with my or the minor visitor’s visit to the RCF activity site . . . My agreement of indemnity is intended to include claims arising out of losses suffered by me (an adult climber or parent) or the child and losses caused by me or the child. The agreements of indemnity and release include claims of negligence . . . of a Released Party.” The Rock Climb defendants allege that Licata completed an online version of the Release [*4] form and electronically signed it on behalf of the minor plaintiff Emma Cannon on October 3, 2016. Thus, Licata is contractually obligated to defend and indemnify the Rock Climb defendants for the injuries and damages resulting from Emma Cannon’s fall at the Rock Climb defendants’ facility pursuant to General Statutes §52-102a.5
The Rock Climb defendants also allege Licata is liable for common-law indemnification, claiming that any injuries sustained by the minor plaintiff were proximately caused, in whole or part, by Licata’s negligence and carelessness in multiple ways. Among these allegations are failing to supervise and monitor the minor; failing to instruct the minor; and failing to warn the minor of the dangerous nature and risks of the activity. Lastly, the Rock Climb defendants argue that a substantial amount of discovery remains outstanding and various issues of fact are yet to be settled, and therefore, it argues that Licata’s summary judgment motion should be denied.
The plaintiff cross claim defendant, Licata, argues that the defendants cross claim plaintiffs’ claims are void as against public policy as a result of the decision in Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corp., 276 Conn. 314, 885 A.2d 734 (2005), [*7] regarding any waiver signed by Licata, and any waiver signed by Licata was a contract of adhesion. Licata argues that she was not given any opportunity to negotiate the terms of the Release document, which was presented to her on a “take or leave it” basis. It was the Rock Climb defendants who were responsible for training Licata and/or the minor plaintiff to ensure safe rock climbing, as Licata claims she did not possess the knowledge, experience or authority to ensure the rock climbing facility was in a safe condition. Additionally, Licata argues she was not in control of the situation on the date in question, and the cross claim does not even allege she was in control of the situation. Therefore, any claim for common-law indemnification also fails as a matter of law.
The legal standard governing summary judgment motions is well settled. Summary judgment “shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, affidavits and any other proof submitted show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Practice Book §17-49. “A material fact is a fact that will make a difference in the result of the case . . . The facts [*8] at issue are those alleged in the pleadings.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Morrissey-Manter v. Saint Francis Hospital & Medical Center, 166 Conn.App. 510, 517, 142 A.3d 363, cert. denied, 323 Conn. 924, 149 A.3d 982 (2016). Moreover, “[a] genuine issue has been variously described as a triable, substantial or real issue of fact . . . and has been defined as one which can be maintained by substantial evidence . . . Hence, the genuine issue aspect of summary judgment procedure requires the parties to bring forward before trial evidentiary facts, or substantial evidence outside the pleadings, from which the material facts alleged in the pleadings can warrantably be inferred.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Rickel v. Komaromi, 144 Conn.App. 775, 790-91, 73 A.3d 851 (2013).
“The party moving for summary judgment has the burden of showing the absence of any genuine issue of material fact and that the party is, therefore, entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) St. Pierre v. Plainfield, 326 Conn. 420, 426, 165 A.3d 148 (2017). “Because litigants ordinarily have a constitutional right to have issues of fact decided by the finder of fact, the party moving for summary judgment is held to a strict standard. [H]e must make a showing that it is quite clear what the truth is, and that excludes any real doubt as to the existence of any genuine issue of material fact.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) [*9] Barasso v. Rear Still Hill Road, LLC, 81 Conn.App. 798, 802-03, 842 A.2d 1134 (2004). Consequently, on a motion by defendant for summary judgment the burden is on the defendant to negate each claim as framed by the complaint. Squeo v. Norwalk Hospital Ass’n, 316 Conn. 558, 594, 113 A.3d 932 (2015). “It necessarily follows that it is only [o]nce [the] defendant’s burden in establishing his entitlement to summary judgment is met [that] the burden shifts to [the] plaintiff to show that a genuine issue of fact exists justifying a trial.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Rockwell v. Quintner, 96 Conn.App. 221, 229, 899 A.2d 738, cert. denied, 280 Conn. 917, 908 A.2d 538 (2006).
“A material fact is a fact that will make a difference in the result of the case . . . The facts at issue are those alleged in the pleadings.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Morrissey-Manter v. Saint Francis Hospital & Medical Center, 166 Conn.App. 510, 517, 142 A.3d 363, cert. denied, 323 Conn. 924, 149 A.3d 982 (2016). Moreover, “[a] genuine issue has been variously described as a triable, substantial or real issue of fact . . . and has been defined as one which can be maintained by substantial evidence . . . Hence, the genuine issue aspect of summary judgment procedure requires the parties to bring forward before trial evidentiary facts, or substantial evidence outside the pleadings, from which the material facts alleged in the pleadings can warrantably be inferred.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Rickel v. Komaromi, 144 Conn.App. 775, 790-91, 73 A.3d 851 (2013). “Because litigants ordinarily have a constitutional right to have issues [*10] of fact decided by the finder of fact, the party moving for summary judgment is held to a strict standard. [H]e must make a showing that it is quite clear what the truth is, and that excludes any real doubt as to the existence of any genuine issue of material fact.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Barasso v. Rear Still Hill Road, LLC, 81 Conn.App. 798, 802-03, 842 A.2d 1134 (2004).
Additional Discovery Argument
In their objection to summary judgment, the RCF defendants argue several times that summary judgment would be inappropriate because discovery is not complete. The court has before it the scheduling orders submitted by the parties, as signed by legal counsel for the RCF parties and the plaintiff. These scheduling orders filed on February 22, 2019,were approved by the court (Kamp, J.) on March 7, 2019.6 The approved scheduling order listed September 30, 2019, as the date by which all discovery was to be completed. There have been no requests to modify the scheduling order or to extend the dates for the completion of discovery.7 The court has before it the “Rock Climb Fairfield Release of Liability and Assumption of Risk” document and further additional information submitted by the parties to allow the court to move forward, including the transcript of the deposition [*11] testimony of Nora Maklad and employee of RCF. There is no indication that the defendants have sought more information through the discovery process or that Licata has objected to, obstructed or delayed the discovery process. The court has a one hundred and twenty-day time limitation to issue its decision and the court will do so within that time limit with the information that is available, as a trial date assignment is pending.
Count One of the Rock Climb defendants’ third-party complaint against Licata alleges contractual indemnification. “Indemnity involves a claim for reimbursement in full from one who is claimed to be primarily liable.” Atkinson v. Berloni, 23 Conn.App. 325, 326, 580 A.2d 84 (1990). “A party may bring an indemnification claim based on the terms of an indemnity agreement . . . [A]llegations of contractual indemnification must be supported by the terms of the contract or the contract itself . . . Under Connecticut law, to state a contract-based indemnification claim, the claimant must allege either an express or implied contractual right to indemnification . . . There is no requirement that a party seeking indemnification must assert allegations of exclusive control (or any of the other elements [*12] of a claim for indemnification based on active-passive negligence) in order to state a legally sufficient claim for contractual indemnification.” (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Kinney v. Gilbane Building Co., Superior Court, judicial district of New Haven at Meriden, Docket No. CV 01 0276049 (September 21, 2004, Wiese, J.).
“As a general rule, contractual indemnification claims that are based on written agreements are construed in accordance with the principles of contract law.”
Lawrence v. Sodexho, Inc., Superior Court, judicial district of Fairfield, Docket No. CV 06 5001264 (January 25, 2007, Owens, J.T.R.); 42 Conn. L. Rptr. 843, 2007 Conn. Super. LEXIS 245; see also PSE Consulting, Inc. v. Frank Mercede & Sons, Inc., 267 Conn. 279, 290, 838 A.2d 135 (2004). “The essential elements for a cause of action based on breach of contract are (1) the formation of an agreement, (2) performance by one party, (3) breach of the agreement by the opposing party, and (4) damages . . . [and] causation.” Greco Properties, LLC v. Popp, Superior Court, judicial district of Hartford, Docket No. CVH 7628, 2008 Conn. Super. LEXIS 414 (February 15, 2008, Bentivegna, J.), citing McCann Real Equities Series XXII, LLC v. David McDermott Chevrolet, Inc., 93 Conn.App. 486, 503-04, 890 A.2d 140, cert. denied, 277 Conn. 928, 895 A.2d 798 (2006).
“[I]n order to form a contract, generally there must be a bargain in which there is a manifestation of mutual assent to the exchange between two or more parties . . . and the identities of [*13] the contracting parties must be reasonably certain.” (Citations omitted.) Ubysz v. DiPietro, 185 Conn. 47, 51, 440 A.2d 830 (1981); BRJM, LLC v. Output Systems, Inc., 100 Conn.App. 143, 152, 917 A.2d 605, cert. denied, 282 Conn. 917, 925 A.2d 1099 (2007). “[A] party is entitled to indemnification, in the absence of a contract to indemnify, only upon proving that the party against whom indemnification is sought either dishonored a contractual provision or engaged in some tortious conduct.” Burkert v. Petrol Plus of Naugatuck, Inc., 216 Conn. 65, 74, 579 A.2d 26 (1990). “[Allegations of contractual indemnification must be supported by the terms of the contract or the contract itself . . . Under Connecticut law, to state a contract-based indemnification claim, the claimant must allege either an express or implied contractual right to indemnification . . .”(Citation omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Fisher v. Countrywide Home Loans, Inc., Superior Court, judicial district of Litchfield, Docket No. CV-09-4008690-S, 2011 Conn. Super. LEXIS 32 (January 7, 2011, Roche, J.).
As noted, herein, the contract relied upon by the Rock Climb defendants is the “Rock Climb Fairfield Release of Liability and Assumption of Risk” document that has been submitted for the court’s review. It was admittedly signed by Kate Licata on October 3, 2016, the date of the alleged incident, wherein the minor child was injured. The document bears the name of the minor child [*14] and her date of birth. It lists the e-mail address of Licata and Licata’s electronic signature.
Paragraph 1 of the document titled “activities and risks” lists indoor wall climbing and bouldering as activities. Risks include, among other things: falling from climbing surfaces; persons climbing out of control or beyond personal limits; over-exertion; inadequate physical conditioning; and the negligence of other persons, including other visitors. The document states that the risks described in the document “are inherent in RCF activities . . . and cannot be eliminated without jeopardizing the essential qualities of the activity.”
Paragraph 2, titled “Assumption of Risks” states:
I accept and assume all the risks of a visit to RCF activity sites, inherent or not and whether or not described above, If the visitor is a minor of whom I am parent or legal guardian, I have explained the risks to the minor visitor, who understands them and wishes to visit and participate in RCF activities in spite of the risks.
Paragraph 3 is titled “Release and Indemnity. That paragraph notes that the signor of the agreement is an adult visitor or parent of a minor visitor and that the signor releases and discharges [*15] and agrees to indemnify the RCF defendants from all claims, suits, demands or causes of action, which are connected to the minor’s visit to and participation in, RCF activities. The agreement is intended to include claims arising out of losses suffered by the child and losses caused by the signor or the child. By signing the agreement, the signor agrees to indemnify and release claims of negligence of the RCF defendants.
Lastly, paragraph 5 of the Release notes that the signor acknowledges that if the minor visitor for whom the signor has signed their signature, is hurt and files a lawsuit, the signor will protect the released and indemnified RCF defendants from any claims of the minor visitor.
The Release bears a signature line and date line for the “parent or legal court appointed guardian. As stated, it is signed by Kate Licata and dated October 3, 2016. The document is not signed by the RCF defendants or any agent, servant or employee of the RCF defendants.
Licata, in moving for summary judgment, argues the “Release of Liability and Assumption of Risk” document is void as against public policy and unenforceable against her. Her argument relies upon the decisions in Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corporation, 276 Conn. 314, 885 A.2d 734 (2005) and Reardon v. Windswept Farm, LLC, 280 Conn. 153, 905 A.2d 1156 (2006).
In Hanks [*16] , the plaintiff, a patron, brought his three children and another child to Powder Ridge to snow-tube. Neither the plaintiff or the children had ever snow-tubed at Powder Ridge, but the snow-tubing run was open to the public generally, regardless of prior snow-tubing experience, with the restriction that only persons at least six years old or forty-four inches tall were eligible to participate. In order to snow-tube at Powder Ridge, patrons were required to sign a “Waiver, Defense, Indemnity and Hold Harmless Agreement, and Release of Liability.” The plaintiff read and signed the agreement on behalf of himself and the four children. While snow-tubing, the plaintiff’s right foot became caught between his snow-tube and the man-made bank of the snow-tubing run, resulting in serious injuries that required multiple surgeries to repair. Id., 316-17. The plaintiff alleged that the defendants negligently caused his injuries in several ways. Id. The defendants denied the plaintiff’s allegations of negligence and asserted two special defenses. “Specifically, the defendants alleged that the plaintiff’s injuries were caused by his own negligence and that the agreement relieved the defendants of liability, “even if the accident was due to the negligence of the defendants.” Id., 318-19.
In Hanks, our Supreme Court determined that even though the exculpatory agreement purporting to release the defendants from prospective liability for personal injuries sustained as a result of the operator’s negligent conduct was well drafted, it nonetheless violated public policy. In finding the agreement violated public policy, the Supreme Court reversed [*17] the trial court’s granting of summary judgment for the defendants. Id., 321-26.
In Hanks, snowtubing was the recreational activity at issue. Our Supreme Court placed particular emphasis on: (1) the societal expectation that family oriented activities will be reasonably safe; (2) the illogic of relieving the party with greater expertise and information concerning the dangers associated with the activity from the burden of proper maintenance of the snowtubing run; and (3) the fact that the release at issue was a standardized adhesion contract, lacking equal bargaining power between the parties, and offered to the plaintiff on a “take it or leave it” basis. Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corp., supra, 276 Conn. at 331-34. The court recognized the clear public policy in favor of participation in athletics and recreational activities. Id., at 335.
In Reardon v. Windswept Farm, LLC, supra, 280 Conn. 153, the plaintiff was an experienced horseback rider, who was injured while riding one of the defendant’s horses. The plaintiff subsequently challenged the validity of a release document similar to the one in Hanks, and in this case, wherein the defendant sought to insulate itself from liability. Reardon found that the decision in Hanks was controlling in determining the validity of the release and indemnity agreement.
We conclude [*18] that, based on our decision in Hanks, the totality of the circumstances surrounding the recreational activity of horseback riding and instruction that was offered by the defendants demonstrates that the enforcement of an exculpatory agreement in their favor from liability for ordinary negligence violates public policy and is not in the public interest. First, similar to the situation at issue in Hanks, the defendants in the present case provided the facilities, the instructors, and the equipment for their patrons to engage in a popular recreational activity, and the recreational facilities were open to the general public regardless of an individual’s ability level. Indeed, the defendants acknowledged that, although the release required riders to indicate their experience level, it also anticipated a range in skills from between “[n]ever ridden” to “[e]xperienced [r]ider,” and that the facility routinely had patrons of varying ability levels. Accordingly, there is a reasonable societal expectation that a recreational activity that is under the control of the provider and is open to all individuals, regardless of experience or ability level, will be reasonably safe.
Additionally, in [*19] the present case, as in Hanks, the plaintiff “lacked the knowledge, experience and authority to discern whether, much less ensure that, the defendants’ [facilities or equipment] were maintained in a reasonably safe condition. Specifically, although the plaintiff characterized herself as an experienced rider, she was in no greater position then the average rider to assess all the safety issues connected with the defendants’ enterprise. To the contrary, it was the defendants, not the plaintiff or the other customers, who had the “expertise and opportunity to foresee and control hazards, and to guard against the negligence of their agents and employees. They alone [could] properly maintain and inspect their premises, and train their employees in risk management.” In particular, the defendants acknowledged that they were responsible for providing their patrons with safe horses, qualified instructors, as well as properly maintained working equipment and riding surfaces. In the context of carrying out these duties, the defendants were aware, and were in a position continually to gather more information, regarding any hidden dangers associated with the recreational activity including the [*20] temperaments of the individual horses, the strengths of the various riding instructors, and the condition of the facility’s equipment and grounds. As we concluded in Hanks, it is illogical to relieve the defendants, as the party with greater expertise and information concerning the dangers associated with engaging in horseback riding at their facility, from potential claims of negligence surrounding an alleged failure to administer properly the activity.
(Internal citations and quotation marks omitted.) Id., 161-62.
Lastly, the Reardon court noted that the release that the plaintiff signed broadly indemnifying the defendants from liability for damages resulting from the defendants’ own negligence was a classic contract of adhesion of the type that this court found to be in violation of public policy in Hanks.
Specifically, we have noted that the most salient feature of adhesion contracts is that they are not subject to the normal bargaining processes of ordinary contracts, and that they tend to involve a standard form contract prepared by one party, to be signed by the party in a weaker position, usually a consumer, who has little choice about the terms. In the present case, signing the release [*21] provided by the defendants was required as a condition of the plaintiff’s participation in the horseback riding lesson, there was no opportunity for negotiation by the plaintiff, and if she was unsatisfied with the terms of the release, her only option was to not participate in the activity. As in Hanks, therefore, the plaintiff had nearly zero bargaining power with respect to the negotiation of the release and in order to participate in the activity, she was required to assume the risk of the defendants’ negligence. This condition of participation violates the stated public policy of our tort system because the plaintiff was required to bear an additional risk despite her status as a patron who was not in a position to foresee or control the alleged negligent conduct that she was confronted with, or manage and spread the risk more effectively then the defendants.
(Internal citations and quotation marks omitted.) Id., 162-63.
It is also noted that the court in Reardon did not limit its decision to the sport of horseback riding or the activity of snowtubing which was the activity in Hanks. “The list of recreational activities that we identified in Hanks was meant to be illustrative, not exhaustive. [*22] Indeed, it would be impossible for us to identify all of the recreational activities controlled by the Hanks decision.” Id., 165-66. The court finds that the factors considered in Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corporation, supra, 276 Conn. 314 and Reardon v. Windswept Farm, LLC, supra, 280 Conn. 153 apply to the activities of bouldering and rock climbing which are present in the case before this court.8
In the present case, the defendant’s facility was open to the general public regardless of a patron’s experience level. The minor plaintiff was a ten-year-old female. The defendants have admitted that they provided instruction to the group of minors attending the birthday celebration at the defendants’ facility. Neither the minor plaintiff or Licata provided any of the equipment to be used. Licata, herself, did not provide training, guidance or supervision to the minors, including the minor plaintiff. Licata possessed no special knowledge regarding rock climbing or bouldering activities including training and safety procedures other than an initial orientation by RCF employees.9 Maklad testified at her deposition that the orientation lasted only five to ten minutes. The RCF defendants/third-party plaintiffs admit that there was zero expectation that Licata would “train and guide climbers” [*23] or to inspect various facility equipment. RCF argues that they did expect that parents and guardians would supervise children. Thus, there is a question of fact as to whether or not Licata was adequately supervising the minor plaintiff Cannon when she fell. The court disagrees.
In this case, signing the release provided by RCF was required as a condition of the plaintiff’s participation in the bouldering and rock climbing activities at the RCF facility. There was no opportunity for negotiation by the plaintiff, and if she was unsatisfied with the terms of the release, her only option was to not to allow the minor guests who accompanied her to the birthday party to participate. Licata had no bargaining power with respect to the negotiation of the release and in order to participate in the activity, she was required to assume the risk of the defendants’ negligence. “This condition of participation violates the stated public policy of our tort system because the plaintiff was required to bear an additional risk despite her status as a patron who was not in a position to foresee or control the alleged negligent conduct that she was confronted with, or manage and spread the [*24] risk more effectively then the defendants.” Reardon v. Windswept Farm, LLC, supra, 280 Conn. 162-63. The RCF release at issue was a standardized adhesion contract, lacking equal bargaining power between the parties, and offered to the plaintiff on a “take it or leave it” basis. Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corp., supra, 276 Conn. at 331-34.10
The RCF parties additionally argue that it is improper to allow Licata to avail herself of arguments based on public policy when she in turn violated public policy by signing the Release and Indemnification Agreement when she was not the parent or legal guardian of the minor plaintiff, Cannon. They argue Licata violated societal expectations and norms in signing the document and now disclaiming responsibility. They declare that Licata is the wrongdoer and should not be allowed to walk away from this issue.
Licata in her reply to the RCF objection to summary judgment argues that the RCF defendants have cited no authority for their position that Licata’s signing of the release document on behalf of the minor, Emma Cannon constituted a violation of public policy; nor have they explained why such a violation would restrict Licata from challenging the validity of the waiver. Licata also questions why the RCF defendants would make this argument, given that the sole basis [*25] for the contractual indemnification claim against Licata is her signing of the release document is which they now assert violated public policy. The court agrees. If the signing of the release was invalid, then it would stand to reason that the release itself is invalid. The RCF defendants, by their own reasoning would be attempting to enforce an agreement, which they themselves claim is invalid.
For the reasons set forth herein, the court grants Licata’s motion for summary judgment on Count One of the Rock Climb defendants’ third-party complaint against Licata alleging contractual indemnification.
IV Common-Law Indemnification
In Count Two of the cross claim, the RCF defendants allege common-law indemnification. Therefore, the court reviews our law concerning common-law indemnification, as set forth in Valente v. Securitas Sec. Services, USA, Inc., 152 Conn.App. 196, 203-04, 96 A.3d 1275 (2014). Citing, Kaplan v. Merberg Wrecking Corp., 152 Conn. 405, 412, 207 A.2d 732 (1965), the Appellate Court in Valente, supra, noted that “[g]enerally, there is no right to indemnification between joint tortfeasors.” Kaplan v. Merberg Wrecking Corp., supra, recognized an exception to this general rule. “Kaplan teaches that indemnification is available from a third party on whom a primary exposure of liability is claimed to rest. To hold a third party liable to indemnify one tortfeasor for damages awarded against [*26] it to the plaintiff for negligently causing harm to the plaintiff, a defendant seeking indemnification must establish that: (1) the third party against whom indemnification is sought was negligent; (2) the third party’s active negligence, rather than the defendant’s own passive negligence, was the direct, immediate cause of the accident and the resulting harm; (3) the third party was in control of the situation to the exclusion of the defendant seeking reimbursement; and (4) the defendant did not know of the third party’s negligence, had no reason to anticipate it, and reasonably could rely on the third party not to be negligent.” (Citation omitted.) Valente v. Securitas Sec. Services, USA, Inc., supra, 152 Conn.App. 203-04. “Our Supreme Court has defined exclusive control of the situation, for the purpose of a common-law indemnification claim, as exclusive control over the dangerous condition that gives rise to the accident.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Id., citing, Pellecchia v. Connecticut Light & Power Co., 139 Conn.App. 767, 775, 57 A.3d 803 (2012) (dangerous condition held to be electric power line which electrocuted plaintiff), cert. denied, 308 Conn. 911, 61 A.3d 532 (2013).
The court has reviewed the objection to the motion for summary judgment filed by the RCF defendants and notes, as pointed out by Licata in her reply brief, that the RCF defendants have [*27] not addressed Licata’s claim in her motion for summary judgment that she did not control the situation that prevailed at the RCF’s facility on the date of the minor’s injury; nor is it alleged in the cross claim that Licata controlled the situation. An essential element of common-law indemnification is that the third party, Licata, was in control of the situation to the exclusion of the third-party plaintiffs. Valente v. Securitas Sec. Services, USA, Inc., supra, 152 Conn.App. 203-04; Pellecchia v. Connecticut Light & Power Co., supra, 139 Conn.App. 775. The third-party plaintiffs, the RCF defendants, have produced little to no credible evidence; nor have they alleged or argued that Licata was in control of the situation to the exclusion. “Where a claim is asserted in the statement of issues but thereafter receives only cursory attention in the brief without substantive discussion or citation of authorities, it is deemed to be abandoned.” (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Merchant v. State Ethics Commission, 53 Conn.App. 808, 818, 733 A.2d 287 (1999). These same principles apply to claims raised in the trial court. Connecticut Light and Power Co. v. Department of Public Utility Control, 266 Conn. 108, 120, 830 A.2d 1121 (2003).
For the foregoing reasons discussed, herein, Licata’s motion for summary judgment is granted as to Count Two alleging common-law indemnification.
Licata’s Motion for Summary Judgment is granted as to Count One, which alleges contractual indemnification and Count [*28] Two, which alleges common-law indemnification.
Collecting accident reports without doing something with the reports guarantees you will lose a lawsuit and in this case possibly for gross negligence.Posted: May 4, 2020 Filed under: Climbing Wall, Utah | Tags: Accident Reports, Bouldering, Bouldering Wall, Climbers, Climbing Gym, Climbing Wall, concealed, damaged, district court, Failue to Act, floor, Gross negligence, Hazard, Incident Reports, indifference, injuries, material fact, Mats, Padding, patches, quotation, reliability, simplified, slight care, Steps, Summary judgment, tear, vinyl Leave a comment
Climbing gym had a collection of accident reports that were based on the same set of facts. Failure to act on the reports and solve the problem was enough proof for the Utah appellate court to hold the actions of the defendant gym were possibly grossly negligent.
Howe v. Momentum LLC, 2020 UT App 5, 2020 Utah App. LEXIS 1, 2020 WL 34996
State: Utah; Court of Appeals of Utah
Plaintiff: Scott Howe
Defendant: Momentum LLC
Plaintiff Claims: Momentum was grossly negligent. He alleged that Momentum, “with a knowing and reckless indifference and disregard for the safety of [Howe] and other members of [Momentum], concealed, or caused to be concealed, the defects in their floor padding by placing mats over the defective area
Defendant Defenses: the actions of the defendant did not rise to the level of gross negligence.
Holding: For the Plaintiff
Incident and Accident reports that have not been acted on and the issues that caused the accidents which had not been fixed, were proof that the defendant climbing gym possibly acted in a grossly negligent way.
Momentum is an indoor-climbing facility with a separate area for bouldering. The bouldering area’s concrete floor is covered by approximately twelve inches of foam padding overlain by thick vinyl, known as an “impact attenuation surface.” In the years after Momentum’s 2007 opening, some of the vinyl began to tear and separate. In late September 2011, Momentum had “[a]t least one” tear repaired with a welded vinyl patch.
But Momentum’s management team deemed these tear patches a hazard for tripping, so it placed modular one-inch-thick mats over certain areas of the bouldering area floor that were showing signs of wear or damage. The mats are not designed to be anchored to the underlying pad and they would sometimes move when people landed on them. Because the mats tended to move, Momentum staff “monitored the floor regularly to try to keep the [mats] in place.” In addition to this action, a Momentum employee altered the routes above those areas by reconfiguring and reducing the number of foot-and hand-holds to reduce customer use of the areas with worn and damaged padding.
Over the years—and prior to Howe’s injury—Momentum’s patrons had reported incidents, some of which involved injuries, which alerted Momentum to the fact that the padding in the bouldering area was worn and damaged in some places. Before Howe was injured, five incidents were reported before Momentum began using the mats and another eight were reported thereafter. Each of these injuries involved a climber dropping from the bouldering wall or “slab area” to the floor below and, upon landing, pushing a foot through the floor padding, making contact with the concrete floor below, either rolling or twisting an ankle in the process.
In March 2012, Howe was bouldering at Momentum. After finishing his bouldering route, Howe dropped off the wall to the floor below. As he made contact with the floor, his “left foot impacted the mat on top of the padded floor, causing the mat to move. As the mat moved, it exposed the padded floor beneath. Concealed under the mat, the cover of the pad was split in a straight line, exposing the abutting edges of pads below.” When Howe’s “right foot impacted the top of the two abutting pads, [his] foot passed between the two abutting pads to the floor beneath.” As a result of the contact with the concrete, Howe broke his right ankle.
Howe sued, asserting—among other things—that Momentum was grossly negligent. He alleged that Momentum, “with a knowing and reckless indifference and disregard for the safety of [Howe] and other members of [Momentum], concealed, or caused to be concealed, the defects in their floor padding by placing mats over the defective area.”
The defendant Momentum filed a motion for summary judgement to dismiss the gross negligence claims of the plaintiff. The trial court judge ruled the plaintiff had shown enough action and inaction on the part of the gym that the plaintiff could proceed to trial on a claim of gross negligence. The defendant appealed this ruling.
The decision also looks at the qualifications of the plaintiff’s expert witness. However, there is nothing in the decision that warrants review here.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
The court’s analysis of the law was quite good and balanced. It’s application of the law to the facts was clear cut. The court defined gross negligence under Utah’s law as “…the failure to observe even slight care….”
A broader definition was defined as:
“…the essential evidence needed to survive a defendant’s motion for summary judgment on a gross negligence claim” is “evidence that the defendant’s conduct dramatically magnified the risk of harm to the plaintiff….
The court concluded its review of gross negligence with this statement about the actions of the defendant. “…Momentum’s failure to take further action in the face of eight additional incidents creates questions of fact about whether it was grossly negligent….”
The court then followed with this statement.
It is beyond question that a plaintiff who can demonstrate that a defendant has taken no action in response to injury incidents will have likely made out at least a prima facie case of gross negligence,….
At this point, in the opinion it is clear the court looked at Momentum’s failure to act after collecting more than 13 incident reports as gross negligence.
It is also clear that the court believes that failure to act on the defendant’s own incident reports is a major failure of the defendant. Why have accident and incident reports if you do nothing about them.
These acts arguably show that Momentum exercised slight care in the beginning and was therefore not completely indifferent to the consequences of allowing climbers to use the bouldering area given the condition of the padding.
The court gave the climbing gym some benefit because after the first five accidents, they placed additional padding over the torn spots. However, having eight additional incidents, with the torn padding was more than the court would allow.
The court then summed up the accident reports that the defendant compiled.
…onto the floor below, the mat moved, their feet were caught in the crack in the foam padding, and their ankles were injured. Under these circumstances, the question of whether Momentum’s continued use of the mats constituted gross negligence presents a disputed issue of material fact.
The court found that collecting injury reports, which almost identical fact situations and not doing anything about it were proof of gross negligence. The appellate court held the trial court was correct in denying the defendant climbing gym’s motion for summary judgment to dismiss the gross negligence claims.
So Now What?
Incident reports are legal explosives just waiting to go off when a plaintiff’s attorney gets them. If you collect them, then you MUST do something with them.
Each report MUST be analyzed. It must be compared with all other reports to see trends or to determine what the cause or problem is. Then something must be done to correct the problem.
If you decided the report is a rate instance or something outside of your ability to control it, then you must indicate that in your notes or on your response to the report. If a second accident occurs with the same fact situation, then it is not longer a rare case, it is something you must act on.
If not, like in this case, the reports prove foreseeability and in this case, prove that failing to act when the defendant knew a problem existed, was enough to support a claim of gross negligence.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
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Howe v. Momentum LLC, 2020 UT App 5, 2020 Utah App. LEXIS 1, 2020 WL 34996Posted: April 23, 2020 Filed under: Climbing Wall, Utah | Tags: Accident Reports, Bouldering, Bouldering Wall, Climbers, Climbing Gym, Climbing Wall, concealed, damaged, district court, Failue to Act, floor, Gross negligence, Hazard, Incident Reports, indifference, injuries, landing, material fact, Mats, Padding, patches, quotation, reliability, simplified, slight care, Steps, Summary judgment, tear, vinyl Leave a comment
Howe v. Momentum LLC, 2020 UT App 5, 2020 Utah App. LEXIS 1, 2020 WL 34996
Court of Appeals of Utah
January 3, 2020, Filed
[*P1] Scott Howe sued Momentum LLC under a theory of gross negligence1 for injuries he sustained while “bouldering.”2 Momentum moved for summary judgment, which the district court denied because the disputed facts were sufficient to raise a jury question. The district court also ruled that Howe’s expert (Expert) was qualified to testify on the industry standard of care. The matter is before this court on an interlocutory appeal challenging the court’s denial of the summary judgment motion and its decision to permit Expert to testify. We affirm and remand for further proceedings.
[*P2] Momentum is an indoor-climbing facility with a separate area for bouldering. The bouldering area’s concrete floor is covered by approximately twelve inches of foam padding overlain by thick vinyl, known as an “impact attenuation surface.” In the years after Momentum’s 2007 opening, some of the vinyl [**2] began to tear and separate. In late September 2011, Momentum had “[a]t least one” tear repaired with a welded vinyl patch.
[*P3] But Momentum’s management team deemed these tear patches a hazard for tripping,4 so it placed modular one-inch-thick mats over certain areas of the bouldering area floor that were showing signs of wear or damage. The mats are not designed to be anchored to the underlying pad and they would sometimes move when people landed on them. Because the mats tended to move, Momentum staff “monitored the floor regularly to try to keep the [mats] in place.” In addition to this action, a Momentum employee altered the routes above those areas by reconfiguring and reducing the number of foot-and hand-holds to reduce customer use of the areas with worn and damaged padding.
[*P4] Over the years—and prior to Howe’s injury—Momentum’s patrons had reported incidents, some of which involved injuries, which alerted Momentum to the fact that the padding in the bouldering area was worn and damaged in some places. Before Howe was injured, five incidents were reported before Momentum began using the mats and another eight were reported thereafter. Each of these injuries involved a climber dropping [**3] from the bouldering wall or “slab area” to the floor below and, upon landing, pushing a foot through the floor padding, making contact with the concrete floor below, either rolling or twisting an ankle in the process.
[*P5] In March 2012, Howe was bouldering at Momentum. After finishing his bouldering route, Howe dropped off the wall to the floor below. As he made contact with the floor, his “left foot impacted the mat on top of the padded floor, causing the mat to move. As the mat moved, it exposed the padded floor beneath. Concealed under the mat, the cover of the pad was split in a straight line, exposing the abutting edges of pads below.” When Howe’s “right foot impacted the top of the two abutting pads, [his] foot passed between the two abutting pads to the floor beneath.” As a result of the contact with the concrete, Howe broke his right ankle.
[*P6] Howe sued, asserting—among other things—that Momentum was grossly negligent. He alleged that Momentum, “with a knowing and reckless indifference and disregard for the safety of [Howe] and other members of [Momentum], concealed, or caused to be concealed, the defects in their floor padding by placing mats over the defective area.”
[*P7] Howe designated [**4] a liability Expert. Expert has a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and petroleum refining, as well as a master’s degree in metallurgical and materials engineering. His professional experience includes research and development engineering as well as forensic engineering. Expert owns a forensic engineering company that specializes in “metallurgical, materials, and mechanical failure analysis”; “materials evaluation and testing”; “product liability and analysis”; “fire and explosion cause and origin”; “industrial, recreational, and construction accident analysis”; and “chemical and mechanical systems failure analysis.” Expert has been an expert witness in numerous cases, one of which involved a mechanical failure that caused an indoor climbing accident. He has also had professional experience with evaluating impact attenuation surfaces in the ski industry.
[*P8] Expert opined that Momentum did not take appropriate steps to protect climbers in the bouldering area. Indeed, Expert concluded that
Momentum significantly elevated the risk of injury to climbers in the bouldering area by (1) failing to repair, restrict access, clearly mark, cordon off, close walls, or close areas around and [**5] near the areas where the vinyl padding cover was damaged, and by (2) placing the [mats] over the damaged areas of the padding cover, thus concealing the hazard created by the damage.
In Expert’s opinion, appropriate steps to remedy the problem could have included using “warning signs, closing the sections of the floor or wall near damaged areas,” removing the hand-and foot-holds above the damaged padding, making inaccessible the damaged padding areas, or repairing the damaged padding. During deposition testimony, Expert explained that “those are ways to prevent the public from interacting with the obvious hazard created by the opening in the pads.” This approach was based on his “engineering background and experience in dealing with hazards.” In short, his opinion is that “gluing and adhering . . . a large patch of vinyl over the tear” would have been safer than using the mats.
[*P9] Momentum moved for summary judgment, arguing the undisputed facts established that it exercised at least slight care to protect climbers using its facility, which meant Howe could not demonstrate gross negligence. Momentum also moved to exclude Expert, claiming he was unqualified to opine upon the standard of [**6] care in the indoor-climbing industry. The district court denied these motions, and Momentum successfully petitioned this court for an interlocutory appeal.
ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW
[*P10] Momentum raises two issues on appeal. First, it claims the district court erred when it denied Momentum’s motion for summary judgment. HN1 Denials of summary judgment are questions of law reviewed for correctness. Glenn v. Reese, 2009 UT 80, ¶ 6, 225 P.3d 185.
[*P11] Second, Momentum claims the district court erred when it denied Momentum’s motion to exclude Expert. HN2 A district court’s determination regarding the admissibility of expert testimony is reviewed for abuse of discretion. Gunn Hill Dairy Props., LLC v. Los Angeles Dep’t of Water & Power, 2012 UT App 20, ¶ 16, 269 P.3d 980.
I. Summary Judgment
[*P12] HN3 Summary judgment shall be granted “if the moving party shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Utah R. Civ. P. 56(a). In this case, the district court denied Momentum’s motion for summary judgment on Howe’s claim for gross negligence, based on its finding that there were “numerous genuine issues of disputed material fact.”
HN4 In reviewing a district court’s summary judgment decision, appellate courts “must evaluate all the evidence and all reasonable inferences fairly drawn from the evidence [**7] in a light most favorable to the party opposing summary judgment to determine whether there is a material issue of fact to be tried.” Horgan v. Industrial Design Corp., 657 P.2d 751, 752 (Utah 1982). “Gross negligence is the failure to observe even slight care; it is carelessness or recklessness to a degree that shows utter indifference to the consequences that may result. Summary judgment is proper where reasonable minds could reach only one conclusion based on the applicable material facts.” Penunuri v. Sundance Partners, Ltd., 2017 UT 54, ¶ 35, 423 P.3d 1150 (quotation simplified).
[*P14] Citing Penunuri and Blaisdell v. Dentrix Dental Systems, Inc., 2012 UT 37, 284 P.3d 616, Momentum argues that “the undisputed material facts of this case show that [it] exercised care, far more than even slight care, and was not careless or reckless, let alone to a degree that shows utter indifference,” and that therefore “the district court erred in denying Momentum’s motion for summary judgment.” (Quotation simplified.) Momentum points out that it “[u]ndisputedly . . . took steps to protect climbers from being injured by the wear and tear damage that had developed in its primary padding,” including using welded patches, “thinn[ing] out” the climbing routes, and, “[a]fter determining that the . . . patches created tripping hazards,” using the mats and monitoring their positioning. In Momentum’s view, these steps [**8] demonstrate that it took at least slight care and was not utterly indifferent to the consequences that could result from a failure to take care.
[*P15] Howe acknowledges that Momentum took these steps, but argues they were inadequate. He further asserts that Momentum’s use of the pads to cover the defective flooring concealed the risk and rendered the climbers “defenseless against the dangerous conditions known to Momentum,” and claims that his “inability to see the dangerous flooring over which he was climbing contributed to his injuries.” At oral argument before this court, Howe argued this concealment “dramatically magnified” the risk of harm.
[*P16] We note the tension between our supreme court’s recent articulation of the elements of gross negligence as “the failure to observe even slight care,” Penunuri, 2017 UT 54, ¶ 35, 423 P.3d 1150 (quotation simplified), and the language of a subsequent paragraph suggesting that “the essential evidence needed to survive a defendant’s motion for summary judgment on a gross negligence claim” is “evidence that the defendant’s conduct dramatically magnified the risk of harm to the plaintiff,” id. ¶ 37. We can envision situations in which the straightforward application of the elements identified [**9] in paragraph 35 might dictate a grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendant while the application of the elements identified in paragraph 37 might dictate the denial of summary judgment. But we need not explore this tension further here because Momentum’s failure to take further action in the face of eight additional incidents creates questions of fact about whether it was grossly negligent, even assuming that paragraph 35 sets forth the correct formulation of the elements of gross negligence.
[*P17] Although Momentum took certain steps to remedy the problem created by the deterioration of the foam padding, injury incidents continued to occur even after implementation of Momentum’s injury-avoidance strategy. HN5 It is beyond question that a plaintiff who can demonstrate that a defendant has taken no action in response to injury incidents will have likely made out at least a prima facie case of gross negligence, one sufficient to withstand summary judgment. See id. ¶ 16 (“Summary judgment dismissing a gross negligence claim is appropriate where reasonable minds could only conclude that the defendant was not grossly negligent under the circumstances . . . .”). We cannot see much of a distinction [**10] between that situation and the case Howe brings here: a defendant takes some action in response to injury incidents, and therefore arguably demonstrates slight care in the beginning, but takes no additional action after injury incidents continue to occur following implementation of its original strategy. Stated another way, we are not persuaded that a defendant who simply relies on a repeatedly-failed strategy to avert injury from a known risk is entitled to judgment as a matter of law on the “slight care” question.
[*P18] In this case, five incidents, some of which involved injuries, motivated Momentum to take steps to address the problem and ultimately to place mats over the cracked foam padding. These acts arguably show that Momentum exercised slight care in the beginning and was therefore not completely indifferent to the consequences of allowing climbers to use the bouldering area given the condition of the padding. But by the time Howe was injured, eight more injuries had been reported to Momentum, even after it had thinned the routes and put down the extra pads. These eight additional climbers were injured in roughly the same manner as Howe: when they dropped from the bouldering wall [**11] onto the floor below, the mat moved, their feet were caught in the crack in the foam padding, and their ankles were injured. Under these circumstances, the question of whether Momentum’s continued use of the mats constituted gross negligence presents a disputed issue of material fact.
[*P19] Because a reasonable finder of fact could determine, on this record, that Momentum was grossly negligent, the district court’s denial of summary judgment was appropriate.
II. Expert Testimony
[*P20] HN6 The Utah Rules of Evidence allow “a witness who is qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education” to “testify in the form of an opinion or otherwise if the expert’s scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue.” Utah R. Evid. 702(a). Furthermore, “[s]cientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge may serve as the basis for expert testimony only if there is a threshold showing that the principles or methods that are underlying in the testimony (1) are reliable, (2) are based upon sufficient facts or data, and (3) have been reliably applied to the facts.” Id. R. 702(b).
[*P21] Momentum argues the district court [**12] abused its discretion in denying its motion to exclude Expert. First, it contends Expert’s experience as an engineer did not qualify him to testify as to the applicable standard of care in the indoor-climbing industry. Second, Momentum contends that, because Expert did not evaluate or test vinyl floor padding or the mats used to cover the damaged areas, Expert’s opinions did not meet the reliability standard imposed by rule 702 of the Utah Rules of Evidence.
[*P22] But as Howe points out, Expert’s training as a professional engineer with experience in “forensic engineering and accident analysis in recreational settings,” “slip and fall accident analysis,” and “warnings, design, and standard of care issues” qualifies him to assist the finder of fact in making a determination of the standard of care in the indoor-climbing industry.
[*P23] Expert’s proposed testimony is that Momentum acted with indifference toward the safety of its members when it placed mats over the damaged padding; Expert opines that Momentum could have and should have taken alternative steps to mitigate the effects of the worn padding. As Howe points out, and the district court agreed, this testimony “will be helpful to the jury to understand the options Momentum had [**13] in addressing the damaged vinyl” and to avoid speculation regarding its options.
HN7 Further, as to reliability, Expert’s opinion is based “upon [his] engineering education, experience, and training” and “knowledge . . . gained from being a forensic engineer . . . and studying padding and other types of accidents.” In determining whether to allow an expert to offer an opinion, the district court’s role is that of a “gatekeeper,” meant “to screen out unreliable expert testimony.” Gunn Hill Dairy Props., LLC v. Los Angeles Dep’t of Water & Power, 2012 UT App 20, ¶ 28, 269 P.3d 980 (quotation simplified). The court is afforded “broad discretion” when making this determination, and we “will reverse its decision only when it exceeds the bounds of reasonability.” Id. ¶ 31 (quotation simplified). Here, the court’s determination that Expert’s opinion was sufficiently reliable does not “exceed the bounds of reasonability,” and we decline to reverse it. See id. (quotation simplified). Expert’s opinion meets the threshold showing of reliability and “will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue.” Utah R. Evid. 702(a). Therefore the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying Momentum’s motion to exclude his testimony.
[*P25] Because there are material facts in [**14] dispute, the district court properly denied Momentum’s summary judgment motion. Furthermore, the court did not abuse its discretion in denying Momentum’s motion to exclude Expert. We affirm the district court’s rulings on these points and remand for further proceedings.
Cizek v. North Wall, Inc., 2018 IL App (2d) 170168-U *; 2018 Ill. App. Unpub. LEXIS 320Posted: November 15, 2019 Filed under: Climbing Wall, Illinois, Legal Case, Release (pre-injury contract not to sue) | Tags: activities, Ankle, Bouldering, Bouldering Gym, Climbers, Climbing, Climbing Gym, Climbing Wall, Climbing Wall Association, Customers, CWA, deposition, Employees, exculpatory, facilities, Falling, feet, floor, Gym, Harness, height, Illinois, injuries, jumped, Manual, mat, North Wall, North Wall Inc., parties, rock, rope, Summary judgment, trained, Trial court, video, waiver form, wanton conduct, willful Leave a comment
Cizek v. North Wall, Inc., 2018 IL App (2d) 170168-U *; 2018 Ill. App. Unpub. LEXIS 320
Appellate Court of Illinois, Second District
March 2, 2018, Order Filed
Notice: THIS ORDER WAS FILED UNDER SUPREME COURT RULE 23 AND MAY NOT BE CITED AS PRECEDENT BY ANY PARTY EXCEPT IN THE LIMITED CIRCUMSTANCES ALLOWED UNDER RULE 23(e)(1).
[**1] Appeal from the Circuit Court of McHenry County. No. 15-LA-56. Honorable Thomas A. Meyer, Judge, Presiding.
Judges: PRESIDING JUSTICE HUDSON delivered the judgment of the court. Justices Schostok and Spence concurred in the judgment.
PRESIDING JUSTICE HUDSON delivered the judgment of the court.
Justices Schostok and Spence concurred in the judgment.
[*P1] Held: Plaintiff validly waived any cause of action stemming from defendant‘s alleged negligence and failed to identify facts from which willful and wanton conduct could be inferred; therefore, trial court‘s grant of summary judgment was proper.
Plaintiff, Patricia Cizek, appeals an order of the circuit court of McHenry County granting summary judgment in favor of defendant, North Wall, Inc. (doing business as North Wall Rock Climbing Gym). For the reasons that follow, we affirm.
Defendant operates an indoor rock climbing gym; plaintiff was a customer at the gym when she was injured. Plaintiff and a friend, Daniel Kosinski, attended the gym. Plaintiff had never been climbing before. At some point, after having been climbing for a while, plaintiff became tired and jumped down or fell from the climbing [**2]
wall. Plaintiff‘s right foot landed on a mat, but her left foot landed on the floor. Plaintiff‘s left ankle broke.
In her deposition (taken December 23, 2015), plaintiff testified as follows. She stated that she had been a member of a health club for 10 years, where she primarily swam and did yoga. Prior to February 14, 2013, plaintiff had no experience rock climbing or bouldering, though she had observed people rock climbing in the past. She agreed that she understood that rock climbing involved being at a height higher than the ground.
On February 14, 2013, she attended respondent‘s gym with Kosinski, a coworker. She characterized Kosinski as a “good climber, experienced.“ Kosinski told her climbing was one of his hobbies. She did not think climbing would involve any risk because “[k]ids were doing it.“ Further, climbing occurred at a gym, which she viewed as a “safe zone.“ Also, based on what she saw on television, she believed she would be using a harness. She and Kosinski did not consume any alcohol prior to arriving at North Wall, and she was not taking any medication at the time.
When they arrived, Kosinski paid the fee. Plaintiff signed and returned a waiver form. Kosinski [**3]
had climbed at North Wall before. At the time, plaintiff did not know whether Kosinski was a member at North Wall, though she later learned that he had been at the time she was injured. Plaintiff acknowledged that she did, in fact, read and understand the waiver form. She did not look at the back of the form, but she recalled that she was given only one sheet of paper. She was provided with a pair of climbing shoes.
When she first arrived, she observed “children in harnesses with ropers.“ There were two large green pads that covered most of the floor. Plaintiff did not recall seeing any bulletin boards or posters. She also did not recall seeing a black line running “continuously around the parameter [sic] of the climbing wall.“ At the time of the deposition, she was aware that such a line existed. Beyond signing the waiver when she arrived, she had no further interaction with respondent‘s staff. Plaintiff reviewed a number of pictures of the facility and testified that it had changed since her accident. She also identified a photograph taken in October 2013 that showed where she was injured.
She and Kosinski then proceeded to the climbing wall. She asked, “What about my harness?“ Kosinski [**4]
said that harnesses were “more trouble than they were worth.“ Plaintiff stated that she “kind of was dumbfounded.“ Plaintiff proceeded to climb without a harness. Kosinski went first. He told her to follow some yellow markers, as they were for beginners. While she watched Kosinski, she did not see a black, horizontal line on the wall. Prior to climbing, Kosinski placed a mat below the area in which he intended to climb. Plaintiff found climbing “very difficult,“ explaining that “[y]ou use your core.“ Plaintiff would “shimmy“ down when she got “sore.“ She added, “[i]ts tough work getting up there, so I need[ed] to get down.“ She would jump down from two to three feet off the ground. Plaintiff made three or four climbs before she was injured.
Large green mats covered almost the entire floor of the gym. There were also smaller black mats that could be placed in different locations by climbers. Kosinski was not near plaintiff when she was injured. Before being injured, plaintiff had moved to a new climbing area. She placed a black mat where she planned on climbing. A green mat also abutted the wall in that area. The black mat was three to six inches away from the wall.
Plaintiff was injured [**5]
during her third attempt at climbing that day, and she did not feel comfortable climbing. She explained that she was not wearing a harness, but was trying to do her best. There was a part of the floor that was not covered by a green mat in this area, which is where plaintiff landed when she was injured. Plaintiff stated she jumped off the wall and when she landed, her right foot was on a green mat, but her left foot landed on the uncovered floor. She felt pain in her left ankle and could not put weight on it. Kosinski and an employee came over to assist plaintiff. Kosinski got plaintiff some ibuprofen. Plaintiff felt “a little dizzy.“ An employee called the paramedics. The paramedics stated that plaintiff‘s ankle was broken. They assisted plaintiff to Kosinski‘s car, and he drove her to St. Alexius hospital. At the hospital, they x-rayed plaintiff‘s ankle and confirmed that it was broken. She was given some sort of narcotic pain killer, and her ankle was placed in a cast. Plaintiff was discharged and told to follow up with an orthopedic surgeon.
She followed up with Dr. Sean Odell. Odell performed a surgery six days after the accident. He installed eight pins and a plate. Plaintiff [**6]
had broken both leg bones where they intersect at the ankle. She took Norco for months following the surgery. She engaged in physical therapy for years, including what she did at home. The hardware was removed in December 2013. Her ankle continues to be stiff, she has trouble with many activities, and she takes ibuprofen for pain several times per week.
On cross-examination, plaintiff stated that she read the wavier form before she signed it (though, she added, she did not “study“ it). Other climbers were climbing without ropes, and the only people she saw using ropes were children. She was not offered a rope or harness. Plaintiff still takes prescription pain killers on occasion. However, she does not like to take it due to its side effects.
A discovery deposition of Daniel Kosinski was also conducted. He testified that he knew plaintiff from work. She was a travel agent that did “all the travel arrangements for [his] company.“ He and plaintiff were friends, though they do not associate outside of work.
Kosinski stated that rock climbing is one of his hobbies. He started climbing in 2008. He initially climbed at Bloomingdale Lifetime Fitness. They eventually offered him a job, and [**7]
he worked there for four or five years. His title was “[r]ock wall instructor.“ He described bouldering as climbing without a rope. He stated that it “is a little more intense.“ Generally, one climbs at lower levels, and there are mats, as opposed to ropes, for protection. He added that “[t]here‘s not really much instruction [to do] in terms of bouldering.“ He explained, “bouldering, there‘s just—okay, this is how high you can go and that‘s pretty much it.“ There was no bouldering line at Lifetime Fitness. However, they did have a rule that you should not climb above the height of your shoulders. A spotter is not typically required when bouldering.
He and plaintiff went to North Wall on February 14, 2013. He was a member and had been there “multiple times“ previously. When he first went to North Wall, he signed a waiver and viewed a video recording that concerned safety. Due to height considerations, Kosinski characterized North Wall as “pretty much a dedicated bouldering gym.“ North Wall offers top rope climbing, which Kosinski said was often used for children‘s parties.
Kosinski believed he was aware that plaintiff did not have any climbing experience prior to their trip to North [**8]
Wall. He could not recall whether there were any safety posters displayed. He and plaintiff had a conversation about the risks involved in rock climbing. He also explained to her what bouldering entailed and that a rope was not used. He noted that plaintiff was “shaky“ or “nervous“ on her first climb. Kosinski told plaintiff that if she was not comfortable, she should come down. He did not recall a bouldering line at North Wall and believed it was permissible to climb all the way to the top when bouldering. He did not recall whether plaintiff had been provided with climbing shoes. Plaintiff was in better than average physical condition.
When plaintiff was injured, she was climbing on a wall called Devil‘s Tower. It was toward the back, right of the facility. During the climb on which plaintiff was injured, Kosinski observed that plaintiff was “stuck“ at one point and could not figure out what to do next. He walked over to assist her. She was four or five feet off the ground. Plaintiff‘s left foot and hand came off the wall, and her body swung away from the wall (counterclockwise). She then fell and landed on the edge of a mat. Kosinski stated she landed “half on the mat“ and was rotating [**9]
when she landed. After plaintiff landed, Kosinski went over to check on her. Plaintiff said she believed she had broken her ankle. He did not know whether plaintiff had applied chalk to her hands before, nor did he recall what she was wearing. It did not appear that plaintiff had control of herself before she fell off the wall and injured herself. It also did not appear to him that plaintiff was attempting to get down from the wall or that she deliberately jumped.
Kosinski told an employee of respondent‘s to call the paramedics. Kosinski recalled an employee offering plaintiff ice. Plaintiff declined a ride to the hospital in an ambulance, and Kosinski drove her there instead.
Kosinski testified that he and plaintiff had never been romantically involved. He recalled that plaintiff used crutches following the injury and took some time off from work. According to Kosinski, she used crutches for “quite a while.“
On cross-examination, Kosinski explained that a spotter, unlike a belayer, only has limited control over a climber. A spotter “just direct[s] them to fall onto a mat and not hit their head.“ It would have been possible for plaintiff to use a rope while climbing (assuming one was [**10]
available). Kosinski stated that use of a rope might have prevented plaintiff‘s injury; however, it might also have caused another injury, such as plaintiff hitting her head on something. Kosinski agreed that he climbed twice a week or about 100 times per year. He did not recall an employee ever advising him about not climbing too high when bouldering. An automatic belayer might have lessened the force with which plaintiff landed and mitigated her injury. It was about 25 to 30 feet from the front desk to the place where plaintiff fell. The safety video new customers had to watch was about two minutes long. He did not observe plaintiff watching the video.
Prior to climbing, Kosinski told plaintiff that climbing was a dangerous sport and that they would be climbing without ropes. He did not recall any employee of respondent testing plaintiff with regard to her climbing abilities. After refreshing his recollection with various documents, Kosinski testified that they had been climbing for about half an hour when plaintiff was injured. He agreed that plaintiff was an inexperienced climber.
On redirect-examination, he confirmed that he was not present when plaintiff first checked in at North [**11]
Wall. He had no knowledge of what transpired between plaintiff and respondent‘s employees at that point.
Jason R. Cipri also testified via discovery deposition. He testified that he had been employed by respondent as a manager for two years, from 2012 to 2014. His immediate supervisor was Randy Spencer (respondent‘s owner). When he was hired in 2012, Cipri was trained on office procedures, logistics, how to deal with the cash register, where to put the mail, and the use of a computer system. He was also trained on dealing with customers. Cipri started climbing in 2000 and had worked for respondent for about a year around the time of plaintiff‘s injury.
Novice climbers were supposed to sign a waiver and view a video. Spencer trained Cipri to go over “any and all safety procedures“ with new climbers. Cipri was trained to “interact with the customers to decide and figure out their climbing ability.“ Three types of climbing occurred at North Wall: bouldering, top-rope climbing, and lead climbing (also known as sport climbing). Plaintiff was bouldering when she was injured. Bouldering does not involve the use of ropes. Cipri estimated about 90 percent (or at least the “vast majority“) of [**12]
the climbing at North Wall is bouldering. Cipri received very specific training regarding how to execute waiver forms. Customers were instructed to read the waiver form.
There was a “bouldering line“ on the climbing wall. People engaged in bouldering were not supposed to bring their feet above that line. The bouldering line is described in the waiver. However, Cipri explained, having a bouldering line is not common. He added, “We all kind of thought it was cute, but it didn‘t really serve a purpose.“
Cipri was working as a manager on the day plaintiff was injured. He recalled that an employee named Miranda, whom he called a “coach,“ came and told him that someone had been injured. He called the paramedics, as that was what plaintiff wanted. He brought plaintiff some ice. He described Kosinski (whom he initially called Eric) as a “pretty novice climber.“ Cipri did not know whether plaintiff was above the bouldering line when she fell. Plaintiff did not appear intoxicated or smell of alcohol. She did not appear to have any injuries besides the one to her ankle. Plaintiff would not have been allowed to use a rope because “you have to be certified and taken through a lesson to use the [**13]
To the left side of the customer-service counter, there were posters addressing “safety and such.“ Cipri filled out an accident report concerning plaintiff‘s injury. Cipri denied that he was terminated by respondent and that the owner ever accused him of using drugs on the job. There was no manual on “how to run North Wall,“ but there was an “unofficial manual“ kept on the front desk. This was comprised of a couple of binders that concerned how to teach climbing, use of the telephone, memberships, employee conduct, and various rules. He did not recall anything specific relating to dealing with novice climbers. There was a copy of the Climbing Wall Association manual in a file-cabinet drawer; however, he never used it for anything. Cipri did not recall Spencer instructing him to use this manual. Spencer did train employees on climbing, particularly new hires. Cipri described Spencer as an “absentee“ manager.“ He would come in early in the day, and Cipri typically would not see him.
Aside from ascertaining a customer‘s age and climbing experience, they did nothing else to assess his or her proficiency. They would show new climbers a video and explain the rules of the gym to them. [**14]
Cipri could not say whether a copy of a manual shown to him was the manual they were actually using when he worked for respondent. However, he stated various forms shown to him, including one concerning bouldering orientation, were not used when he was there. Spencer never told Cipri to get rid of any document; rather, he was adamant about keeping such material. Weekly inspections of the premises were conducted, but no records documenting them were maintained.
On cross-examination, Cipri stated that his sister had been hired to rewrite the operations manual. One document stated, “If the facility allows bouldering, the staff provides an orientation before novice climbers are allowed to boulder without assistance or direct supervision.“ Cipri testified that this was not generated by respondent, but they followed it. Employees working the counter were trained to have new customers watch a video, instruct them on safety procedures, and assess their abilities. To the left of the front door, posters from the Climbing Wall Association were displayed. There was also one near the back door. Cipri did not remember what they were about beyond that they concerned “stable rules“ of the Climbing [**15]
Cipri did not witness plaintiff‘s accident, and he did not recall being present when she was checked in. He never had rejected a customer previously, but he had the authority to do so. He never encountered a situation where he felt it was necessary.
On redirect-examination, Cipri agreed that beyond verbal questioning, they did not test new customers. They did not “inspect or observe climbers while they were actually climbing to determine competency.“ They did “orientate climbers“ and show them the video. Further, new climbers read the waiver forms. Climbers were instructed on general and bouldering safety rules. Cipri was aware of an earlier incident where a young boy cut his head while climbing. Cipri stated that it was arguable that climbing with a rope was more dangerous than bouldering because a person could get tangled in the rope. Cipri did not give plaintiff an orientation, and he had no recollection of anyone giving her one.
Randall Spencer, respondent‘s owner, also testified via discovery deposition. Spencer testified that North Wall is “pretty much run by employees“ and he does not “have much of a role anymore.“ The business is run by a manager, Eric Paul. [**16]
Spencer did not have an independent recollection of plaintiff‘s accident. Cipri was the manager at the time. There was another manager as well named Chuck Kapayo, who Spencer described as co-managing with Cipri. Anything Spencer knew about plaintiff‘s accident he learned from Cipri or another employee named Terri Krallitsch. Usually, two people worked at any given time, although, sometimes, only one would be present.
Spencer identified the waiver form signed by plaintiff. However, he acknowledged that it was not the original. The purpose of the waiver was to inform a customer about the danger involved in rock climbing. Further, employees were “trained to talk about the rules and safety items when [customers] first come into the gym.“ In addition, there were posters, four of which were visible at the entrance. The posters were produced by the Climbing Wall Association as part of their Climb Smart Program. Spencer added that they say “[c]limbing is [d]angerous.“ One says “Bouldering is Dangerous Climb Smart.“ These were the only ways customers were informed of the dangers of rock climbing. Customers are not tested as to their climbing proficiency, and they are not trained unless they [**17]
sign up for a class. Customers were told not to climb above the bouldering line when bouldering.
Employees were instructed to follow the policies of the Climbing Wall Association. If an employee did not spend time with a new customer “explaining the policies and procedures of bouldering, that would be a violation of company policy.“ This is true even if the new customer is accompanied by a more experienced climber.
Spencer explained that bouldering is climbing without a rope. The bouldering line is a “little bit over three feet“ from the floor. Climbers were to keep their feet below the bouldering line. The accident report prepared by Cipri states plaintiff‘s feet were six feet off the floor when she fell. The only equipment provided by respondent to plaintiff was climbing shoes. Respondent could have provided a harness, and plaintiff could have been belayed. They did not provide chalk to plaintiff.
Spencer testified that the waiver form states that it “is not intended to provide a description of all risks and hazards.“ He explained that this means it is possible to get hurt in a manner not described in the waiver. There was no formal training program for employees. Managers trained [**18]
new employees, and managers themselves came to respondent already having climbing experience. In 2013, respondent had no auto-belay system in place. Spencer testified that he fired Cipri because of “suspected drug use.“
The released signed by plaintiff states, in pertinent part, as follows. Initially, it states that plaintiff is giving up any right of actions “arising out of use of the facilities of North Wall, Inc.“ Plaintiff then acknowledged that “the sport of rock climbing and the use of the facilities of North Wall, Inc., has inherent risks.“ It then states that plaintiff has “full knowledge of the nature and extent of all the risks associated with rock climbing and the use of the climbing gym, including but not limited to“ the following:
“1. All manner of injury resulting from falling off the climbing gym and hitting rock faces and/or projections, whether permanently or temporarily in place, or on the floor or loose. 2. Rope abrasions, entanglement and other injuries ***. 3. Injuries resulting from falling climbers or dropped items ***. 4. Cuts and abrasions resulting from skin contact with the climbing gym and/or the gym‘s devices and/or hardware. 5. Failure of ropes, slings, [**19]
harnesses, climbing hardware, anchor points, or any part of the climbing gym structure.“
Plaintiff then waived any cause of action “arising out of or in any way related to [her] use of the climbing gym whether that use is supervised or unsupervised, however the injury or damage is caused.“
The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of defendant. It noted that case law indicates that a competent adult recognizes the danger of falling from a height. It next observed that the waiver plaintiff signed stated that she was releasing defendant from “all manner of injury resulting from falling off the climbing gym.“ The trial court then rejected plaintiff‘s argument that this language was too general to be enforced. It further found that plaintiff had set forth no facts from which willful and wanton conduct could be inferred. This appeal followed.
We are confronted with two main issues. First is the effect of the waiver form signed by plaintiff. Second, we must consider whether plaintiff‘s count alleging willful and wanton conduct survives regardless of the waiver (an exculpatory agreement exempting liability for willful and wanton conduct would violate public policy (Falkner v. Hinckley Parachute Center, Inc., 178 Ill. App. 3d 597, 604, 533 N.E.2d 941, 127 Ill. Dec. 859 (1989))). [**20]
Plaintiff‘s brief also contains a section addressing proximate cause; however, as we conclude that the waiver bars plaintiff‘s cause of action, we need not address this argument.
A. THE WAIVER
The trial court granted summary judgment on all but the willful and wanton count of plaintiff‘s complaint based on plaintiff‘s execution of a waiver. As this case comes to us following a grant of summary judgment, our review is de novo. Bier v. Leanna Lakeside Property Ass‘n, 305 Ill. App. 3d 45, 50, 711 N.E.2d 773, 238 Ill. Dec. 386 (1999). Under the de novo standard of review, we owe no deference to the trial court‘s decision and may freely substitute our judgment for that of the trial court. Miller v. Hecox, 2012 IL App (2d) 110546, ¶ 29, 969 N.E.2d 914, 360 Ill. Dec. 869. Summary judgment is a drastic method of resolving litigation, so it should be granted only if the movant‘s entitlement to judgment is clear and free from doubt. Bier, 305 Ill. App. 3d at 50. It is appropriate only where “the pleadings, affidavits, depositions, and admissions on file, when viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmovant, show that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the movant is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.“
Id. Finally, it is axiomatic that we review the result to which the trial court arrived at, rather than its reasoning. In re Marriage of Ackerley, 333 Ill. App. 3d 382, 392, 775 N.E.2d 1045, 266 Ill. Dec. 973 (2002).
Though we are not bound by the trial court‘s reasoning, [**21]
we nevertheless find ourselves in agreement with it. Like the trial court, we find great significance in the proposition that the danger of falling from a height is “open and obvious“ to an adult. Ford ex rel. Ford v. Narin, 307 Ill. App. 3d 296, 302, 717 N.E.2d 525, 240 Ill. Dec. 432 (1999); see also Bucheleres v. Chicago Park District, 171 Ill. 2d 435, 448, 665 N.E.2d 826, 216 Ill. Dec. 568 (1996); Mount Zion Bank & Trust v. Consolidated Communications, Inc., 169 Ill. 2d 110, 118, 660 N.E.2d 863, 214 Ill. Dec. 156 (1995) (“In Illinois, obvious dangers include fire, drowning in water, or falling from a height.“). Thus, for the purpose of resolving this appeal and in the absence of evidence to the contrary, we will presume that plaintiff was aware that falling off the climbing wall presented certain obvious dangers.
We also note that, in Illinois, parties may contract to limit the liability for negligence. Oelze v. Score Sports Venture, LLC, 401 Ill. App. 3d 110, 117, 927 N.E.2d 137, 339 Ill. Dec. 596 (2010). Absent fraud or willful and wanton negligence, exculpatory agreements of this sort are generally valid. Id. An agreement may be also vitiated by unequal bargaining power, public policy considerations, or some special relationship between the parties (Id.); however, such issues are not present here. This court has previously explained that “[a]n exculpatory agreement constitutes an express assumption of risk insofar as the plaintiff has expressly consented to relieve the defendant of an obligation of conduct toward him [or her].“
Falkner, 178 Ill. App. 3d at 602.
Agreements of this nature “must be expressed in clear, explicit [**22]
and unequivocal language showing that such was the intent of the parties.“
Calarco v. YMCA of Greater Metropolitan Chicago, 149 Ill. App. 3d 1037, 1043, 501 N.E.2d 268, 103 Ill. Dec. 247 (1986). That is, it must “appear that its terms were intended by both parties to apply to the conduct of the defendant which caused the harm.“
Id., (quoting Restatement (Second) of Torts, Explanatory Notes ‘ 496B, comment d, at 567 (1965)). Nevertheless, “The precise occurrence which results in injury need not have been contemplated by the parties at the time the contract was entered into.“
Garrison v. Combined Fitness Centre, Ltd., 201 Ill. App. 3d 581, 585, 559 N.E.2d 187, 147 Ill. Dec. 187 (1990). Thus, an exculpatory agreement will excuse a defendant from liability only where an “injury falls within the scope of possible dangers ordinarily accompanying the activity and, thus, reasonably contemplated by the plaintiff.“
Id. The foreseeability of the danger defines the scope of the release. Cox v. U.S. Fitness, LLC, 2013 IL App (1st) 122442, ¶ 14, 377 Ill. Dec. 930, 2 N.E.3d 1211.
Numerous cases illustrate the degree of specificity required in an exculpatory agreement necessary to limit a defendant‘s liability for negligence. In Garrison, 201 Ill. App. 3d at 583, the plaintiff was injured when a weighted bar rolled off a grooved rest on a bench press and landed on his neck. The plaintiff alleged that the bench press was improperly designed and that the defendant-gym was negligent in providing it when it was not safe for its intended use. Id. [**23]
The plaintiff had signed an exculpatory agreement, which stated, inter alia:
“It is further agreed that all exercises including the use of weights, number of repetitions, and use of any and all machinery, equipment, and apparatus designed for exercising shall be at the Member‘s sole risk. Notwithstanding any consultation on exercise programs which may be provided by Center employees it is hereby understood that the selection of exercise programs, methods and types of equipment shall be Member‘s entire responsibility, and COMBINED FITNESS CENTER [sic] shall not be liable to Member for any claims, demands, injuries, damages, or actions arising due to injury to Member‘s person or property arising out of or in connection with the use by Member of the services and facilities of the Center or the premises where the same is located and Member hereby holds the Center, its employees and agents, harmless from all claims which may be brought against them by Member or on Member‘s behalf for any such injuries or claims aforesaid.“
Id. at 584.
The plaintiff argued that the agreement did not contemplate a release of liability for the provision of defective equipment. The trial court granted the defendant‘s motion [**24]
for summary judgment based on the exculpatory agreement.
The reviewing court affirmed. Id. at 586. It explained as follows:
“Furthermore, the exculpatory clause could not have been more clear or explicit. It stated that each member bore the ‘sole risk‘; of injury that might result from the use of weights, equipment or other apparatus provided and that the selection of the type of equipment to be used would be the ‘entire responsibility‘ of the member.“
Id. at 585.
It further noted that the defendant “was aware of the attendant dangers in the activity and, despite the fact that plaintiff now alleges that the bench press he used was unreasonably unsafe because it lacked a certain safety feature, the injury he sustained clearly falls within the scope of possible dangers ordinarily accompanying the activity of weight-lifting.“
Similarly, in Falkner, 178 Ill. App. 3d at 603, the court found the following exculpatory clause exempted the defendant from liability following a parachute accident: “The Student exempts and releases the [defendant] *** from any and all liability claims *** whatsoever arising out of any damage, loss or injury to the Student or the Student‘s property while upon the premises or aircraft of the [defendant] or while [**25]
participating in any of the activities contemplated by this agreement.“ The plaintiff‘s decedent died during a parachute jump. The court placed some significance on the fact that the decedent had been a pilot in the Army Air Corp. Id.
Another case that provides us with some guidance is Oelze, 401 Ill. App. 3d 110, 927 N.E.2d 137, 339 Ill. Dec. 596. There, the plaintiff had signed an exculpatory agreement stating, “I hereby release SCORE Tennis & Fitness and its owners and employees from any and all liability for any damage or injury, which I may receive while utilizing the equipment and facilities and assume all risk for claims arising from the use of said equipment and facilities.“
Id. at 118. The plaintiff, who was playing tennis, was injured when she tripped on a piece of equipment that was stored behind a curtain near the tennis court she was using while she was trying to return a lob. Id. at 113. The plaintiff argued that this risk was “unrelated to the game of tennis“ and thus outside the scope of the release. Id. at 120. However, the court found that the broad language of the release encompassed the risk, relying on the plaintiff‘s agreement “to assume the risk for her use of the club‘s ‘equipment and facilities.‘”
Finally, we will examine Calarco, 149 Ill. App. 3d 1037, 501 N.E.2d 268, 103 Ill. Dec. 247. In that case, the plaintiff [**26]
was injured when weights from a “Universal“ gym machine fell on her hand. Id. at 1038. The trial court granted summary judgment based on an exculpatory clause. Id. at 1038-39. The clause read:
“‘In consideration of my participation in the activities of the Young Men‘s Christian Association of Metropolitan Chicago, I do hereby agree to hold free from any and all liability the [defendant] and do hereby for myself, *** waive, release and forever discharge any and all rights and claims for damages which I may have or which may hereafter accrue to me arising out of or connected with my participation in any of the activities of the [defendant].
I hereby do declare myself to be physically sound, having medical approval to participate in the activities of the [defendant].‘”
Id. at 1039.
The reviewing court reversed, finding that the language of the release was not sufficiently explicit to relieve the defendant from liability. Id. at 1043. It explained, “The form does not contain a clear and adequate description of covered activities, such as ‘use of the said gymnasium or the facilities and equipment thereof,‘ to clearly indicate that injuries resulting from negligence in maintaining the facilities or equipment would be covered by the release [**27] .” (Emphasis added.) Id.
In the present case, plaintiff waived any cause of action “arising out of or in any way related to [her] use of the climbing gym whether that use is supervised or unsupervised, however the injury or damage is caused.“ (Emphasis added.) This is remarkably similar to the language, set forth above, that the Calarco court stated would have been sufficient to shield the defendant in that case. Id. Likewise, in Garrison, 201 Ill. App. 3d at 585, the language that was found sufficient to protect the defendant stated that each member bore the ‘sole risk; of injury that might result from the use of weights, equipment or other apparatus provided and that the selection of the type of equipment to be used would be the ‘entire responsibility‘ of the member.“ Again, identifying the activity involved along with an expressed intent to absolve the defendant from any liability prevailed. Here, the activity was clearly defined and plaintiff‘s intent to waive any cause related to that activity was clear. Furthermore, plaintiff‘s injury was of the sort that a participant in that activity could reasonably expect. As Oelze, 401 Ill. App. 3d at 120, indicates, language encompassing assumption of “the risk for her use of the club‘s ‘equipment and [**28]
facilities‘” is broad and sufficient to cover accidents of the sort that are related to the primary activity. See also Falkner, 178 Ill. App. 3d at 603. Here, falling or jumping off the climbing wall are things a climber can clearly expect to encounter.
Plaintiff cites Locke v. Life Time Fitness, Inc., 20 F. Supp. 3d 669 (N.D. Ill. 2014), a case from the local federal district court. Such cases merely constitute persuasive authority (Morris v. Union Pac. R.R. Co., 2015 IL App (5th) 140622, ¶ 25, 396 Ill. Dec. 330, 39 N.E.3d 1156); nevertheless, we will comment on it briefly. In that case, the plaintiff suffered a heart attack and died during a basketball game at a gym operated by the defendant. Id. at 671. There was an automatic defibrillator on site, but no employee retrieved it or attempted to use it. Id. The plaintiff had signed a waiver, which included the risk of a heart attack. Id. at 672. However, the waiver did not mention the defendant‘s failure to train its employees in the use of the defibrillator. Id. The Locke court held that by advancing this claim as a failure to train by the defendant, the plaintiff could avoid the effect of the waiver. Id. at 674-75.
We find Locke unpersuasive. Following the reasoning of Locke, virtually any claim can be recast as a failure to train, supervise, or, in some circumstances, inspect. Allowing such a proposition to defeat an otherwise valid exculpatory agreement [**29]
would effectively write such agreements out of most contracts. See Putnam v. Village of Bensenville, 337 Ill. App. 3d 197, 209, 786 N.E.2d 203, 271 Ill. Dec. 945 (2003) (“Limiting the disclaimer in the manner suggested by the plaintiffs would effectively write it out of the contract. Virtually every error in construction by a subcontractor could be recast and advanced against [the defendant] as a failure to supervise or inspect the project.“). Here, plaintiff promised to release defendant from any liability resulting from her use of the climbing wall. Moreover, we fail to see how providing additional training to employees would have impacted on plaintiff‘s perception of an obvious risk. Allowing her to avoid this promise in this manner would be an elevation of form over substance.
At oral argument, plaintiff relied heavily on the allegation that the spot where she landed was uneven due to the placement of mats in the area. As noted, one of plaintiff‘s feet landed on a mat and the other landed directly on the floor. According to plaintiff, the risk of landing on an uneven surface was not within the scope of the waiver she executed. This argument is foreclosed by two cases which we cite above. First, in Oelze, 401 Ill. App. 3d at 113, the plaintiff was injured while, during a game of tennis, she tripped on a piece [**30]
of equipment stored behind a curtain near the tennis court. This arguably dangerous condition was found to be within the scope of her waiver. Id. at 121-22. Furthermore, in Garrison, 201 Ill. App. 3d at 584, the plaintiff argued that an alleged defect in gym equipment rendered ineffective an exculpatory agreement which stated that the plaintiff “bore the ‘sole risk‘ of injury that might result from the use of weights, equipment or other apparatus provided and that the selection of the type of equipment to be used would be the ‘entire responsibility‘ of the member.“
Id. at 585. In this case, assuming arguendo, there was some unevenness in the floor due to the placement of the floor mats, in keeping with Oelze and Garrison, such a defect would not vitiate plaintiff‘s waiver.
In sum, the release here is clear, pertains to use of defendant‘s climbing gym, and is broad enough to encompass falling or jumping from the climbing wall.
B. WILLFUL AND WANTON CONDUCT
In an attempt to avoid the effect of the exculpatory agreement, plaintiff also contends that defendant engaged in willful and wanton conduct. Conduct is “willful and wanton“ where it involves a deliberate intention to harm or a conscious disregard for the safety of others. In re Estate of Stewart, 2016 IL App (2d),151117 ¶ 72, 406 Ill. Dec. 345, 60 N.E.3d 896. It is an “aggravated [**31]
form of negligence.“
Id. Plaintiff contends that defendant should have followed its own policies and evaluated her abilities. However, plaintiff does not explain what such an evaluation would have shown or what sort of action it would have prompted one of defendant‘s employees to take that would have protected plaintiff from the injury she suffered. Plaintiff also points to defendant‘s failure to advise her not to climb above the bouldering line. As the trial court observed, the risk of falling from a height is “open and obvious“ to an adult. Ford ex rel. Ford, 307 Ill. App. 3d at 302. Plaintiff cites nothing to substantiate the proposition that failing to warn plaintiff of a risk of which she was presumptively already aware rises to the level of willful and wanton conduct. Indeed, how a defendant could consciously disregard the risk of not advising plaintiff of the dangers of heights when she was presumptively aware of this risk is unclear (plaintiff provides no facts from which an intent to harm could be inferred).
In short, the conduct identified by plaintiff simply does not show a willful and wanton disregard for her safety.
In light of the foregoing, the judgment of the circuit court of McHenry County [**32]
Lee, et al., v Brooklyn Boulders, LLC, 156 A.D.3d 689; 67 N.Y.S.3d 67; 2017 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 8723; 2017 NY Slip Op 08660Posted: May 1, 2019 Filed under: Assumption of the Risk, Climbing Wall, Legal Case, New York, Release (pre-injury contract not to sue) | Tags: assumption of the risk, Climbing Gym, Climbing Wall, cross-appeal, gap, Inherent Risks, inter alia, leave to amend, Mats, personal injuries, Prima facie, Punitive damages, recover damages, recreational, Release, Rock climbing, Sport, Summary judgment, Velcro Leave a comment
Lee, et al., v Brooklyn Boulders, LLC, 156 A.D.3d 689; 67 N.Y.S.3d 67; 2017 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 8723; 2017 NY Slip Op 08660
Jennifer Lee, et al., respondents-appellants, v Brooklyn Boulders, LLC, appellant-respondent. (Index No. 503080/13)
SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, APPELLATE DIVISION, SECOND DEPARTMENT
156 A.D.3d 689; 67 N.Y.S.3d 67; 2017 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 8723; 2017 NY Slip Op 08660
December 13, 2017, Decided
THE LEXIS PAGINATION OF THIS DOCUMENT IS SUBJECT TO CHANGE PENDING RELEASE OF THE FINAL PUBLISHED VERSION. THIS OPINION IS UNCORRECTED AND SUBJECT TO REVISION BEFORE PUBLICATION IN THE OFFICIAL REPORTS.
CORE TERMS: leave to amend, punitive damages, sport, gap, recover damages, personal injuries, summary judgment, rock climbing, inherent risks, prima facie, cross-appeal, recreational, engaging, mats, inter alia
COUNSEL: [***1] Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith, LLP, New York, NY (Nicholas P. Hurzeler of counsel), for appellant-respondent.
Carman, Callahan & Ingham, LLP, Farmingdale, NY (James M. Carman and Anne P. O’Brien of counsel), for respondents-appellants.
JUDGES: WILLIAM F. MASTRO, J.P., CHERYL E. CHAMBERS, HECTOR D. LASALLE, VALERIE BRATHWAITE NELSON, JJ. MASTRO, J.P., CHAMBERS, LASALLE and BRATHWAITE NELSON, JJ., concur.
[**68] [*689] DECISION & ORDER
In an action to recover damages for personal injuries, etc., the defendant appeals, as limited by its brief, from so much of an order of the Supreme Court, Kings County (Toussaint, J.), dated April 20, 2016, as denied its motion for summary judgment dismissing the complaint, and the plaintiffs cross-appeal, as limited by their brief, from so much of the same order as denied their cross motion pursuant to CPLR 3025(b) for leave to amend the complaint to add a demand for punitive damages.
ORDERED that the order is affirmed insofar as appealed and cross-appealed from, without costs or disbursements.
The plaintiff Jennifer Lee (hereinafter the injured plaintiff) allegedly was injured at the defendant’s rock climbing facility when she dropped down from a climbing wall and her foot landed in a gap [***2] between two mats. According to the injured plaintiff, the gap was covered by a piece of velcro.
[**69] [*690] The plaintiffs commenced this action to recover damages for personal injuries, etc. The defendant moved for summary judgment dismissing the complaint, and the plaintiffs, inter alia, cross-moved for leave to amend the complaint to add a demand for punitive damages. The Supreme Court, inter alia, denied the motion and the cross motion. The defendant appeals and the plaintiffs cross-appeal.
Contrary to the defendant’s contention, the release of liability that the injured plaintiff signed is void under General Obligations Law § 5-326 because the defendant’s facility is recreational in nature (see Serin v Soulcycle Holdings, LLC, 145 AD3d 468, 469, 41 N.Y.S.3d 714; Vanderbrook v Emerald Springs Ranch, 109 AD3d 1113, 1115, 971 N.Y.S.2d 754; Debell v Wellbridge Club Mgt., Inc., 40 AD3d 248, 249, 835 N.Y.S.2d 170; Miranda v Hampton Auto Raceway, 130 AD2d 558, 558, 515 N.Y.S.2d 291). Therefore, the release does not bar the plaintiffs’ claims.
“Relieving an owner or operator of a sporting venue from liability for inherent risks of engaging in a sport is justified when a consenting participant is aware of the risks; has an appreciation of the nature of the risks; and voluntarily assumes the risks” (Morgan v State of New York, 90 NY2d 471, 484, 685 N.E.2d 202, 662 N.Y.S.2d 421; see Koubek v Denis, 21 AD3d 453, 799 N.Y.S.2d 746). “If the risks of the activity are fully comprehended or perfectly obvious, plaintiff has consented to them and defendant has performed its duty” (Turcotte v Fell, 68 NY2d 432, 439, 502 N.E.2d 964, 510 N.Y.S.2d 49; see Morgan v State of New York, 90 NY2d at 484; Joseph v New York Racing Assn., 28 AD3d 105, 108, 809 N.Y.S.2d 526). Moreover, “by engaging in a sport or recreational [***3] activity, a participant consents to those commonly appreciated risks which are inherent in and arise out of the nature of the sport generally and flow from such participation” (Morgan v State of New York, 90 NY2d at 484; see Simone v Doscas, 142 AD3d 494, 494, 35 N.Y.S.3d 720).
Here, the defendant failed to establish, prima facie, that the doctrine of primary assumption of risk applies. The defendant submitted the injured plaintiff’s deposition testimony, which reveals triable issues of fact as to whether the gap in the mats constituted a concealed risk and whether the injured plaintiff’s accident involved an inherent risk of rock climbing (see Siegel v City of New York, 90 N.Y.2d 471, 488, 685 N.E.2d 202, 662 N.Y.S.2d 421; Georgiades v Nassau Equestrian Ctr. at Old Mill, Inc., 134 AD3d 887, 889, 22 N.Y.S.3d 467; Dann v Family Sports Complex, Inc., 123 AD3d 1177, 1178, 997 N.Y.S.2d 836; Segal v St. John’s Univ., 69 AD3d 702, 704, 893 N.Y.S.2d 221; Demelio v Playmakers, Inc., 63 AD3d 777, 778, 880 N.Y.S.2d 710). Since the defendant failed to establish its prima facie entitlement to judgment as a matter of law, its motion was properly denied, [*691] regardless of the sufficiency of the opposition papers (see Winegrad v New York Univ. Med. Ctr., 64 NY2d 851, 853, 476 N.E.2d 642, 487 N.Y.S.2d 316).
The Supreme Court providently exercised its discretion in denying the plaintiffs’ cross motion for leave to amend the complaint to add a demand for punitive damages (see Jones v LeFrance Leasing Ltd. Partnership, 127 AD3d 819, 7 N.Y.S.3d 352; Hylan Elec. Contr., Inc. v MasTec N. Am., Inc., 74 AD3d 1148, 903 N.Y.S.2d 528; Kinzer v Bederman, 59 AD3d 496, 873 N.Y.S.2d 692).
[**70] MASTRO, J.P., CHAMBERS, LASALLE and BRATHWAITE NELSON, JJ., concur.
Holbrook v. Mccracken, 2004-Ohio-3291; 2004 Ohio App. LEXIS 2932Posted: July 30, 2018 Filed under: Assumption of the Risk, Climbing Wall, Legal Case, Ohio | Tags: accelerated, announcement, assignment of error, assumption of the risk, Belay device, belayer, climber, Climbing Gym, Climbing Wall, Falling, Harness, Indoor Climbing Wall, Recreation, recreational activity, Rock climbing, rope, slipped Leave a comment
Holbrook v. Mccracken, 2004-Ohio-3291; 2004 Ohio App. LEXIS 2932
Matthew Holbrook, Plaintiff-appellant vs. Erin Mccracken, Defendant-appellee
COURT OF APPEALS OF OHIO, EIGHTH APPELLATE DISTRICT, CUYAHOGA COUNTY
2004-Ohio-3291; 2004 Ohio App. LEXIS 2932
June 24, 2004, Date of Announcement of Decision
PRIOR HISTORY: [**1] CHARACTER OF PROCEEDING: Civil appeal from Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas. Case No. CV-466188.
COUNSEL: For plaintiff-appellant: JACK G. FYNES, NATHAN A. HALL, Attorneys at Law, SHUMAKER, LOOP & KENDRICK, LLP, Toledo, Ohio.
For defendant-appellee: JAMES M. JOHNSON, Attorney at Law, KOETH, RICE & LEO CO., L.P.A., Cleveland, Ohio.
JUDGES: KENNETH A. ROCCO, JUDGE. JAMES J. SWEENEY, P.J. and DIANE KARPINSKI, J. CONCUR.
OPINION BY: KENNETH A. ROCCO
JOURNAL ENTRY and OPINION
KENNETH A. ROCCO, J.
[*P1] This cause came to be heard on the accelerated calendar pursuant to App.R. 11.1 and Loc.App.R. 11.1. The purpose of an accelerated appeal is to allow the appellate court to render a brief and conclusory decision. Crawford v. Eastland Shopping Mall Ass’n (1983), 11 Ohio App. 3d 158, 11 Ohio B. 240, 463 N.E.2d 655.
[*P2] Plaintiff-appellant Matthew Holbrook appeals from the trial court order that granted summary judgment to defendant-appellee Erin McCracken, thus terminating appellant’s personal injury action.
[*P3] Appellant was injured when he fell from an indoor rock wall he had climbed for recreation. At the time, appellee was acting as his “belayer, [**2] ” i.e., as appellant descended from his successful climb, appellee reversed the process of taking up slack and instead let out rope for him from the top of the wall through a harness system attached to her body. Appellee stated she thought she “wasn’t fast enough” at locking the smooth “new” rope before too much of it slipped through the device on her harness and slackened appellant’s line.
[*P4] In his sole assignment of error, appellant argues the trial court improperly determined the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk precluded appellee’s liability on appellant’s claim. This court disagrees.
[*P5] [HN1] The Ohio Supreme Court recently reaffirmed the applicability of that doctrine to recreational activities in Gentry v. Craycraft, 101 Ohio St.3d 141, 2004 Ohio 379, 802 N.E.2d 1116. In order to gain the thrill associated with rock climbing, the appellant voluntarily assumed the primary and “inherent risk” of the activity, viz., falling. Blankenship v. CRT Tree, 2002 Ohio 5354.
[*P6] Therefore, despite appellant’s expert’s opinion that appellee was “reckless” in permitting the rope to slip through her hands, [HN2] the risk of falling [**3] inherent to the activity of rock climbing can be “reduced***[but] cannot be eliminated.” Vorum v. Joy Outdoor Education Center, (Dec. 12, 1998), 1998 Ohio App. LEXIS 6139, Warren App. No. CA98-06-072. This is especially true when the injury results from simple human error. Gentry v. Craycraft, supra, P 14.
[*P7] Since there was no evidence that appellee acted either intentionally or recklessly when the rope she held slipped before the harness device could lock it in place, the trial court correctly concluded she was entitled to summary judgment on appellant’s claim.
[*P8] Accordingly, appellant’s assignment of error is overruled.
It is ordered that appellee recover of appellant costs herein taxed.
The court finds there were reasonable grounds for this appeal.
It is ordered that a special mandate issue out of this court directing the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas to carry this judgment into execution.
A certified copy of this entry shall constitute the mandate pursuant to Rule 27 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure.KENNETH A. ROCCO JUDGE
JAMES J. SWEENEY, P.J. and
DIANE KARPINSKI, J. CONCUR
N.B. This entry is [**4] an announcement of the court’s decision. See App.R. 22(B), 22(D) and 26(A); Loc.App.R. 22. This decision will be journalized and will become the judgment and order of the court pursuant to App.R. 22(E) unless a motion for reconsideration with supporting brief, per App.R. 26(A), is filed within ten (10) days of the announcement of the court’s decision. The time period for review by the Supreme Court of Ohio shall begin to run upon the journalization of this court’s announcement of decision by the clerk per App.R. 22(E). See, also, S. Ct. Prac.R. II, Section 2(A)(1).
NY determines that falling off a wall is a risk that is inherent in the sport. Plaintiff argued it wasn’t???Posted: February 12, 2018 Filed under: Assumption of the Risk, Climbing Wall, New York | Tags: Affirmation, assump-tion of risk, assumption of the risk, Bouldering, Bouldering Wall, CGA, Climb, climbed, climber, Climbing, Climbing Gym, Climbing Gym Association, Falling, false sense of security, feet, gym's, Harness, height, Indoor, Inherent Risk, instructor, mat, opined, Orientation, Padding, quotation, reply, rock, roommate, rope, skill, Sport, Spotter, spotting, Standards, Summary judgment, top, Trade association Leave a comment
Plaintiff also argued the standards of the trade association created a legal liability on the part of the defendant. Trade association standards come back to haunt the business the standards were created to protect.
Ho v Steep Rock Bouldering, LLC, 2018 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 32; 2018 NY Slip Op 30006(U)
State: New York: Supreme Court of New York, New York County
Plaintiff: Min-Sun Ho
Defendant: Steep Rock Bouldering, LLC
Plaintiff Claims: negligence
Defendant Defenses: Assumption of the Risk (although a release was signed it was not raised as a defense)
Holding: For the Defendant
This case borders on the absurd because of the plaintiff’s claims and the statements of the plaintiff’s expert.
At the same time, this case borders on the scary because the standards of the trade association were used effectively to put a big dent in the defendant’s defenses.
It came down to simple logic. If you are ten to twelve feet off the ground is there an inherent risk that you could fall? Because it was to the court, the Plaintiff assumed the risk of her injuries, and her case was dismissed.
The plaintiff took a climbing class as a student in high school. Over a decade later, she signed up online to go bouldering at the defendant’s bouldering facility. She also checked out the defendant’s Facebook page.
She and her roommate went to the gym. At the gym, she realized that this was different from the climbing she had done in high school. She signed an electronic release, which she did not read. She also was questioned by an employee of the gym about her previous climbing experience. When talking with the employee she did not ask any questions.
She started bouldering and understood the grade system of what she was climbing. She had climbed once or twice to the top of the route she chose and down climbed or jumped after coming half-way down.
On her third or fourth climb, she was a few feet from the top of the wall when she fell. She landed on her right arm, tearing ligaments and breaking a bone which required surgery.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
The decision first goes through the deposition testimony of the manager or the bouldering gym. The testimony was fairly straight forward, even talking about rules the gym had were not covered.
The next discussion was over the plaintiff’s expert witness. I’m just going to quote the decision.
After his review, Dr. Nussbaum opined that Plaintiff should have been provided with the following: a harness, a rope, or some similar safety device; a spotter; an orientation; and an introductory lesson. Dr. Nussbaum opined further that the only time a harness or similar device is not required is “when the wall is low, less than 8 feet[,] and where it is angled so that a [climber] cannot fall directly down[,] but simply slides down the angled wall. Here, the wall was high and not angled, and therefore the safety devices including the harness and rope are required.”
The plaintiff probably would not have fallen off a V1 on a slanted wall, if you can call a slanted wall a V1 or V2. More importantly with holds on the wall you would have not slid off, you have bounced off the holds as you slid down.
Dr. Nussbaum opined further that the reading Steep Rock Bouldering waiver form, which Plaintiff did not, would not mean that the reader understands or assumes the risk. Dr. Nussbaum opined further that the padding “likely” gave Plaintiff a “false sense of security” and “no appreciation of the risk here.”
Judges are responsible of interpreting the law in litigation. An opinion by an expert on a contract would not be allowed into evidence. More importantly, nothing in the background of the expert indicates any training or experience in what someone like the plaintiff would understand in reading a contract.
However, then it circled back around to industry practices. The plaintiff’s expert:
…cited to the Climbing Wall Association’s (“CWA”) Industry Practices § 4.06 and opined further that Defendant’s gym should have provided “a thorough orientation to bouldering and how to mitigate the risk of predictable falls” per the CWA guidelines.
Citing to CWA’s Industry Practices § 4.01, Dr. Nussbaum opined further:
“[Plaintiff’s] ‘level of qualification or access to the climbing should [have been] checked upon entering and prior to climbing in the facility.’ In the absence of demonstrated proficiency in climbing, [Plaintiff] should have been ‘supervised by staff or a qualified climbing partner, or her access to the facility must [have] be[en] limited accordingly.’ In the case at hand, there was a cursory transition from the street into the gym and the commencement of climbing. [Plaintiff] was simply asked if she had previous climbing-experience and essentially told ‘here’s the wall, have at it.'”
Citing to CWA’s Industry Practices § 4.02, Dr. Nussbaum opined further:
“[T]he climbing gym staff should [have] utilize[d] a screening process before allowing potential clients to access the climbing wall/facility. The purpose of the screening is to determine the ‘new client’s ability to climb in the facility’ and ‘to assess the client’s prior climbing experience, knowledge and skills (if any).’ [Plaintiff] was not asked about how long she had been climbing, whether or not she had experience at a climbing gym or facility, how often or how recently she had climbed, and/or the type of climbing she had done. She was not asked if she had knowledge of or experience bouldering. Again, she was simply asked if she had prior climbing experience, reflecting a wholly inadequate screening process.”
The Defendant’s expert did a great job of countering the claims made by the plaintiff’s expert. However, it is difficult to argue the language of a trade association is meant to mean something else when quoted by the plaintiff’s expert.
The court looked at the issue focusing on one main point. Did the plaintiff know and appreciate the risks of falling? This seems absurd to me. One of the basic fears that I think everyone has is a fear of falling. How it manifests itself may be different in different people, but everyone is afraid of falling.
The plaintiff in her testimony and the testimony of the expert witness made this the central point of the litigation and one the court had a difficult time reaching a conclusion on.
The court first looked at the assumption of risk doctrine in New York.
“Under the doctrine of primary assumption of risk, a person who voluntarily participates in a sporting activity generally consents, by his or her participation, to those injury-causing events, conditions, and risks which are inherent in the activity.”
I cannot believe that when you are ten feet from the ground, there is not some form of awareness of the risk of falling.
The court then looked at the necessary elements of risk to determine what was inherent in a sport and what that means to the plaintiff and defendant.
“Risks inherent in a sporting activity are those which are known, apparent, natural, or reasonably foreseeable consequences of the participation.” However, “[s]ome of the restraints of civilization must accompany every athlete onto the playing field. Thus, the rule is qualified to the extent that participants do not consent to acts which are reckless or intentional.” “[I]n assessing whether a defendant has violated a duty of care within the genre of tort-sports activities and their inherent risks, the applicable standard should include whether the conditions caused by the defendants’ negligence are unique and created a dangerous condition over and above the usual dangers that are inherent in the sport.” In assessing whether a plaintiff had the appropriate awareness to assume the subject risk, such “awareness of risk is not to be determined in a vacuum. It is, rather, to be assessed against the background of the skill and experience of the particular plaintiff.”
Boiled down, when you assume the risks of a sport or recreational activity:
In assuming a risk, Plaintiff has “given his consent to relieve the defendant of an obligation of conduct toward him, and to take his chances of injury from a known risk arising from what the defendant is to do or leave undone.”
The court was then able to find that the plaintiff had assumed the risk.
The Court finds that injury from falling is a commonly appreciable risk of climbing–with or without harnesses, ropes, or other safety gear–and that Plaintiff assumed this risk when she knowingly and voluntarily climbed Defendant’s gym’s climbing wall for the third or fourth time when she fell. To hold that Defendant could be liable for Plaintiff’s injuries because it allowed her to climb its wall without a rope and harness would effectively make the sport of bouldering illegal in this state.
However, what an agonizing intense effort for the courts to come to what seems to be a fairly simple conclusion. When you are standing 10′ in the air, do you feel apprehension about falling off. If you do and you stay there you assume the risk of falling I think.
So Now What?
I’ve written before about how easy it is to write about New York decisions. They are short and quick. One or two pages. This decision is fifteen pages long, an unbelievable long decision in New York. An unbelievable long decision for what I believe to be an extremely simple and basic concept. Did the plaintiff understand she could get hurt if she fell from the wall?
Yet the plaintiff made the court work hard to decide she assumed the risk. The plaintiff made an argument that the court found compelling enough to take 15 pages to determine if are 10′ in the air are you apprehensive.
There are several take a ways from this decision.
The decision indicates the plaintiff signed a release electronically. However, it was never raised as a defense. Probably because of New York General Obligations Law § 5-326. This law states releases are not valid at places of amusement. There has been one decision in New York were a release for a climbing wall injury was upheld; however, the court specifically distinguished that issues saying the climbing wall was for educational purposes since it was at a university and not a recreational situation. Read Lemoine v Cornell University, 2 A.D.3d 1017; 769 N.Y.S.2d 313; 2003 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 13209 (NY 2003).
The industry standards came back to play a role in the decision. There are dozens of arguments in favor of an industry creating standards. There is one argument on why they should not be made. Plaintiff’s use them to attack the people the standards were meant to protect.
No matter how many reasons why it might be a good thing; it fails in all of those reasons when it is used in court to beat a defendant over the head and prove they were wrong. A piece of paper, written by members of the industry, with the industry logo and name on it is proof to any juror that this is the way it must be done. If not, why would the piece of paper be written? Why would the industry and everyone else take the time and energy to create the rule, print it and hand out if that was the way it was supposed to be done.
So, then it is left up to the defense expert to find a way to prove that the piece of paper is wrong. That is impossible in 99% of the cases. As a member of the association, as a person who helped make the piece of paper, you are now saying what you did was wrong? It is not going to fly.
Here the defendant’s expert could not. So, he did not, his opinion walked all around the issue but did not bring up the standards that the plaintiff through at the court. Granted, the plaintiff had taken the standards and twisted them and their meaning in an attempt to apply them to this case, in a way that they were not meant to be. However, it is difficult to say to a judge or juror the plaintiff’s expert twisted the standards, and they don’t mean that. Of course, that is what the judge and jury would expert.
Thankfully, the defendant’s expert was great and just refused to take on the plaintiff’s expert and the far-out statements he made.
Here the plaintiff used the industry standards in an attempt to prove the defendant had breached its duty of care to the plaintiff. Here the name had been changed by the association over the years to lessen their impact and damage in a courtroom from standards to practices. However, they were still used to bludgeon the defendant who had probably paid to help create them.
Standards do not create value in a courtroom for defendants. You cannot say we did everything right, see read this and throw the standards at the judge and jury. However, we all need to learn from our mistakes, and we need ideas on how to get better. Besides there is always more than one way to do everything.
Create ideas, best practices, anything that allows different ways of doing things so the plaintiff cannot nail you down to one thing you did wrong. The simple example is there is no one way to belay. Yet standards for various industries have superficially set forth various ways over the years you “must” belay. Body belays went out decades ago with the introduction of belay devices. Yet when your lead is on a precarious move, and the piece below him might not be able to take the full weight of a fall, a body belay works because it helps absorb the energy and spread the belay over time putting less pressure on the pro.
There is no magic solution to everything and spending hours and dollars trying to tell the world, there is, will only come back to haunt you.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
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What happens if you fail to follow the requirements of your insurance policy and do not get a release signed? In New Hampshire, you have no coverage.Posted: July 17, 2017 Filed under: Climbing Wall, Insurance, New Hampshire, Release (pre-injury contract not to sue) | Tags: absurd, Ambiguity, Ambiguous, burden of proving, clear meaning, Climbing, Climbing Gym, construe, contracting parties, contractually, coverage, endorsement, Gym, Gymnastics, insurance coverage, Insurance policy, insured, insurer, linguistic, matter of law, objectively, ordinary meaning, policy language, policyholder, purported, question of law, reasonable expectations of coverage, Reasonable person, Release, Summary judgment, unambiguous, words used 1 Comment
You either have to create an absolutely fool proof system or take your release
online. If they don’t sign they don’t climb!
Colony Insurance Company v. Dover Indoor Climbing Gym & a., 158 N.H. 628; 974 A.2d
399; 2009 N.H. LEXIS 51
State: New Hampshire, Supreme Court of New Hampshire
Plaintiff: Colony Insurance Company
Defendant: Dover Indoor Climbing Gym& a.
Plaintiff Claims: There was no insurance coverage because the insured did not get a release signed by the injured claimant
Defendant Defenses: The insurance policy endorsement requiring a release to be signed was ambiguous
Holding: For the Plaintiff Insurance Company
This is a scary case, yet the outcome is correct. The plaintiff insurance company issued a policy to the defendant climbing gym. An endorsement (an added amendment to the contract) to the policy said there would only be coverage if the gym all customers sign a release.
An endorsement to the policy stated: “All ‘participants’ shall be required to sign a waiver or release of liability in
your favor prior to engaging in any ‘climbing activity.’ “It further stated: “Failure to conform to this warranty will render this policy null and void as [sic] those claims brought against you.”
A climber came to the gym with a group of friends. The gym asked everyone if they had a release on file, and no one said no. (Yes really stupid procedures!) Bigelow was part of the group and did not have a release on file and had not signed a release. While climbing Bigelow fell and was injured.
Bigelow accompanied friends to the climbing gym, but did not sign a waiver. He testified that he was never asked to sign a waiver; the gym owner’s affidavit stated that the owner asked the group of climbers if they had waivers on file and received no negative answers. It is undisputed; however, that Bigelow did not sign a waiver or release. While climbing, Bigelow fell and sustained serious injuries.
The defendant climbing gym put the plaintiff insurance company on notice of the claim. When the insurance company found out no release was signed, the insurance company filed a declaratory judgment motion. A declaratory judgment is a way to go into a court and say there is no coverage under this policy because there was no release. It is an attempt to be a quick interpretation of the contract so the bigger issue can be resolved quickly.
The gym then put Colony on notice to defend and pay any verdict obtained by Bigelow. In response, Colony filed a petition for declaratory judgment, arguing that the gym’s failure to obtain a release from Bigelow absolved Colony of any duty to defend or indemnify the gym.
Both parties filed motions for summary judgment. The trial court granted the climbing gym’s motion for summary judgment saying the endorsement requiring the signed release was ambiguous. The ambiguity was created because the insurance company had not provided the gym with a sample waiver to use.
The trial court found that Colony’s failure to provide the gym with a sample waiver rendered the endorsement provision ambiguous. The trial court therefore denied Colony’s motion for summary judgment, and granted the defendants’ cross-motion for summary judgment.
This analysis by the court was absurd. Releases need to be written for the gym, for the gym’s clients and for the state law of the state where it is to be used. A “sample” release is a guaranteed loser in most cases. However, I suspect the court was looking for anyway it could find to provide coverage for the gym.
The trial court’s ruling meant the plaintiff insurance company had to provide coverage to the defendant for any claims made by the injured climber Bigelow.
The insurance company appealed the decision. New Hampshire does not have an intermediary appellate court system so the appeal went to the New Hampshire Supreme Court.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
Insurance policies are contracts and are interpreted as such. However, because have been written in a specific way and are always offered on a take it or leave it basis, as well as the fact the insurance company has all the cards (money) insurance policies have additional legal interpretations in addition to contract law.
The New Hampshire Supreme Court started its analysis by looking at how insurance policies are interpreted. That means the policy is read as a whole objectively. Terms are given their natural meaning, meaning there is no special interpretation of any term, and if the policy is clear and unambiguous is it enforced. No special reading of the policy is allowed based on any party to the policy’s expectations.
We construe the language of an insurance policy as would a reasonable person in the position of the insured based upon a more than casual reading of the policy as a whole. Policy terms are construed objectively, and where the terms of a policy are clear and unambiguous, we accord the language its natural and ordinary meaning. We need not examine the parties’ reasonable expectations of coverage when a policy is clear and unambiguous; absent ambiguity, our search for the parties’ intent is limited to the words of the policy.
The burden of proving that no insurance coverage exists as defined by the policy rests on the insurance company. That means coverage exists under the policy unless the insurance company can prove no coverage was written.
If an insurance company wants to limit its coverage, it is allowed to do so. However, that limitation must be clear and unambiguous. An ambiguity exists if a reasonable disagreement exists between the insurance company and the policyholder and that disagreement could lead to two or more, interpretations.
Although an insurer has a right to contractually limit the extent of its liability, it must do so “through clear and unambiguous policy language. Ambiguity exists if “reasonable disagreement between contracting parties” leads to at least two interpretations of the language.
Ambiguities will be examined in the appropriate context and the words construed in their plain, ordinary and popular meaning. If the interpretation of the ambiguity favors the policyholder, then the coverage will favor the insured.
In determining whether an ambiguity exists, we will look to the claimed ambiguity, consider it in its appropriate context, and construe the words used according to their plain, ordinary, and popular definitions. If one of the reasonable meanings of the language favors the policyholder, the ambiguity will be construed against the insurer.
If, however, the language in the policy is clear, the court will not bend over backward or as written in this case “perform amazing feats of linguistic gymnastics” to find an ambiguity and create coverage.
Where, however, the policy language is clear, this court “will not perform amazing feats of linguistic gymnastics to find a purported ambiguity” simply to construe the policy against the insurer and create coverage where it is clear that none was intended.
The court then looked at the determination of the trial court which found an ambiguity because the insurance company did not provide a sample insurance policy. The Supreme Court found that was an incorrect interpretation of the policy. Even the defendant climbing gym agreed with the court on this
Even the gym, however, contends that the trial court “reached the correct result for the wrong reasons.” Thus, the gym does not argue that the endorsement creates an ambiguity by its failure to provide the insured with a sample waiver form, but, rather, that the exclusionary language is ambiguous because it states that participants shall “be required” to sign waivers as opposed to mandating that the gym obtain signed waivers.
The court then applied to the law of New Hampshire in interpreting insurance policies to the facts of this case. The court found the language requiring a release was clear and that a reasonable person could only read it.
The clear meaning of the policy language is that the gym is required to actually obtain waivers from climbing participants. The gym’s interpretation would lead to the absurd result of requiring coverage even if the gym never actually enforced its waiver policy. A reasonable person reading the policy would not understand that coverage existed in such circumstances. The gym’s interpretation is unreasonably narrow, and is therefore not the type of alternative interpretation that renders policy language ambiguous.
Simply put the policy requires the defendant climbing gym to have everyone sign a release. If no release is signed, there was no coverage for the gym. The trial court was overturned, and the climbing gym faced the claims of the injured climber without insurance coverage.
So Now What?
One of the first cases I was involved with was very similar. A Montana stable was insured by an insurance company with an endorsement just as this one; all riders were required to sign a release. In Montana all guides, including horseback guides had to be licensed by the state. A state employee was checking out the
stable and found the releases. In Montana, you cannot use a release. (See States that do not Support the Use of a Release andMontana Statute Prohibits Use of a Release)
The state employee had the stable quit using the release, or they would lose their license to operate in Montana. A rider was injured and sued the stable, and the insurance company denied coverage. I was contacted by the law firm representing the insurance company and was floored by the facts and how the insurance company could deny coverage when it violated state regulations.
However, in that situation as well as this one, there is not much you can do to get around the situation if the policy clearly states you must have a release signed. In the Montana case, the stable owner should have immediately contacted his insurance company when he was told he could not use a release and pay to have the endorsement removed or found another insurance company to write him a policy.
In this case, a proper procedure should have been put in place to confirm signed releases rather than relying on the honesty of someone walking through the doors to the gym.
When you purchase insurance make sure you and your insurance agent are speaking clearly to each other, and you both understand what you are looking for. When the policy arrives, read the policy or pay a professional to read the policy for you looking for the coverage’s you need as well as looking for problems with the coverage.
If you ask the agent or broker to clarify the coverage you are wanting, to make sure you get that clarification in writing (or an email), so you can take that to court if necessary.
Most importantly create a system to make sure that everyone who comes to your facility, activity or business when you use a release, signs a release.
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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Colony Insurance Company v. Dover Indoor Climbing Gym, 158 N.H. 628; 974 A.2d 399; 2009 N.H. LEXIS 51Posted: June 23, 2017 Filed under: Climbing Wall, Legal Case, New Hampshire, Release (pre-injury contract not to sue) | Tags: absurd, Ambiguity, Ambiguous, burden of proving, clear meaning, Climbing, Climbing Gym, construe, contracting parties, contractually, coverage, endorsement, Gym, Gymnastics, insurance coverage, Insurance policy, insured, insurer, linguistic, matter of law, objectively, ordinary meaning, policy language, policyholder, purported, question of law, reasonable expectations of coverage, Reasonable person, Release, Summary judgment, unambiguous, words used Leave a comment
Colony Insurance Company v. Dover Indoor Climbing Gym & a., 158 N.H. 628; 974 A.2d 399; 2009 N.H. LEXIS 51
Colony Insurance Company v. Dover Indoor Climbing Gym & a.
SUPREME COURT OF NEW HAMPSHIRE
158 N.H. 628; 974 A.2d 399; 2009 N.H. LEXIS 51
March 18, 2009, Argued
April 24, 2009, Opinion Issued
HEADNOTES NEW HAMPSHIRE OFFICIAL REPORTS HEADNOTES
1. Insurance–Policies–Construction The interpretation of insurance policy language is a question of law for the court to decide. The court construes the language of an insurance policy as would a reasonable person in the position of the insured based upon a more than casual reading of the policy as a whole. Policy terms are construed objectively, and where the terms of a policy are clear and unambiguous, the court accords the language its natural and ordinary meaning. The court need not examine the parties’ reasonable expectations of coverage when a policy is clear and unambiguous; absent ambiguity, the court’s search for the parties’ intent is limited to the words of the policy.
2. Insurance–Proceedings–Burden of Proof The burden of proving that no insurance coverage exists rests squarely with the insurer.
3. Insurance–Policies–Ambiguities Although an insurer has a right to contractually limit the extent of its liability, it must do so through clear and unambiguous policy language. Ambiguity exists if reasonable disagreement between contracting parties leads to at least two interpretations of the language. In determining whether an ambiguity exists, the court will look to the claimed ambiguity, consider it in its appropriate context, and construe the words used according to their plain, ordinary, and popular definitions. If one of the reasonable meanings of the language favors the policyholder, the ambiguity will be construed against the insurer. Where, however, the policy language is clear, the court will not perform amazing feats of linguistic gymnastics to find a purported ambiguity simply to construe the policy against the insurer and create coverage where it is clear that none was intended.
4. Insurance–Policies–Construction When a climbing gym’s insurance policy stated, “All participants shall be required to sign a waiver or release of liability in your favor prior to engaging in any climbing activity,” the clear meaning of the policy language was that the gym was required to actually obtain waivers from climbing participants. The gym’s interpretation that a reasonable person would believe that coverage existed so long as the gym had a policy of requiring waivers regardless of whether it actually obtained waivers would lead to the absurd result of requiring coverage even if the gym never actually enforced its waiver policy. A reasonable person reading the policy would not understand that coverage existed in such circumstances. Because the policy required the gym to obtain waivers from all participants, the failure to do so in the case of an injured climber rendered coverage under the policy inapplicable to his claims.
COUNSEL: Wiggin & Nourie, P.A., of Manchester (Doreen F. Connor on the brief and orally), for the plaintiff.
Mallory & Friedman, PLLC, of Concord (Mark L. Mallory on the brief and orally), for defendant, Dover Indoor Climbing Gym.
Shaheen & Gordon, P.A., of Dover, for defendant, Richard Bigelow, filed no brief.
JUDGES: DUGGAN, J. BRODERICK, C.J., and DALIANIS, J., concurred.
OPINION BY: DUGGAN
[**400] [*629] Duggan, J. The plaintiff, Colony Insurance Company (Colony), appeals an order of the Superior Court (McHugh, J.) denying its motion for summary judgment and granting that of the defendants, Dover Indoor Climbing Gym (the gym) and Richard Bigelow. We reverse and remand.
The trial court found, or the record supports, the following facts. Colony issued a commercial general liability insurance policy to the gym, which was in effect from January 5, 2007, to January 5, 2008. An endorsement to the policy stated: “All ‘participants’ shall be required to sign a waiver or release of liability in your favor prior to engaging in any ‘climbing activity.’ ” It further stated: “Failure to conform to this warranty will render this policy null and void as [sic] those claims brought against you.”
On August 14, 2007, [***2] Bigelow accompanied friends to the climbing gym, but did not sign a waiver. He testified that he was never asked to sign a waiver; the gym owner’s affidavit stated that the owner asked the group of climbers if they had waivers on file and received no negative answers. It is undisputed, however, that Bigelow did not sign a waiver or release. While climbing, Bigelow fell and sustained serious injuries. The gym then put Colony on notice to defend and pay any verdict obtained by Bigelow. In response, Colony filed a petition for declaratory judgment, arguing that the gym’s failure to obtain a release from Bigelow absolved Colony of any duty to defend or indemnify the gym.
Both Colony and the defendants filed motions for summary judgment, which the trial court addressed in a written order. The trial court found that Colony’s failure to provide the gym with a sample waiver rendered the endorsement provision ambiguous. The trial court therefore denied Colony’s motion for summary judgment, and granted the defendants’ cross-motion [**401] for summary judgment. This appeal followed.
[*630] On appeal, Colony argues that the trial court erred in finding that the endorsement was ambiguous, and contends that the [***3] gym’s failure to obtain a waiver from Bigelow renders the policy inapplicable as to his claims. Alternatively, Colony argues that even if the endorsement is ambiguous, the gym is not entitled to coverage because it had actual knowledge of the policy’s waiver requirement.
[HN1] In reviewing the trial court’s grant or denial of summary judgment, we consider the evidence, and all inferences properly drawn from it, in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Everitt v. Gen. Elec. Co., 156 N.H. 202, 208, 932 A.2d 831 (2007); Sintros v. Hamon, 148 N.H. 478, 480, 810 A.2d 553 (2002). If there is no genuine issue of material fact, and if the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, the grant of summary judgment is proper. Everitt, 156 N.H. at 209; Sintros, 148 N.H. at 480. We review the trial court’s application of the law to the facts de novo. Everitt, 156 N.H. at 209; Sintros, 148 N.H. at 480.
 [HN2] The interpretation of insurance policy language is a question of law for this court to decide. Godbout v. Lloyd’s Ins. Syndicates, 150 N.H. 103, 105, 834 A.2d 360 (2003). We construe the language of an insurance policy as would a reasonable person in the position of the insured based upon a more than casual reading [***4] of the policy as a whole. Id. Policy terms are construed objectively, and where the terms of a policy are clear and unambiguous, we accord the language its natural and ordinary meaning. Id. We need not examine the parties’ reasonable expectations of coverage when a policy is clear and unambiguous; absent ambiguity, our search for the parties’ intent is limited to the words of the policy. Id.
[2, 3] In this case, the gym argues that the policy is ambiguous and Colony maintains that it is not. [HN3] The burden of proving that no insurance coverage exists rests squarely with the insurer. Curtis v. Guaranty Trust Life Ins. Co., 132 N.H. 337, 340, 566 A.2d 176 (1989); see RSA 491:22-a (1997). [HN4] Although an insurer has a right to contractually limit the extent of its liability, it must do so “through clear and unambiguous policy language.” Id. (quotation omitted). Ambiguity exists if “reasonable disagreement between contracting parties” leads to at least two interpretations of the language. Int’l Surplus Lines Ins. Co. v. Mfgs. & Merchants Mut. Ins. Co., 140 N.H. 15, 20, 661 A.2d 1192 (1995); Trombly v. Blue Cross/Blue Shield, 120 N.H. 764, 771, 423 A.2d 980 (1980). In determining whether an ambiguity exists, we will look to the claimed ambiguity, [***5] consider it in its appropriate context, and construe the words used according to their plain, ordinary, and popular definitions. Int’l Surplus, 140 N.H. at 20. If one of the reasonable meanings of the language favors the policyholder, the ambiguity will be construed against the insurer. Id. Where, however, the policy language is clear, this court “will not [*631] perform amazing feats of linguistic gymnastics to find a purported ambiguity” simply to construe the policy against the insurer and create coverage where it is clear that none was intended. Hudson v. Farm Family Mut. Ins. Co., 142 N.H. 144, 147, 697 A.2d 501 (1997); Curtis, 132 N.H. at 342.
The trial court found that the endorsement requiring waivers is ambiguous because Colony did not provide the gym with a sample waiver. Even the gym, however, contends that the trial court “reached the [**402] correct result for the wrong reasons.” Thus, the gym does not argue that the endorsement creates an ambiguity by its failure to provide the insured with a sample waiver form, but, rather, that the exclusionary language is ambiguous because it states that participants shall “be required” to sign waivers as opposed to mandating that the gym obtain signed waivers. [***6] Under this interpretation, the gym argues, a reasonable person would believe that coverage exists so long as the gym has a policy of requiring waivers regardless of whether it actually obtained waivers from climbing participants. Colony argues that the policy language is unambiguous. We agree with Colony.
 The clear meaning of the policy language is that the gym is required to actually obtain waivers from climbing participants. The gym’s interpretation would lead to the absurd result of requiring coverage even if the gym never actually enforced its waiver policy. A reasonable person reading the policy would not understand that coverage existed in such circumstances. The gym’s interpretation is unreasonably narrow, and is therefore not the type of alternative interpretation that renders policy language ambiguous. See Curtis, 132 N.H. at 342 ( [HN5] refusing to find ambiguity when alternate interpretations would “inevitably lead to absurd results”). To construe the exclusion against the insurer here would create coverage where it is clear that none was intended. We therefore conclude that the policy language is unambiguous and that a reasonable insured would understand that the exclusion would [***7] apply in this case.
Because the policy requires the gym to obtain waivers from all participants, the failure to do so in the case of Bigelow renders coverage under the policy inapplicable to his claims. In light of our holding, we need not address Colony’s remaining argument. We therefore reverse the order of the trial court granting the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, and hold that Colony is entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law.
Reversed and remanded.
Broderick, C.J., and Dalianis, J., concurred.
Donahue v. Ledgends, Inc., 2014 Alas. LEXIS 153Posted: August 31, 2014 Filed under: Alaska, Climbing Wall, Legal Case, Release (pre-injury contract not to sue) | Tags: AK, Alaska, Bouldering, Claire Donahue, Climbing Gym, Climbing Wall, Defendant, Donahue, Ledgends, Negligence, Plaintiff, Release, Rock Gym Leave a comment
Donahue v. Ledgends, Inc., 2014 Alas. LEXIS 153
Claire A. Donahue, Appellant and Cross-Appellee, v. Ledgends, Inc. d/b/a Alaska Rock Gym, Appellee and Cross-Appellant.
Supreme Court Nos. S-14910/14929, No. 6932
SUPREME COURT OF ALASKA
2014 Alas. LEXIS 153
August 1, 2014, Decided
THIS OPINION IS SUBJECT TO CORRECTION BEFORE PUBLICATION IN THE PACIFIC REPORTER. READERS ARE REQUESTED TO BRING ERRORS TO THE ATTENTION OF THE CLERK OF THE APPELLATE COURTS.
PRIOR HISTORY: [*1] Appeal from the Superior Court of the State of Alaska, Third Judicial District, Anchorage, Andrew Guidi, Judge. Superior Court No. 3AN-10-07305 CI.
OVERVIEW: HOLDINGS: -Plaintiff alleged injured party’s negligence claim failed because a release stated waived risks, used “negligence,” stated important factors in emphasized language, specifically disclaimed liability, did not imply safety standards conflicting with a release, was not contested on public policy grounds, and was not modified by advertising; -The Uniform Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Act, AS 45.50.471 et seq., did not apply because conflicts with a personal injury claim barred assuming such a legislature intent, which “ascertainable loss of money or property” in AS 45.50.531(a) did not state; -It was no clear error to find defendant gym waived Alaska R. Civ. P. 68 attorney’s fees because it only raised its offer of judgment when seeking fees under an indemnity clause, and only raised enhanced fees under Alaska R. Civ. P. 82, before its reconsideration motion.
OUTCOME: Judgment affirmed.
COUNSEL: Christine S. Schleuss, Law Office of Christine S. Schleuss, Anchorage, for Appellant and Cross-Appellee.
Tracey L. Knutson, Girdwood, for Appellee and Cross-Appellant.
JUDGES: Before: Fabe, Chief Justice, Winfree, Stowers, Maassen, and Bolger, Justices.
OPINION BY: MAASSEN
This case arises from an injury at a climbing gym. Claire Donahue broke her tibia during a class at the Alaska Rock Gym after she dropped approximately three to four-and-a-half feet from a bouldering wall onto the floor mat. Before class Donahue had been required to read and sign a document that purported to release the Rock Gym from any liability for participants’ injuries.
Donahue brought claims against the Rock Gym for negligence and violations of the Uniform Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Act (UTPA). The Rock Gym moved for summary judgment, contending that the release bars Donahue’s negligence claim. It also moved to dismiss the UTPA claims on grounds that the act does not apply to personal injury claims and that Donahue failed to state a prima facie [*2] case for relief under the act. Donahue cross-moved for partial summary judgment on the enforceability of the release as well as the merits of her UTPA claims. The superior court granted the Rock Gym’s motion and denied Donahue’s, then awarded attorney’s fees to the Rock Gym under Alaska Civil Rule 82.
Donahue appeals the grant of summary judgment to the Rock Gym; the Rock Gym also appeals, contending that the superior court should have awarded fees under Alaska Civil Rule 68 instead of Rule 82. We affirm the superior court on all issues.
II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS
Ledgends, Inc. does business as the Alaska Rock Gym, a private indoor facility that is open to the public. Its interior walls have fixed climbing holds and routes; for a fee, it provides classes and open gym or free climbing time. There are signs posted around the Rock Gym warning of the dangers of climbing, including falling; at her deposition Donahue did not dispute that the signs were there when she visited the gym.
Donahue had been thinking about trying rock climbing for several years, and she finally decided in March 2008 to attend a class at the Rock Gym called “Rockin’ Women.” She testified that she chose the class because she thought it could be tailored to specific [*3] skill levels, and because she “got the impression [from the advertisements] that that is the type of group it was, that it was a . . . safe way to learn to climb.” She also testified she understood that the essential risk of climbing is falling.
Donahue had no rock climbing experience, but she was an occasional runner and cyclist and had pursued other high-risk athletic activities such as kite-boarding. She had been a river guide on the Colorado River after college. She had engaged in physical occupations such as commercial fishing and construction. She testified that she understood the nature of risky activities and felt competent to decide about them for herself. In connection with other recreational activities, she had signed releases and waivers similar to the one she signed at the Rock Gym. She testified that she understood that parties who sign contracts generally intend to be bound by them.
When Donahue arrived at the Rock Gym for her first class, she was given a document entitled “Participant Release of Liability, Waiver of Claims, Assumption of Risks, and Indemnity Agreement — Alaska Rock Gym.” She was aware of the document’s nature and general intent but testified that although [*4] she signed it voluntarily, she did not read it closely.
The release contains nine numbered sections on two single-spaced pages. There is also an unnumbered introductory paragraph; it defines the Rock Gym to include, among others, its agents, owners, participants, and employees, as well as “all other persons or entities acting in any capacity on its behalf.”
Section one of the release contains three paragraphs. The first recites the general risks of rock climbing, including injury and death, and explains that these risks are essential to the sport and therefore cannot be eliminated. The second paragraph lists about a dozen specific risks inherent in rock climbing, including “falling off the climbing wall,” “impacting the ground,” “the negligence of other[s],” and “my own negligence[,] inexperience, . . . or fatigue.” The third paragraph asserts that the gym and its instructors “seek safety, but they are not infallible.” It describes some errors instructors might make, including being ignorant of a participant’s abilities and failing to give adequate warnings or instructions. The final sentence in the third paragraph reads, “By signing this [release], I acknowledge that I AM ULTIMATELY RESPONSIBLE [*5] for my own safety during my use of or participation in [Rock Gym] facilities, equipment, rentals, or activities.”
Section two begins, “I expressly agree and promise to accept and assume all the risks . . .”; it then highlights the voluntary nature of participation in Rock Gym activities.
Section three is the clause that releases the Rock Gym from liability (the releasing clause). It reads in full,
I hereby voluntarily release, forever discharge, and agree to indemnify and hold harmless the [Rock Gym] from any and all claims, demands, or causes of action, which are in any way connected with my participation in these activities or my use of [the Rock Gym’s] equipment, rentals or facilities, including any such claims which allege negligent acts or omissions of [the Rock Gym].
The next six sections of the release address other issues: indemnification for attorney’s fees, certification that the participant is fit to climb, permission to provide first aid, permission to photograph for promotional purposes, the voluntariness of participation and signing the release, and jurisdiction for claims arising from the release.
The ultimate paragraph is printed in bold. It reads in part,
By signing this [*6] document, I acknowledge that if anyone is hurt or killed or property is damaged during my participation in or use of [Rock Gym] activities or premises or facilities or rental equipment, I may be found by a court of law to have waived my right to maintain a lawsuit against [the Rock Gym] on the basis of any claim from which I have released them herein.
Finally, centered on the second page, in bold capital letters directly above the signature line, the release reads: “I HAVE HAD SUFFICIENT OPPORTUNITY TO READ THIS ENTIRE DOCUMENT. I HAVE READ AND UNDERSTOOD IT, AND I AGREE TO BE BOUND BY ITS TERMS.”
Donahue’s hand-printed name and the date appear on the first page of the release, and her initials are at the bottom of the page; her signature appears on the second page, along with her printed name, her contact information, and the date.
Donahue completed her first class on harnessed climbing on March 23, 2008, and returned for a second class on May 11. When class began she was told that the day’s focus would be on bouldering, or unharnessed climbing on low walls. She did not express any hesitation. She climbed for almost two hours, successfully ascending and descending a number of routes. [*7] During this time she saw other people drop from the wall without injury. After another successful ascent near the end of the lesson, she felt unable to climb down using the available holds. Her feet were somewhere between three and four-and-a-half feet from the ground. Her instructor suggested that she drop to the mat and told her to be sure to bend her knees. Donahue landed awkwardly and broke her tibia in four places. She was attended to immediately by Rock Gym personnel and a physician who happened to be present.
The Rock Gym had run various advertisements during the two years preceding Donahue’s accident, using a number of different slogans. One newspaper ad, running on at least three occasions, stated: “[T]the only safe place in town to hang out.” Another Rock Gym ad showed an adult bouldering and a child climbing while harnessed; its text contained the same slogan and added, in part, “Trust us, it still exists. . . . [E]very child in your family will be reminded of what it’s all about — friends and fun.” A third ad described climbing programs for everyone in the family and said, “[Y]ou have nothing to lose and everything to gain.” In an affidavit, Donahue testified she had read these ads.
Donahue [*8] sued the Rock Gym for negligent failure to adequately train and supervise its instructors. She alleged that the Rock Gym was liable for its employee’s negligent instruction to drop from the bouldering wall. She also alleged a violation of the Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Act, contending that the Rock Gym’s advertisements “misleadingly advertised [the gym] as a safe place where users of its services had nothing to lose and everything to gain.”
The Rock Gym moved for summary judgment on all of Donahue’s claims. She opposed the motion and cross-moved for partial summary judgment herself, arguing that the Rock Gym had violated the UTPA as a matter of law and that the release she had signed was null and void.
The superior court granted the Rock Gym’s motion and denied Donahue’s cross-motion. It then granted the Rock Gym, as prevailing party, partial attorney’s fees under Civil Rule 82(a)(3).
III. STANDARDS OF REVIEW
[HN1] We review grants of summary judgment de novo, determining whether the record presents any genuine issues of material fact.1 In making this determination, we construe the facts in favor of the non-moving party.2 If the record fails to reveal a genuine factual dispute and the moving [*9] party was entitled to judgment as a matter of law, the trial court’s grant of summary judgment must be affirmed.3
1 Hill v. Giani, 296 P.3d 14, 20 (Alaska 2013) (citing Yost v. State, Div. of Corps., Bus. & Prof’l Licensing, 234 P.3d 1264, 1272 (Alaska 2010)).
2 Id. (citing McCormick v. City of Dillingham, 16 P.3d 735, 738 (Alaska 2001)).
3 Kelly v. Municipality of Anchorage, 270 P.3d 801, 803 (Alaska 2012).
[HN2] We decide questions of law, including statutory interpretation, using our independent judgment.4 We will adopt the most persuasive rule of law in light of precedent, reason, and policy.5 This requires us, when interpreting statutes, to “look to the meaning of the language, the legislative history, and the purpose of the statute.”6
4 Therchik v. Grant Aviation, Inc., 74 P.3d 191, 193 (Alaska 2003).
5 ASRC Energy Servs. Power & Commc’ns, LLC v. Golden Valley Electric Ass’n, 267 P.3d 1151, 1157 (Alaska 2011).
[HN3] “A superior court’s determination whether waiver occurred is a question of fact that we review for clear error.”7
7 Sengul v. CMS Franklin, Inc., 265 P.3d 320, 324 (Alaska 2011).
A. The Release Is Enforceable And Bars Donahue’s Negligence Claims.
Three cases define Alaska law on pre-activity releases from liability.8 [HN4] These cases consistently state that such releases are not per se invalid;9 in each of the cases, however, we concluded that the release at issue did not bar the plaintiff’s claim.
8 Ledgends, Inc. v. Kerr, 91 P.3d 960 (Alaska 2004); Moore v. Hartley Motors, Inc., 36 P.3d 628 (Alaska 2001); Kissick v. Schmierer, 816 P.2d 188 (Alaska 1991).
9 Kerr, 91 P.3d at 961-62 (noting that “under Alaska law pre-recreational exculpatory releases are held to a very high standard of clarity”); Moore, 36 P.3d at 631 (noting that “an otherwise valid release is ineffective when releasing a defendant from liability would violate public policy” (emphasis added)); Kissick, 816 P.2d at 191 (“A promise not to [*10] sue for future damage caused by simple negligence may be valid.” (quoting 15 Samuel Williston, A Treatise on the Law of Contracts § 1750A, at 143-45 (3d ed. 1972)); see also Mitchell v. Mitchell, 655 P.2d 748, 751 (Alaska 1982) (upholding provision not to sue in settlement agreement and noting that, “[a]s a matter of law, . . . a valid release of all claims will bar any subsequent claims covered by the release”).
Kissick v. Schmierer involved a plane crash that caused the deaths of all four people aboard.10 The three passengers had signed a covenant not to sue before they boarded the plane.11 They agreed in the release not to bring a claim “for any loss, damage, or injury to [their] person or [their] property which may occur from any cause whatsoever.”12 When the passengers’ surviving spouses filed wrongful death claims against the pilot, their claims were allowed to proceed despite the release.13 We ruled that [HN5] “[i]ntent to release a party from liability for future negligence must be conspicuously and unequivocally expressed.”14 We also held that a release must use the word “negligence” to establish the required degree of clarity, something the release in Kissick did not do.15 Further, since liability for “death” was not specifically disclaimed and the term “injury” [*11] was ambiguous, we held that the release did not apply to claims for wrongful death, construing it against the drafter.16
10 Kissick, 816 P.2d at 188.
11 Id. at 189.
14 Id. at 191 (citations omitted).
15 Id. (citing W.Page Keeton, et al., Prosser and Keeton on the Law of Torts § 68, at 483-84 (5th ed.1984) (footnotes omitted)).
16 Id. at 191-92.
The second case, Moore v. Hartley Motors, involved an injury during a class on driving all-terrain vehicles (ATVs).17 We first addressed whether the plaintiff’s signed release violated public policy.18 We noted that the type of service involved was neither essential nor regulated by statute;19 these factors, along with the voluntariness of the plaintiff’s participation, persuaded us that the defendants 20 had no “decisive advantage in bargaining strength.”21 We therefore held that the release did not violate public policy.22
17 36 P.3d 628, 629 (Alaska 2001).
18 Id. at 631-32.
19 Id. at 631-32 (noting that ATV riding is similar to parachuting, dirt biking, and scuba diving, for which releases have been upheld in other jurisdictions).
20 The defendants included the dealer that sold the plaintiff the ATV and referred her to the safety course, the ATV Safety Institute that developed the curriculum, and the individual instructor. Id. at 629.
21 Id. at 631-32.
We did decide, however, that the release did not conspicuously and unequivocally [*12] express an intent to release the defendants from liability for the cause of the exact injury that occurred — a rollover when the plaintiff drove over a big rock hidden in tall grass.23 The release covered the inherent risks of ATV riding, but we found that it also included “an implied and reasonable presumption that the course [was] not unreasonably dangerous.”24 We found there to be fact questions about whether “the course posed a risk beyond ordinary negligence related to the inherent risks of off-road ATV riding assumed by the release,” and we held that summary judgment for the defendants on the basis of the release was therefore improper.25
23 Id. at 632.
25 Id. at 633-34.
The third case, Ledgends, Inc. v. Kerr, involved the same rock gym as this case.26 It involved a similar injury as well, sustained when the plaintiff fell from a bouldering wall.27 Unlike Donahue, however, who landed squarely on the floor mat, the plaintiff in Kerr was allegedly injured when her foot slipped through the space between two floor mats.28 The plaintiff alleged the gym knew of the defect in the landing area but had failed to fix it.29
26 91 P.3d 960 (Alaska 2004).
27 Id. at 961.
The superior court, whose order we approved and attached as an appendix to our opinion, cited Kissick [*13] for the notion that a pre-activity release for tortious conduct must be “clear, explicit, and comprehensible in each of its essential details.”30 The superior court also noted the requirement that “such an agreement, read as a whole, must clearly notify the prospective releasor or indemnitor of the effect of signing the release.”31 With these principles in mind, the superior court pointed to language in the release that was problematic because it was internally inconsistent: the release stated that the gym would try to keep its facilities safe and its equipment in good condition, but it simultaneously disclaimed liability for actions that failed to meet such standards.32 The superior court construed this ambiguity against the drafter and held that the release was not valid as a bar to the plaintiff’s negligence claims, a holding we affirmed.33
30 Id. at 961-62 (quoting Kissick v. Schmierer, 816 P.2d 188, 191 (Alaska 1991)) (internal quotation marks omitted).
31 Id. at 962 (quoting Kissick, 816 P.2d at 191) (internal quotation marks omitted).
32 Id. at 963.
In this case, the superior court concluded that Kissick, Moore, and Kerr, considered together, meant that [HN6] “an effective liability release requires six characteristics.” We agree with the superior court’s formulation of the list:
(1) the risk being waived must [*14] be specifically and clearly set forth (e.g. death, bodily injury, and property damage); (2) a waiver of negligence must be specifically set forth using the word “negligence”; (3) these factors must be brought home to the releasor in clear, emphasized language by using simple words and capital letters; (4) the release must not violate public policy; (5) if a release seeks to exculpate a defendant from liability for acts of negligence unrelated to inherent risks, the release must suggest an intent to do so; and (6) the release agreement must not represent or insinuate standards of safety or maintenance.
The superior court found that each of these characteristics was satisfied in this case, and again we agree.34
34 Donahue does not challenge the release on public policy grounds, so the fourth characteristic of a valid release is satisfied here. Alaska recognizes that recreational releases from liability for negligence are not void as a matter of public policy, because to hold otherwise would impose unreasonable burdens on businesses whose patrons want to engage in high-risk physical activities. Kissick, 816 P.2d at 191 (“A promise not to sue for future damage caused by simple negligence may be valid.” (internal citations [*15] and quotation marks omitted)). The New Jersey Supreme Court, in a case involving claims against a health club, held that liability releases in gym cases do not violate public policy in part because gyms remain liable for their gross negligence or recklessness — levels of culpability not alleged in this case. Stelluti v. Casapenn Enters., 203 N.J. 286, 1 A.3d 678, 681 (N.J. 2010); see also City of Santa Barbara v. Super. Ct., 41 Cal. 4th 747, 62 Cal. Rptr. 3d 527, 161 P.3d 1095, 1102-03 (Cal. 2007) (surveying jurisdictions and concluding that “[m]ost, but not all” hold that releases of ordinary negligence in recreational activities do not violate public policy but “the vast majority of decisions state or hold that such agreements generally are void” if they attempt to release “aggravated misconduct” such as gross negligence).
1. The risks being waived (falling and instructor negligence) are specifically and clearly set forth.
[HN7] A conspicuous and unequivocal statement of the risk waived is the keystone of a valid release.35 Here, the release clearly and repeatedly disclosed the risk of the specific injury at issue: injury from falling while climbing. The following are excerpts from the Rock Gym’s release:
I specifically acknowledge that the inherent risks associated with rock climbing . . . include, but [are] not limited to: falling off of the climbing wall, . . . impacting [*16] the ground . . . , general slips/trips/falls or painful crashes while using any of the equipment or walls or bouldering areas or landing pits or work-out areas or the climbing structures or the premises at large, climbing out of control or beyond my or another participant’s limits, . . . my own negligence or inexperience, dehydration or exhaustion or cramps or fatigue . . . .
To the extent that the risk at issue is the risk of hitting the ground after falling (or dropping in what is essentially an intentional fall), the first characteristic of a valid release is satisfied by this language.
35 Kerr, 91 P.3d at 961; Moore v. Hartley Motors, Inc., 36 P.3d 628, 632 (Alaska 2001); Kissick, 816 P.2d at 191.
Rather than focusing on her injury, however, Donahue focuses on its alleged cause, which she argues was the negligent training and supervision of Rock Gym instructors and the consequently negligent instructions she was given. She claims that the release did not specifically and clearly set forth this risk, and that she was therefore unaware that she was waiving the right to sue for instructor negligence.
But the release did cover this risk. The first paragraph expressly incorporates “employees” into the definition of the entity being released. The release further warns that Rock Gym “instructors, [*17] employees, volunteers, agents or others . . . are not infallible” and that “[t]hey may give inadequate warnings or instructions.” In its on-site interactions with the public, the Rock Gym necessarily acts through its instructors and other employees; Donahue knew she would be taking a class and that classes require instructors. It would not be reasonable to conclude that the Rock Gym sought a release only of those claims against it that did not involve the acts or omissions of any of its employees, and we cannot construe the release in that way.36 We agree with the superior court’s conclusion that “the Release clearly expresses that it is a release of liability for the negligence of the releasor-participant, other participants, climbers, spotters or visitors, as well as [the Rock Gym’s] negligence, including [Rock Gym] employees.”
36 See Kahn v. E. Side Union High Sch. Dist., 31 Cal. 4th 990, 4 Cal. Rptr. 3d 103, 75 P.3d 30, 40 (Cal. 2003) (holding that “the risks associated with learning a sport may themselves be inherent risks of the sport. . . . [A]nd . . . liability should not be imposed simply because an instructor asked the student to take action beyond what, with hindsight, is found to have been the student’s abilities” (internal citations and quotation marks omitted)).
Donahue also argues that [*18] she could not understand the risks involved due to the release’s appearance and presentation. However, even viewing the facts in the light most favorable to her, the record does not support her argument. Although Donahue did not carefully read the release before signing it,37 she was aware she was signing a liability release. She has signed a number of such documents in the past and was familiar with their general purpose. When asked to read the release at her deposition, she testified that she understood the pertinent risks it described. There is no reason to believe that she would have found it less comprehensible had she read it at the time she signed it.
37 [HN8] Failure to read a contract in detail before signing it is no defense to its enforceability. Lauvetz v. Alaska Sales & Serv., 828 P.2d 162, 164-65 (Alaska 1991).
2. The waiver of negligence is specifically set forth using the word “negligence.”
Kissick and Kerr both emphasize that a valid release from liability for negligence claims requires use of the word “negligence.”38 This requirement is met here.
38 Kerr, 91 P.3d at 961; Kissick, 816 P.2d at 191.
The Rock Gym’s release first lists negligence among the inherent risks of climbing (“the negligence of other climbers or spotters or visitors or participants” and “my own negligence”). It then provides: [*19] “I hereby voluntarily release, forever discharge, and agree to indemnify and hold harmless the [Rock Gym] from any and all claims, demands, or causes of action, . . . including any such claims which allege negligent acts or omissions of [the Rock Gym].” (Emphasis added.) The phrase “any and all claims” is thus expressly defined to include claims for negligence.
Cases from other jurisdictions support the conclusion that the language in the Rock Gym’s release covers all of Donahue’s negligence claims. In Rosencrans v. Dover Images, Ltd., the plaintiff was injured on a motocross track after falling from his bike and being struck by two other riders.39 A California Court of Appeal concluded that the signed waiver releasing the track from liability for “any losses or damages . . . whether caused by the negligence of [the Releasees] or otherwise” precluded the plaintiff’s claim “for ordinary negligence as well as negligent hiring and supervision” of employees at the racetrack (though it did not release the track from liability for gross negligence — a claim not made here).40
39 192 Cal. App. 4th 1072, 122 Cal. Rptr. 3d 22, 27 (Cal. App. 2011).
40 Id. at 30. See also Morris v. JTM Materials, Inc., 78 S.W.3d 28, 49 (Tex. App. 2002) (“Negligent hiring, retention, and supervision claims are all simple negligence causes of action based on an [*20] employer’s direct negligence rather than on vicarious liability.” (citations omitted)).
In short, the requirement that a waiver of negligence be specifically set out using the word “negligence” is satisfied by the Rock Gym’s release.
3. The important factors are brought home to the releasor in clear, emphasized language with simple words and capital letters.
Donahue argues that although “negligence” is expressly mentioned and disclaimed in the release, its placement at the end of long sentences written in small font rendered its presence meaningless to her. Quoting a California case, she argues that when the risk of negligence is shifted, a layperson “should not be required to muddle through complex language to know that valuable, legal rights are being relinquished.”41 Donahue also cites New Hampshire and Washington cases in which the structure and organization of releases obscured the language that purported to shield the defendants from claims.42 These cases considered factors such as “whether the waiver is set apart or hidden within other provisions, whether the heading is clear, [and] whether the waiver is set off in capital letters or in bold type.”43 In one Washington case, a release [*21] was invalidated because the releasing language was in the middle of a paragraph.44
41 Conservatorship of the Estate of Link v. Nat’l Ass’n for Stock Car Auto Racing, Inc., 158 Cal. App. 3d 138, 205 Cal. Rptr. 513, 515 (Cal. App. 1984).
42 See Wright v. Loon Mtn. Recreation Corp., 140 N.H. 166, 663 A.2d 1340, 1342 (N.H. 1995); Johnson v. UBAR, LLC, 150 Wn. App. 533, 210 P.3d 1021, 1023 (Wash. App. 2009).
43 Johnson, 210 P.3d at 1023 (citing Baker v. City of Seattle, 79 Wn.2d 198, 484 P.2d 405 (Wash. 1971)).
44 Baker, 484 P.2d at 407.
Fundamentally, Donahue argues that the Rock Gym’s release was so ambiguous and laden with legalese that she lacked any real ability to understand that she was agreeing to release the Rock Gym from the negligence of its instructors. She complains of the release’s “lengthy, small-printed, and convoluted” language which required a “magnifying glass and lexicon” to decipher. She points out that the clause purporting to release the Rock Gym from liability is not obvious or emphasized through bold print or capital letters. She testified at her deposition that she believed the waiver shielded the gym only “from frivolous lawsuits, from people blaming them for something that’s not their fault.”
It is true that the release’s text is small and the releasing clause is in the middle of the document toward the bottom of the first page. But the clauses addressing negligence do not appear to be “calculated to conceal,” as Donahue argues. Though not highlighted, they are in a logical place where they cannot be missed by someone who reads the release. The clause releasing the Rock Gym from liability is [*22] a single sentence set out as its own numbered paragraph, and it is not confusing or needlessly wordy.45 The inherent risks of climbing are enumerated in great detail but using ordinary descriptive language that is easy to understand.46 Several sentences are devoted to the role of the gym’s “instructors, employees, volunteers, agents or others,” stating that they “have difficult jobs to perform,” that they “seek safety, but they are not infallible,” and that they may “be ignorant of mine or another participant’s fitness or abilities” and “may give inadequate warnings or instructions.”
45 Paragraph 3 of the release reads: “I hereby voluntarily release, forever discharge, and agree to indemnify and hold harmless the [Rock Gym] from any and all claims, demands, or causes of action, which are in any way connected with my participation in these activities or my use of [the Rock Gym’s] equipment, rentals or facilities, including any such claims which allege negligent acts or omissions of [the Rock Gym].”
46 Paragraph 1 of the release lists the inherent risks of climbing as including “but . . . not limited to”:
falling off of the climbing wall, being fallen on or impacted by other participants, poor or [*23] improper belaying, the possibility that I will be jolted or jarred or bounced or thrown to and fro or shaken about while climbing or belaying, entanglement in ropes, impacting the ground and/or climbing wall, loose or dropped or damaged ropes or holds, equipment failure, improperly maintained equipment which I may or may not be renting from [the Rock Gym], displaced pads or safety equipment, belay or anchor or harness failure, general slips/trips/falls or painful crashes while using any of the equipment or walls or bouldering areas or landing pits or work-out areas or the climbing structures or the premises at large, climbing out of control or beyond my or another participant[‘s] limits, the negligence of other climbers or spotters or visitors or participants who may be present, participants giving or following inappropriate “Beta” or climbing advice or move sequences, mine or others’ failure to follow the rules of the [Rock Gym], my own negligence or inexperience, dehydration or exhaustion or cramps or fatigue — some or all of which may diminish my or the other participants’ ability to react or respond.
Because [HN9] releases should be read “as a whole” in order to decide whether they “clearly [*24] notify the prospective releasor or indemnitor of the effect of signing the agreement,”47 we consider these provisions in the context of the entire document. Three other sections of emphasized text mitigate Donahue’s complaints about ambiguity and incomprehensibility. First, section one reads in part, “I AM ULTIMATELY RESPONSIBLE for my own safety during my use of or participation in [Rock Gym] facilities, equipment, rentals or activities” (bold in original). This alone makes it clear to the reader that the Rock Gym, to the extent it is allowed to do so, intends to shift responsibility to the climber regardless of the actions of anyone else. Second, a final unnumbered paragraph, set out in bold letters, reads in part: “By signing this document, I acknowledge that if anyone is hurt or killed or property is damaged during my participation in or use of [Rock Gym] activities or premises or facilities or rental equipment, I may be found by a court of law to have waived my right to maintain a lawsuit against [the Rock Gym] on the basis of any claim from which I have released them herein.” And finally, directly above the lines where Donahue entered her signature, her printed name, her contact [*25] information, and the date, the release reads, in bold and capital letters, “I HAVE READ AND UNDERSTOOD [THE RELEASE], AND I AGREE TO BE BOUND BY ITS TERMS.” If Donahue had read the release and found herself genuinely confused about any of its terms, she was prominently notified that she should inquire about it before signing.
47 Kissick v. Schmierer, 816 P.2d 188, 191 (Alaska 1991).
The New Hampshire case on which Donahue relies, Wright v. Loon Mountain Recreation Corp., examined the release in question to determine whether “a reasonable person in the position of the plaintiff would have understood that the agreement clearly and specifically indicated the intent to release the defendant from liability for its own negligence.”48 Applying that test here, we conclude that a reasonable person in Donahue’s position could not have overlooked or misunderstood the release’s intent to disclaim liability. Our case law’s third characteristic of a valid release is therefore satisfied.
48 140 N.H. 166, 663 A.2d 1340, 1343-44 (N.H. 1995); see also Johnson, 210 P.3d at 1021 (holding reasonable persons could disagree about the conspicuousness of the release provision in the waiver, and remanding for trial).
4. Regardless of whether falling and instructor negligence are inherent risks of rock climbing, the release specifically disclaims [*26] liability for them.
The fifth characteristic set forth by the superior court 49 is that “if a release seeks to exculpate a defendant from liability for acts of negligence unrelated to inherent risks, the release must suggest an intent to do so.”50 This requirement stems from the release’s ill-defined scope in Moore; the injury that occurred — arguably caused by an unreasonably dangerous ATV training course — was not obviously included in the inherent risks of riding ATVs, which the signed release did intend to cover.51 Here, in contrast, the injury and its alleged causes are all expressly covered by the release, as explained above. Negligence claims are specifically contemplated, as are “falls,” “impact” with the ground, and “inadequate warnings or instructions” from Rock Gym instructors. Regardless of whether these are inherent risks of climbing, they are specifically covered by the release. This characteristic of a valid release is therefore satisfied.
49 As noted above, the fourth characteristic of a valid release — that it not violate public policy — is not at issue on this appeal. See supra note 34.
50 See Moore v. Hartley Motors, Inc., 36 P.3d 628, 633-34 (Alaska 2001).
5. The release does not represent or imply standards of safety or maintenance that [*27] conflict with an intent to release negligence claims.
The sixth characteristic of a valid release is that it does not imply standards of safety or maintenance that conflict with an intent to waive claims for negligence.52 The Rock Gym argues that nothing in the release confuses its purpose, unlike the release at issue in Kerr, which at least implicitly promised that equipment would be kept “in good condition.”53 We agree. In fact, far from providing assurances of safety, the release highlights the fallibility of the Rock Gym’s employees, equipment, and facilities, explicitly stating that the equipment may “fail,” “malfunction[,] or be poorly maintained” and that the staff is “not infallible,” may be ignorant of a climber’s “fitness or abilities,” and “may give inadequate warnings or instructions.”
52 See Ledgends, Inc. v. Kerr, 91 P.3d 960, 962-63 (Alaska 2004).
53 Id. at 963.
Donahue agrees that the release is not internally inconsistent, but she argues that the advertisements run by the Rock Gym had the same confounding impact on her understanding of it as the release’s language about equipment maintenance had in Kerr. She contends that she relied on the ads’ assurances that the gym was “a safe place” and the class “would be a safe way to learn to climb” when [*28] she enrolled in the climbing class. She argues that these assurances created ambiguity that, as in Kerr, requires that the release be interpreted in a less exculpatory way.
Although extrinsic evidence may be admissible as an aid to contract interpretation,54 the release here clearly defines climbing as an inherently risky activity. And we have said that
[HN10] where one section deals with a subject in general terms and another deals with a part of the same subject in a more detailed way, the two should be harmonized if possible; but if there is a conflict, the specific section will control over the general.55
Were we to give the Rock Gym’s advertisements any weight in our analysis of the release, we would not find that their use of the word “safe” overrode the release’s very clear warnings about the specific risks of climbing.
54 Norville v. Carr-Gottstein Foods Co., 84 P.3d 996, 1004 (Alaska 2004) (citing Municipality of Anchorage v. Gentile, 922 P.2d 248, 256 (Alaska 1996)).
55 Id. (quoting Estate of Hutchinson, 577 P.2d 1074, 1075 (Alaska 1978)).
Because the advertisements cannot reasonably be considered as modifications to the release, and because the release does not otherwise contain implicit guarantees of safety or maintenance that could confuse its purpose, we find the final requirement of a valid release to be satisfied. The release thus satisfies all characteristics of a valid release [*29] identified by our case law, and we affirm the superior court’s grant of summary judgment to the Rock Gym on this issue.
B. The UTPA Does Not Apply To Personal Injury Claims.
[HN11] Under the UTPA, “[a] person who suffers an ascertainable loss of money or property as a result of another person’s act or practice declared unlawful by AS 45.50.471 may bring a civil action to recover for each unlawful act or practice three times the actual damages . . . .”56 Donahue alleges that, by publishing ads that gave the impression the Rock Gym was safe, the Rock Gym engaged in “unfair methods of competition and unfair or deceptive acts or practices in the conduct of trade or commerce” which are unlawful under the statute.57 [HN12] We have not yet decided whether the statutory phrase “loss of money or property” includes personal injury claims. We now hold that it does not.
56 AS 45.50.531(a) (emphasis added).
57 AS 45.50.471(a).
[HN13] The UTPA was “designed to meet the increasing need in Alaska for the protection of consumers as well as honest businessmen from the depredations of those persons employing unfair or deceptive trade practices.”58 The act protects the consumer from deceptive sales and advertising practices,59 and it protects honest businesses from their unethical [*30] competitors.60 Donahue concedes that we have limited the UTPA to “regulating practices relating to transactions involving consumer goods and services.”61 She contends, however, that because we have never restricted the types of damages available for conduct within the UTPA’s reach, damages for personal injury should be recoverable.
58 W. Star Trucks, Inc. v. Big Iron Equip. Serv., Inc., 101 P.3d 1047, 1052 (Alaska 2004) (quoting House Judiciary Committee Report on HCSCS for S.B. 352, House Journal Supp. No. 10 at 1, 1970 House Journal 744) (court’s emphasis and internal quotation marks omitted).
59 See, e.g., Kenai Chrysler Ctr., Inc. v. Denison, 167 P.3d 1240, 1244-45 (Alaska 2007) (affirming superior court’s award of treble damages against a car dealer for its insistence on enforcing an invalid contract); Pierce v. Catalina Yachts, Inc., 2 P.3d 618, 624 (Alaska 2000) (holding unconscionable sailboat manufacturer’s warranty in favor of buyers).
60 See, e.g., Garrison v. Dixon, 19 P.3d 1229, 1230-31, 1236 (Alaska 2001) (holding suit to be frivolous where real estate buyer’s agents sued competitors, alleging false and misleading advertising); Odom v. Fairbanks Mem’l Hosp., 999 P.2d 123, 127, 131-32 (Alaska 2000) (holding viable physician’s claims against hospital for retaliatory and anticompetitive behavior).
61 See Roberson v. Southwood Manor Assocs., LLC, 249 P.3d 1059, 1062 (Alaska 2011) (holding the UTPA does not apply to residential leases) (citing Aloha Lumber Corp. v. Univ. of Alaska, 994 P.2d 991, 1002 (Alaska 1999) (holding the UTPA does not apply to the sale of standing timber because it is real property rather than a consumer good)).
The superior court observed that there is nothing [*31] in the UTPA’s legislative history to support Donahue’s contention that the Alaska Legislature intended the act “to expand liability for personal injury or wrongful death or to supplant negligence as the basis for such liability.” The superior court identified “significant incongruities between the elements of common law personal injury claims and the UTPA, which suggest that the two claims cannot be reconciled.” The court explained:
For most of the past twenty years the Alaska Legislature has enacted and amended, in various forms, multiple iterations of tort reform aimed at reducing, not expanding, the scope of civil liability for personal injury and wrongful death. Expanding UTPA liability to personal injury and wrongful death would contradict many of the tort reform provisions enacted by the legislature in AS 09.17.010-080. For example, AS 09.17.020 allows punitive damages only if the plaintiff proves defendant’s conduct was outrageous, including acts done with malice or bad motives, or with reckless indifference to the interest of another person. The UTPA, on the other hand, does not require such a culpable mental state and almost as a matter of course allows a person to receive trebled actual damages. [*32] AS 09.17.060 limits a claimant’s recovery by the amount attributable to the claimant’s contributory fault; the UTPA, in contrast, does not provide a contributory fault defense. Moreover, AS 09.17.080 apportions damages between multiple tortfeasors whereas the UTPA does not permit apportionment of damages. A UTPA cause of action for personal injury or wrongful death would sidestep all of these civil damages protections.
We agree with the superior court that [HN14] the private cause of action available under the UTPA conflicts in too many ways with the traditional claim for personal injury or wrongful death for us to assume, without clear legislative direction, that the legislature intended the act to provide an alternative vehicle for such suits. The language of AS 45.50.531(a) — “ascertainable loss of money or property” — does not provide that clear direction. The legislature is well aware of how to identify causes of action involving personal injury and wrongful death, does so in other contexts,62 and declined to do so in this statute.
62 See, e.g., AS 04.21.020(e) (for purposes of statute governing civil liability of persons providing alcoholic beverages, ” ‘civil damages’ includes damages for personal injury, death, or injury to property of a person”); [*33] AS 05.45.200(4) (in statutes governing liability of ski resorts, “‘injury’ means property damage, personal injury, or death”); AS 09.10.070(a) (providing general statute of limitations for “personal injury or death”); AS 09.17.010 (limiting noneconomic damages recoverable “for personal injury or wrongful death”); AS 46.03.825(b)(1) (providing that limitations on oil spill damages do not apply to “an action for personal injury or death”).
Other states have similar laws, and their courts’ interpretations are helpful. Section 531(a) has a counterpart in Oregon’s UTPA, which likewise allows private actions by those who suffer a “loss of money or property.”63 The Oregon Court of Appeals, considering an action for personal injuries occurring after a mechanic allegedly misrepresented the state of a car’s brakes, held that the UTPA was not a vehicle for the pursuit of personal injury claims.64 It held that the Act plainly had a restitutionary purpose — “i.e., restitution for economic loss suffered by a consumer as the result of a deceptive trade practice.”65 It noted the lack of any legislative history “to the effect that by the adoption of that provision the legislature intended to confer upon private individuals a new cause of action for personal injuries, including [*34] punitive damages and attorney fees,” or of “any decisions to that effect by the courts of any of the many other states which have adopted similar statutes.”66 It emphasized the availability of common law remedies, which provided a range of possible causes of action for personal injury — negligence, breach of warranty, and strict products liability — and noted that these remedies provide for a more expansive range of damages, such as pain and suffering, not available under the UTPA.67
63 ORS 646.638(1); ORS 646.608.
64 Gross-Haentjens v. Leckenby, 38 Ore. App. 313, 589 P.2d 1209, 1210-11 (Or. App. 1979).
65 Id. at 1210; see also Fowler v. Cooley, 239 Ore. App. 338, 245 P.3d 155, 161 (Or. App. 2010).
66 Gross-Haentjens, 589 P.2d at 1210-11.
67 Id. at 1211. Other courts have reached similar conclusions. See Beerman v. Toro Mfg. Corp., 1 Haw. App. 111, 615 P.2d 749, 754 (Haw. App. 1980) (“[T]hough individual actions based on damage to a consumer’s property may be within the purview of [the Hawaii consumer protection act], the scope of the statutes does not extend to personal injury actions.”); Kirksey v. Overton Pub, Inc., 804 S.W.2d 68, 73 (Tenn. App. 1990) (“We must hold that the General Assembly intended for the Consumer Protection Act to be used by a person claiming damages for an ascertainable loss of money or property due to an unfair or deceptive act or practice and not in a wrongful death action.”); Stevens v. Hyde Athletic Indus., Inc., 54 Wn. App. 366, 773 P.2d 871, 873 (Wash. App. 1989) (“We hold actions for personal injury do not fall within the coverage of the [Washington consumer protection act].”).
We agree with the reasoning of the Oregon court and conclude that Alaska’s [*35] UTPA does not provide the basis for a claim for personal injury.
C. The Superior Court Did Not Clearly Err In Finding That The Rock Gym Waived Any Claim For Rule 68 Attorney’s Fees.
The superior court granted the Rock Gym, as the prevailing party, 20 percent of its reasonable, actual attorney’s fees under Civil Rule 82(b)(2). [HN15] Twenty percent of “actual attorney’s fees which were necessarily incurred” is the presumptively reasonable award for a party who prevails in a case resolved short of trial but who does not recover a money judgment.68
68 See Williams v. Fagnani, 228 P.3d 71, 77 (Alaska 2010) (“Awards made pursuant to the schedule of Civil Rule 82(b) are presumptively correct.”).
The Rock Gym contends that it should have been awarded fees under Civil Rule 68 instead. [HN16] Rule 68 provides that (a) where an adverse party makes an offer to allow judgment entered against it in complete satisfaction of the claim, and (b) the judgment finally entered is at least five percent less favorable to the offeree than the offer, the offeree shall pay a percentage of the reasonable actual attorney’s fees incurred by the offeror from the date of the offer, the percentage depending on how close the parties are to trial when the offer is made. The Rock Gym made a Rule 68 offer of judgment on February 7, 2012, over two months before [*36] the April trial date. Donahue rejected the offer. Under these facts, once judgment was granted in the Rock Gym’s favor, the conditions for an award of 30 percent of “the offeror’s reasonable actual attorney’s fees” under the Rule 68 schedule were satisfied.69
69 Alaska R. Civ. P. 68(b)(3). We note that the award of fees under Rule 68 was likely to be only nominally greater than that under Rule 82. Rule 68 affects only fees incurred after the date the offer is made, here February 7, 2012. The parties had already completed their summary judgment briefing by that time, and summary judgment was entered a month later.
The question presented here, however, is whether the Rock Gym waived any request for Rule 68 fees. The Rock Gym initially argued to the superior court that it should be awarded full fees because of express language in the release, which reads:
Should [the Rock Gym] or anyone acting on their behalf, be required to incur attorney’s fees and costs to enforce this agreement, I agree to indemnify and hold them harmless for all such fees and costs.
While arguing this point, the Rock Gym noted in a footnote that it was eligible for full fees under AS 09.30.065 (the statute authorizing the Rule 68 procedure). But it made that observation only in support of its argument [*37] for full fees under the release. Its motion did not otherwise mention Rule 68; rather, as an alternative to fees under the indemnity clause, the Rock Gym asked the court to use its discretion to award up to 80 percent of its fees under Rule 82 — far more than the scheduled award of 20 percent — in light of Donahue’s “vexatious” behavior, particularly having complicated the case with claims under the UTPA.
The superior court denied the Rock Gym’s request for full fees based on the release and ordered it to submit an affidavit detailing its counsel’s billings. The order also stated, “Plaintiff should address the effect, if any, of defendant’s Rule 68 offer on the amount of fees that may be awarded.” The Rock Gym submitted the required fee affidavit and also moved for reconsideration, again arguing that full fees should be awarded under the release’s indemnity clause; again relying on Rule 82 as an alternative; and failing to mention Rule 68 at all. Donahue submitted no response.
The superior court again rejected the Rock Gym’s argument based on the release’s indemnity clause and ordered the Rock Gym to submit a more detailed fee affidavit. The Rock Gym filed another affidavit which did not address the offer of judgment. [*38]
In its third order, the superior court again rejected the Rock Gym’s request for full attorney’s fees and awarded 20 percent of its fees under Rule 82(b)(2). The Rock Gym again moved for reconsideration. This time the Rock Gym argued that it was entitled to 30 percent of its fees under Rule 68, relying on the footnote in its first motion to contend that the argument was not waived.70
70 As noted above, the increased percentage of attorney’s fees would only apply to those fees incurred after the date the offer of judgment was made; the amount at issue thus appears to be minimal.
The superior court then issued its fourth order on fees. It reaffirmed its Rule 82 award, finding that the Rock Gym had not adequately or timely made a claim under Rule 68. The court observed that the Rock Gym’s failure to make the claim earlier was likely a “tactical decision, initially, to pursue full attorney fees based on indemnity rather than present all of its alternative fee award theories at once.”
[HN17] The superior court’s finding that the Rock Gym waived a request for fees under Rule 68 is reviewed for clear error.71 We see no clear error here. The Rock Gym’s reference to its offer of judgment in its motion for attorney’s fees was made only to support its [*39] request for full fees under the indemnity provision of the release; the only alternative it expressly requested was an award of enhanced fees under Rule 82. As the superior court observed, it was not the court’s duty in this context “to solicit additional arguments for a moving party.”72 Nor was the superior court obliged to consider the Rule 68 argument when it was raised for the first time in motions for reconsideration.73 And under the circumstances of this case, including the modest difference between fee awards under Rule 82 and Rule 68 and an apparent deficiency in the Rule 68 offer itself,74 we cannot see plain error.75
71 See Sengul v. CMS Franklin, Inc., 265 P.3d 320, 324 (Alaska 2011).
72 See, e.g., Forshee v. Forshee, 145 P.3d 492, 498 (Alaska 2006).
73 See Haines v. Cox, 182 P.3d 1140, 1144 (Alaska 2008) (holding that the plaintiff’s submission of evidence only when she moved for reconsideration forecloses her claim that the court abused its discretion by failing to rely on that evidence); Koller v. Reft, 71 P.3d 800, 805 n.10 (Alaska 2003) (noting that superior court is not obliged to consider documents presented for the first time with a motion for reconsideration).
74 The offer did not encompass the Rock Gym’s counterclaim against Donahue for contractual indemnity. See Progressive Corp. v. Peter ex rel. Peter, 195 P.3d 1083, 1089 (Alaska 2008) (“Both Rule 68 and AS 09.30.065 . . . implicitly require that an offer of judgment include all claims between the parties and be capable of completely resolving the case by way of a final [*40] judgment if accepted.”).
75 [HN18] The plain error doctrine requires a party to prove that the error waived below was “so prejudicial that failure to correct it will perpetuate a manifest injustice.” Forshee, 145 P.3d at 500 n.36 (quoting Hosier v. State, 1 P.3d 107, 112 n.11 (Alaska App. 2000)) (internal quotation marks omitted).
The judgment of the superior court is AFFIRMED.