A loss of consortium claim started as a way to compensate a husband for the loss of his wife and the duties she performed in the home, including sex.

In most states, a loss of consortium claim is a derivative claim, meaning that the claim is successful if the original claim, the husband’s claim is successful.

In Maine, a loss of consortium claim may be derivative or independent and is based on a statute.

Hardy et al. v. St. Clair d/b/a Wiscasset Raceway,1999 ME 142; 739 A.2d 368; 1999 Me. LEXIS 161

State: Maine, Supreme Judicial Court of Maine

Plaintiff: Brent D. Hardy et al.

Defendant: David St. Clair d/b/a Wiscasset Raceway

Plaintiff Claims:

Defendant Defenses:

Holding:

Year: 1999

Summary

In the majority of states, a loss of consortium claim is a derivative claim, and a release stops those claims as well as the original claim of the injured plaintiff. In Maine, a loss of consortium claim is a separate claim and not stopped when the plaintiff signs a release.

Facts

The husband was part of a pit crew for a race car. He signed a release to enter the track and work on the race car he crewed for. During the race, a specific set of seats in the bleachers were reserved for the pit crew. While sitting in the bleachers, a plank on a set of bleachers collapsed, injuring him.

The trial court granted summary judgment on the husband’s claim but allowed the wife’s loss of consortium claim to continue.

Maine’s loss of consortium claims originally only available to a husband when a wife was injured. When the first claims from wives appeared based on husband’s injuries the courts determined it was not their job to make that decision on whether the wife had a claim, that it was the legislature’s responsibility. “However, “under common law, a wife had no cause of action for her loss of consortium occasioned by her husband’s injuries.”

The Maine legislature passed a law giving both husband and wife, when married, loss of consortium claims. The statute stated the claims were available to be brought in the person’s own name or in their spouse’s name.

In most states, a loss of consortium claim is a derivative claim. Meaning the claim is brought with the injured spouse’s claim and is subject to the defenses to the injured spouses claim. Alternatively, the non-injures spouse can only win if the injured spouse wins.

Based on the language of the Maine Statute, the trial court determined the loss of consortium claim of the non-injured spouse could continue. The defendant appealed that decision and this is the Maine Supreme Court’s decision on that issue.

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

The court started by reviewing the release, and Maine release law. As in most states the court started its analysis with:

Courts have traditionally disfavored contractual exclusions of negligence liability and have exercised a heightened degree of judicial scrutiny when interpreting contractual language [that] allegedly exempts a party from liability for his own negligence.”

Under Maine’s law, this means that a release must “expressly spell out with the greatest particularity the intention of the parties contractually to extinguish negligence liability” That means the court must look at the plain language of the agreement and determine the intent of the parties as set forth in the agreement.

Although the release was mainly written to cover injuries received as a member of the pit crew and stock-car racing, the court found that since the seating area where the injury occurred could only be occupied by members of a pit crew, the release covered the injuries the plaintiff suffered when the plank broke. The court stated.

…had Brent not been participating in the race events, he would not have been on the section of bleachers that collapsed because that section was reserved for members of the pit crews and not open to the general public

The plaintiff’s injuries were determined to have risen directly from the racing event. Overall, the court determined the agreement was written to extinguish negligence liability.

Finding the release prevented the claims of the husband, the court then turned to the issue of the loss of consortium claim of the spouse.

Looking at the law of releases, a release only bar’s claims of the person who signed the release. If the wife’s claims are derivative, then her claims would be barred also when the husband signed the release.

States adopting the derivative approach generally conclude that a cause of action for loss of consortium is subject to the same defenses available in the injured spouse’s underlying tort action. States adopting the independent approach generally conclude that a consortium claim is not subject to such defenses.

However, under the statute, the court found that loss of consortium claims in Maine are separate, independent causes of action. The wife’s loss of consortium claim could continue.

So Now What?

In Maine, and the minority of states that follow this line of reasoning, to bar all claims for injuries, a defendant is going to have to get a signature on a release for everyone who might have a claim based upon the injury of the injured person.

That could mean the spouse would have to sign a release, minor children if they are allowed, heirs of the plaintiff if he dies, or anyone else that could bring a claim all would have to release any possible defendant.

Understand if you live in a state where loss of consortium claims is derivative and covered by a release or stand alone and not covered by your release.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2018 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

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Hardy et al. v. St. Clair d/b/a Wiscasset Raceway,1999 ME 142; 739 A.2d 368; 1999 Me. LEXIS 161

Hardy et al. v. St. Clair d/b/a Wiscasset Raceway,1999 ME 142; 739 A.2d 368; 1999 Me. LEXIS 161

Brent D. Hardy et al. v. David St. Clair d/b/a Wiscasset Raceway

Wal-99-107

SUPREME JUDICIAL COURT OF MAINE

1999 ME 142; 739 A.2d 368; 1999 Me. LEXIS 161

September 10, 1999, Argued

October 15, 1999, Decided

DISPOSITION: [***1] Judgment affirmed.

CORE TERMS: consortium, spouse, loss of consortium, cause of action, derivative, raceway, public policy, common law, negligence liability, negligence claim, indemnity agreements, releasee, own negligence, own name, civil action, citation omitted, indemnification, contractual, extinguish, indirectly, occasioned, claimant, married, bleachers, crew, pit, plain language, tort action, particularity, contractually

COUNSEL: Attorneys for plaintiffs: James C. Munch III, Esq., (orally), Marvin G. Glazier, Esq., Vafiades, Brountas & Kominsky, Bangor, ME.

Attorneys for defendant: Richard L. Suter, Esq., (orally, George D. Hepner III, Esq., Suter & Hepner, P.A., Falmouth, ME.

JUDGES: Panel: RUDMAN, DANA, SAUFLEY, ALEXANDER, and CALKINS, JJ.

OPINION BY: RUDMAN

OPINION

[**369] RUDMAN, J.

[*P1] Brent D. Hardy and Carie Hardy appeal and David St. Clair cross-appeals from a summary judgment entered in the Superior Court (Waldo County, Marsano, J.) concluding that a release signed by Brent D. Hardy barred his negligence claim, but did not bar his wife’s claim for loss of consortium. We agree with the trial court and affirm the judgment.

[*P2] This action arises from injuries allegedly sustained by Brent D. Hardy at the Wiscasset Raceway, a facility owned by David St. Clair. As a condition to Brent’s service as a member of a pit crew supporting a race car racing at the raceway, Brent was required to sign a document entitled “Release and Waiver of Liability, Assumption of Risk and Indemnity Agreement.” Brent was injured when a plank on a set of bleachers at the raceway reserved for members of the [***2] pit crews collapsed under him. The trial court granted a summary judgment in favor of the raceway on the basis that the agreement barred Brent’s negligence claim, but concluded that the agreement did not bar Carie’s loss of consortium claim. This appeal ensued.

I.

[*P3] The Hardys contend that the agreement is ambiguous and violates Maine law and public policy and that the peril which caused Brent’s injury was not contemplated by the parties. “Courts [HN1] have traditionally disfavored contractual exclusions of negligence liability and have exercised a heightened degree of judicial scrutiny when interpreting contractual language [that] allegedly exempts a party from liability for his own negligence.” 1 [HN2] Doyle v. Bowdoin College, 403 A.2d 1206, 1207 (Me. 1979). Accordingly, a release must “expressly spell out with the greatest particularity the intention of the parties contractually to extinguish negligence liability.” Id. (internal quotations omitted). To discern the parties’ intention, we look to the plain language of the agreement.

1 Wiscasset Raceway cites Doyle v. Bowdoin College, 403 A.2d 1206, 1207-08 (Me. 1979) and Emery Waterhouse Co. v. Lea, 467 A.2d 986, 993 (Me. 1983). In support of its contention that, “under Maine law, release and indemnity agreements exempting the releasee/indemnitee from liability for his or her own negligence are considered lawful and are not against public policy.” In Doyle, 403 A.2d at 1207 n.2, we declined to address whether such agreements were unlawful and contrary to public policy, stating:

Because we do not construe the documents executed … as releases or indemnification agreements, we have no occasion to reach the further issue whether contractual provisions which relieve a party from liability for that party’s own negligence would be unenforceable and void as contravening public policy. See, e.g., Tunkl v. Regents of University of California, 60 Cal. 2d 92, 32 Cal. Rptr. 33, 383 P.2d 441 (1963); Prosser, Torts § 68 (4th ed. 1971).

In Emery Waterhouse Co., 467 A.2d at 993, we stated that “indemnity [HN3] clauses to save a party harmless from damages due to negligence may lawfully be inserted in contracts . . ., and such clauses are not against public policy.”

[*P4] [***3] The pertinent provisions of the Agreement state that, by signing the document, Brent:

2. HEREBY RELEASES, WAIVES, DISCHARGES AND COVENANTS NOT TO SUE [Wiscasset Raceway] FROM ALL LIABILITY [sic]… FOR ANY AND ALL LOSS OR DAMAGE, AND ANY CLAIM OR DEMANDS THEREFOR ON ACCOUNT OF INJURY TO THE PERSON OR PROPERTY … ARISING OUT OF OR RELATED TO THE EVENT(S), WHETHER CAUSED BY THE NEGLIGENCE OF THE RELEASEES OR OTHERWISE.

. . . .

[**370] 4. HEREBY ASSUMES FULL RESPONSIBILITY FOR ANY RISK OF BODILY INJURY, DEATH OR PROPERTY DAMAGE arising out of or related to the EVENT(S) whether caused by the NEGLIGENCE OF RELEASEES or otherwise.

. . . .

6. HEREBY agrees that this Release and Waiver of Liability, Assumption of Risk and Indemnity Agreement extends to all acts of negligence by the Releasees . . . and is intended to be as broad and inclusive as is permitted by the laws. . . .

The Agreement further provides:

I HAVE READ THIS RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABILITY, ASSUMPTION OF RISK AND INDEMNITY AGREEMENT, FULLY UNDERSTAND ITS TERMS, UNDERSTAND THAT I HAVE GIVEN UP SUBSTANTIAL RIGHTS BY SIGNING IT, AND INTEND MY SIGNATURE TO BE A COMPLETE AND [***4] UNCONDITIONAL RELEASE OF ALL LIABILITY TO THE GREATEST EXTENT ALLOWED BY LAW.

[*P5] According to the second and fourth paragraphs of the Agreement, Brent cannot recover for any injuries “arising out of or related to the EVENT(S).” The term “EVENT(S)” refers to Wiscasset Raceway’s “Regular Races & 50 Lap Heavyweight.” Although Brent did not receive injuries directly “arising out of or related to the events,” his injuries were related to the events and indirectly resulted from them. The race events did not directly cause the bleachers to collapse under Brent. However, had Brent not been participating in the race events, he would not have been on the section of bleachers that collapsed because that section was reserved for members of the pit crews and not open to the general public.

[*P6] In light of other broader language in the Agreement, however, this appeal does not turn on whether the Agreement expressly extinguishes Wiscasset Raceway’s negligence liability for injuries indirectly arising out of the racing events. The sixth paragraph provides that the scope of the Agreement “extends to all acts of negligence by [Wiscasset Raceway] . . . And is intended to be as broad [***5] and inclusive as is permitted by the laws.” Further, the last portion of the Agreement indicates that Brent intended his signature to be “A COMPLETE AND UNCONDITIONAL RELEASE OF ALL LIABILITY TO THE GREATEST EXTENT ALLOWED BY LAW.” Even when strictly construed against Wiscasset Raceway, the Agreement “expressly spell[s] out with the greatest particularity the intention of the parties contractually to extinguish negligence liability.” Doyle, 403 A.2d at 1207 (internal quotations omitted). In light of the plain language of the Agreement, the trial court did not err in concluding that the Agreement barred Brent’s negligence claim.

II.

[*P7] By way of cross-appeal, Wiscasset Raceway contends that the trial court erred in concluding that the Agreement did not bar Carie’s loss of consortium claim. Wiscasset Raceway argues that, “under Maine law, although a loss of consortium claim is often referred to as being both ‘derivative’ and ‘independent,’ such claims are often greatly limited by statutory and common law defenses associated with the injured spouse’s cause of action.” Wiscasset Raceway further contends that, regardless, the indemnification provision bars Carie’s [***6] loss of consortium claim. 2 In response, the Hardys argue that Carie’s consortium claim was independent, and [**371] that Brent did not have the ability to release her claim without her consent.

2 Although we recognize that the indemnification clause contained in the Agreement may render this determination a pyrrhic victory, the existence of that clause, by itself, cannot eliminate the noninjured spouse’s claim.

[*P8] “For centuries[,] courts have recognized a husband’s right to recover damages for the loss of consortium 3 when a tortious injury to his wife detrimentally affects the spousal relationship.” Macomber v. Dillman, 505 A.2d 810, 813 (Me. 1986). However, “under common law, a wife had no cause of action for her loss of consortium occasioned by her husband’s injuries.” Dionne v. Libbey-Owens Ford Co., 621 A.2d 414, 417 (Me. 1993). In 1965, in Potter v. Schafter, we declined to “judicially legislate” such a cause of action and, instead, deferred to the Legislature [***7] so that “the diverse interests affected by such proposition may be heard.” Potter v. Schafter, 161 Me. 340, 341-43, 211 A.2d 891, 892-93 (1965). In 1967, “fun response to our decision in Potter v. Schafter, the Legislature enacted section 167-A of Title 19[,] [which] provided that ‘[a] married woman may bring a civil action in her own name for loss of consortium of her husband.'” Dionne, 621 A.2d at 417 (footnote omitted) (citation omitted). Thereafter, the Legislature repealed section 167-A and replaced it with the gender-neutral section 302 of Title 14, which provides that [HN4] “[a] married person may bring a civil action in that person’s own name for loss of consortium of that person’s spouse.” 14 M.R.S.A. § 302.

3 [HN5] The term “consortium” refers to “the nonpecuniary interests a person may have in the company, cooperation, affection, and aid of another.” BRYAN A. GARNER, A DICTIONARY OF MODERN LEGAL USAGE 208 (2d ed. 1995). “Consortium” [HN6] means the “conjugal fellowship of husband and wife, and the right of each to the company, society, co-operation, affection, and aid of the other in every conjugal relation.” BLACK’S LAW DICTIONARY 309 (6th ed. 1990). BLACK’S LAW DICTIONARY further states:

Loss of “consortium” consists of several elements, encompassing not only material services but such intangibles as society, guidance, companionship, and sexual relations. Damages for loss of consortium are commonly sought in wrongful death actions, or when [a] spouse has been seriously injured through [the] negligence of another, or by [a] spouse against [a] third person alleging that he or she has caused [the] breaking-up of [the] marriage. [A] cause of action for
“consortium” occasioned
by injury to [a] marriage partner[] is a separate cause of
action belonging to
the
spouse of
the
injured
married partner and [,]
though
derivative
in the sense
of being occasioned by injury to [the]
spouse, is a
direct
injury to the spouse
who has lost the
consortium.

Id. (citations omitted) (emphasis added).

[*P9] [***8] As an initial matter, the Agreement did not directly bar Carie’s consortium claim because she did not sign it and was not a party to the contract. [HN7] A release is a contract that can only bar a claim if the claimant was a party to the agreement. See, e.g., Bowen v. Kil-Kare, Inc., 63 Ohio St. 3d 84, 585 N.E.2d 384, 392 (Ohio 1992); Arnold v. Shawano County Agric. Soc’y, 111 Wis. 2d 203, 330 N.W.2d 773, 779 (Wis. 1983). Hence, the issue facing us is whether, by expressly barring Brent’s negligence claim, the Agreement indirectly barred Carie’s consortium claim. Stated otherwise, we must determine whether a consortium claim is “derivative” or “independent.”

[*P10] Jurisdictions are divided over whether to treat a loss of consortium claim as a “derivative” or “independent” cause of action with regard to the underlying tort claim. 4
See, e.g., McCoy v. Colonial Baking [**372] Co., 572 So. 2d 850, 856-61 (Miss. 1990) (comparing positions of state courts); Carol J. Miller, Annotation, Injured Party’s Release of Tortfeasor as Barring
Spouse’s
Action for
Loss
of Consortium, 29 A.L.R.4th 1200 (1981) [***9] (analyzing state and federal cases). States adopting the derivative approach generally conclude that a cause of action for loss of consortium is subject to the same defenses available in the injured spouse’s underlying tort action. See Miller, supra. States adopting the independent approach generally conclude that a consortium claim is not subject to such defenses. See id.

4 The terms “derivative” and “independent” are imprecise, and may be misleading. See, Jo-Anne M. Balo, Loss of Consortium: A Derivative Injury Giving Rise to a Separate Cause of Action, 50 FORDHAM L. REV. 1344, 1351-54 (1982) (noting that “there is no precise definition of a derivative action”). According to another commentator:

Writers have observed that the conflict which has developed in such cases “suggests the need for basic explanations of which there has been something of a shortage” and that a court’s adoption of either the derivative or independent approach “sounds more like a conclusion than a reason.” The question confusing courts is whether the consortium claim is dependent upon the injury or the injured spouse’s cause of action.

Antonios P. Tsarouhas, Bowen v.
Kil-Kare,
Inc.: The Derivative
and
Independent Approach to Spousal Consortium, 19 OHIO N.U. L. REV. 987, 990-91 (1993) (citations omitted) (emphasis added).

[*P11] [***10] Although we have heretofore declined to address whether a consortium claim is “derivative” or “independent,” see, e.g., Morris v. Hunter, 652 A.2d 80, 82 (Me. 1994); Box v. Walker, 453 A.2d 1181, 1183 (Me. 1983), 5 our case law lends support for the trial court’s conclusion that consortium claims are separate, independent causes of action. In Taylor v. Hill, 464 A.2d 938, 944 (Me. 1983), we recognized that [HN8] a consortium claim, “though derived from an alleged injury to the person of [the claimant’s spouse], constitutes a distinct and separate cause of action.” Similarly, in Dionne, 621 A.2d at 418, we indicated that a wife’s statutory right to bring a consortium claim “belongs to the wife and is separate and apart from the husband’s right to bring his own action against the party responsible for his injuries.”

5 In Box v. Walker, 453 A.2d 1181, 1183 (Me. 1983), we declined to decide whether a consortium claim is “derivative” or “independent,” but noted that [HN9] “an independent cause of action accrues when the plaintiff is damaged by the negligent conduct of the defendant; the law will imply nominal damages from any violation of the plaintiffs rights.” Box v. Walker, 453 A.2d 1181, 1183 (Me. 1983).

[*P12] [***11] The express language of section 302 offers no support for the conclusion that a consortium claim is entirely “derivative.” See 14 M.R.S.A. § 302. To the contrary, section 302’s provision that a consortium claimant may bring a civil action “in that person’s own name” suggests that the cause of action is independent and separate from the underlying tort action of the victim spouse. 14 M.R.S.A. § 302. Further, we have recognized that the Legislature, by enacting the statutory predecessor to section 302, “established a separate right to the wife.” Dionne, 621 A.2d at 418 (holding that damages wife recovered under consortium claim were not subject to husband’s employer’s lien). Although derivative in the sense that both causes of action arise from the same set of facts, the injured spouse’s claim is based on the common law of negligence while the claim of the other spouse is based on statutory law. Each claim is independent of the other and the pre- or post-injury release of one spouse’s claim does not bar the other spouse’s claim. A consortium claim is an independent cause of action, and, therefore, the trial court committed no error in ruling that [***12] the Agreement failed to bar Carie’s consortium claim. 6

6 We need not determine whether a loss of consortium claim may be subject to traditional common law or statutory defenses to the claims of the injured spouse. We decide only that [HN10] a release of the injured spouse’s claim does not simultaneously release the loss of consortium claim of the noninjured spouse.

The entry is:

Judgment affirmed.


What happens if you fail to follow the requirements of your insurance policy and do not get a release signed? In New Hampshire, you have no coverage.

You either have to create an absolutely fool proof system or take your release
online. If they don’t sign they don’t climb!

Colony Insurance Company v. Dover Indoor Climbing Gym & a., 158 N.H. 628; 974 A.2d
399; 2009 N.H. LEXIS 51

State: New Hampshire, Supreme Court of New Hampshire

Plaintiff: Colony Insurance Company

Defendant: Dover Indoor Climbing Gym& a.

Plaintiff Claims: There was no insurance coverage because the insured did not get a release signed by the injured claimant

Defendant Defenses: The insurance policy endorsement requiring a release to be signed was ambiguous

Holding: For the Plaintiff Insurance Company

Year: 2009

This is a scary case, yet the outcome is correct. The plaintiff insurance company issued a policy to the defendant climbing gym. An endorsement (an added amendment to the contract) to the policy said there would only be coverage if the gym all customers sign a release.

 An endorsement to the policy stated: “All ‘participants’ shall be required to sign a waiver or release of liability in
your favor prior to engaging in any ‘climbing activity.’ “It further stated: “Failure to conform to this warranty will render this policy null and void as [sic] those claims brought against you.”

A climber came to the gym with a group of friends. The gym asked everyone if they had a release on file, and no one said no. (Yes really stupid procedures!) Bigelow was part of the group and did not have a release on file and had not signed a release. While climbing Bigelow fell and was injured.

Bigelow accompanied friends to the climbing gym, but did not sign a waiver. He testified that he was never asked to sign a waiver; the gym owner’s affidavit stated that the owner asked the group of climbers if they had waivers on file and received no negative answers. It is undisputed; however, that Bigelow did not sign a waiver or release. While climbing, Bigelow fell and sustained serious injuries.

The defendant climbing gym put the plaintiff insurance company on notice of the claim. When the insurance company found out no release was signed, the insurance company filed a declaratory judgment motion. A declaratory judgment is a way to go into a court and say there is no coverage under this policy because there was no release. It is an attempt to be a quick interpretation of the contract so the bigger issue can be resolved quickly.

The gym then put Colony on notice to defend and pay any verdict obtained by Bigelow. In response, Colony filed a petition for declaratory judgment, arguing that the gym’s failure to obtain a release from Bigelow absolved Colony of any duty to defend or indemnify the gym.

Both parties filed motions for summary judgment. The trial court granted the climbing gym’s motion for summary judgment saying the endorsement requiring the signed release was ambiguous. The ambiguity was created because the insurance company had not provided the gym with a sample waiver to use.

The trial court found that Colony’s failure to provide the gym with a sample waiver rendered the endorsement provision ambiguous. The trial court therefore denied Colony’s motion for summary judgment, and granted the defendants’ cross-motion for summary judgment. 

This analysis by the court was absurd. Releases need to be written for the gym, for the gym’s clients and for the state law of the state where it is to be used. A “sample” release is a guaranteed loser in most cases. However, I suspect the court was looking for anyway it could find to provide coverage for the gym.

The trial court’s ruling meant the plaintiff insurance company had to provide coverage to the defendant for any claims made by the injured climber Bigelow.

The insurance company appealed the decision. New Hampshire does not have an intermediary appellate court system so the appeal went to the New Hampshire Supreme Court.

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

Insurance policies are contracts and are interpreted as such. However, because have been written in a specific way and are always offered on a take it or leave it basis, as well as the fact the insurance company has all the cards (money) insurance policies have additional legal interpretations in addition to contract law.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court started its analysis by looking at how insurance policies are interpreted. That means the policy is read as a whole objectively. Terms are given their natural meaning, meaning there is no special interpretation of any term, and if the policy is clear and unambiguous is it enforced. No special reading of the policy is allowed based on any party to the policy’s expectations.

We construe the language of an insurance policy as would a reasonable person in the position of the insured based upon a more than casual reading of the policy as a whole. Policy terms are construed objectively, and where the terms of a policy are clear and unambiguous, we accord the language its natural and ordinary meaning. We need not examine the parties’ reasonable expectations of coverage when a policy is clear and unambiguous; absent ambiguity, our search for the parties’ intent is limited to the words of the policy.

The burden of proving that no insurance coverage exists as defined by the policy rests on the insurance company. That means coverage exists under the policy unless the insurance company can prove no coverage was written.

If an insurance company wants to limit its coverage, it is allowed to do so. However, that limitation must be clear and unambiguous. An ambiguity exists if a reasonable disagreement exists between the insurance company and the policyholder and that disagreement could lead to two or more, interpretations.

Although an insurer has a right to contractually limit the extent of its liability, it must do so “through clear and unambiguous policy language. Ambiguity exists if “reasonable disagreement between contracting parties” leads to at least two interpretations of the language. 

Ambiguities will be examined in the appropriate context and the words construed in their plain, ordinary and popular meaning. If the interpretation of the ambiguity favors the policyholder, then the coverage will favor the insured.

In determining whether an ambiguity exists, we will look to the claimed ambiguity, consider it in its appropriate context, and construe the words used according to their plain, ordinary, and popular definitions. If one of the reasonable meanings of the language favors the policyholder, the ambiguity will be construed against the insurer. 

If, however, the language in the policy is clear, the court will not bend over backward or as written in this case “perform amazing feats of linguistic gymnastics” to find an ambiguity and create coverage.

Where, however, the policy language is clear, this court “will not perform amazing feats of linguistic gymnastics to find a purported ambiguity” simply to construe the policy against the insurer and create coverage where it is clear that none was intended. 

The court then looked at the determination of the trial court which found an ambiguity because the insurance company did not provide a sample insurance policy. The Supreme Court found that was an incorrect interpretation of the policy. Even the defendant climbing gym agreed with the court on this
issue.

Even the gym, however, contends that the trial court “reached the correct result for the wrong reasons.” Thus, the gym does not argue that the endorsement creates an ambiguity by its failure to provide the insured with a sample waiver form, but, rather, that the exclusionary language is ambiguous because it states that participants shall “be required” to sign waivers as opposed to mandating that the gym obtain signed waivers.  

The court then applied to the law of New Hampshire in interpreting insurance policies to the facts of this case. The court found the language requiring a release was clear and that a reasonable person could only read it.

The clear meaning of the policy language is that the gym is required to actually obtain waivers from climbing participants. The gym’s interpretation would lead to the absurd result of requiring coverage even if the gym never actually enforced its waiver policy. A reasonable person reading the policy would not understand that coverage existed in such circumstances. The gym’s interpretation is unreasonably narrow, and is therefore not the type of alternative interpretation that renders policy language ambiguous.

Simply put the policy requires the defendant climbing gym to have everyone sign a release. If no release is signed, there was no coverage for the gym. The trial court was overturned, and the climbing gym faced the claims of the injured climber without insurance coverage.

So Now What?

One of the first cases I was involved with was very similar. A Montana stable was insured by an insurance company with an endorsement just as this one; all riders were required to sign a release. In Montana all guides, including horseback guides had to be licensed by the state. A state employee was checking out the
stable and found the releases. In Montana, you cannot use a release. (See States that do not Support the Use of a Release andMontana Statute Prohibits Use of a Release)

The state employee had the stable quit using the release, or they would lose their license to operate in Montana. A rider was injured and sued the stable, and the insurance company denied coverage. I was contacted by the law firm representing the insurance company and was floored by the facts and how the insurance company could deny coverage when it violated state regulations.

However, in that situation as well as this one, there is not much you can do to get around the situation if the policy clearly states you must have a release signed. In the Montana case, the stable owner should have immediately contacted his insurance company when he was told he could not use a release and pay to have the endorsement removed or found another insurance company to write him a policy.

In this case, a proper procedure should have been put in place to confirm signed releases rather than relying on the honesty of someone walking through the doors to the gym.

When you purchase insurance make sure you and your insurance agent are speaking clearly to each other, and you both understand what you are looking for. When the policy arrives, read the policy or pay a professional to read the policy for you looking for the coverage’s you need as well as looking for problems with the coverage.

If you ask the agent or broker to clarify the coverage you are wanting, to make sure you get that clarification in writing (or an email), so you can take that to court if necessary.

Most importantly create a system to make sure that everyone who comes to your facility, activity or business when you use a release, signs a release.

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

What do you think? Leave a comment.

 If you like this let your friends know or post it on FB, Twitter or LinkedIn

Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law

Copyright 2017 Recreation Law (720) Edit Law

Email: Rec-law@recreation-law.com

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Colony Insurance Company v. Dover Indoor Climbing Gym, 158 N.H. 628; 974 A.2d 399; 2009 N.H. LEXIS 51

Colony Insurance Company v. Dover Indoor Climbing Gym & a., 158 N.H. 628; 974 A.2d 399; 2009 N.H. LEXIS 51

Colony Insurance Company v. Dover Indoor Climbing Gym & a.

No. 2008-759

SUPREME COURT OF NEW HAMPSHIRE

158 N.H. 628; 974 A.2d 399; 2009 N.H. LEXIS 51

March 18, 2009, Argued

April 24, 2009, Opinion Issued

HEADNOTES NEW HAMPSHIRE OFFICIAL REPORTS HEADNOTES

1. Insurance–Policies–Construction The interpretation of insurance policy language is a question of law for the court to decide. The court construes the language of an insurance policy as would a reasonable person in the position of the insured based upon a more than casual reading of the policy as a whole. Policy terms are construed objectively, and where the terms of a policy are clear and unambiguous, the court accords the language its natural and ordinary meaning. The court need not examine the parties’ reasonable expectations of coverage when a policy is clear and unambiguous; absent ambiguity, the court’s search for the parties’ intent is limited to the words of the policy.

2. Insurance–Proceedings–Burden of Proof The burden of proving that no insurance coverage exists rests squarely with the insurer.

3. Insurance–Policies–Ambiguities Although an insurer has a right to contractually limit the extent of its liability, it must do so through clear and unambiguous policy language. Ambiguity exists if reasonable disagreement between contracting parties leads to at least two interpretations of the language. In determining whether an ambiguity exists, the court will look to the claimed ambiguity, consider it in its appropriate context, and construe the words used according to their plain, ordinary, and popular definitions. If one of the reasonable meanings of the language favors the policyholder, the ambiguity will be construed against the insurer. Where, however, the policy language is clear, the court will not perform amazing feats of linguistic gymnastics to find a purported ambiguity simply to construe the policy against the insurer and create coverage where it is clear that none was intended.

4. Insurance–Policies–Construction When a climbing gym’s insurance policy stated, “All participants shall be required to sign a waiver or release of liability in your favor prior to engaging in any climbing activity,” the clear meaning of the policy language was that the gym was required to actually obtain waivers from climbing participants. The gym’s interpretation that a reasonable person would believe that coverage existed so long as the gym had a policy of requiring waivers regardless of whether it actually obtained waivers would lead to the absurd result of requiring coverage even if the gym never actually enforced its waiver policy. A reasonable person reading the policy would not understand that coverage existed in such circumstances. Because the policy required the gym to obtain waivers from all participants, the failure to do so in the case of an injured climber rendered coverage under the policy inapplicable to his claims.

COUNSEL: Wiggin & Nourie, P.A., of Manchester (Doreen F. Connor on the brief and orally), for the plaintiff.

Mallory & Friedman, PLLC, of Concord (Mark L. Mallory on the brief and orally), for defendant, Dover Indoor Climbing Gym.

Shaheen & Gordon, P.A., of Dover, for defendant, Richard Bigelow, filed no brief.

JUDGES: DUGGAN, J. BRODERICK, C.J., and DALIANIS, J., concurred.

OPINION BY: DUGGAN

OPINION

[**400]   [*629]  Duggan, J. The plaintiff, Colony Insurance Company (Colony), appeals an order of the Superior Court (McHugh, J.) denying its motion for summary judgment and granting that of the defendants, Dover Indoor Climbing Gym (the gym) and Richard Bigelow. We reverse and remand.

The trial court found, or the record supports, the following facts. Colony issued a commercial general liability insurance policy to the gym, which was in effect from January 5, 2007, to January 5, 2008. An endorsement to the policy stated: “All ‘participants’ shall be required to sign a waiver or release of liability in your favor prior to engaging in any ‘climbing activity.’ ” It further stated: “Failure to conform to this warranty will render this policy null and void as [sic] those claims brought against you.”

On August 14, 2007,  [***2] Bigelow accompanied friends to the climbing gym, but did not sign a waiver. He testified that he was never asked to sign a waiver; the gym owner’s affidavit stated that the owner asked the group of climbers if they had waivers on file and received no negative answers. It is undisputed, however, that Bigelow did not sign a waiver or release. While climbing, Bigelow fell and sustained serious injuries. The gym then put Colony on notice to defend and pay any verdict obtained by Bigelow. In response, Colony filed a petition for declaratory judgment, arguing that the gym’s failure to obtain a release from Bigelow absolved Colony of any duty to defend or indemnify the gym.

Both Colony and the defendants filed motions for summary judgment, which the trial court addressed in a written order. The trial court found that Colony’s failure to provide the gym with a sample waiver rendered the endorsement provision ambiguous. The trial court therefore denied Colony’s motion for summary judgment, and granted the defendants’ cross-motion  [**401]  for summary judgment. This appeal followed.

[*630]  On appeal, Colony argues that the trial court erred in finding that the endorsement was ambiguous, and contends that the  [***3] gym’s failure to obtain a waiver from Bigelow renders the policy inapplicable as to his claims. Alternatively, Colony argues that even if the endorsement is ambiguous, the gym is not entitled to coverage because it had actual knowledge of the policy’s waiver requirement.

[HN1] In reviewing the trial court’s grant or denial of summary judgment, we consider the evidence, and all inferences properly drawn from it, in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Everitt v. Gen. Elec. Co., 156 N.H. 202, 208, 932 A.2d 831 (2007); Sintros v. Hamon, 148 N.H. 478, 480, 810 A.2d 553 (2002). If there is no genuine issue of material fact, and if the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, the grant of summary judgment is proper. Everitt, 156 N.H. at 209; Sintros, 148 N.H. at 480. We review the trial court’s application of the law to the facts de novo. Everitt, 156 N.H. at 209; Sintros, 148 N.H. at 480.

[1]  [HN2] The interpretation of insurance policy language is a question of law for this court to decide. Godbout v. Lloyd’s Ins. Syndicates, 150 N.H. 103, 105, 834 A.2d 360 (2003). We construe the language of an insurance policy as would a reasonable person in the position of the insured based upon a more than casual reading  [***4] of the policy as a whole. Id. Policy terms are construed objectively, and where the terms of a policy are clear and unambiguous, we accord the language its natural and ordinary meaning. Id. We need not examine the parties’ reasonable expectations of coverage when a policy is clear and unambiguous; absent ambiguity, our search for the parties’ intent is limited to the words of the policy. Id.

[2, 3] In this case, the gym argues that the policy is ambiguous and Colony maintains that it is not.  [HN3] The burden of proving that no insurance coverage exists rests squarely with the insurer. Curtis v. Guaranty Trust Life Ins. Co., 132 N.H. 337, 340, 566 A.2d 176 (1989); see RSA 491:22-a (1997).  [HN4] Although an insurer has a right to contractually limit the extent of its liability, it must do so “through clear and unambiguous policy language.” Id. (quotation omitted). Ambiguity exists if “reasonable disagreement between contracting parties” leads to at least two interpretations of the language. Int’l Surplus Lines Ins. Co. v. Mfgs. & Merchants Mut. Ins. Co., 140 N.H. 15, 20, 661 A.2d 1192 (1995); Trombly v. Blue Cross/Blue Shield, 120 N.H. 764, 771, 423 A.2d 980 (1980). In determining whether an ambiguity exists, we will look to the claimed ambiguity,  [***5] consider it in its appropriate context, and construe the words used according to their plain, ordinary, and popular definitions. Int’l Surplus, 140 N.H. at 20. If one of the reasonable meanings of the language favors the policyholder, the ambiguity will be construed against the insurer. Id. Where, however, the policy language is clear, this court “will not  [*631]  perform amazing feats of linguistic gymnastics to find a purported ambiguity” simply to construe the policy against the insurer and create coverage where it is clear that none was intended. Hudson v. Farm Family Mut. Ins. Co., 142 N.H. 144, 147, 697 A.2d 501 (1997); Curtis, 132 N.H. at 342.

The trial court found that the endorsement requiring waivers is ambiguous because Colony did not provide the gym with a sample waiver. Even the gym, however, contends that the trial court “reached the  [**402]  correct result for the wrong reasons.” Thus, the gym does not argue that the endorsement creates an ambiguity by its failure to provide the insured with a sample waiver form, but, rather, that the exclusionary language is ambiguous because it states that participants shall “be required” to sign waivers as opposed to mandating that the gym obtain signed waivers.  [***6] Under this interpretation, the gym argues, a reasonable person would believe that coverage exists so long as the gym has a policy of requiring waivers regardless of whether it actually obtained waivers from climbing participants. Colony argues that the policy language is unambiguous. We agree with Colony.

[4] The clear meaning of the policy language is that the gym is required to actually obtain waivers from climbing participants. The gym’s interpretation would lead to the absurd result of requiring coverage even if the gym never actually enforced its waiver policy. A reasonable person reading the policy would not understand that coverage existed in such circumstances. The gym’s interpretation is unreasonably narrow, and is therefore not the type of alternative interpretation that renders policy language ambiguous. See Curtis, 132 N.H. at 342 ( [HN5] refusing to find ambiguity when alternate interpretations would “inevitably lead to absurd results”). To construe the exclusion against the insurer here would create coverage where it is clear that none was intended. We therefore conclude that the policy language is unambiguous and that a reasonable insured would understand that the exclusion would  [***7] apply in this case.

Because the policy requires the gym to obtain waivers from all participants, the failure to do so in the case of Bigelow renders coverage under the policy inapplicable to his claims. In light of our holding, we need not address Colony’s remaining argument. We therefore reverse the order of the trial court granting the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, and hold that Colony is entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law.

Reversed and remanded.

Broderick, C.J., and Dalianis, J., concurred.