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Ho v Steep Rock Bouldering, LLC, 2018 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 32; 2018 NY Slip Op 30006(U)

Ho v Steep Rock Bouldering, LLC, 2018 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 32; 2018 NY Slip Op 30006(U)

[**1] Min-Sun Ho, Plaintiff, – v – Steep Rock Bouldering, LLC, Defendant. INDEX NO. 150074/2016

150074/2016

SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, NEW YORK COUNTY

2018 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 32; 2018 NY Slip Op 30006(U)

January 2, 2018, Decided

NOTICE: THIS OPINION IS UNCORRECTED AND WILL NOT BE PUBLISHED IN THE PRINTED OFFICIAL REPORTS.

CORE TERMS: climbing, bouldering, rock, gym’s, rope, harness, spotter, opined, climb, climber, falling, affirmation, feet, mat, climbed, sport, orientation, roommate, height, summary judgment, top, spotting, assumption of risk, instructor, padding, false sense of security, indoor, reply, quotation, skill

JUDGES: [*1] PRESENT: Hon. Robert D. KALISH, Justice.

OPINION BY: Robert D. KALISH

OPINION

Motion by Defendant Steep Rock Bouldering, LLC pursuant to CPLR 3212 for an order granting summary judgment against Plaintiff Min-Sun Ho is granted.

BACKGROUND

I. Overview

Plaintiff brought this action seeking damages for injuries she sustained on October 12, 2015, while at Defendant’s bouldering gym, Steep Rock Bouldering. Plaintiff alleges, in sum and substance, that, due to the negligence of Defendant, she fell from Defendant’s gym’s indoor climbing wall and landed on her right arm, tearing ligaments and breaking a bone in the arm and elbow area, which required surgery. Defendant argues, in sum and substance, that Plaintiff assumed the risk of injury from a fall at its gym and that its gym provided an appropriate level of safety and protection for boulderers through warnings, notices, an orientation, equipment, and the nature of the climbing wall itself. As such, Defendant argues it had no further duty to Plaintiff. Plaintiff argues, in sum and substance, that she did not assume the risk of an injury from falling off of the climbing wall.

[**2] II. Procedural History

Plaintiff commenced the instant action against Defendant on January 5, 2016, [*2] by e-filing a summons and a complaint alleging a negligence cause of action. (Goldstein affirmation, exhibit A.) Defendant answered on March 28, 2016, denying all the allegations in the complaint and asserting 21 affirmative defenses, including Plaintiff’s assumption of the risk. (Goldstein affirmation, exhibit B.)

The examination before trial (“EBT”) of Plaintiff was held on February 14, 2017. (Goldstein affirmation, exhibit E [Ho EBT].) The EBT of Defendant, taken of witness Vivian Kalea (“Kalea”), was held on February 23, 2017. (Goldstein affirmation, exhibit F [Kalea EBT].) Plaintiff provided Defendant with her liability expert’s disclosure pursuant to CPLR 3101 (d) on or about March 27, 2017. (Goldstein affirmation, exhibit G.) Plaintiff filed the note of issue in this action on May 4, 2017. (Goldstein affirmation, exhibit J.)

On or about May 25, 2017, Defendant moved to strike Plaintiff’s note of issue. On or about May 30, 2017, Plaintiff cross-moved to preclude certain expert and medical testimony from Defendant at trial due to Defendant’s alleged failure to provide timely disclosures. Defendant provided Plaintiff with its liability expert’s disclosure pursuant to CPLR 3101 (d) on or about June 16, 2017. [*3] (Goldstein affirmation, exhibit H.) On June 29, 2017, Defendant noticed the instant motion On July 14, 2017, this Court ordered Defendant’s motion to strike and Plaintiff’s cross motion to preclude withdrawn per the parties’ stipulation, dated July 6, 2017.

Defendant now moves for an order pursuant to CPLR 3212 granting it summary judgment and dismissing this action with prejudice.

III. Plaintiff’s EBT

Plaintiff Min-Sun Ho stated that she and her roommate intended to climb the indoor wall at Steep Rock Bouldering on October 12, 2015. (Ho EBT at 12, lines 17-23.) Plaintiff further stated that her roommate had joined Defendant’s gym several weeks prior to October 12, 2015. (Id. at 13, lines 12-13; at 14, lines 2-3, 13-25.) Plaintiff further stated that, prior to October 12, 2015, in high school, she took a rock climbing class once a week for a semester. (Id. at 15, lines 16-25.) Now in her thirties, Plaintiff stated that she was able to recall the class, the basic commands for climbing, and the techniques for climbing. (Id. at 20, lines 5-2.1; at 22, lines 17-21.)

[**3] Plaintiff stated that, on October 12, 2015, she looked up Defendant’s gym’s Facebook page and observed people climbing at Steep Rock Bouldering without ropes or harnesses. [*4] (Id. at 27, lines 7-11; at 29, lines 15-20.) Plaintiff further stated that she then signed up online for a one-month membership at Steep Rock Bouldering. (Id. at 28, lines 15-20.) Plaintiff further stated that she had also heard from her roommate, before October 12, 2015, that there were no harnesses or ropes at Steep Rock Bouldering. (Id. at 30, lines 6-13.) Plaintiff further stated that, on October 12, 2015, Plaintiff’s roommate again explained that Defendant’s gym does not have harnesses or ropes. (Id. at 29, line 25; at 30, lines 2-5.) Plaintiff stated she was not aware, prior to October 12, 2015, that the term “bouldering” refers to a form of rock climbing without harnesses or ropes. (Id. at 85, lines 2-7.)

Plaintiff stated that, upon arriving at Steep Rock Bouldering on October 12, 2015, she observed a reception desk and a climbing wall to her left where she saw more than three people climbing. (Id. at 31, lines 17-23; at 32, line 25; at 33, lines 2-3.) Plaintiff further stated that she believed the climbing wall was about 15 feet tall. (Id. at 32, lines 4-20.) Plaintiff further stated that the receptionist asked if Plaintiff had rock climbed before and that she answered that she had, a long time ago. (Id. at 47, lines 2-8.) Plaintiff stated she signed [*5] an electronic waiver form at the reception desk. Plaintiff, at the time of the EBT, stated she did not recall having read any of the waiver except for the signature line. (Id. at 43, lines 11-19.)

Plaintiff stated that, after signing the waiver, she waited while the receptionist called a man over to Plaintiff and her roommate. Plaintiff stated she herself believed the man who came over was another Steep Rock Bouldering employee. (Id. at 45, lines 10-25; at 46, lines 2-4.) Plaintiff stated’ that the man told Plaintiff “something along the lines of that’s the wall as you can see, it’s self-explanatory.'” (Id. at 46, lines 11-12.) Plaintiff further stated that the man also told her “[t]hose are the bathrooms.” (Id. at 49, lines 2-3.) Plaintiff further stated that the man asked her if she had rock climbed before and that she answered “yeah, a while ago.” (Id. at 49, lines 7-10.) Plaintiff stated that the man did not say he was an instructor or take Plaintiff anywhere and that neither the man nor the receptionist said anything about an instructor. Plaintiff further stated that she did not have an orientation or an instructor at Defendant’s gym. (Id. at 47, lines 15-23; at 48, lines 21-25.) Plaintiff further stated she that did not see any instructional [*6] videos. (Id. at 80, lines 19-22.) Plaintiff further stated that she had felt comfortable not having an instructor and climbing the walls without any harnesses or ropes. (Id. at 81, lines 17-22.)

[**4] Plaintiff stated that, after speaking with the man, she changed into climbing shoes which she stated she recalled borrowing from Steep Rock Bouldering. (Id. at 48, lines 5-20.) Plaintiff further stated that she then put her and her roommate’s belongings away in a cubby and started getting ready to climb. (Id. at 49, lines 13-18.) Plaintiff stated that she had observed mats in front of the climbing wall on the floor. (Id. at 49, lines 19-24.) Plaintiff stated that she had further observed “quite a few” people who she thought were other climbers and their friends climbing the wall or watching and giving tips on holds. (Id. at 50, lines 5-21; at 55, lines 6-10.)

Plaintiff stated she was told before she started climbing that the holds on the climbing wall are tagged according to their difficulty and that the levels of difficulty marked “V0 or V1” are the “easiest.” (Id. at 54, lines 2-20.) Plaintiff further stated that, after waiting a few minutes, she herself climbed to the top of the climbing wall on level V1 on her first attempt. (Id. at 55, lines 16-19, 24-25; at [*7] 56, lines 2-9.) Plaintiff further stated that she did not think it took very long to make the climb. (Id. at 56, lines 10-11.) Plaintiff stated she and her roommate took turns climbing the wall. (Id. at 63, lines 12-16.) Plaintiff further stated that, while she herself was climbing, her roommate was on the mat watching her climb. (Id. at 63, lines 17- 22.) Plaintiff stated that she herself climbed again once or twice without incident. (Id. at 56, lines 16-19; at 57, lines 18-21.) Plaintiff stated that, on her third or fourth climb, she herself had made it about a couple of feet from the top of the wall before she fell. (Id. at 57, lines 3-10, 15-25; at 58, lines 2-9.) Plaintiff stated that her roommate was watching her when she fell. (Id. at 63, line 22.)

Plaintiff stated that she had not fallen from a climbing wall prior to October 12, 2015. (Id. at 59, lines 2-7.) Plaintiff further stated she did not think she could fall, nor did she think about falling, when she bought her membership, when she first saw the wall when she entered the building, or when she first started climbing. (Id. at 59, lines 13-25; at 60, lines 2-8, 17-19.) Plaintiff further stated that did not see anyone else fall at Steep Rock Bouldering prior to her own fall, but did see people [*8] jumping down from “[s]omewhere above the middle” and “closer to the top” of the climbing wall instead of climbing down. (Id. at 60, lines 9-16.)

Plaintiff stated she herself climbed down the wall after her first climb, but then became more “confident” and climbed down halfway and then jumped in subsequent successful climbs. (Id. at 60, lines 22-25; at 61, lines 2-6.) Plaintiff further stated that, immediately before she fell, she was climbing up the wall and reaching to the side. (Id. at 61, lines 7-13.) Plaintiff further stated that she then grabbed onto a knob, looked down, and saw a man looking up at her. (Id. at 62, [**5] lines 2-7.) Plaintiff was asked at the EBT “[w]hen you looked down, did you think about falling or if you could fall?” In reply, Plaintiff stated “I was a little scared. When I looked down, I was a lot higher than I thought I was.” (Id. at 62, lines 12-15.) Plaintiff stated that she had wanted to come back down at this time. (Id. at 62, lines 24-25; at 63, lines 2-4.) Plaintiff further stated that she fell after she saw the man looking up at her. (Id. at 62, line 8.) Plaintiff was asked at the EBT “[d]o you know why you fell?” and answered, “I don’t know exactly.” (Id. at 62, lines 5-6.)

IV. Defendant’s EBT

Vivian Kalea stated that, at the [*9] time of her EBT, she was the general manager of Steep Rock Bouldering. (Kalea EBT at 6, lines 4-7.) Kalea further stated that, on October 12, 2015, she was a closing manager and youth team coach at Steep Rock Bouldering. (Id. at 6, lines 8-12.)

Kalea stated that she was at Steep Rock Bouldering when Plaintiff was injured and filled out the related injury report form. (Id. at 13, lines 19-21.) Kalea stated that the injury report indicated that Plaintiff was a member of Steep Rock Bouldering and had paid a fee to use the gym prior to her injury. (Id. at 16, lines 12-13.) Kalea stated that the injury report further indicated that Plaintiff fell from a yellow V1 level of difficulty, about three moves from the top, and landed on her right side. (Id. at 19, lines 6-9; at 31, lines 15-21; at 34, line 25.)

Kalea stated that V1 is a beginner’s level of difficulty. (Id. at 34, lines 13-15.) Kalea further stated that, the higher the number is after the “V,” the greater the level of difficulty. Kalea stated that the “V” designation is not a description of a specific height or location. (Id. at 33, lines 9-14.) Kalea further stated that V2 is also a beginner’s level. (Id. at 33, lines 23-25, at 34, lines 2-4.) Kalea further stated that the wall Plaintiff was on had a “slight incline” but was “mostly [*10] vertical” and “[c]lose to 90 degrees. (Id. at 41, lines 11-25; at 42, lines 2-4.)

Kalea stated that Steep Rock Bouldering offered climbing shoe rentals and chalk for climbers on October 12, 2015. (Id. at 9, lines 20-21; at 10, line 14.) Kalea further stated that the climbing shoes provide support for climbing activities by improving friction and power to the big toe and that the chalk gives the climbers a better grip on whatever it is they are holding onto. (Id. at 21, lines 18-25; at 22, lines 2-25; at 23, lines 2-A.) Kalea further stated that the padded area in front of the climbing wall was over a foot thick on October 12, 2015, and was there to help absorb the shock from a fall. (Id. at 23, lines 5-18.) Kalea further stated that a [**6] spotter, “somebody who guides a climber to fall down,” was not required at Steep Rock Bouldering on October 12, 2015. (Id. at 49, lines 19-25.)

Kalea stated that the climbing walls at Steep Rock Bouldering are 14 feet high and that the holds do not all go to the top. (Id. at 24, lines 17-19.) Kalea further stated that the holds are of different textures, sizes, and appearances and that their locations can be changed to create varying paths up the wall and establish the difficulty of a given level. (Id. at 24, lines [*11] 16-25; at 25, lines 2-17; at 29, lines 2-5.) Kalea further stated that climbers at Steep Rock Bouldering do not climb with ropes or harnesses. (Id. at 40, line 25; at 41, line 2.)

Kalea stated that Steep Rock Bouldering employees ask whether it is a new member’s first time bouldering “to clarify that they understand the risk of bouldering.” (Id. at 21, lines 13-17.) Kalea further stated that every climber is supposed to receive an oral safety orientation from Steep Rock Bouldering staff prior to climbing that consists of the following:

“It consists of understanding the person’s climbing experience, their experience bouldering. That they understand that bouldering is a dangerous sport. How every fall in a bouldering environment is a ground fall. It goes over how the climbs are kind of situated, so everything is by color and numbers. It goes over that we do encourage down climbing in the facility. So that means when you reach the top of the problem, which is not necessarily the top of the wall, but the finishing hold, you climb down about halfway before you jump, if you do want to jump. It goes over how to best fall.”

(Id. at 46, lines 2-24; at 47, lines 3-16.) Kalea stated that the giving such an orientation is [*12] standard in the climbing industry and was required at Steep Rock Bouldering on October 12, 2015. (Id. at 48, lines 3-10.) Kalea further stated that “[i]t is made clear to everyone who walks in the door that they are going to receive a safety orientation” and that staffs failure to do so would be breaking Steep Rock Bouldering’s rules. (Id. at 48, lines 17-21.) Kalea was asked at the EBT to assume that Plaintiff was told “essentially . . . there is the wall, it’s self explanatory [sic] and that’s all the person did” and was then asked “[i]f that is all that was said, is that a proper safety instruction orientation?” (Id. at 49, lines 3-17.) Kalea replied, “[i]t is not.”

[**7] V. Plaintiff’s Liability Expert

Plaintiff retained Dr. Gary G. Nussbaum as its liability expert. Dr. Nussbaum has a Masters of Education and an Education Doctorate in Recreation and Leisure Studies from Temple University. Dr. Nussbaum has 45 years of experience in the adventure education, recreation, and climbing field with a variety of teaching credentials related specifically to climbing. In forming his opinion, Dr. Nussbaum reviewed photographs of the climbing wall used by Plaintiff on the date of her injury, the injury report, the waiver form, [*13] and the EBT transcripts.

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.” (Broome affirmation, exhibit 1 [aff of Nussbaum], at 3.)

Dr. Nussbaum opined that a person of Plaintiff’s skill level was a novice and needed to be taught “how to climb, how to come down, and even how to fall safely. None of this was done or provided.” (Id. at 4.) Dr. Nussbaum opined further that “[a]s a new climber, [Plaintiff] did not appreciate the risk” involved with bouldering. (Id.) 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. (Id.) Dr. Nussbaum opined further that the padding “likely” [*14] gave Plaintiff a “false sense of security” and “no appreciation of the risk here.” (Id.)

Dr. Nussbaum opined that, because Steep Rock Bouldering does not offer rope climbing, its climbing wall requires that the climber “climb down, climb partway down and jump the remainder, fall down in a controlled manner, or simply fall down if he or she loses control.” (Id. at 5.) Dr. Nussbaum 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. (Id.)

[**8] 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 [*15] climbing-experience and essentially told ‘here’s the wall, have at it.'”

(Id. at 6.)

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.”

(Id.)

Dr. Nussbaum opined that spotting is an advanced skill requiring training for the spotter to spot effectively and safely. As such, Dr. Nussbaum stated, Plaintiff’s roommate “was not a spotter and had no skill and no training to be one.” (Id. at 3.) Dr. Nussbaum opined further that Steep Rock Bouldering was required to enforce its spotter [*16] requirement by providing an adequately skilled spotter or ensuring that an intended spotter has the requisite skill set. (Id. at 5.) Dr. Nussbaum opined further that, if Steep Rock Bouldering chooses not to require spotting, it is then required to “emphasize, encourage and instruct in the safest ways to descend, including falling [**9] techniques. . . . [It] did not enforce its spotting requirement nor [sic] provide proper instruction in falling techniques.” (Id. at 7.)

VI. Defendant’s Liability Expert

Defendant retained Dr. Robert W. Richards as its liability expert. Dr. Richards is a founding member of the CWA and is currently affiliated with CWA as an expert in risk management. Dr. Richards has been involved in the climbing wall industry since 1992. Dr. Richards stated that, as there are no set regulations for climbing facilities, the CWA intends to assist the industry in defining, understanding, and implementing a set of responsible management, operational, training, and climbing practices. (Goldstein affirmation, exhibit I [aff of Richards], ¶ 2.) Dr. Richards further stated that the CWA’s Industry Practices is a sourcebook for the operation of manufactured climbing walls. (Id. ¶ 3.)

In forming his opinion, [*17] Dr. Richards performed a site inspection of Steep Rock Bouldering’s climbing wall on June 22, 2017. (Id. ¶ 20.) Dr. Richards observed at the site inspection that Defendant’s gym had “Climb Smart” posters, indicating the risks of bouldering, displayed in multiple locations. Dr. Richards stated that these signs were also present on October 12, 2015. (Id.) Dr. Richards observed further that the climbing wall is approximately thirteen feet, six inches tall when measured from the top of the padded area around the wall. (Id. ¶ 30:) Dr. Richards stated that this was also the height of the wall on October 12, 2015. (Id.)

Dr. Richards describes the sport of bouldering as follows:

“Bouldering is the form of climbing that is performed without the use of safety ropes and typically on a climbing surface that is low enough in height that a fall from the wall will not be fatal. Bouldering walls in climbing gyms may range from ten to twenty feet in height. The [CWA] states that average bouldering wall heights in the climbing wall industry are between twelve and fifteen feet. Climbers who boulder are referred to as boulderers . . . .”

(Id. ¶¶ 13-14.) Dr. Richards stated “[a] specific climb is referred [*18] to as a . . . ‘problem’ and is usually marked with colored tape or colored holds which are attached to the artificial climbing wall.” (Id. ¶ 7 [punctuation omitted].)

[**10] Dr. Richards opined that bouldering entails an inherent risk of injury from falls. (Id. ¶ 4.) Dr. Richards opined further that it is not possible to eliminate this risk “without altering the very essence of the sport.” (Id.) Dr. Richards opined further that the most common injuries in climbing gyms are to the extremities which can result from falls of any height. (Id. ¶ 15.)

Dr. Richards opined further that the risk inherent to bouldering was communicated to Plaintiff by means of a written liability release and an orientation. (Id. ¶ 17.) Dr. Richards stated that Plaintiff signed a liability release form and completed an orientation. (Id. ¶¶ 17, 31.) Dr. Richards stated further that the liability release form included the following language: “I have examined the climbing wall and have full knowledge of the nature and extent of the risks associated with rock climbing and the use of the climbing wall, including but not limited to: [injuries] resulting from falling off or coming down from the climbing wall . . . .” (Id. ¶ [*19] 17.)

Dr. Richards opined further that, having visited approximately “200 gyms” since 1992, he has never been to a gym that requires climbers to have spotters and strictly enforces that requirement. (Id. ¶¶ 1, 22-23.) Dr. Richards stated that spotting was developed for outdoor bouldering to guide the fall of boulderers in an environment where there are typically little or no padded surfaces to protect the head. (Id. ¶ 24.) Dr. Richards stated that the CWA does not require spotters when bouldering on artificial climbing walls and that it is not a common practice in the industry to require such spotters. (Id. ¶ 25.) Dr. Richards further stated that the padded landing surfaces in gyms reduce many of those dangers that a spotter would help to mitigate outdoors. (Id.) Dr. Richards opined that, as such, use of a spotter in an indoor climbing gym is of “limited benefit” and “may cause injury to the boulderer and spotter if the climber were to fall directly on the spotter.” (Id.)

Dr. Richards opined further that the purpose of Defendant gym’s padded landing surface around its climbing wall is “to mitigate potential injuries to the head and neck.” (Id. ¶ 26.) Dr. Richards opined further that, [*20] while the padding may “provide some cushioning for falls,” per Annex E to the CWA’s Industry Practices, “[p]ads are not designed to mitigate or limit extremity injuries, although they may do so.” (Id.) Dr. Richards stated that, while there was no industry standard regarding the type, amount, or use of such padding in October 2015, a typical surface in October 2015 would have “consisted of four to six inches of foam padding or other impact attenuation [**11] material with a top layer of gymnastic carpet or vinyl that covers the underlying padding.” (Id. ¶¶ 27-28.) Dr. Richards further stated that Defendant’s gym used foam pads of a twelve-inch depth that ran continuously along the climbing wall and extended twelve feet out from the wall on October 12, 2015. (Id. ¶ 29.)

ARGUMENT

I. Defendant’s Affirmation in Support

Defendant alleges in its papers that it has a place of business that includes a bouldering climbing gym in New York City on Lexington Avenue. (Affirmation of Goldstein ¶ 14.) Defendant further alleges that its gym has a continuous climbing wall that is approximately 30 to 40 feet wide and 14 feet tall and has climbing holds which are textured objects bolted into the wall which climbers [*21] can grab onto with their hands and stand upon with their feet. (Id. ¶¶ 14, 16.)

Defendant argues, in the main, that Plaintiff assumed the inherent risk associated with climbing an indoor wall and with bouldering when she chose to climb Defendant’s gym’s bouldering wall. (Memorandum of law of Goldstein, at 1.) Defendant argues Plaintiff was able to make an informed estimate of the risks involved in bouldering and that she willingly undertook them. (Id. at 3-4.) Defendant further argues that Plaintiff was aware of the potential for injury from a fall because she is an intelligent adult familiar with the laws of gravity and had prior wall climbing experience in an indoor setting (albeit with ropes). (Id. at 4.) Defendant further argues that Plaintiff was aware of the risks associated with climbing because, before she was injured, Plaintiff watched other climbers ascend and descend its climbing wall and climbed up and down the wall herself without incident several times, even feeling comfortable enough to jump from halfway down the wall as opposed to climbing all the way down. (Id. at 8-9.) Defendant further argues that Plaintiff voluntarily and knowingly engaged in the bouldering activity and that her fall was a common, albeit [*22] unfortunate, occurrence. (Id. at 10.)

Defendant argues that falling is inherent to the sport of climbing, that falling cannot be eliminated without destroying the sport, and that injuries resulting from falling from a climbing wall are foreseeable consequences inherent to bouldering. (Id.) Defendant further argues that the risk of falling from Defendant’s gym’s climbing wall was open and obvious to Plaintiff. (Id. at 5.) Defendant further argues that Plaintiff did not request further instruction beyond what Steep Rock [**12] Bouldering provided on October 12, 2015, and that Plaintiff was comfortable climbing without ropes or a harness. (Id. at 5-6.) Defendant argues that Plaintiff’s allegation that she did not receive proper instruction is pure conjecture and will only invite the jury to speculate about what further instruction Plaintiff would have received had she sought it out. (Id. at 6.)

Defendant argues that there was no unique risk or dangerous condition in Defendant’s gym on October 12, 2015, over and above the usual dangers inherent to bouldering. Defendant further argues that Defendant has the right to own and operate a gym that offers bouldering, only, and not rope climbing. (Id. at 7.) Defendant further argues that the height [*23] of its gym’s climbing wall and the depth of its surrounding padding were well within what was typical of other climbing facilities in October 2015. (Id.) Defendant further argues that it had no duty to provide a spotter or supervise Plaintiff’s climbing. (Id. at 7-8.)

Defendant argues that Plaintiff’s expert has not cited to any standards or rules that would have required that Defendant provide Plaintiff with a spotter or supervise Plaintiff’s climbing or that would justify an opinion that negligence on the part of Defendant proximately caused Plaintiff’s accident. (Id. at 8, 10.) Defendant further argues that Plaintiff’s expert fails to acknowledge that Plaintiff engaged in a rope climbing class every week for a semester. (Id. at 10.) Defendant further argues that Plaintiff’s expert has never visited Steep Rock Bouldering and that therefore any assertions that Plaintiff’s expert will make are conclusory and insufficient to demonstrate Defendant’s negligence.

II. Plaintiff’s Affirmation in Opposition

Plaintiff argues in her papers that the affidavit of her liability expert, Dr. Gary G. Nussbaum, establishes Defendant’s negligence and Plaintiff’s lack of appreciation and understanding of the risk. (Affirmation of Broome, at 1.) Plaintiff further [*24] argues that she had a false sense of security because of the thick mats around the climbing wall and that she therefore did not appreciate the risk. (Id. at 1-2.) Plaintiff further argues that her climbing experience at Steep Rock Bouldering was very different from her prior experience with climbing, which was limited to one semester of indoor climbing class 12-13 years prior to the incident, in high school, involving a rope, harness, spotter, and instructor. (Id. at 2; aff of Ho, at 2.) At the time of the incident, Plaintiff was age 30 and had never done any rock climbing again after the high school class. (Aff of Ho, at 2.)

[**13] Plaintiff argues that she believed the padding beneath the climbing wall would prevent “any injury whatsoever.” (Id. at 4.) Plaintiff further argues that this was her belief even though she signed a release of liability because she did not read it. (Id. at 3.) Plaintiff further argues that she was given no orientation or instructor on October 12, 2015, but was only told where the wall was and that it was “self-explanatory.” (Id.) Plaintiff further argues that the release she signed is void and unenforceable because she paid a fee to use Defendant’s gym. (Affirmation of Broome, at 2.)

Plaintiff argues that Defendant was negligent in failing to [*25] provide Plaintiff with a rope, a harness, instruction, an orientation, and a spotter. (Id. at 3.) Plaintiff further argues that the assertions of Defendant’s liability expert, Dr. Robert W. Richards, regarding posters on the wall at Steep Rock Bouldering are irrelevant and erroneous because he visited the facility 1.75 years after Plaintiff’s accident and claims the posters were in place on the date of the accident. (Id.)

III. Defendant’s Reply Affirmation in Support

Defendant argues in its reply papers that Plaintiff did not have a false sense of security because Plaintiff: (1) was aware that Defendant’s gym only supplied climbing shoes and climbing chalk; (2) observed that none of the other climbers were asking for a rope or a harness; (3) testified that she felt comfortable climbing without harness, a rope, or an instructor; (4) knew prior to her injury that the climbing paths have different difficulty levels and that she was at a beginner level; and (5) had already, prior to her injury, climbed the wall two to three times without incident, reached the top of the wall, and jumped from the wall to the floor from halfway up the wall. (Reply affirmation of Goldstein, at 1-2; reply memorandum of law of Goldstein [*26] ¶ 3.) Defendant further argues that Plaintiff’s claim of having a false sense of security is disingenuous because she plainly observed the conditions of the climbing wall and the padded mats, was able to approximate the height of the wall, and, at age 30, was fully aware of, paid to engage in, and voluntarily undertook a form of climbing that involves neither ropes nor harnesses. (Reply memorandum of law of Goldstein ¶ 4.)

Defendant argues that Plaintiff has overlooked Dr. Richards’ explanation that a spotter has limited benefit and may cause injury to the climber and spotter if the climber were to fall directly onto the spotter. (Id. ¶ 5.) Defendant further argues that climbers utilizing a rope and harness may also sustain injury from falls when climbing. (Id. ¶ 6.)

[**14] Defendant argues that Plaintiff cannot prove by a preponderance of the evidence that Defendant proximately caused Plaintiff’s injury because Plaintiff herself testified that she does not know why she fell, and mere speculation regarding causation is inadequate to sustain a cause of action. (Id. ¶ 5.)

Defendant further argues that Plaintiff was aware of and assumed the risk that, in climbing a wall without ropes and harnesses–or [*27] a spotter–she could sustain an immediate physical injury from a fall. (Id. ¶¶ 4-5, 9.)

IV. Oral Argument

On November 13, 2017, counsel for the parties in the instant action appeared before this Court for oral argument on Defendant’s instant motion for summary judgment. Stephanie L. Goldstein, Esq. argued on behalf of Defendant and Alvin H. Broome, Esq. argued on behalf of Plaintiff.

Defendant argued that this is an assumption of the risk case in which Plaintiff fell during participation in a sport–bouldering–which, by definition, is rock climbing without ropes or harnesses. (Tr at 2, lines 23-25; at 3, lines 8-18.) Defendant further argued that Plaintiff had no reasonable expectation there would be ropes or harnesses at Steep Rock bouldering. Plaintiff stated that her roommate told her that climbing at Steep Rock Bouldering would involve no ropes or harnesses. (Id. at 4, lines 5-13.) Plaintiff further stated that she observed photographs of people using the gym on Facebook at parties–prior to going to Defendant’s gym–without ropes or harnesses. (Id. at 4, lines 15-19.) Plaintiff further stated that she saw people climbing at the gym in person before she climbed and that none of them were using ropes [*28] or harnesses. (Id. at 4, lines 20-24.)

Defendant argued that Plaintiff was additionally noticed as to the dangers inherent to bouldering by the electronic waiver, which she signed. (Id. at 5, lines 3-18.) Defendant clarified that it is not moving to dismiss the instant action on waiver grounds and acknowledged that Plaintiff’s signing the waiver did not absolve Defendant of liability. (Id. at 5, lines 13-14.) Defendant argued that Plaintiff was further noticed by an individual, an employee of Defendant, who explained to Plaintiff prior to her climbing about the wall and the climbing paths. (Id. at 5, lines 19-23.) Defendant argued that Plaintiff was further noticed by her own experience of climbing up and down the wall two to three times without any [**15] incident and with jumping off of the wall prior to her fall. (Id. at 5, line 26; at 6, line 2; at 7, lines 11-16.) Defendant was comfortable climbing without equipment or an instructor. (Id. at 7, lines 6-10.)

Defendant argued that it cannot enforce a statement on its waiver that a climber is not to climb without a spotter. Defendant argued that this is for four reasons: because spotting does not prevent injury, because spotting was developed when bouldering was outside, because spotting [*29] can only act to attempt to protect the head and neck outdoors–and indoors the padding provides this function–and because spotting may endanger the spotter. Defendant stated that spotting is not enforced at its gym. Defendant further stated that its liability expert has not seen this requirement enforced at any of the 200 gyms he has traveled to which do have this requirement on paper. (Id. at 6, lines 7-26; at 7, lines 2-5.)

Defendant argued that falling when climbing a wall is a common, foreseeable occurrence at a climbing facility. (Id. at 8, lines 3-5.) Defendant further argued that Plaintiff is an intelligent woman, 30 years old at the time of her injury, with a degree in biology. As such, Defendant argued that Plaintiff knew the laws of gravity: what goes up, must come down. (Id. at 8, lines 6-9.) Defendant further argued that a person is said to have assumed the risk if he or she participates in an activity such as climbing where falling is an anticipated and known possibility. (Id. at 9, lines 9-13.) Defendant further argued that Plaintiff testified that she does not know what caused her to fall. (Id. at 7, lines 21-23.)

Plaintiff argued in opposition that Defendant’s own rules required a spotter for climbers and that [*30] Defendant broke its rule and therefore proximately caused Plaintiff’s injury. (Id. at 9, lines 24-26; at 10, lines 2-6; at 11, lines 11-16, 24-25; at 12, lines 15-21.) Plaintiff further argued that “in every kind of climbing you are required to have a rope, a harness, something to prevent an injury and a fall.” (Id. at 12, lines 11-13.) Plaintiff further argued that a spotter “will say lift your arms, turn to the side” as a person begins to fall. (Id. at 11, lines 24-25.)

Plaintiff further argued that proximate cause has been established and the real question for the Court is whether Plaintiff assumed the risk. (Id. at 12, lines 22-25.) Plaintiff argued that “unusually thick” mats around the climbing wall gave Plaintiff a false sense of security. (Id. at 13, line 8.) Plaintiff further argued that Plaintiff saw people fall onto the soft matted floor without getting hurt, and therefore assumes this is a safe sport, but it is not. Plaintiff argued that assumption of risk is a subjective standard and that Plaintiff was a novice who had only [**16] climbed with ropes and harnesses prior to the day of her injury and thus did not assume the risk of “falling on a soft mat and breaking an elbow.” (Id. at 10, lines 7-10; at 14, lines 13-16.)

Plaintiff [*31] argued that there is a distinction between assuming the risk that one could fall from a climbing wall and assuming the risk that one could be injured from the fall. Plaintiff further argued that Plaintiff assumed the former, not the latter, in part because of a false sense of security due to the mats and not having a spotter. (Id. at 14, lines 23-26; at 15, lines 2-23; at 16, lines 2-9.) Plaintiff further argued that the mats that are placed by the climbing wall are “extremely substantial,” “for the sole purpose of preventing injury,” and “designed supposedly to prevent injury from a fall, and . . . didn’t.” (Id. at 16, lines 16-20.)

Plaintiff argued that, as a matter of law, because the mats were there, Plaintiff cannot be held to the belief that she was going to get hurt when she went up the climbing wall. (Id. at 16, lines 22-24.) Plaintiff clarified that she is not claiming the mat was inadequate. (Id. at 16, line 21.) Plaintiff argued that there was no assumption of injury from climbing or falling normally from the Defendant’s gym’s climbing wall. (Id. at 17, lines 13-14.) Plaintiff argued further that Plaintiff “did not assume the risk of being injured by a fall, period.” (Id. at 18, line 20.)

Defendant argued in reply that Plaintiff [*32] was bouldering, which by definition involves no ropes or harnesses, and did so voluntarily. (Id. at 23, lines 11-12.) Defendant further argued that Plaintiff’s liability expert cites to no regulations, standards, or rules that would quantify his reasoning why there should have been ropes, harnesses, or a spotter, or why the mat gave Plaintiff a false sense of security. (Id. at 23, lines 17-22.) Defendant further argued that the law says that when someone assumes the risk, they are assuming the risk inherent to the activity, and that assumption of injury specifically is not required. (Id. at 23, line 26; at 24, lines 2-5.) Defendant further argued that, in the instant case, the risk inherent to bouldering is falling, and that falling from a height may result in injury. As such, Defendant argued, Plaintiff assumed the risk. (Id. at 24, lines 4-18.)

Defendant further argued that there was no negligent hidden condition and nothing wrong with the wall or the mats. (Id. at 24, lines 20-21, 24-25.) Defendant argued that a climbing wall of 13 to 14 feet and mats of 12-inch thickness, as here, are typical. (Id. at 24, lines 25-26; at 25, lines 2-3.) Defendant further argued that stating that Plaintiff fell because she did not have a rope or harness [*33] is speculation insufficient to defeat a motion for summary judgment. (Id. at 25, lines 4-6.)

[**17] DISCUSSION

I. The Summary Judgment Standard

“To obtain summary judgment it is necessary that the movant establish his cause of action or defense sufficiently to warrant the court as a matter of law in directing judgment in his favor, and he must do so by tender of evidentiary proof in admissible form.” (Zuckerman v City of New York, 49 N.Y.2d 557, 562, 404 N.E.2d 718, 427 N.Y.S.2d 595 [1980] [internal quotation marks and citation omitted].) “Once this showing has been made, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to produce evidentiary proof in admissible form sufficient to establish the existence of material issues of fact that require a trial for resolution.” (Giuffrida v Citibank Corp., 100 N.Y.2d 72, 81, 790 N.E.2d 772, 760 N.Y.S.2d 397 [2003].) “On a motion for summary judgment, facts must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party.” (Vega v Restani Constr. Corp., 18 N.Y.3d 499, 503, 965 N.E.2d 240, 942 N.Y.S.2d 13 [2012] [internal quotation marks and citation omitted].) In the presence of a genuine issue of material fact, a motion for summary judgment must be denied. (See Rotuba Extruders v Ceppos, 46 N.Y.2d 223, 231, 385 N.E.2d 1068, 413 N.Y.S.2d 141 [1978]; Grossman v Amalgamated Hous. Corp., 298 A.D.2d 224, 226, 750 N.Y.S.2d 1 [1st Dept 2002].)

II. The Assumption of Risk Doctrine

“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 [*34] in the activity.” (Cruz v Longwood Cent. School Dist., 110 AD3d 757, 758, 973 N.Y.S.2d 260 [2d Dept 2013].) “Risks inherent in a sporting activity are those which are known, apparent, natural, or reasonably foreseeable consequences of the participation.” (Id.) 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.” (Turcotte v Fell, 68 NY2d 432, 439, 502 N.E.2d 964, 510 N.Y.S.2d 49 [1986].) “[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.” (Morgan v State, 90 NY2d 471, 485, 685 N.E.2d 202, 662 N.Y.S.2d 421 [1997] [internal quotation marks omitted].) 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.” (Id. at 485-486.)

[**18] In 1975, the state legislature codified New York’s comparative fault law when it passed what is now CPLR 1411, “Damages recoverable when contributory negligence [*35] or assumption of risk is established.” CPLR 1411 provides:

“In any action to recover damages for personal injury, injury to property, or wrongful death, the culpable conduct attributable to the claimant or to the decedent, including contributory negligence or assumption of risk, shall not bar recovery, but the amount of damages otherwise recoverable shall be diminished in the proportion which the culpable conduct attributable to the claimant or decedent bears to the culpable conduct which caused the damages.”

Notwithstanding the text of CPLR 1411, the Court of Appeals has held that, in certain circumstances, a plaintiff’s assumption of a known risk can operate as a complete bar to recovery. The Court of Appeals refers to this affirmative defense as “primary assumption of risk” and states that “[u]nder this theory, a plaintiff who freely accepts a known risk commensurately negates any duty on the part of the defendant to safeguard him or her from the risk.” (Custodi v Town of Amherst, 20 NY3d 83, 87, 980 N.E.2d 933, 957 N.Y.S.2d 268 [2012] [internal quotation marks omitted].) 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 [*36] or leave undone.” (Turcotte v Fell, 68 NY2d 432, 438, 502 N.E.2d 964, 510 N.Y.S.2d 49 [1986], quoting Prosser and Keeton, Torts § 68, at 480-481 [5th ed].)

Nonetheless, the doctrine of primary assumption of risk has often been at odds with this state’s legislative adoption of comparative fault, and as such has largely been limited in application to “cases involving certain types of athletic or recreational activities.” (Custodi, 20 NY3d at 87.) In Trupia ex rel. Trupia v Lake George Cent. School Dist., Chief Judge Lippman discussed the uneasy coexistence of the two doctrines:

“The doctrine of assumption of risk does not, and cannot, sit comfortably with comparative causation. In the end, its retention is most persuasively justified not on the ground of doctrinal or practical compatibility, but simply for its utility in facilitating free and vigorous participation in athletic activities. We have recognized that athletic and recreative activities possess enormous social value, even while they involve significantly heightened risks, and have employed the notion that these risks may be voluntarily assumed to preserve these [**19] beneficial pursuits as against the prohibitive liability to which they would otherwise give rise. We have not applied the doctrine outside of this limited context [*37] and it is clear that its application must be closely circumscribed if it is not seriously to undermine and displace the principles of comparative causation that the Legislature has deemed applicable to any action to recover damages for personal injury, injury to property, or wrongful death.”

(14 NY3d 392, 395-96, 927 N.E.2d 547, 901 N.Y.S.2d 127 [2010] [internal quotation marks and emendation omitted].) Writing two years later, Chief Judge Lippman further explained the scope of primary assumption of risk in Bukowski v Clarkson University:

“The assumption of risk doctrine applies where a consenting participant in sporting and amusement activities s aware of the risks; has an appreciation of the nature of the risks; and voluntarily assumes the risks. An educational institution organizing a team sporting activity must exercise ordinary reasonable care to protect student athletes voluntarily participating in organized athletics from unassumed, concealed, or enhanced risks. If the risks of the activity are fully comprehended or perfectly obvious, plaintiff has consented to them and defendant has performed its duty. Relatedly, risks which are commonly encountered or ‘inherent’ in a sport, such as being struck by a ball or bat in baseball, are risks [*38] for which various participants are legally deemed to have accepted personal responsibility. The primary assumption of risk doctrine also encompasses risks involving less than optimal conditions.”

(19 NY3d 353, 356, 971 N.E.2d 849, 948 N.Y.S.2d 568 [2012] [internal quotation marks and emendation omitted].)

III. Defendant Has Shown Prima Facie that Plaintiff Assumed the Risk of Injury from Falling from Defendant’s Gym’s Climbing Wall, and Plaintiff Has Failed to Raise a Genuine Issue of Material Fact in Response

Based upon the Court’s reading of the submitted papers and the parties’ oral argument before it, the Court finds that Defendant has shown prima facie that Plaintiff assumed the risks associated with falling from Defendant’s gym’s climbing wall, including injury. Defendant has shown prima facie that Plaintiff voluntarily participated in the sporting activity of bouldering at Steep Rock Bouldering and assumed the risks inherent therein. Specifically, Defendant has [**20] referred to Plaintiff’s deposition testimony, which was sufficient to establish that Plaintiff: (1) had experience with rock climbing; (2) was aware of the conditions of the climbing wall from observations both at a distance–from looking online at Facebook and watching others–and [*39] up close on her two or three successful climbs prior to her injury; and (3) was aware that a person could drop down from the wall, as Plaintiff had herself already jumped down from the wall of her own accord.

In response, Plaintiff fails to raise a genuine issue of material fact. Steep Rock Bouldering’s climbing wall is of an average height for bouldering walls according to Dr. Richards. Dr. Nussbaum’s assertion that climbing on any wall of a height of eight feet or more requires a harness or similar device is conclusory, unsupported by citation, and, ultimately, unavailing.

To require harnesses and ropes at Steep Rock Bouldering would fundamentally change the nature of the sport. Bouldering is a type of climbing that does not require ropes or harnesses. 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 [*40] make the sport of bouldering illegal in this state. To do so would fly in the face of the reasoning in Trupia that such “athletic and recreative activities possess enormous social value, even while they involve significantly heightened risks, and . . . that these risks may be voluntarily assumed to preserve these beneficial pursuits as against the prohibitive liability to which they would otherwise give rise.” (14 NY3d at 395-96.)

In dismissing the instant case, the Court notes that the facts here are distinguishable from those in Lee v Brooklyn Boulders, LLC ( NYS3d , 2017 NY Slip Op 08660, 2017 WL 6347269, *1 [2d Dept, Dec. 13, 2017, index No. 503080/2013]) and McDonald v. Brooklyn Boulders, LLC (2016 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 5211, 2016 WL 1597764, at *6 [Sup Ct, Kings County Apr. 12, 2016]). Both cases involved plaintiffs who were injured when they jumped down from the climbing wall–at the same defendant’s bouldering facility–and each plaintiff’s foot landed in a gap between the matting. In both cases, summary judgment was denied because there was a genuine issue of material fact concerning whether the gap in the matting presented a concealed risk. Here, Plaintiff does not contend that she was injured by such a concealed risk, but essentially argues she should not have been allowed to [**21] voluntarily engage in the sport of bouldering. For the reasons previously stated, this Court finds such an argument to be [*41] unavailing.

CONCLUSION

Accordingly, it is

ORDERED that Defendant Steep Rock Bouldering, LLC’s motion pursuant to CPLR 3212 for an order granting Defendant summary judgment against Plaintiff Min-Sun Ho is granted; and it is further

ORDERED that the action is dismissed; and it is further

ORDERED that the Clerk is directed to enter judgment in favor of Defendant; and it is further

ORDERED that counsel for movant shall serve a copy of this order with notice of entry upon Plaintiff and upon the County Clerk (Room 141B) and the Clerk of the Trial Support Office (Room 158M), who are directed to mark the court’s records to reflect the dismissal of this action.

The foregoing constitutes the decision and order of the Court.

Dated: January 2, 2018

New York, New York

/s/ Robert D. Kalish, J.S.C.

HON. ROBERT D. KALISH

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Plaintiff argues that release was limited to the risks that were inherent in climbing walls. Inherent is a limiting term and does not expand the scope of the risks a release is written to include.

In addition, incorrect name on the release gave plaintiff an additional argument. The LLC registered by the Indiana Secretary of State was named differently than the named party to be protected by the release.

Luck saved the defendant in this case.

Wiemer v. Hoosier Heights Indoor Climbing Facility LLC, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 149663

State: Indiana: United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division

Plaintiff: Alexis Wiemer

Defendant: Hoosier Heights Indoor Climbing Facility LLC,

Plaintiff Claims: Negligent Hiring and Instruction

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2017

Summary

Release was written broadly enough it covered negligence claims outside the normal injuries or claims from using a climbing wall. On top of that the mistakes in the release were covered by the letterhead.

Injury occurred because belayer did not know how to use the braking device.

A lot of things could have gone wrong because the climbing wall was not paying attention, but got lucky.

Facts

The plaintiff was a beginner in climbing and using climbing walls. Before climbing he signed a release and attended a facility orientation which covered training “on how to boulder, belay, and top rope climb.” The training received by the plaintiff was taught by an employee with little experience and mostly went over the defendant’s instructional books on rock climbing.

On the day of the accident, the plaintiff went to climb with a co-worker. While climbing the co-worker failed to use the belay device properly.

Incident reports indicate that Wiemer fell approximately thirty-five feet to the ground in a sitting position due to Magnus releasing a gate lever while he was belaying for Wiemer, which caused Wiemer to accelerate to the floor very quickly. As a result of the fall, he sustained severe and permanent injuries to his back, as well as impaired bladder and bowel control. Wiemer filed this action alleging Hoosier Heights was negligent in its operations. [emphasize added]

The plaintiff sued for his injuries.

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

The plaintiff’s first argument was the name of the parties to be released was not the legal name of the facility where the accident occurred. The facility was owned by a Limited Liability Company (LLC) registered with the state of Indiana as “Hoosier Heights Indoor Climbing Facility.” On the release, the name of the party to be protected was “Hoosier Heights Indoor Rock Climbing Facility.” The release name had an extra word, “rock.”

The waiver signed by Wiemer incorrectly lists the business name as ‘Hoosier Heights Indoor Rock Climbing Facility L.L.C. Hoosier Heights acknowledges that its official name is Hoosier Heights Indoor Climbing Facility LLC and that the word “Rock” does not appear in its corporate filings with the Indiana Secretary of State, although it appears on the Waiver at issue. Wiemer contends that a genuine issue of material fact exists regarding the validity of the Waiver, because the Waiver that he signed failed to name the correct entity and this inaccuracy created ambiguity as to who Wiemer contracted with.

However, the name and logo on the top of the release identified the company correctly, Hoosier Heights Indoor Climbing Facility.

Since the release was a contract, the court was required to determine if the name issue made the contract ambiguous. Ambiguous means the language of the contract could be interpreted in more than one way. The name issue was not enough to find the contract was unambiguous so that the release was not void. The name issue was minor, and the correct name was at the top of the contract.

Under these circumstances, the misidentification of Hoosier Heights does not operate to void the Waiver. Because the Waiver is unambiguous, the Court need not examine extrinsic evidence to determine the proper parties to the Waiver. Accordingly, summary judgment is denied on this basis.

The second argument the plaintiff made was the release did not cover the claimed negligence of the defendant for negligent instruction, and negligent training. Those claims are generally not defined as an inherent risk of indoor rock climbing.

The negligent training and negligent instruction claims were not based at the defendant or the belayer. Those claims were based on the employee who instructed the belayer.

Inherent is a restrictive word. See 2015 SLRA – Inherent Risk: Should the Phrase be in your Release? and Here is another reason to write releases carefully. Release used the term inherent to describe the risks which the court concluded made the risk inherently dangerous and voids the release, and is interpreted differently by various courts. Consequently, the use of the word inherent can be dangerous in that it limits the breadth of the release.

Under Indiana’s law a release must be “specific and explicitly refer to the waiving [of] that the party’s negligence.” However, that explicit reference is not necessary for a claim that is inherent in the activity.

Nevertheless, “an exculpatory clause’s lack of a specific reference to the negligence of a defendant will not always preclude the defendant from being released from liability–such as when a plaintiff has incurred damages that are inherent in the nature of the activity.”

The plaintiff’s argument was:

Wiemer contends that his fall was due to Mellencamp’s improper training and instruction and this was not a risk that he agreed to assume. Further, he argues that improper training and instruction are not risks that are inherent in the nature of rock climbing.

The court could work around this explicit necessity because it found within the release language that covered the negligent training and instruction.

…team building, fitness training regimens and equipment purchased or rented at Hoosier Heights[,]…injuries resulting from falls, equipment failures, entanglements, falling or dropped items, or the negligence of other climbers, participants, belayers, spotters, employees, or other users of the facility…

It is the intention of the undersigned individually to exempt and relieve Hoosier Heights and its employees, … from liability for any personal injury, property damage, or wrongful death caused by negligence.

By reviewing the exact language of the release, the court was able to find language that warned of the specific issues the plaintiff claimed.

Similar to the result in Anderson, by signing the Waiver, Wiemer released Hoosier Heights from any liability resulting from its own negligence, including improper training and instruction. Further, Wiemer’s injury from falling was a risk that was inherent in the activity of rock climbing and explicitly noted in the Waiver.

The negligent training and negligent instruction claims were not based at the defendant or the belayer. Those claims were based on the employee who instructed the belayer.

As such the court found that both claims were prevented by the release the plaintiff had signed and dismissed the case.

So Now What?

This case was won by the defendant not because of proper legal planning but by luck.

If they had not used the correct letterhead for the release, the release might have been void because it named the wrong party to be protected by the release. When writing a release, you need to include the legal name of the party to be protected as well as any marketing or doing business as names.

Indiana’s requirement that the language of the release cover the exact injury the plaintiff is claiming is not new in most states. It is also a requirement that seems to be growing by the courts to favor a contract that covers the complaint.

In the past, judges would specifically point out when a claimed injury was covered in the release. Not so much as a legal requirement but to point out to the plaintiff the release covered their complaint. That prior identification seems to be growing among the states to a requirement.

In this case the release was written broadly so that the restrictions the term inherent placed in the release were covered. But for that broad language, the climbing gym might now have survived the claim.

More important writing the release wrong protecting the wrong party would have been fatal in most states.

Finally, this is another example of a belay system that is perfect, and the user failed. There are belay systems out there that don’t require user involvement, they work as long as they are corrected properly. This accident could have been avoided if the belay system worked.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Allowing a climber to climb with harness on backwards on health club climbing wall enough for court to accept gross negligence claim and invalidate the release.

Whether or not the employee was present the entire time, is irrelevant, anytime any employee had the opportunity to see the harness on incorrectly was enough to be gross negligence.

Alvarez v LTF Club Operations Company Inc., 2016 Mich. App. LEXIS 2198

State: Michigan, Court of Appeals of Michigan

Plaintiff: David Alvarez and Elena Alvarez

Defendant: LTF Club Operations Company Inc., doing business as Lifetime Fitness Center, and Defendant-Appellee, Jane Doe

Plaintiff Claims: negligence

Defendant Defenses: release

Holding: For the Plaintiff

Year: 2016

Facts

The facts are difficult to determine because the interpretation of the court in its opinion does not follow the normal language used in the climbing industry.

The plaintiff was injured when he leaned back to descend after climbing a climbing wall. Because he was not hooked in properly, something broke, and he fell. The plaintiff claims an employee of the defendant watched him put the harness on and hook into the belay system. The employee alleges she was not present for that. The plaintiff allegedly put the harness on backwards.

The harness allegedly had a red loop that should have been in front. No one either knew how the harness was to be worn or that the harness was on incorrectly.

Karina Montes Agredano, a Lifetime employee, provided David with a harness, he climbed to the top of the rock wall, and attempted to lower himself back down via the automatic belay system. However, because David’s harness was on backwards and incorrectly hooked to the belay system, it broke and he fell to the ground suffering multiple injuries.

The plaintiff argued the employee was grossly negligent. The trial court granted the defendants motion to dismiss based on the release, and this appeal ensued.

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

The court first started by defining gross negligence under Michigan’s law. Michigan law is similar if not identical to many other states. Gross negligence requires proof the defendant engaged in reckless conduct or acted in a way that demonstrated a substantial lack of concern for the plaintiff.

To establish a claim for gross negligence, it is incumbent on a plaintiff to demonstrate that the defendant acted or engaged in “conduct so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury results.” “Evidence of ordinary negligence is insufficient to create a material question of fact regarding the existence of gross negligence.” “The issue of gross negligence may be determined by summary disposition only where reasonable minds could not differ.” “Simply alleging that an actor could have done more is insufficient under Michigan law, because, with the benefit of hindsight, a claim can always be made that extra precautions could have influenced the result.” However, gross negligence will often be exhibited by a “willful disregard of precautions or measures to attend to safety[.]”

Although the issue debated in the appeal was the location of the employee when the plaintiff was putting on the harness and climbing. It was undisputed the defendant’s employee was instructing the plaintiff while he was climbing. Eventually, the court found this not to be a real issue since any opportunity to see the harness was on incorrectly would have allowed the defendants employee to resolve the issue.

Thus, plaintiffs’ testimony allows the inference that Agredano did not simply have the ability to do more to assure David’s safe climb. Instead, accepting plaintiffs’ testimony as true, evidence exists that Agredano ignored the red loop in David’s harness–a clear visible indication that David was climbing the rock wall in an unsafe manner–and took no steps to avoid the known danger associated with climbing the rock wall with an improperly secured harness.

Failure then, to spot the problem or resolve the problem was proof of gross negligence, or a failure to care about the safety and welfare of the plaintiff.

Thus, Agredano’s alleged failure to affirmatively instruct David on the proper way to wear the harness before he donned it himself, coupled with her alleged disregard for the red loop warning sign that David had his harness on backwards, and instructing him to push off the wall, could demonstrate to a reasonable juror that she “simply did not care about the safety or welfare of” Accordingly, reasonable minds could differ regarding whether Agredano’s conduct constituted gross negligence.

Because the court could determine the acts of the defendant employee were possibly gross negligence, it was enough to determine what occurred and if gross negligence occurred.

So Now What?

This is pretty plane on its face. You allow a person to use a piece of equipment incorrectly who is then injured there is going to be a lawsuit. You allow a person to use a piece of safety equipment, equipment needed for the safe operation of your business incorrectly you are going to lose no matter how well written your release.

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

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Alvarez v LTF Club Operations Company Inc., 2016 Mich. App. LEXIS 2198

Alvarez v LTF Club Operations Company Inc., 2016 Mich. App. LEXIS 2198

David Alvarez and Elena Alvarez, Plaintiff-Appellants, v LTF Club Operations Company Inc., doing business as Lifetime Fitness Center, and Defendant-Appellee, Jane Doe, Defendant. David Alvarez and Elena Alvarez, Plaintiff-Appellees, v LTF Club Operations Company Inc., doing business as Lifetime Fitness Center, and Defendant-Appellant, Jane Doe, Defendant.

No. 328221, No. 328985

COURT OF APPEALS OF MICHIGAN

2016 Mich. App. LEXIS 2198

November 29, 2016, Decided

NOTICE: THIS IS AN UNPUBLISHED OPINION. IN ACCORDANCE WITH MICHIGAN COURT OF APPEALS RULES, UNPUBLISHED OPINIONS ARE NOT PRECEDENTIALLY BINDING UNDER THE RULES OF STARE DECISIS.

PRIOR HISTORY:  [*1] Oakland Circuit Court. LC No. 2014-140282-NO. Oakland Circuit Court. LC No. 2014-140282-NO.

CORE TERMS: harness, climbing, gross negligence, rock, climb, belay, incorrectly, backwards, walked, deposition testimony, loop, red, putting, front, genuine issue, material fact, reasonable minds, precautions, favorable, watched, donned, order granting, rock climbing, grossly negligent, adjacent, facing, matter of law, conduct constituted, ordinary negligence, evidence submitted

JUDGES: Before: M. J. KELLY, P.J., and MURRAY and BORRELLO, JJ.

OPINION

Per Curiam.

In Docket No. 328221, plaintiffs, David Alvarez and his wife Elena Alvarez, appeal as of right the trial court’s order granting summary disposition in favor of defendant, LTF Club Operations Company, Inc., doing business as Lifetime Fitness Center (Lifetime). In Docket No. 328985, Lifetime appeals as of right the order denying its request for case evaluation sanctions and for taxation of costs. For the reasons stated herein, we reverse the trial court’s order granting defendant’s motion for summary disposition and remand for further proceedings.

This litigation arises from David’s fall from a rock climbing wall at Lifetime’s facility in Novi. Plaintiffs were at Lifetime, where they are members, with their minor daughter to allow her the opportunity to use the rock climbing wall. Neither the plaintiffs, nor their daughter, had previously attempted to use the rock climbing wall. After David signed the requisite forms, Karina Montes Agredano, a Lifetime employee, provided David with a harness, he climbed to the top of the rock wall, [*2]  and attempted to lower himself back down via the automatic belay system. However, because David’s harness was on backwards and incorrectly hooked to the belay system, it broke and he fell to the ground suffering multiple injuries.

Plaintiffs argued that, as an employee of Lifetime, Agredano was grossly negligent1 in failing to ascertain whether David had properly attached his harness and the belay system before permitting him to climb the rock wall or descend. Defendant filed a motion for summary disposition arguing the assumption of risk and waiver of liability provision within the paperwork David signed barred plaintiffs’ claims because Agredano’s asserted conduct constituted only ordinary negligence and not gross negligence. The trial court granted defendant’s motion for summary disposition finding plaintiffs failed to “present any evidence establishing that defendant was grossly negligent in failing to take precautions for plaintiff’s safety.”

1 Plaintiffs had signed a waiver of any negligence based liability.

Plaintiffs assert that the trial court erred in dismissing their claim of gross negligence against Lifetime, arguing a genuine issue of material fact exists regarding whether Agredano [*3]  was grossly negligent. We agree.

The trial court granted summary disposition in accordance with MCR 2.116(C)(7) and (10). This Court reviews “de novo a trial court’s ruling on a motion for summary disposition.” In re Mardigian Estate, 312 Mich App 553, 557; 879 NW2d 313 (2015). Specifically:

When considering a motion for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(10), a court must view the evidence submitted in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. Summary disposition is appropriate under MCR 2.116(C)(10) if there is no genuine issue regarding any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. A genuine issue of material fact exists when the evidence submitted might permit inferences contrary to the facts as asserted by the movant. When entertaining a summary disposition motion under Subrule (C)(10), the court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, and refrain from making credibility determinations or weighing the evidence. [Id. at 557-558, quoting Dillard v Schlussel, 308 Mich App 429, 444-445; 865 NW2d 648 (2014) (quotation marks omitted).]

In addition:

In determining whether a party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law pursuant to MCR 2.116(C)(7), a court must accept as true a plaintiff’s well-pleaded factual allegations, affidavits, or other [*4]  documentary evidence and construe them in the plaintiff’s favor. Where there are no factual disputes and reasonable minds cannot differ on the legal effect of the facts, the decision regarding whether a plaintiff’s claim is barred by the statute of limitations is a question of law that this Court reviews de novo. [Terrace Land Dev Corp v Seeligson & Jordan, 250 Mich App 452, 455; 647 NW2d 524 (2002) (citation omitted).]

To establish a claim for gross negligence, it is incumbent on a plaintiff to demonstrate that the defendant acted or engaged in “conduct so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury results.” Xu v Gay, 257 Mich App 263, 269; 668 NW2d 166 (2003) (citations omitted). “Evidence of ordinary negligence is insufficient to create a material question of fact regarding the existence of gross negligence.” Woodman v Kera, LLC, 280 Mich App 125, 152; 760 NW2d 641 (2008), aff’d 486 Mich 228 (2010). “The issue of gross negligence may be determined by summary disposition only where reasonable minds could not differ.” Id. “Simply alleging that an actor could have done more is insufficient under Michigan law, because, with the benefit of hindsight, a claim can always be made that extra precautions could have influenced the result.” Tarlea v Crabtree, 263 Mich App 80, 90; 687 NW2d 333 (2004). However, gross negligence will often be exhibited by a “willful disregard of precautions or measures to attend to safety[.]” Id.

As [*5]  evidence of Agredano’s gross negligence, plaintiffs offered their deposition testimony. In his deposition testimony, David indicated that Agredano provided him with a harness and was present as he put it on and prepared to climb the wall:

  1. Q. And where was [Agredano] when you were placing the harness on yourself?
  2. A. She was in front of us. We were here. She was in front of us.
  3. Q. So she’s staring directly at your as you’re putting the harness on?
  4. A. She was, yeah, in front of us. We were here, and she was — I mean, we could show the picture if you want.
  5. Q. But I want to know if she was facing you when you were putting this harness on?
  6. A. Yes.

* * *

  1. Q. How much time elapsed between the time that you had your harness on and began climbing from the time when your wife began climbing?
  2. A. Okay. So they walked over to the wall, and then, as soon as I put on my harness, I walked over to the wall adjacent to [Agredano], and I watched my wife. She was already up the So whatever time it took for her to get up the eight feet, which is probably a couple minutes. I mean, a minute maybe.
  3. Q. All right. And when you walked over to the wall, was [Agredano] standing to your right?
  4. A. When I walked over to [*6] the wall, she was on my right.
  5. Q. And would you say she was within three or four feet of you?
  6. A. I could touch her. She was right there.

Further, David stated that Agredano spoke to him after he had inadvertently placed the harness on backwards and directed him to a climbing area, but did not warn him that the red loop on his harness should be on his front before he began to climb the wall:

  1. Q. When were you told to hook into something between your legs?
  2. A. Sure. So I had trouble putting on the harness, right? They walked over to the I followed . . . . I was next to — adjacent to [Agredano] . . . . As my wife started to come down [the rock wall], I asked — I asked, where should I go climb? [Agredano] pointed me over to the other adjacent valet or belay.
  3. Q. Belay
  4. A. Belay. Then somewhere between there I asked — or I don’t know if I asked, but she said, Hook it between your legs. . . .

David also stated that Agredano was present in the climbing wall area during the whole incident and watched him climb the rock wall while wearing the harness incorrectly:

  1. Q. And was [Agredano] facing you when you began climbing?
  2. A. She was facing both of us.

* * *

  1. Q. What I want to know is were [sic] you and [*7] your wife on the climbing, and she was behind you looking at the two of you?
  2. A. Yeah. She was looking at both of us.

* * *

  1. Q. Was there any point in time, while you were putting on your harness or after you put on your harness, where [Agredano] was inside the wall, through this door?
  2. A. No.
  3. Q. So she was outside in the climbing wall area with you the entire time?
  4. A. Correct.

In Elena’s deposition testimony, she testified that Agredano also spoke to David after he reached the top of the rock wall, gave him instructions regarding how to descend, and instructed David to let go of the wall despite his incorrectly worn harness:

  1. Q. What happened at that point?
  2. A. And he said — he asked her twice how to go down. And he asked her two times, because I remember, like, why he’s asking her? . . . So then, when he asked her two times, she said, just let go, and it will bring you down, the automatically thing will bring you down. And she said, I think, you know, push, let go. She said, just let go. Just let go. . . .

While Agredano claimed that she was not in the room when David incorrectly donned his harness and ascended the wall, we must consider the evidence in the light most favorable to plaintiffs and [*8]  accept their testimony as true. Terrace Land Dev Corp, 250 Mich App at 455. David and Elena’s deposition testimony was that Agredano was present when David donned his harness and ascended the wall, that she had ample opportunity to determine that David had put his harness on incorrectly, but that she failed to correct his mistake. Further, plaintiffs testified that Agredano watched David climb the wall in an unsafe harness, and directed David to let go of the wall to repel back down to the ground despite the red loop on David’s harness indicating that his harness was on backwards. Thus, plaintiffs’ testimony allows the inference that Agredano did not simply have the ability to do more to assure David’s safe climb. Instead, accepting plaintiffs’ testimony as true, evidence exists that Agredano ignored the red loop in David’s harness–a clear visible indication2 that David was climbing the rock wall in an unsafe manner–and took no steps to avoid the known danger associated with climbing the rock wall with an improperly secured harness. Thus, Agredano’s alleged failure to affirmatively instruct David on the proper way to wear the harness before he donned it himself, coupled with her alleged disregard for the red loop warning sign [*9]  that David had his harness on backwards, and instructing him to push off the wall, could demonstrate to a reasonable juror that she “simply did not care about the safety or welfare of” David. Tarlea, 263 Mich App at 90. Accordingly, reasonable minds could differ regarding whether Agredano’s conduct constituted gross negligence. Thus, the trial court erred in granting defendant’s motion for summary disposition.

2 Agredano testified that if someone was standing below a rock climber, that person would be readily able to see if a harness was on backwards.

Because we have concluded that the trial court erred in granting summary disposition to defendant, it is unnecessary for us to address in Docket No. 328985 whether the decision to deny the case evaluation award would otherwise have been appropriate if the grant of summary disposition had been proper.

We reverse the order granting defendant’s motion for summary disposition and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. We do not retain jurisdiction.

/s/ Michael J. Kelly

/s/ Christopher M. Murray

/s/ Stephen L. Borrello

 


Scary and Instructional case on assumption of the risk in a climbing wall case in Pennsylvania

Release blocked the claims for negligence; however, the gross negligence claims relied on assumption of the risk as a defense. The release helped prove the plaintiff assumed the risk, but I suspect that defense would only work in a bouldering case like this.

Mcgarry v. Philly Rock Corp., 2015 Pa. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 3767

State: Pennsylvania: Superior Court of Pennsylvania

Plaintiff: Rebecca Mcgarry

Defendant: Philly Rock Corp

Plaintiff Claims: gross negligence in that the defendant

Defendant Defenses: Assumption of the Risk

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2015

The plaintiff and her husband wanted to try something new, so they went to the defendant indoor climbing facility. The plaintiff signed the release and took a class in belaying and use of the belay equipment.

Around the facility were numerous signs warning of the risks of the activity: bathrooms, reception desk, and pillars in the building. There was also a sign about mat placement that the plaintiff remembered and drew correctly during her depositions.

On their second visit, the plaintiff tried bouldering. The bouldering area had mats; however, the mats were moveable and were supposed to be moved by the people bouldering. The plaintiff was approximately four feet of the ground when she jumped off. She did not move the mats prior to bouldering and did not look for the mats when she jumped. She shattered her ankle, which required three surgeries.

The plaintiff sued, and the case went to trial on the issue of the gross negligence of the defendant. The release precluded all the negligence claims of the plaintiff. As in most states (if not all) a release is not valid for gross negligence claims. “Because McGarry signed a waiver, no one in this case disputes that McGarry was required to prove that PRC was grossly negligent to recover.

The jury awarded the plaintiff $150,000 for her gross negligence claims. The defendants filed a motion for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict (JNOV). This motion, JNOV, requests the judge to overrule the jury and grant the defendant’s motion for dismissal. The judge did and the plaintiff appealed.

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

The plaintiff appealed claiming the trial court made four errors of the law. The first two were based on the procedural issues associated with the JNOV. The third was whether the trial court correctly applied the assumption of the risk doctrine, and the final issue was whether the court properly denied the introduction of evidence that the defendant’s employees had not been trained properly.

The court started by defining gross negligence as per Pennsylvania law.

Gross negligence has . . . been termed the entire absence of care and the utter disregard of the dictates of prudence, amounting to complete neglect of the rights of others. Additionally, gross negligence has been described as an extreme departure from ordinary care or the want of even scant care [and] . . . as [a] lack of slight diligence or care, and [a] conscious, voluntary act or omission in reckless disregard of a legal duty and of the consequences to another party . . . .

[G]ross negligence is clearly more egregious than ordinary negligence.

Under Pennsylvania law, if the plaintiff assumed the risk which caused her injury, then the defendant does not owe the plaintiff any further duty. The trial court found the plaintiff had assumed the risk based on the following:

McGarry knew that there was a risk in bouldering, knew she could be injured from a height of four feet, knew she was jumping from the wall without looking for the mats, and jumped anyway. The trial court also found that, because the dangers were obvious, PRC reasonably could expect that McGarry would take steps to protect herself, precluding a finding that PRC was grossly negligent.

The plaintiff countered by staging she could only assume the risks she understood. Since there was no written safety material, and she had not been trained in how to use the mats or a spotter, she could not assume the risk.

McGarry first notes that assumption of risk is subjective and that McGarry only could assume a risk that she understood. McGarry argues that, because there were no written safety materials, McGarry did not know how to position the mats or how to use a spotter to avoid injury.

The court looked at the assumption of risk doctrine. As in most (if not all) states assumption of the risk as a defense was merged into comparative negligence. However, in Pennsylvania the Supreme Court had not eliminated assumption of the risk as a defense, it was now only in disfavor.

In Pennsylvania, the doctrine of assumption of the risk is defined as:

[A]ssumption of risk is established as a matter of law only where it is beyond question that the plaintiff voluntarily and knowingly proceeded in the face of an obvious and dangerous condition. Voluntariness is established only when the circumstances manifest a willingness to accept the risk. Mere contributory negligence does not establish assumption of risk. Rather, a plaintiff has assumed the risk where he has gone so far as to abandon his right to complain and has absolved the defendant from taking any responsibility for the plaintiff’s injuries. In order to prevail on assumption of risk, the defendant must establish both the “awareness of the risk” prong and the “voluntariness” prong.

Assumption of the risk eliminates a duty from the defendant.

If the case is viewed from the perspective of a duty analysis, the evidence presented at trial establishes that [the plaintiff] voluntarily encountered a known risk, thereby obviating any duty which might otherwise have been owed him by [the defendant]. Under this analysis, the case is controlled by the assumption of risk principle that one who voluntarily undertakes a known risk thereby releases the defendant from any duty of care.

The court quoted another Pennsylvania decision to explain what elimination of the duty from the defendant meant.

Similarly, “[w]hen an invitee enters business premises, discovers dangerous conditions which are both obvious and avoidable, and nevertheless proceeds voluntarily to encounter them, the doctrine of assumption of risk operates merely as a counterpoint to the possessor’s lack of duty to protect the invitee from those risks.”

The court then applied those definitions to the present case. The first analysis was whether the dangers were open and obvious. (Jumping from four feet high I believe is obvious to everyone in the world) The court found the dangers had been pointed out to the plaintiff.

Multiple signs throughout the facility warned that climbing and bouldering are dangerous and may result in serious injury. Additionally, the danger of these activities “is well understood by virtually all individuals of adult age.” Falling and causing a injury to an ankle or wrist is a “common, frequent, and expected” risk of climbing or bouldering.

The plaintiff had also admitted during her deposition that she knew of the risks.

Further, McGarry knew of and appreciated the risk. McGarry testified that she knew there were risks in bouldering and that she knew she could be injured when jumping even from a height of four feet. McGarry saw the sign stressing the importance of mat placement and drew it from memory much later at her deposition. Despite knowing that mats and their placement were important, McGarry nonetheless did not look before she jumped and landed in the wrong place.

The court also found that the fact the plaintiff had signed a release; she knew she was responsible for her injuries.

McGarry also acknowledged that she signed a waiver, which she understood meant that she was responsible for any injuries. She then voluntarily proceeded with the activity despite her appreciation of that risk.

The court then went back to the testimony to sum the assumption of the risk defense and why it agreed with the trial court. “However, McGarry’s own testimony compels the trial court’s finding that she assumed the risk, which, as a matter of law, precludes a verdict in her favor.”

The next issue was the application of the assumption of the risk defense to a claim of gross negligence. Because assumption of the risk removed the necessary duty from the defendant, there could be no gross negligence. In Pennsylvania once the plaintiff assumes the risk the defendant has no further duty to the plaintiff, with respect to the duty the plaintiff is assuming.

…we conclude that McGarry’s assumption of the risk barred her recovery regardless of whether PRC was grossly negligent. Because the evidence supported the trial court’s conclusion that McGarry as-sumed the risk of injury, PRC owed no duty to McGarry and, therefore, was not legally responsible for her injury.

If there is no duty, there is no negligence. To prove negligence, the plaintiff must prove there was a duty, a breach of that duty, an injury proximately caused by the breach and damages. Failing to prove all four points and the plaintiff does not prove her case. If the case is not proved, then the defense has no need to present any defenses because there was no negligence.

The final issue the court reviewed was the plaintiffs claim the employees were not sufficiently trained.

Finally, McGarry complains that the trial court erred in precluding her from introducing evidence regarding whether PRC’s employees were trained or qualified. McGarry argues that this evidence was relevant and should have been presented to the jury.

The court found this was not at issue. Because the plaintiff did not receive instruction on bouldering from an employee of the defendant, the training and qualifications were immaterial.

Because McGarry did not receive instruction from PRC employees, the trial court reasoned that if PRC was obligated to provide instruction to clients as part of its duty, PRC would be negligent regardless of whether it’s the employees were adequately trained. If PRC was not obligated to provide instruction to clients, then PRC would not be negligent regardless of employee training.

The defendant did not have a required bouldering class and told the plaintiff to ask questions which the plaintiff did not do. However, because her complaint did not involve the training, she received or how her questions were answered, the training and qualifications of the defendant employees did not matter.

The appellate court agreed with the trial court and upheld the dismissal of the case.

So Now What?

First, this is another example where the risks of the activity should be included in your release. Here the court found the release proved the plaintiff had assumed the risk of her injury.

The next issue is the training issue. This issue seemed to have been developed by the plaintiff’s expert witness. Besides training he stated the defendant was below the standard of the industry in the following ways.

Mr. Andres testified that some of the safety signs were placed where they were unlikely to be noticed. Some of the signs warned about possible dangers, but gave no instructions about how to avoid those risks. Mr. Andres testified that belaying and bouldering are different and that, in bouldering, mat placement, the use and limitations of mats, and how to control one’s descent are important. Mr. Andres opined that it was insufficient to have signs instructing clients to ask an employee about climbing or safety because novice climbers may not know what to ask in order to participate safely.

You will see experts making many, and in a few case’s extremely absurd claims to assist the plaintiff in making his or her claim. Signs that warned but did not instruct which the plaintiff ignored anyway mat placement and controlling your descent when falling was argued by the plaintiff’s expert.

I think mat placement is pretty obvious. You put the mats where you think you may land. As far as controlling your descent, I’m lost. I’ve tried a lot of things when falling, clawing the air, kicking madly, flapping my arms and screaming may make me feel better at the time but did nothing to “control my descent.”

I go back to education on this type of claim again. The more you educate your client the less likely they might get hurt and the less likely they can sue. The problem always is. How do you educate a client and then who do you prove you educated them.

In my opinion, that is where the business website comes in. The more information and videos you can put on the website the better. When you post these videos be real. Post the right way and the wrong way, show the risks and show people being stupid. Just make sure you point out when someone is doing something wrong that you make sure that is indicated on the video.

You can then require people to watch the videos before starting the activity, or you can have them acknowledge in the release, they have watched the videos. You can also tell them in your marketing or communications to watch the videos to learn more about climbing or whatever the activity is.

This case was decided in October of 2015. I believe the time to appeal is only thirty (30) days, and it does not appear that an appeal has been filed in this case. However, until a longer period of time has run, this case might be appealed and possibly over turned by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

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Mcgarry v. Philly Rock Corp., 2015 Pa. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 3767

Mcgarry v. Philly Rock Corp., 2015 Pa. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 3767

Rebecca Mcgarry, Appellant v. Philly Rock Corp., Appellee

No. 3326 EDA 2014

SUPERIOR COURT OF PENNSYLVANIA

2015 Pa. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 3767

October 15, 2015, Decided

October 15, 2015, Filed

NOTICE: NON-PRECEDENTIAL DECISION — SEE SUPERIOR COURT I.O.P. 65.37

PRIOR HISTORY: [*1] Appeal from the Order of November 19, 2014. In the Court of Common Pleas of Chester County. Civil Division at No.: No. 12-13367.

JUDGES: BEFORE: DONOHUE, J., SHOGAN, J., and WECHT, J. MEMORANDUM BY WECHT, J.

OPINION BY: WECHT

OPINION

MEMORANDUM BY WECHT, J.:

Rebecca McGarry (“McGarry”) appeals the November 19, 2014 order. In that order, the trial court granted Philly Rock Corp.’s (“PRC”) post-trial motion and entered a judgment notwithstanding the verdict in favor of PRC. We affirm.

The trial testimony supports the following factual history.1 On March 5, 2011, McGarry and her husband, Peter, went to PRC, an indoor rock-climbing facility, because they wanted to try a new activity. Notes of Testimony (“N.T.”), 7/14/2014, at 3-4. On that day, McGarry signed a waiver and then took an introductory course on belaying equipment. Id. at 4-6. McGarry understood that the waiver meant that if she were injured, PRC would not be at fault. Id. at 37. McGarry also understood at the time that she signed the waiver that there were risks involved in rock climbing and that injuries were possible. Id. at 39. McGarry returned on March 12, 2011, and participated in rock-climbing again. Id. at 7.

1 The entire trial was not transcribed; only [*2] the testimony of three witnesses, the jury instructions, and the argument for PRC’s motion for a non-suit are available. The trial court did not provide a detailed factual history. From the transcripts available, it appears that the testimony of at least two PRC employees and one other defense witness is not available. Therefore, our ability to relate the history of this case is limited. Other testimony was included in the reproduced record. However, we may not consider any documents that are not in the certified record. Commonwealth v. Preston, 2006 PA Super 170, 904 A.2d 1, 7 (Pa. Super. 2006).

McGarry and Peter returned to PRC again on March 16, 2011, and went to the bouldering area.2 Id. at 8. McGarry received no instruction on bouldering, but watched other climbers. Id. at 9-10. Peter attempted the wall first and successfully completed his climb. Id. at 10. McGarry then attempted the wall. Id. at 12. Peter had placed a mat under her. Id. at 11. McGarry climbed about four feet, then jumped off the wall. Id. at 12. McGarry acknowledged that she knew that there was a risk of injury when jumping from a height of four feet. Id. at 42-43. McGarry did not look to see where the mats were before she jumped. Id. at 45. When she jumped, McGarry rolled her left ankle. Id. at 17. McGarry testified that the mats were in the [*3] correct position, but that she jumped in the wrong place and landed between two mats.3 Id. at 46-47. McGarry heard a crunch, felt pain, and was taken to Phoenixville Hospital by ambulance. Id. at 18.

2 When “top-roping,” the climber’s harness is fastened to a rope that runs upward through or over an anchor. The other end of the rope is controlled, with the use of safety equipment, by the “belayer.” In the event that the climber falls, the belayer is able to hold the rope fast, arresting the climber’s fall. In bouldering, the activity at issue in this case, the climber is not attached to any safety equipment.

3 McGarry told her physicians that she fell on the floor instead of the mat. Id. at 45.

McGarry’s ankle was fractured, requiring surgery. During surgery, screws and plates were inserted into her ankle. Id. at 20. McGarry had a second surgery in September 2011. Id. at 24. She also received physical therapy for a year after the injury. Id. at 23. A third surgery and more physical therapy followed in December 2012. Id. at 26. Because of the ankle injury, McGarry had difficulty walking long distances, standing for long periods of time, running, and jumping. Id. at 29.

McGarry testified that she could not recall seeing signs with warnings and [*4] information that were posted by the bathrooms, at the reception desk, or on pillars in the building. Id. at 39-40. However, McGarry indicated that she recalled a sign about mat placement and was able to draw it from memory at her deposition. Id. at 41-42.

On December 24, 2012, McGarry filed a complaint against PRC, in which she alleged that PRC’s negligence and/or gross negligence caused her injury.4 The jury trial was held in July 2014.

4 The complaint also included a claim for loss of consortium on behalf of Peter.

At trial, Corey Andres, who was qualified as an expert in sports and recreation venues and industries, testified for McGarry. N.T., 7/15/2014, at 11. Mr. Andres testified that some of the safety signs were placed where they were unlikely to be noticed. Id. at 41. Some of the signs warned about possible dangers, but gave no instructions about how to avoid those risks. Id. at 47, 52. Mr. Andres testified that belaying and bouldering are different and that, in bouldering, mat placement, the use and limitations of mats, and how to control one’s descent are important. Id. at 54. Mr. Andres opined that it was insufficient to have signs instructing clients to ask an employee about climbing or safety because novice climbers [*5] may not know what to ask in order to participate safely. Id. at 57-58. Mr. Andres testified that PRC’s reliance upon signs for safety information about bouldering, rather than requiring instruction, was inadequate. Id. at 71. Mr. Andres acknowledged that McGarry was told in her belaying course that she should ask staff if she had questions about bouldering, but that McGarry did not do so. Id. at 81. He also acknowledged that there was a sign that instructed about correct placement of mats, how to land on the mat, and how to avoid injury. Id. at 99-101. Mr. Andres opined that PRC’s standard of care required compulsory instruction as suggested by industry literature. Id. at 83.

David Rowland, PRC’s president, also testified. N.T., 7/16/2014, at 3. Rowland testified that PRC offered an optional bouldering course. Id. at 7. He agreed that correct mat placement was important and could reduce the likelihood of injury. Id. at 13-14. However, Rowland testified that the climber was responsible for placing the mats, even if the climber was inexperienced. Id. at 15-16. Rowland admitted that there were no written rules or instruction manuals beyond the signs posted in the facility. Id. at 22. PRC recommends that climbers rely upon spotters to guide them to safe [*6] landing spots, but it was not mandatory. Id. at 27-28.

At the close of McGarry’s case, PRC moved for a non-suit. N.T., 7/16/2014 (Argument), at 3. The trial court heard argument on the motion and decided that the evidence did not support punitive damages. Therefore, the court decided not to submit that issue to the jury. Id. at 11. Recognizing that non-suit was a close issue, the trial court denied the motion and permitted the defense to present its case. Id. at 11-12. PRC also moved for a directed verdict at the close of evidence, which the trial court also denied. Id. at 13-14.

On July 16, 2014, the jury reached its verdict. It found that PRC was grossly negligent, that PRC’s gross negligence was the cause of McGarry’s injuries, that McGarry was contributorily negligent, and that PRC and McGarry were each fifty percent at fault. The jury awarded McGarry $150,000 without a reduction for her own negligence.

On July 25, 2014, PRC filed a post-trial motion in which it sought judgment notwithstanding the verdict (“JNOV”). PRC asserted that the trial court had erred in not granting its motions for non-suit and/or a directed verdict, that McGarry had failed to prove gross negligence as a matter of law, that the jury disregarded [*7] the court’s instructions on assumption of risk and gross negligence, and that McGarry’s expert was not qualified. On November 19, 2014, the trial court granted PRC’s motion and entered JNOV. The trial court concluded that it erred in failing to grant the motion for directed verdict because the evidence did not support a finding of gross negligence, and that McGarry knowingly and voluntarily accepted a risk, which relieved PRC’s duty to McGarry. Order, 11/19/2014, at 1-2 n.1.

On November 25, 2014, McGarry filed a notice of appeal. On November 26, 2014, the trial court directed McGarry to file a concise statement of errors complained of on appeal pursuant to Pa.R.A.P. 1925(b), and McGarry timely complied. The court filed a Pa.R.A.P. 1925(a) opinion on February 2, 2015.

McGarry raises four issues for our review:

1. Did the Trial Court commit an error of law and/or abuse its discretion when the Trial Court misapplied the standard for j.n.o.v., which requires that j.n.o.v. be granted only where the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law and/or evidence was such that no two reasonable minds could disagree that the outcome should have been in favor of the movant?

2. Did the Trial Court commit an error of law and/or [*8] abuse its discretion when the Trial Court granted a motion for j.n.o.v., after the jury had been instructed on the law of gross negligence, applied the facts, and determined that [PRC’s] conduct reached the level of gross negligence?

3. Did the Trial Court commit an error of law and/or abuse its discretion in applying the assumption of risk doctrine in granting [PRC’s] post[-]trial motion?

4. Did the Trial Court commit an error of law and/or abuse its discretion when the Trial Court prohibited [McGarry] from presenting evidence as to the training vel non of employees of [PRC] at trial?

McGarry’s Brief at 5.

McGarry’s first two issues relate to the trial court’s entry of JNOV. Additionally, the third issue, related to assumption of risk, is intertwined with JNOV. As such, we discuss them together. Our standard of review of a trial court’s ruling on a motion for JNOV is as follows:

In reviewing a trial court’s decision whether or not to grant judgment in favor of one of the parties, we must consider the evidence, together with all favorable inferences drawn therefrom, in the light most favorable to the verdict winner. Our standard[s] of review when considering the motions for a directed verdict and [*9] judgment notwithstanding the verdict [JNOV] are identical. We will reverse a trial court’s grant or denial of a [directed verdict or JNOV] only when we find an abuse of discretion or an error of law that controlled the outcome of the case. Further, the standard of review for an appellate court is the same as that for a trial court.

There are two bases upon which a [directed verdict or JNOV] can be entered; one, the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law and/or two, the evidence is such that no two reasonable minds could disagree that the outcome should have been rendered in favor of the movant. With the first, the court reviews the record and concludes that, even with all factual inferences decided adverse to the movant, the law nonetheless requires a verdict in his favor. Whereas with the second, the court reviews the evidentiary record and concludes that the evidence was such that a verdict for the movant was beyond peradventure.

Campisi v. Acme Markets, Inc., 2006 PA Super 368, 915 A.2d 117, 119 (Pa. Super. 2006) (quotation omitted). See Berg v. Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co., Inc., 2012 PA Super 88, 44 A.3d 1164 (Pa. Super. 2012).

Hall v. Episcopal Long Term Care, 2012 PA Super 205, 54 A.3d 381, 395 (Pa. Super. 2012) (bracketed material in original).

Because McGarry signed a waiver, no one in this case disputes that McGarry was required to prove that PRC was grossly negligent to recover. Gross negligence has been defined as follows: [*10]

Gross negligence has . . . been termed the entire absence of care and the utter disregard of the dictates of prudence, amounting to complete neglect of the rights of others. Additionally, gross negligence has been described as an extreme departure from ordinary care or the want of even scant care [and] . . . as [a] lack of slight diligence or care, and [a] conscious, voluntary act or omission in reckless disregard of a legal duty and of the consequences to another party . . . .

[G]ross negligence is clearly more egregious than ordinary negligence.

Ratti v. Wheeling Pittsburgh Steel Corp., 2000 PA Super 239, 758 A.2d 695, 704-05 (Pa. Super. 2000) (citations and quotation marks omitted).

The trial court granted PRC’s motion for JNOV because it found that McGarry had assumed the risk of injury, which was open and obvious. Trial Court Opinion (“T.C.O.”), 2/15/2015, at 5. Because McGarry assumed the risk, PRC owed her no further duty. Id. at 5-6. Based upon McGarry’s testimony, the trial court found that McGarry knew that there was a risk in bouldering, knew she could be injured from a height of four feet, knew she was jumping from the wall without looking for the mats, and jumped anyway. Id. at 7-8. The trial court also found that, because the dangers were obvious, PRC reasonably could expect that McGarry would [*11] take steps to protect herself, precluding a finding that PRC was grossly negligent. Id. at 8-9.

In response, McGarry first notes that assumption of risk is subjective and that McGarry only could assume a risk that she understood. McGarry argues that, because there were no written safety materials, McGarry did not know how to position the mats or how to use a spotter to avoid injury. McGarry’s Brief at 21-23. McGarry also observes that her expert witness testified that the lack of instruction contributed to her injury, the jury was instructed on assumption of risk, and the jury decided that McGarry did not appreciate the risk. By setting aside that decision, McGarry contends that the trial court invaded the province of the jury. Id. at 24-25. McGarry also argues that the facts of this case were such that the trial court erred in deciding that the risks were so open and obvious that reasonable minds could not disagree upon the issue of duty. Id. at 25-27. Finally, McGarry notes that the assumption of risk doctrine has fallen out of favor with the passage of the comparative negligence statute. However, despite the applicability of assumption of risk, McGarry argues that the jury was instructed adequately about [*12] both doctrines and that the trial court erred in upsetting that verdict. Id. at 27-28.

“Assumption of risk is a judicially created rule [based in the common law that] did not protect [individuals] from the consequences of their own behavior . . . . The doctrine, however, has fallen into disfavor, as evidenced by our [S]upreme [C]ourt’s two . . . attempts to abolish or limit it.” Staub v. Toy Factory, Inc., 2000 PA Super 87, 749 A.2d 522, 528 (Pa. Super. 2000) (en banc). Our Supreme Court has noted that “the complexity of analysis in assumption of risk cases makes it extremely difficult to instruct juries.” Howell v. Clyde, 533 Pa. 151, 620 A.2d 1107, 1108 (Pa. 1993) (plurality). Courts also have questioned whether the doctrine serves a purpose following Pennsylvania’s adoption of comparative negligence. See id. at 1109; Bullman v. Giuntoli, 2000 PA Super 284, 761 A.2d 566, 570 (Pa. Super. 2000); Staub, 749 A.2d at 528; see also Zeidman v. Fisher, 2009 PA Super 161, 980 A.2d 637, 640 (Pa. Super. 2009) (“We acknowledge the continuing vitality of the assumption of risk doctrine remains in doubt.”). However, despite its difficulties, the doctrine remains the law of Pennsylvania. See Bullman, 761 A.2d at 570 (“[A]s the doctrine has not been formally abolished by our Supreme Court, we are obligated to apply the doctrine despite its less than wholehearted support.”); Staub, 749 A.2d at 528 (“[U]ntil our [S]upreme [C]ourt or our legislature abrogates assumption of risk in negligence cases, the doctrine remains viable . . . .”). Therefore, we review the trial court’s application of assumption of risk. [*13]

The doctrine has been defined as follows:

[A]ssumption of risk is established as a matter of law only where it is beyond question that the plaintiff voluntarily and knowingly proceeded in the face of an obvious and dangerous condition. Voluntariness is established only when the circumstances manifest a willingness to accept the risk. Mere contributory negligence does not establish assumption of risk. Rather, a plaintiff has assumed the risk where he has gone so far as to abandon his right to complain and has absolved the defendant from taking any responsibility for the plaintiff’s injuries. In order to prevail on assumption of risk, the defendant must establish both the “awareness of the risk” prong and the “voluntariness” prong.

Staub, 749 A.2d at 529 (citations and quotation marks omitted). Assumption of risk has been compared to estoppel:

It might be assumed, for purposes of an assumption of risk analysis, that the defendant(s) was negligent, and at least partly responsible for the injury sustained, nevertheless, given the circumstances in which the injury was sustained, the plaintiff is essentially “estopped” from pursuing an action against the defendant because it is fundamentally unfair to allow the plaintiff to [*14] shift responsibility for the injury to the defendant when the risk was known, appreciated and voluntarily assumed by the plaintiff.

Bullman, 761 A.2d at 570. The doctrine also has been viewed, as the trial court did here, in relation to duty:

If the case is viewed from the perspective of a duty analysis, the evidence presented at trial establishes that [the plaintiff] voluntarily encountered a known risk, thereby obviating any duty which might otherwise have been owed him by [the defendant]. Under this analysis, the case is controlled by the assumption of risk principle that one who voluntarily undertakes a known risk thereby releases the defendant from any duty of care.

Howell, 620 A.2d at 1110-11. Similarly, “[w]hen an invitee enters business premises, discovers dangerous conditions which are both obvious and avoidable, and nevertheless proceeds voluntarily to encounter them, the doctrine of assumption of risk operates merely as a counterpoint to the possessor’s lack of duty to protect the invitee from those risks.” Zeidman, 980 A2.d at 642.

The risk that is appreciated and accepted must also be “the specific risk that occasioned injury.” Bullman, 761 A.2d at 571. For instance, assumption of risk did not apply when a student was injured by a discharged ceremonial [*15] cannon, when the student was not aware that the cannon could cause the type of injury sustained and because the cannon had always required more force to discharge than the student applied when he was injured. Id. at 572 (citing Struble v. Valley Forge Military Academy, 445 Pa. Super. 224, 665 A.2d 4 (Pa. Super. 1995)). An installer working on stilts, while appreciating a general risk of falling, had not assumed the risk of slipping on a piece of vinyl siding when he had cleared a path of debris and did not see the siding. Id. (citing Barrett v. Fredavid Builders, Inc., 454 Pa. Super. 162, 685 A.2d 129 (Pa. Super. 1996)). In Bullman, a girl assumed the risk of traversing a plank over an excavation ditch because the risk was open and obvious, but she did not assume the risk of falling through insulation board covering a porch that appeared to be solid because that risk was not appreciated. Id. at 573-74.

In spectator sports, we have found assumption of risk or no duty for risks that are “common, frequent, and expected,” such as being hit by a batted ball or by a hockey puck, but not when the risk is “not inherent in the amusement activity,” such as tripping over a beam or falling in a hole in a walkway at a stadium. Zeidman, 980 A.2d at 642-43. In Zeldman, the plaintiff raised sufficient issues of material fact to overcome a motion for summary judgment based upon assumption of risk when he was struck by [*16] a golf ball hit by his golfing companion. The plaintiff went ahead to check that the golfing group ahead of his group was off the green and was returning to the tee. Assumption of risk was not available at summary judgment because the plaintiff raised an issue of material fact as to whether he had reason to expect that his golfing companion would hit a shot off the tee while he was en route. Id. at 641.

Turning to this case, we first must consider whether the danger was open and obvious. The testimony supported the conclusion that it was. Multiple signs throughout the facility warned that climbing and bouldering are dangerous and may result in serious injury. Additionally, the danger of these activities “is well understood by virtually all individuals of adult age.” Bullman, 761 A.2d at 573. Falling and causing a injury to an ankle or wrist is a “common, frequent, and expected” risk of climbing or bouldering. Zeidman, 980 A.2d at 642.

Further, McGarry knew of and appreciated the risk. McGarry testified that she knew there were risks in bouldering and that she knew she could be injured when jumping even from a height of four feet. McGarry saw the sign stressing the importance of mat placement and drew it from memory much later at her deposition. [*17] Despite knowing that mats and their placement were important, McGarry nonetheless did not look before she jumped and landed in the wrong place. McGarry also acknowledged that she signed a waiver, which she understood meant that she was responsible for any injuries. She then voluntarily proceeded with the activity despite her appreciation of that risk. Based upon this testimony, no two reasonable minds could fail to conclude that McGarry understood and appreciated the specific risk of injury associated with jumping from four feet without first looking for the mat. Although McGarry argues that the lack of instruction about correct mat placement did not fully apprise her of the risk, the lack of instruction would be relevant only to PRC’s negligence, which is not at issue as McGarry assumed the risk and PRC had no further duty toward her. Therefore, the trial court did not err in finding that McGarry assumed the risk.

McGarry argues that the trial court ignored the standard for granting JNOV and, instead, supplanted the jury’s findings with its own. McGarry contends that the trial court ignored evidence that was favorable to her, particularly the opinion of her expert witness. McGarry’s [*18] Brief at 10-15.

As noted in Hall, supra, in reviewing a grant of JNOV, we must consider the evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict winner and we will reverse only upon a showing that the trial court made a legal error or abused its discretion.

It is axiomatic that, “[t]here are two bases upon which a judgment n.o.v. can be entered: one, the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, and/or two, the evidence was such that no two reasonable minds could disagree that the outcome should have been rendered in favor of the movant.” Moure v. Raeuchle, 529 Pa. 394, 604 A.2d 1003, 1007 (Pa. 1992) (citations omitted). To uphold JNOV on the first basis, we must review the record and conclude “that even with all the factual inferences decided adverse to the movant the law nonetheless requires a verdict in his favor, whereas with the second [we] review the evidentiary record and [conclude] that the evidence was such that a verdict for the movant was beyond peradventure.” Id.

Rohm & Haas Co. v. Cont’l Cas. Co., 566 Pa. 464, 781 A.2d 1172, 1176 (Pa. 2001) (citation modified).

Having reviewed the incomplete record that we have been provided,5 we conclude that, even viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to McGarry, the trial court did not err in granting JNOV. Even if we accept Mr. Andres’ testimony that PRC was negligent [*19] in failing to provide instruction on bouldering and mat placement and that PRC’s signs were inadequate to instruct McGarry how to avoid injury, McGarry testified that she knew the risk of injury in bouldering, and that she proceeded despite that risk. As noted, as part of an assumption of risk analysis, we may presume PRC was negligent and partly responsible for McGarry’s injuries. See Bullman, supra. In fact, the jury found that PRC was partially responsible. However, McGarry’s own testimony compels the trial court’s finding that she assumed the risk, which, as a matter of law, precludes a verdict in her favor. The trial court did not err or abuse its discretion in awarding JNOV.

5 “[T]he ultimate responsibility of ensuring that the transmitted record is complete rests squarely upon the appellant and not upon the appellate courts.” Preston, 904 A.2d at 7.

McGarry also asserts that the jury was charged accurately and thoroughly regarding gross negligence. McGarry contends that the jury’s finding of gross negligence was supported by the facts of the case, including that the bouldering course was optional, that PRC did not have written safety policies, that the policy on the use of spotters was unclear, and that no [*20] instruction was given on proper mat placement. McGarry’s Brief at 16-20.

While expressing no opinion as to whether the evidence supported a finding of gross negligence, we conclude that McGarry’s assumption of the risk barred her recovery regardless of whether PRC was grossly negligent. Because the evidence supported the trial court’s conclusion that McGarry assumed the risk of injury, PRC owed no duty to McGarry and, therefore, was not legally responsible for her injury.

Finally, McGarry complains that the trial court erred in precluding her from introducing evidence regarding whether PRC’s employees were trained or qualified. McGarry argues that this evidence was relevant and should have been presented to the jury. McGarry’s Brief at 29.

“Generally, an appellate court’s standard of review of a trial court’s evidentiary rulings is whether the trial court abused its discretion. . . .” Buckman v. Verazin, 2012 PA Super 216, 54 A.3d 956, 960 (Pa. Super. 2012). “Evidence is . . . relevant if it tends to prove or disprove a material fact in issue.” McManamon v. Washko, 2006 PA Super 245, 906 A.2d 1259, 1274 (Pa. Super. 2006).

The trial court sustained PRC’s relevance objection to questions regarding the training of PRC’s employees. Because McGarry did not receive instruction from PRC employees, the trial court reasoned that if PRC was obligated [*21] to provide instruction to clients as part of its duty, PRC would be negligent regardless of whether its the employees were adequately trained. If PRC was not obligated to provide instruction to clients, then PRC would not be negligent regardless of employee training. T.C.O. at 1 n.1.

McGarry has not set forth a compelling argument as to why the proposed testimony would have been relevant. McGarry states:

[T]he training was relevant because [Rowland] testified that staff members were available to answer questions for [McGarry]. Had the instructors been qualified or properly trained, they would have known to instruct [McGarry] in the specific risks associated with bouldering, including proper mat placement, spotting and the dangers associated with failure to do so, which were the true risks of bouldering.

McGarry’s Brief at 29. The evidence in question would have invited the jury to speculate about what instruction McGarry would have received had she sought it out. However, the evidence made clear that there was no required bouldering class, that PRC expected people who were bouldering to ask questions of staff members, and that McGarry did not do so. Had McGarry sought instruction and been [*22] injured, or had McGarry complained regarding the care she received from PRC staff after her injury, then staff training would be relevant. That was not the case, and the trial court did not abuse its discretion in determining that the testimony was not relevant.

Order affirmed.

Judgment Entered.

Date: 10/15/2015


Louisiana State University loses climbing wall case because or climbing wall manual and state law.

Louisiana law prohibits the use of a release. That complicates any recreational activity in the state. However, the greater risk is creating a checklist for the plaintiff or in this case the court to use to determine if you breached the duty of care you owed the plaintiff.

Fecke v. The Board of Supervisors of Louisiana State University, 2015 0017 (La.App. 1 Cir. 07/07/15); 2015 La. App. LEXIS 1357

State: Louisiana

Plaintiff: Brandy Lynn Fecke, Stephen C. Fecke, and Karen Fecke

Defendant: The Board of Supervisors of Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College

Plaintiff Claims:

Defendant Defenses:

Holding: For the Plaintiff

Year: 2015

Louisiana State University converted a racquetball court into a climbing “gym.” It had two bouldering walls and one climbing wall. The climbing wall was 19′ climbing high, and the two bouldering walls were 13′ 1″ high. The plaintiff and a friend went to the climbing wall to work on a required assignment for an “Outdoor Living Skills Activity” course.

Upon arrival, the plaintiff paid to climb and signed a document entitled “Rock Climbing Wall Climbing Wall Participation Agreement.” The agreement was determined by the court to be a release which is void under Louisiana law. (See States that do not Support the Use of a Release.)

The plaintiff and her friend were then were asked if they had climbed before. The plaintiff had climbed twice ten years prior. They received some instruction, which was at issue during the appeal. The plaintiff choose to boulder because she did not want to wear a harness and bouldering was the easiest.

The court understood bouldering, which is quite unusual.

Bouldering is when a climber, with a partner standing behind the climber to act as a spotter in case the climber needs assistance, climbs up to a certain point on the wall and then traverses the wall side-to-side, in order to develop proficiency in climbing.

After bouldering to the top of the wall the plaintiff attempted to down climb and got stuck.

She lost her footing and hung from the wall. When she lost her grip after hanging for a few seconds, she let go of the wall and pushed herself away from the wall. As she fell, Ms. Fecke twirled around, facing away from the wall.

The plaintiff sustained severe injuries to her ankle that required three surgeries prior to the trial and might require more.

The case went to trial. The trial court dismissed the release because of La. C.C. art. 2004.

Louisiana Civil Code

Book 3. Of the different modes of acquiring the ownership of things

Code Title 4. Conventional obligations or contracts

Chapter 8. Effects of conventional obligations

Section 4. Damages

La. C.C. Art. 2004 (2015)

Art. 2004. Clause that excludes or limits liability

Any clause is null that, in advance, excludes or limits the liability of one party for intentional or gross fault that causes damage to the other party.

Any clause is null that, in advance, excludes or limits the liability of one party for causing physical injury to the other party.

The jury awarded the plaintiff $1,925,392.72 and additional $50,000 to her mother for loss of consortium. The trial court reduced the damages to $1,444,044.54, and the loss of consortium claim was reduced to $37,500. The judgment also received interest at 6.0%.

The University appealed.

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

The first issue on the appeal was the application of Louisiana law on the amount of money awarded as damages. This first issue will not be examined here. The second issue was whether the Rock Climbing Wall Participation Agreement was properly excluded during trial.

Originally, the Rock Climbing Wall Participation Agreement was excluded based on a Motion in Limine filed by the plaintiff. A Motion in Limine is a motion filed by a party that argues the evidence of the other side should be excluded because it violates a rule of evidence, or it violates the law. Arguing this type of issue in front of the jury just makes the jury wonder what you are hiding, and you want to have your arguments correct and in advance. A Motion in Limine is the most powerful motion in a litigator’s bag after the motion for summary judgment.

The defendant raised the issue at trial to have the Rock Climbing Wall Participation Agreement entered into evidence and lost that argument also. The trial court did read to the jury a summary of parts of the Rock Climbing Wall Participation Agreement that did not violate the constitution on releases.

The issue the university argued to allow the Rock Climbing Wall Participation Agreement to be entered into evidence and see by the jury was:

Ms. Fecke was sufficiently educated and understood the inherent risk of injury associated with the activity she was about to undertake and that the LSU UREC employees had properly screened Ms. Fecke prior to allowing her to climb the wall. The LSU Board avers that the Agreement constituted Ms. Fecke’s acknowledgment of the risks of climbing the wall, which is a significant factor in determining her fault, and that this information should have been presented to the jury.

The court found that paragraph four of the agreement violated the Louisiana State Constitution, (La. C.C. art. 2004). “Based on our review of the proffered Agreement, paragraph four is null pursuant to La. C.C. art. 2004 because it, in advance, excludes the liability of the LSU Board for causing physical injury to Ms. Fecke.”

The university argued the rest of the Rock Climbing Wall Participation Agreement should be allowed to be introduced to a jury because it would help the jury determine the risk assumed by the plaintiff and consequently, the percentage of damages she was responsible for.

The court then looked at when and how under Louisiana law, liability (negligence) was determined.

For liability for damages to attach under a duty-risk analysis, a plaintiff must prove five separate elements: (1) the defendant had a duty to conform his or her conduct to a specific standard of care (the duty element); (2) the defendant failed to conform his or her conduct to the appropriate standard of care (the breach of duty element); (3) the defendant’s substandard conduct was a cause in fact of the plaintiffs injuries (the cause in fact element); (4) the defendant’s substandard conduct was a legal cause of the plaintiffs injuries (the scope of protection element); and (5) actual damages (the damage element).

The court determined that rock climbing was recreational and like other, activities involved a substantial degree of risk. The duty of the climbing wall operator or gym operator was one of reasonable care, to provide a sound and secure environment.

Rock climbing is a recreational activity that involves substantial risk. Many other recreational activities such as weight lifting and swimming also involve a substantial degree of risk. The risks associated with these and other physically-challenging sports are well recognized. The duty on the gym operator, when these types of sports are conducted, is one of reasonable care under the circumstances — to provide a sound and secure environment for undertaking a clearly risky form of recreation and not that of removing every element of danger inherent in rock climbing.

The last sentence is important as the court found the climbing wall operator did not have a duty to warn about the potential for injury because of gravity. “The LSU Board did not have a duty to warn Ms. Fecke as a climber about the potential effect of gravity. A warning that “if you fall you might get hurt,” is obvious and universally known.”

The court did determine that to be found liable the gym must have failed to provide training and supervision and there must be a connection between the failure to train and supervise and the injury.

A gym and its facilities are not the insurers of the lives or safety of its patrons. A gym cannot be expected to foresee or guard against all dangers. Furthermore, the gym must only take reasonable precautions under the circumstances to avoid injury. To prove negligence on the part of the LSU Board, Ms. Fecke must show both a failure to provide reasonable training and supervision under the circumstances, as well as proof of a causal connection between the lack of reasonable training/supervision and the accident.

This was where the university lost the case. The university had created an extensive “Indoor Climbing Wall Manual” that covered all aspects of operating the climbing wall. It was probably created as a way to avoid liability. In this case the court used, the Indoor Climbing Wall Manual became a checklist to prove the defendant was liable.

The LSU UREC maintains an “Indoor Climbing Wall Manual,” which governs the rules, use, and maintenance of the indoor rock wall climbing facility. The manual requires the following of all employees of the indoor rock wall climbing facility:

The manual proved the climbing wall failed to train and failed to supervise. Nothing like your own documents proving the plaintiffs case.

The manual required all employees to know and enforce all rules of the climbing wall. The court then found ten rules in the manual that must be followed. The court then found additional rules that had to be followed beyond the first ten.

Furthermore, the LSU UREC employees are required to instruct patrons who intend to climb in accordance with the guidelines contained in a “safety clinic” document. The safety clinic requires the LSU UREC employees to give examples of danger areas and instruct climbers where to fall on crash pads, which must be placed underneath bouldering climbers at all times.

The rules went on to require the climbers be instructed in spotting techniques and have the climbers demonstrate spotting techniques. “The safety clinic also requires the LSU UREC employees to demonstrate how to properly descend the wall, and in the event of a fall, how to properly land on the ground to reduce injuries.”

The next two pages of the court’s opinion are running through the climbing manual as a checklist for everything the employees of the climbing wall failed to do. There was contradictory testimony, including one witness who said the plaintiff’s friend was in a position to spot but when she fell he moved away. However, the court did not seem to find the employees statements to be persuasive.

After our de novo review of the testimony and evidence presented at trial, we conclude that the LSU UREC employees failed to properly instruct, demonstrate, and certify that Ms. Fecke and Mr. Culotta understood the proper techniques for climbing the bouldering wall in accordance with their duties as described in the LSU UREC “Indoor Climbing Wall Manual” and the safety clinic document.

Legally, the climbing manual of the wall created the duty and the proof of the breach of the duty necessary to prove the case for the plaintiff.

Consequently, when reviewing whether the agreement should be allowed to be entered as evidence the appellate court decided that it might have been instructional to the jury.

The only portion of the excluded Agreement that might have prejudiced the LSU Board’s case is the portion in paragraph five wherein Ms. Fecke certified that she “agree[d] to abide by all rules of the sport as mandated by LSU University Recreation.” As discussed above, however, instruction as to those “rules” was not provided to Ms. Fecke by the LSU UREC employees nor was she properly screened or supervised as she climbed the bouldering wall.

However, the court also found that even if instructional, it was not sufficient of an issue to reverse the decision.

Thus, we find that the trial court legally erred in excluding a redacted version of the Agreement; however, we hold that the trial court’s error was not prejudicial. The inclusion of the remainder of the Agreement at trial could not have permissibly changed the jury’s verdict based on our de novo review of the record.

The court then went back and looked at how the damages were determined. Ultimately, the damages were lowered to $650,000.

So Now What

You can have manuals and checklists and other pieces of paper that tell your employees what they must do. However, if you do have these pieces of paper, you better have another employee standing around making sure everything on the paper is done.  

If you write it down, call it a standard, a manual, procedure it will become proof that you owed a duty to someone and breached that duty. Your own documents are proof that you are negligent.

Here a comprehensive manual was written to protect patrons of the climbing gym, and it ended up being an easy way for the court to find the gym had failed in its duty. Where did the court find the duty? In the climbing wall, manual easily laid out in lists.

This case is relevant in another light. If your state law says releases are not valid, you may not want to risk using one. You would be better off creating an acknowledgement of risk form for guests to sign.

Better, create video showing guests what they can and should do and more importantly what they should not do. Have the guest acknowledge in the assumption of the risk form, that they have watched the video. That helps prove the guest knew and assumed the risk of the activity.

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Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law

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

 

 

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