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No matter who created the activity or the risk on Town’s land, using the risk was an outdoor recreation activity and protected by the New Hampshire Recreational Use Statute.

Besides if you stand in front of a rope swinging when someone is using it attempting to slap the swinger’s feet as he goes by, and you get flattened by the swinger you should not be able to recover. 

Kurowski v. Town of Chester, 2017 N.H. LEXIS 174

State: New Hampshire, Supreme Court of New Hampshire

Plaintiff: Jay Kurowski F/N/F Christopher Kurowski

Defendant: Town of Chester

Plaintiff Claims: acted negligently and willfully or intentionally by failing to remove the rope swing or post warning signs.

Defendant Defenses: New Hampshire Recreational Use Statute 

Holding: For the Defendant Town 

Year: 2017 

Summary 

The Town had a park with a pond. Someone had put up a rope swing that allowed you to swing into the pond. The town knew about the rope swing and knew that it was possibly hazardous. However, the town never removed the rope swing or posted signs about the hazards it presented. 

The minor plaintiff was standing in front of someone using the rope swing attempting to hit the person’s feet when he was clobbered by the person on the swing suffering injuries. 

The father of the plaintiff sued. The trial court and the appellate court dismissed the case because the New Hampshire Recreational Use Statute provided immunity to the Town for outdoor recreational activities such as this one.

Facts 

The defendant city had a park with a pond. Someone put up a rope swing to use to swing into the pond. The city did not create the rope swing. Several people complained to the city about the rope swing and asked for it to be taken down or signs put up warning against its use.

The Town owns and maintains the Wason Pond Conservation and Recreation Area, which includes walking paths and Wason Pond, and is open to the public free of charge. Since approximately 2012, a rope swing has been attached to a tree overhanging the pond. Neither the plaintiff nor the Town constructed or maintained the swing. People use the rope swing to fling themselves over and into the pond.

The plaintiff, a minor, was at the rope swing. Another person was using the swing to enter the water. The plaintiff was attempting to hit the person’s feet. The person on the swing and the plaintiff collided injuring the plaintiff.

On August 20, 2015, Christopher was at the pond, standing in the path of a person using the swing. While Christopher was attempting to touch the feet of the person swinging on the rope, the two collided, and Christopher was seriously injured.

The father of the minor filed this lawsuit. The city filed a motion for summary judgment asking the compliant be dismissed because the city as the landowner was protected by the New Hampshire Recreational Use Statute

The trial court agreed and dismissed the case. The plaintiff appealed. 

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

The plaintiff first argued that using a rope swing to swing into a pond was not an outdoor recreation activity as defined under the New Hampshire Recreational Use Statute. The court quickly shot this down because the statute did not list everything that was to be protected by the statute it only listed a few things and started that list with the language “including, but not limited to….

The court had found other decisions it had made where it interpreted outdoor recreation activities as covered under the statute even though they were not identified in the statute. 

By its plain terms, the statute’s list of outdoor recreational activities is not exhaustive. Indeed, we have previously applied the principle of ejusdem generis to this provision and concluded that an activity not specifically enumerated — but similar in nature to the activities listed in the statute — may constitute an “outdoor recreational activity.” The principle of ejusdem generis provides that, when specific words in a statute follow general ones, the general words are construed to embrace only objects similar in nature to those enumerated by the specific words.

Looking at the statute and the activity the court found the activity was a water sport and thus covered under the statute. 

We hold that Christopher was actively engaged in an outdoor recreational pursuit sufficiently similar in nature to the enumerated activity of “water sports” to constitute an “outdoor recreational activity” under RSA 212:34, I(c). 

The next argument made by the plaintiff was because the town did not supply the swing, it was not covered under the New Hampshire Recreational Use Statute. The court quickly shot this down finding it does not matter what was used in an outdoor recreational activity or who supplied it.

However, the identity of the person or entity providing the equipment or structure used in an outdoor recreational activity is immaterial. See id. at 56 (finding immaterial the fact that playground equipment used in outdoor activity was provided by landowner rather than user). Indeed, many of the enumerated outdoor recreational activities, for example, hunting, camping, hiking, bicycling, and snowmobiling, see RSA 212:34, I(c),….

The plaintiff next argued the activity was not an outdoor recreational activity because the landowner did not authorize the activity and because the activity was hazardous. The court seemed a little irked when it shot this argument down.

In fact, the statute specifically contemplates that immunity will apply even if the activity at issue involves a known hazardous condition. See RSA 212:34, II (“A landowner owes no duty of care to keep the premises safe for entry or use by others for outdoor recreational activity or to give any warning of hazardous conditions, uses of, structures, or activities on such premises … . (emphasis added)).

The next argument made by the plaintiff centered around whether or not the actions of the town willful when it failed to post signs about hazards of the activity. The plaintiff argued one version of the definition of the term willful, and the town argued a second. The court found that under either definition, the town was still immune under the statute. Additionally, the court found the actions of the
town were not willful because the plaintiff could not establish the town knew or should have known that an injury would probably result from the activity. 

An allegation that a landowner knew about a particular hazard and did nothing is insufficient to establish that the landowner knew or should have known that injury would probably result from that hazard. At most, such allegations sound in negligence. Therefore, even assuming that the Spires definition applies, we conclude that the plaintiff’s allegations are insufficient as a matter of law to establish that the Town acted “willfully.”

The plaintiff then argued the acts of the town were intentional. That part of the case was dismissed by the trial court because the court found the plaintiff had not alleged enough facts to prove a case of intentional acts on the part of the town. The plaintiff’s argument was:

The plaintiff argues that the Town’s conduct constituted an intentional act for the same reasons he asserts the Town’s conduct was willful — because the Town acknowledged that the rope swing was a hazard, was warned about that hazard on three occasions between 2012 and 2015, did nothing to remove it, and did not post warning signs. 

The court did not agree. There was no proof or pleading that the town had actual or constructive knowledge that its conduct, in failing to post signs or take down the swing, was conduct that was a substantially certain to result in an injury.

At most, the plaintiff’s allegations — that the Town was aware of a hazardous condition or activity and failed to act — sound in negligence. (concluding that allegations that defendant disregarded a substantial risk and failed to act sound in negligence). Accordingly, we hold that the trial court did not err when it found that the plaintiff alleged
insufficient facts to show that the Town’s conduct was willful or intentional.

The decision of the trial court was upheld, and the complaint dismissed.

So Now What? 

This case shows two simple truths for the outdoor recreation industry today. The first, plaintiffs are going to greater lengths to create arguments to litigate over outdoor recreation injuries. The work the plaintiff put in, in order to redefine each word of the statute in a way that did not protect the Town was
substantial and lengthy. 

The second is the statutes have to be written in a way that broadens the protections the legislature intends to give the courts the leeway to dismiss frivolous claims like this. Frivolous because I believe assumption of the risk would be the next defense.

If you stand in front of someone who is holding on to a rope swinging in your direction, and you do so willingly, you assume the risk of getting flattened.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Non-governmental park not liable under Georgia Recreational Use Statute because cyclists failed to negotiate a barricade. The dangerous condition was open, obvious and visible to all including the deceased.

Because cyclists failed to look up and did not see the barricades in time, does not change the fact the barricades were visible for hundreds of feet.

Stone Mountain Memorial Association v. Amestoy, 337 Ga. App. 467; 788 S.E.2d 110; 2016 Ga. App. LEXIS 358

State: Georgia; Court of Appeals of Georgia

Plaintiff: Nancy Amestoy

Defendant: Stone Mountain Memorial Association

Plaintiff Claims: (1) was liable for Martin’s death due to its failure to warn of the allegedly dangerous condition of the barricades, (2) had actual knowledge that the barricades posed a risk of serious bodily injury or death, and (3) willfully failed to warn of the alleged danger (despite knowing of the risk posed by the barricades).

Defendant Defenses: Georgia Recreational Use Statute

Holding: For the Defendant at trial Court, Plaintiff on appeal 

Year: 2016

Summary

The Georgia Recreational Use Statute extends immunity to non-governmental landowners. Here a cyclist died after failing to look up and see barricades blocking a road. Because the barricades were open and obvious, the Recreational Use Statute protected the landowner from suit. 

Facts 

The deceased was on a bike ride. The road he was riding had been closed for a foot race. The closure was  accomplished by two saw horse barricades. The deceased in attempting to negotiate between them fell suffering head injuries, while wearing a helmet, and died.

…between 7:30 and 7:45 a.m. on the day in question, officers with SMMA’s public-safety department engaged in temporary traffic-control efforts on portions of Stone Mountain Park’s Robert E. Lee Boulevard in anticipation of a 5k walk/run event that was scheduled to begin at 8:00 a.m. These temporary traffic-control efforts consisted of two saw-horse style barricades placed  side-by-side across the road’s southbound lanes, spanning approximately ten-feet wide with an approximately one-and-a-half foot gap between them. Both barricades bore orange and white stripes and “do not enter” signs.

It appeared to witnesses that the deceased did not look up until the last minute to see the barricades. 

…Martin Amestoy was observed riding his bicycle toward the barricades at what a witness believed was a “safe, normal speed”; however, Amestoy’s head was down. Amestoy then traveled between the barricades, striking the inside corner of the lefthand barricade with his handlebar, and was thrown forward off of his bike.3 Although he was wearing a helmet, Amestoy suffered severe head trauma and died later that day. 

The plaintiff, wife of the deceased, sued for:

(1) was liable for Martin’s death due to its failure to warn of the allegedly dangerous condition of the barricades, (2) had actual
knowledge that the barricades posed a risk of serious bodily injury or death, and (3) willfully failed to warn of the alleged danger (despite knowing of the risk posed by the barricades).

The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment stating it was not liable because of the Georgia Recreational Use Act. The plaintiff argued that the exception to the act applied, if the landowner of and did not warn of a dangerous condition. The Trial court agreed and the defendant immediately appealed that order. 

SMMA responded and filed a motion for summary judgment, contending that it was immune from suit under the RPA. The trial court ultimately denied SMMA’s motion when it concluded that genuine issues of material fact remained as to whether (1) the barricades were a dangerous condition and (2) SMMA had actual knowledge that this condition was dangerous.

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

The defendant appealed the decision based upon the facts that:

… (1) there was no evidence that it had actual knowledge of a dangerous condition, (2) the allegedly dangerous condition was
open and obvious as a matter of law, and (3) there was no evidence that it willfully failed to warn of the allegedly dangerous condition. Because the allegedly dangerous condition–i.e., the barricades blocking the southbound lanes of Robert E. Lee Boulevard–was open and obvious as a matter of law….

Under the Georgia Recreational Use Act, the landowner owes no duty of care to keep the premises safe for others entering the land for recreational purposes.

In enacting the RPA, the General Assembly sought to “encourage property owners to make their property available to the public for recreational purposes by limiting the owners’ liability.”8 In this regard, OCGA § 51-3-22 provides that “an owner of land owes no duty of care to keep the premises safe for entry or use by others for recreational purposes or to give any warning of a dangerous condition, use, structure, or activity on the premises to persons entering for recreational purposes.”

There is a liability for willful or malicious failure to guard or warn against a dangerous condition, use, structure or activity. Under Georgia’s law:

…”willful failure” involves “a conscious, knowing, voluntary, intentional failure, rather than a mere inadvertent, accidental,  involuntary, inattentive, inert, or passive omission.” And malice requires either “an actual intent to cause the particular harm produced or the wanton and [willful] doing of the act with an awareness of the plain and strong likelihood that harm may result.”  Thus, in order for the “willful or malicious failure” exception to apply, Nancy Amestoy must show that the property owner  (SMMA) had actual knowledge that (1) the property was being used for recreational purposes; (2) a condition existed involving unreasonable risk of death or serious bodily harm; (3) the condition was not apparent to those using the property; and (4) having the foregoing knowledge, the property owner chose not to warn users in disregard of the possible con-sequences. Constructive knowledge is insufficient to meet this burden of proof, and the property owner has no duty to inspect the property. Importantly, the plaintiff must satisfy each prong of this four-part test to succeed against a recreational property owner under this exception.

The court held the plaintiff failed to produce any evidence to create a jury question on whether or not the condition was not apparent to those using the property, the third prong of the test.

The court cited witness statements and statements from the investigators that the barriers where visible at least for hundreds of feet. 

Considering the above testimony, Nancy Amestoy presented no evidence that SMMA had actual knowledge that the barricades were not apparent to park users when they were open and obvious, as overwhelmingly demonstrated by the foregoing testimony and photographic evidence.

The Appellate Court reversed the trial court and granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment based on the Georgia Recreational Use Statute

So Now What? 

The first take away is the Georgia Recreational Use Statute protects parks owned non-governmental landowners from suit. The second is, even though the statute has an exception for “willful or malicious failure to guard or warn against a dangerous condition, use, structure, or activity,” the landowner must have actual knowledge, not just constructive knowledge of the dangerous condition.

Here because the barricades were visible for hundreds of feet, the barricades did not constitute a dangerous condition. 

If you are a cyclist, look up once in a while. 

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Stone Mountain Memorial Association v. Amestoy, 337 Ga. App. 467; 788 S.E.2d 110; 2016 Ga. App. LEXIS 358

Stone Mountain Memorial Association v. Amestoy, 337 Ga. App. 467; 788 S.E.2d 110; 2016 Ga. App. LEXIS 358

Stone Mountain Memorial Association v. Amestoy.

A16A0056.

COURT OF APPEALS OF GEORGIA

337 Ga. App. 467; 788 S.E.2d 110; 2016 Ga. App. LEXIS 358

June 21, 2016, Decided

HEADNOTES Georgia Advance Headnotes

(1) Torts. Real Property Torts. General Premises Liability. The wife of a bicyclist who died of a head injury after striking a barricade that had been placed across the road in a public park to protect runners in a road race failed to produce sufficient evidence to create a jury question as to the park owner’s actual knowledge that the barricades were not apparent to those using the property as required to prove an exception to immunity under OCGA § 51-3-25 (1) of the Recreational Property Act; the road was straight and open and the barricades were highly visible.

COUNSEL: Samuel S. Olens, Attorney General, Kathleen M. Pacious, Deputy Attorney General, Loretta L. Pinkston, Kirsten S. Daughdril, Senior Assistant Attorneys General, Kristine K. Hayter, Assistant Attorney General, for appellant.

Childers, Schleuter & Smith, William A. Parker, Jr., for appellee.

JUDGES: [***1] DILLARD, Judge. Phipps, P. J., and Peterson, J., concur.

OPINION BY: DILLARD

OPINION

[*467] [**111] Dillard, Judge.

Stone Mountain Memorial Association (“SMMA”) appeals from the trial court’s denial of its motion for summary judgment in a premises-liability and wrongful-death action brought by Nancy Amestoy following her husband Martin’s tragic death in a bicycling accident at Stone Mountain Park. Specifically, SMMA contends that the trial court erred in denying its motion for summary judgment because it is immune from liability under the Recreational Property Act (“RPA”).1 Because we agree with SMMA that the RPA immunizes it from liability, we reverse.

1 See OCGA § 51-3-20 et seq.; see also OCGA § 51-3-20 [HN1] (“The purpose of this article is to encourage owners of land to make land and water areas available to the public for recreational purposes by limiting the owners’ liability toward persons entering thereon for recreational purposes.”).

Viewed in the light most favorable to Nancy Amestoy (i.e., the nonmoving party),2 the record reflects that between 7:30 and 7:45 a.m. on the day in question, officers with SMMA’s public-safety department engaged in temporary traffic-control efforts on portions of Stone Mountain Park’s Robert E. Lee Boulevard in anticipation of a 5k walk/run event that [***2] was scheduled to begin at 8:00 a.m. These temporary traffic-control efforts consisted of two saw-horse style barricades placed side-by-side across the road’s southbound lanes, spanning approximately ten-feet wide with an approximately one-and-a-half foot gap between them. Both barricades bore orange and white stripes and “do not enter” signs.

2 See, e.g., Holcomb v. Long, 329 Ga. App. 515, 517 (765 SE2d 687) (2014).

The SMMA major stationed at these barricades manned the post for a few minutes after they were erected, but he left suddenly when [*468] overcome by an urgent need to use the restroom. While the major was in the restroom, the SMMA captain–who was stationed at a separate traffic-control post–saw two bicyclists maneuver around the barricades at the major’s post. Then, six or seven minutes later, Martin Amestoy was observed riding his bicycle toward the barricades at what a witness believed was a “safe, normal speed”; however, Amestoy’s head was down. Amestoy then traveled between the barricades, striking the inside corner of the lefthand barricade with his handlebar, and was thrown forward off of his bike.3 Although he was wearing a helmet, Amestoy suffered severe head trauma and died later that day.

3 Nancy Amestoy alleges that her husband may [***3] have been attempting to avoid a collision with the barricades by trying to ride between them. Officers could not speak to Martin after the collision to ascertain his version of events because he was unconscious. But Nancy’s expert opined that “once [Martin] was aware of [the barricades,] his only path of travel was between the two barricades.”

Thereafter, Nancy Amestoy filed suit against SMMA in her capacity as surviving spouse and on behalf of Martin’s estate. In doing so, she asserted that SMMA (1) was liable for Martin’s death due to its failure to warn of the allegedly dangerous condition of the barricades, (2) had actual knowledge that the barricades posed a risk of serious bodily injury or death, and (3) willfully failed to warn of the alleged danger (despite knowing of the risk posed by the barricades). SMMA responded and filed a motion for summary judgment, contending that it was immune [**112] from suit under the RPA. The trial court ultimately denied SMMA’s motion when it concluded that genuine issues of material fact remained as to whether (1) the barricades were a dangerous condition and (2) SMMA had actual knowledge that this condition was dangerous. The trial court did, however, [***4] certify the denial of SMMA’s motion for immediate review, and this Court granted SMMA’s application for interlocutory appeal. This appeal follows.

At the outset, we note that [HN2] on appeal from the denial of a motion for summary judgment, we conduct a de novo review of the record.4 [HN3] To prevail on a motion for summary judgment, the moving party must demonstrate that there is no genuine issue of material fact, and that the undisputed facts, viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmovant, entitle the moving party to judgment as a matter of law.5 A defendant may do this by showing the trial court that the record [*469] reveals no evidence sufficient to create a jury issue on at least one essential element of the plaintiff’s case.6 Indeed, if there is no evidence sufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact as to “any essential element of the plaintiff’s claim, that claim tumbles like a house of cards.”7 With these guiding principles in mind, we turn now to SMMA’s arguments on appeal.

4 See Gayle v. Frank Callen Boys & Girls Club, 322 Ga. App. 412, 412 (745 SE2d 695) (2013) (“A de novo standard of review applies to an appeal from a grant [or denial] of summary judgment[.]” (punctuation omitted)).

5 See id. [HN4] (“Summary judgment is proper when there is no genuine issue of material [***5] fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” (punctuation omitted)).

6 See Farris v. First Fin. Bank, 313 Ga. App. 460, 462 (722 SE2d 89) (2011) [HN5] (“This burden is met by a defendant when the court is shown that the documents, affidavits, depositions and other evidence in the record reveal that there is no evidence sufficient to create a jury issue on at least one essential element of the plaintiff’s case.” (punctuation omitted)).

7 La Quinta Inns, Inc. v. Leech, 289 Ga. App. 812, 812 (658 SE2d 637) (2008) (punctuation omitted).

SMMA argues that the trial court erred in denying its motion for summary judgment based upon immunity under the RPA because (1) there was no evidence that it had actual knowledge of a dangerous condition, (2) the allegedly dangerous condition was open and obvious as a matter of law, and (3) there was no evidence that it willfully failed to warn of the allegedly dangerous condition. Because the allegedly dangerous condition–i.e., the barricades blocking the southbound lanes of Robert E. Lee Boulevard–was open and obvious as a matter of law, SMMA was entitled to summary judgment.

[HN6] In enacting the RPA, the General Assembly sought to “encourage property owners to make their property available to the public for recreational purposes by limiting the owners’ liability.”8 In this regard, OCGA § 51-3-22 provides [***6] that “an owner of land owes no duty of care to keep the premises safe for entry or use by others for recreational purposes or to give any warning of a dangerous condition, use, structure, or activity on the premises to persons entering for recreational purposes.”

8 Gayle, 322 Ga. App. at 413 (punctuation omitted). [HN7] The RPA applies when the property is “open to the public for recreational purposes and the owner does not charge an admission fee.” Id. at 414. It is undisputed between the parties that Stone Mountain Park is open to the public for recreational purposes and does not charge an admission fee. See OCGA § 51-3-21 (a) (” ‘Charge’ means the admission price or fee asked in return for invitation or permission to enter or go upon the land.”); see also Hogue v. Stone Mtn. Mem. Ass’n, 183 Ga. App. 378, 380 (1) (358 SE2d 852) (1987) (holding that initial motor-vehicle fee was “a permit for the use of a vehicle in the park” and that “the trial court was authorized to conclude as a matter of law that this fee did not constitute a charge for the recreational use of the parkland itself”).

[HN8] Notwithstanding the RPA’s general provision for immunity from liability, there is an exception “[f]or willful or malicious failure to guard or warn against a dangerous condition, use, structure, or activity.”9 But as we have previously held, [***7] “willful failure” involves “a conscious, knowing, voluntary, intentional failure, rather than a mere inadvertent, accidental, involuntary, inattentive, inert, or passive [*470] [**113] omission.”10 And malice requires either “an actual intent to cause the particular harm produced or the wanton and [willful] doing of the act with an awareness of the plain and strong likelihood that harm may result.”11 Thus, in order for the “willful or malicious failure” exception to apply, Nancy Amestoy must show that the property owner (SMMA) had actual knowledge that (1) the property was being used for recreational purposes;12 (2) a condition existed involving unreasonable risk of death or serious bodily harm; (3) the condition was not apparent to those using the property; and (4) having the foregoing knowledge, the property owner chose not to warn users in disregard of the possible consequences.13 Constructive knowledge is insufficient to meet this burden of proof, and the property owner has no duty to inspect the property.14 Importantly, the plaintiff must satisfy each prong of this four-part test to succeed against a recreational property owner under this exception.15

9 OCGA § 51-3-25 (1); see also Gayle, 322 Ga. App. at 415.

10 Collins v. City of Summerville, 284 Ga. App. 54, 56 (643 SE2d 305) (2007) (punctuation omitted); accord Cooley v. City of Carrollton, 249 Ga. App. 387, 388 (547 SE2d 689) (2001); Spivey v. City of Baxley, 210 Ga. App. 772, 773 (437 SE2d 623) (1993).

11 Collins, 284 Ga. App. at 56 (punctuation [***8] omitted); accord Gayle, 322 Ga. App. at 415.

12 The parties do not dispute that the first prong of this test is satisfied.

13 See Gayle, 322 Ga. App. at 415 (listing the four requirements); Collins, 284 Ga. App. at 56 (same); Spivey, 210 Ga. App. at 773 (same); Quick v. Stone Mtn. Mem. Ass’n, 204 Ga. App. 598, 599 (420 SE2d 36) (1992) (same); see also Edmondson v. Brooks Cty. Bd. of Educ., 205 Ga. App. 662, 663 (423 SE2d 413) (1992) (noting that, in the fourth prong, ” ‘[t]his knowledge’ refers to the three previously listed facts of which the owner must have actual knowledge in order to be liable for ‘choosing not to guard or warn’ ” (punctuation omitted)).

14 See Collins, 284 Ga. App. at 56 (“Constructive knowledge is not sufficient, and no duty to inspect is imposed on the property owner.”); Ga. Dep’t of Transp. v. Thompson, 270 Ga. App. 265, 269 (2) (a) (606 SE2d 323) (2004) (“This test excludes either constructive knowledge or a duty to inspect.” (punctuation omitted)).

15 See, e.g., Lee v. Dep’t of Nat’l Res., 263 Ga. App. 491, 493-94 (3) (588 SE2d 260) (2003) (holding that, despite uncontroverted satisfaction of first prong, failure to satisfy other prongs was fatal to claim); Edmondson, 205 Ga. App. at 663 (noting that, in holding that RPA immunized defendant from liability, the issue of liability under the RPA is “resolved by a four-part test” and the defendants “rel[ied] on the absence of the third prong of the test”).

At the outset, [HN9] we reject any suggestion that the four-part test does not require actual knowledge as to each prong. Although we have not always been precise in our recitation of the analytical framework,16 the notion that actual knowledge is not required by the foregoing [***9] four-part test is belied by the plain language of the test adopted by this Court in McGruder v. Georgia Power Co.,17 by our [*471] explanation and application of the test in subsequent cases,18 and even by other jurisdictions that have construed the test employed in Georgia.19 (1) And here, Nancy [**114] Amestoy failed to produce any evidence to create a jury question as to the third prong of the test–that is, that SMMA had actual knowledge that the barricades were not apparent to those using the property.20 As the trial court noted in its order, the road leading up to the barricades is straight and open. Indeed, witnesses observed two other cyclists negotiate their bicycles around the barricades only minutes before Martin Amestoy’s accident. Additionally, not only does the photographic evidence demonstrate that the barricades were highly visible, but testimony by numerous SMMA public-safety personnel established that they believed this to be the case.

16 See Gayle, 322 Ga. App. at 415; Collins, 284 Ga. App. at 56; Norton v. Cobb Cty., 284 Ga. App. 303, 307 (3) (643 SE2d 803) (2007) (physical precedent only).

17 126 Ga. App. 562, 563-64 (1) (191 SE2d 305) (1972) (“In the context of the whole statute, it would seem that a wilful failure to guard or warn would require actual knowledge of the owner that its property is being used for recreational purposes; that a condition exists involving [***10] an unreasonable risk of death or serious bodily harm; that the condition is not apparent to those using the property; and that having this knowledge, the owner chooses not to guard or warn, in disregard of the possible consequences.”), reversed on other grounds by 229 Ga. 811 (194 SE2d 440) (1972); see also Ga. Marble Co. v. Warren, 183 Ga. App. 866, 867 (1) (360 SE2d 286) (1987) (adopting the four-part test as previously set forth in McGruder v. Ga. Power Co., and noting that “[a]lthough the test was turned into dicta by the Supreme Court’s ruling that the RPA was not applicable in that case, it is sound”).

18 See Ray v. Ga. Dep’t of Nat’l Res., 296 Ga. App. 700, 702 (1) (675 SE2d 585) (2009); Lee, 263 Ga. App. at 493-94 (3); Thompson, 270 Ga. App. at 269 (2) (a); S. Gwinnett Athletic Ass’n v. Nash, 220 Ga. App. 116, 119 (1) (469 SE2d 276) (1996); Spivey, 210 Ga. App. at 773; Quick, 204 Ga. App. at 599; Edmondson, 205 Ga. App. at 663; Warren, 183 Ga. App. at 867 (1).

19 Hendrickson v. Ga. Power Co., 80 FSupp2d 1374, 1379 (III) (B) (M.D. Ga. 2000) (acknowledging that this Court uses a four-part test, and reciting test so as to make clear that defendant must have “actual knowledge” as to the first three prongs); Ex parte City of Geneva, 707 So2d 626, 629 n.2 (Ala. 1997) (construing Alabama’s recreational-use statute and observing that “the four-part ‘actual knowledge’ test of [Ala. Code] § 35-15-24 [(which applies ‘actual knowledge’ to the first three prongs of test)] appears likely to be a codification of the test employed by the state courts of Georgia when determining whether a noncommercial recreational landowner may be liable for ‘willful … failure to guard or warn against a dangerous condition, use, [***11] structure, or activity.’ “).

20 See Ray, 296 Ga. App. at 702 (2) (“The … third prong of this test was not met, because no evidence was presented that appellees had actual knowledge of a condition that was not apparent to persons using the property.”); Nash, 220 Ga. App. at 119 (1) (reversing denial of motion for summary judgment when, inter alia, “even assuming for the sake of argument that the unfinished bleachers presented a dangerous condition, there is no evidence that the [defendant] had any knowledge that this condition was not apparent to people using the property”); Edmondson, 205 Ga. App. at 663 (“[The third] prong requires plaintiffs to show that defendants actually knew that the dangerous condition of the merry-go-round was not apparent to those using the playground.”).

The testimony from SMMA personnel included that of a corporal who assisted in the investigation after the accident, and who testified that (1) the “barricades were plainly visible for quite a distance,” (2) the barricades were visible “for hundreds of feet,” (3) the sun was shining on the morning in question, and (4) there was “a great deal of visibility.” Likewise, an SMMA officer who performed an accident investigation, including taking various measurements to construct a to-scale diagram and [***12] conducting a “conspicuity test,” estimated that [*472] the barricades would have been visible from “a couple hundred yards” up Robert E. Lee Boulevard. More specifically, the major who was stationed at the barricades estimated that the distance at which they were visible would have been 200 to 250 feet, though he did acknowledge that on the morning in question, “[t]he way the sun was up, [a cyclist or motorist] would possibly [have] been looking into the sun.” Lastly, the SMMA captain calculated that the distance from the first line of sight to the barricades was one-tenth of a mile, or 528 feet, concluding that the barricades were “highly visible.” The captain also echoed other testimony that “[i]t was a clear day, the sun was out, [and] visibility was good.”

Finally, Nancy Amestoy’s expert testified that from his position and speed on a bicycle, Martin Amestoy likely would have seen the gap between the barricades when he was approximately fifteen feet away, giving him about one-half of a second to react. But when questioned about the distance from which the barricades themselves would have been visible, the expert testified that he did not “have an answer for that” and that he did not “know how far [***13] back they would have been seen,” though he opined that it would not have been “very far.” He also testified that he had no way of knowing what Martin Amestoy was doing “10, 20, [or] 50 feet prior to the barricades.”

Considering the above testimony, Nancy Amestoy presented no evidence that SMMA had actual knowledge that the barricades were not apparent to park users when they were open and obvious,21 as overwhelmingly [**115] demonstrated by the foregoing testimony and photographic evidence.22 Indeed, as previously noted, there is no evidence [*473] that SMMA officials knew that the barricades were not apparent.23 Although Nancy Amestoy claims that SMMA stationed a major at the barricades to provide warnings to approaching motorists and bicyclists and that this officer had actual knowledge of the need to provide such warnings, there is no evidence to substantiate these assertions. Instead, the major testified that the objective of his post was to “turn the cars around, bicyclists around.” Additionally, the SMMA captain testified that the purpose of the major’s post was “to block the road, to keep cars from going down into that area where the people would be crossing” and “protect the walkers,”24 not to “protect [***14] bicyclists and cars.” And when further asked if there was “any interest in protecting the bicyclists or the vehicles from entering that area,” the captain responded that “[o]ur objective is to protect everybody in the park.” But this diplomatic answer is a far cry from testimony that would create a genuine issue of material fact as to whether SMMA officials had actual knowledge that the barricades themselves were not apparent–or open and obvious–to park users.

21 Cf. Turkett v. Cent. of Ga. Ry. Co., 117 Ga. App. 617, 617 (161 SE2d 362) (1968) (holding that court erred in dismissing petition alleging negligence when plaintiff collided with warning device placed in roadway by defendant while traveling in the dark, in the rain, and under circumstances of poor visibility; and obstruction was unlighted, obscured from plaintiff’s vision by its placement, and could not be seen until within 10 feet); Rogers v. Johnson, 94 Ga. App. 666, 666 (syllabus), 677 (1), 678 (3) (96 SE2d 285) (1956) (sustaining verdict for plaintiff when decedent was traveling roadway at night in car that collided with defendant’s vehicle, which was hauling house-trailer, nearly blocking the entire roadway after making a lefthand turn); Trammell v. Matthews, 84 Ga. App. 332, 338-39 (1) (66 SE2d 183) (1951) (holding that there was a question for the jury as to negligence when plaintiff alleged, inter alia, “that had the defendant placed proper warnings at the [***15] point where the detour went around the place where the bridge was out, the driver of the car … would not have passed the detour and gone through the partial road block and then into the place where the bridge was out,” and when it appeared from the plaintiff’s petition “that the way ahead of the driver of this car was not clear, that it was yet dark, and the road was not straight as one approached this partial road block from the [s]outh; that the detour was the same color as the paved road; [and] that the partial road block was not sufficient and adequate to prevent one from assuming that the road could be used”).

22 See Metro. Atlanta Rapid Transit Auth. v. Fife, 220 Ga. App. 298, 299, 300 (1) (469 SE2d 420) (1996) (noting that photographic evidence showed that allegedly dangerous condition of drainage culvert was “plainly visible to anyone standing at the curb,” and holding that condition was open and obvious); Warren, 183 Ga. App. at 868 (1) (“Photographs of the stream illustrate that even a first time visitor to the stream would perceive that the stream’s bed was or at least was likely to be rocky. … The rocky condition of the terrain in and about the stream was open and obvious.”); see also Engleson v. Little Falls Area Chamber of Commerce, No. Civ. 101-102, 2002 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 23093, 2002 WL 31689432, at *3 (3) (D. Minn. 2002) (noting, in case involving a plaintiff who tripped over an orange traffic cone, that “[t]he test for obviousness is an [***16] objective test that examines whether the danger was in fact visible, rather than whether the injured party actually saw the danger,” and concluding that not only were traffic cones obvious but that defendants “could not have anticipated harm from the cones because traffic cones are, themselves, warning markers”).

23 See Ray, 296 Ga. App. at 702 (1) (“The … third prong of this test was not met, because no evidence was presented that appellees had actual knowledge of a condition that was not apparent to persons using the property.”); Edmondson, 205 Ga. App. at 663 (“[The third] prong requires plaintiffs to show that defendants actually knew that the dangerous condition of the merry-go-round was not apparent to those using the playground.”).

24 (Emphasis supplied.)

Furthermore, even if we were to assume that Martin Amestoy could not see the barricades from his position and speed on his bicycle or due to the sun’s location at the exact moment of his accident on the morning in question, [HN10] whether a dangerous condition is open and obvious depends on the objective knowledge of a reasonable person, not on the plaintiff’s subjective knowledge.25

25 See Morris v. Clark Equip. Co., 904 FSupp. 1379, 1383 (II) (B) (M.D. Ga. 1995) (“In determining whether a danger was open and obvious to the injured party, the court should [***17] use an objective point of view, as opposed to subjective, since the user’s perceptions are irrelevant.”); see also Weatherby v. Honda Motor Co., 195 Ga. App. 169, 171 (393 SE2d 64) (1990) (“In determining, under the ‘open and obvious rule,’ whether the peril from which an injury results is latent or patent, the decision is made on the basis of an objective view … , and the subjective perceptions of the user or injured party are irrelevant.”), overruled on other grounds by Ogletree v. Navistar Intern. Transp. Corp., 269 Ga. 443, 443-44 (500 SE2d 570) (1998) (holding that “open and obvious danger” rule is not applicable in cases of alleged design defect). See generally 62A Am. Jur. 2d Premises Liability § 713 (2016) [HN11] (“Whether a condition is open and obvious, for premises liability purposes, depends on the objective knowledge of a reasonable person, not the plaintiff’s subjective knowledge. The test for what constitutes an ‘obvious’ danger is an objective test: the question is not whether the injured party actually saw the danger, but whether it was in fact visible.” (footnotes omitted)).

[*474] [**116] In light of the foregoing, we must reverse the trial court’s denial of SMMA’s motion for summary judgment.26

26 See Nash, 220 Ga. App. at 119 (1) (reversing denial of motion for summary judgment when, inter alia, “even assuming for the sake of argument that the unfinished bleachers presented a dangerous condition, there is no [***18] evidence that the [defendant] had any knowledge that this condition was not apparent to people using the property”).

Judgment reversed. Phipps, P. J., and Peterson, J., concur.


This is a hard case–hard not in the sense that it is legally difficult or tough to crack, but in the sense that it requires us to deny relief to a plaintiff for whom we have considerable sympathy.

We do what we must, for ‘it is the duty of all courts of justice to take care, for the general good of the community, that hard cases do not make bad law. 

Roy v. The State of Rhode Island et al., 139 A.3d 480; 2016 R.I. LEXIS 88

State: Rhode Island, Supreme Court of Rhode Island

Plaintiff: Dawn K. Roy, in her capacity as the administratrix of the estate of Brett A. Roy, et al.

Defendant: Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM), and two individuals in their official capacities as DEM employees 

Plaintiff Claims: 

Defendant Defenses: Open and Obvious and Recreational Use Statute 

Holding: for the Defendant 

Year: 2016 

Summary

The title is a quote from another case and states perfectly the situation most judges face when looking at a case. 

In this one, a man dove into a lake at a State Park in Rhode Island. He broke his neck and became a quadriplegic. The Rhode Island Supreme Court dismissed his claims because the assumed the risk and the Rhode Island Recreational Use Statute prevented his claims. 

Facts 

The state owned the land in question and ran it as a state park. There was a man-made pond in the park that was “treated much like a swimming pool.” Because of changes to the pond, the decision was made to close the pond and now allow swimming. No swimming signs were posted, and no lifeguards were on duty. Other parks of the park were still open, including the bathhouses.

Rhode Island did not allow the operation of a body of water on a swim at your own risk basis. 

The plaintiff was a 29-year-old  husband and father of two. He went to the park with a friend. While at the park he ran and dove into the water breaking his neck and becoming a paraplegic. 

The plaintiff by and through his wife, as Administratrix of the estate of the plaintiff used the state and various agencies for his injuries. The case when to trial and the jury returned a verdict for the defendants. The plaintiff filed a motion for a new trial, which was granted and the defendant filed this appeal to the Rhode Island Supreme Court. 

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

The state based its appeal on the Rhode Island Recreational Use Statute, and the state owed no duty for an open and obvious natural condition. 

The court first looked at the Rhode Island Recreational Use Statute. The statute provided immunity to landowners and to state and municipalities. The limitation was not absolute. A landowner could be liable if the plaintiff could prove “…[f]or
the willful or malicious failure to guard or warn against a dangerous condition, use, structure, or activity after   discovering the user’s peril…
” 

The state argued nothing it did established proof of willful or malicious failure to warn. The court could not find any evidence to support the plaintiff’s claims. On top of that, the best defense was provided by the plaintiff when he admitted
he knew about the dangers of diving into shallow water, and that he had not checked the depth of the water. Finally, he admitted he was probably irresponsible. 

The court then looked at the open and obvious danger defense. Here again, the plaintiff failed.  

This Court held that the defendants had not owed any duty of care to the plaintiff in that case in part because “requiring citizens to place warnings against[–]and barriers preventing persons from[–]diving into shallow water would provide little disincentive to individuals * * *. As a practical matter, the danger of diving into shallow water is one of common knowledge, and one [the plaintiff] admit he was aware of.” 

The court concluded. 

Because it is our considered opinion that the state bore no liability for Roy’s injuries–either because diving is an open and obvious danger or because it was protected under the Recreational Use Statute–we conclude that the trial justice erroneously denied its motion for judgment as a matter of law. 

So Now What? 

To many this case might suck, sending this young man to live a life without the financial support he may need. However, as the quote in the beginning said, the law is the law. When you undertake to engage in a sport or activity, you assume
the risks of those activities. 

More importantly when recreating on land for free, the landowner owes no duty to keep you safe from yourself. If not, recreation would only be on federal lands where the chance of proving a claim is negligible. State, City and County Parks and Open Spaces would all close because they could not afford the insurance needed to keep them open.

 What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Roy v. The State of Rhode Island et al., 139 A.3d 480; 2016 R.I. LEXIS 88

Roy v. The State of Rhode Island et al., 139 A.3d 480; 2016 R.I. LEXIS 88

Dawn K. Roy, in her capacity as the administratrix of the estate of Brett A. Roy, et al.1 v. The State of Rhode Island et al.

1 The original plaintiff, Brett A. Roy, passed away while the instant appeal was pending. An order substituting “Dawn K. Roy, the  administratrix of the estate of Brett A. Roy” as a party in this case entered on April 15, 2016. See Rule 25(a) of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure.

No. 2013-213-Appeal. No. 2014-39-Appeal.

SUPREME COURT OF RHODE ISLAND

139 A.3d 480; 2016 R.I. LEXIS 88

June 23, 2016, Filed

PRIOR HISTORY: [**1] Providence County Superior Court. (PC 09-2874). Associate Justice Susan E. McGuirl.

Roy v. State, 2013 R.I. Super. LEXIS 54 (2013)

CASE SUMMARY:

COUNSEL: For Plaintiffs: Patrick C. Barry, Esq., Douglas E. Chabot, Esq.

For State: Rebecca T. Partington, Department of the Attorney General; Adam J. Sholes, Department of the Attorney General.

JUDGES: Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.

OPINION BY: Paul A. Suttell

OPINION

[*482] Chief Justice Suttell, for the Court. A wise jurist once wrote:

“This is a hard case–hard not in the sense that it is legally difficult or tough to crack, but in the sense that it requires us * * * to deny relief to a plaintiff for whom we have considerable sympathy. We do what we must, for ‘it is the duty of all courts of justice to take care, for the general good of the community, that hard cases do not make bad law.'” Burnham v. Guardian Life Insurance Co. of America, 873 F.2d 486, 487 (1st Cir. 1989) (Selya, J.) (quoting United States v. Clark, 96 U.S. 37, 49, 24 L. Ed. 696, 13 Ct. Cl. 560 (1877) (Harlan, J., dissenting)).

This is indeed such a hard case. Tragically, on July 10, 2008, twenty-nine-year-old Brett A. Roy broke his neck when diving into the pond at World War II Veterans Memorial Park in Woonsocket, resulting in his paralysis from the neck down. Roy’s injuries were vast and undeniable. Roy and his wife, Dawn K. Roy (plaintiffs), individually and as the parents of their two children, [**2] filed this action against the state, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM), and two individuals in their official capacities as DEM employees (collectively, the state), alleging several counts of negligence and premises liability. After a multi-week trial and lengthy deliberations, a jury returned a verdict for the state, finding that the state had not “fail[ed] to guard or warn against a dangerous condition, use, structure or activity” or against a “non-obvious, latent dangerous condition” at the pond. Subsequently, both parties filed renewed motions for judgment as a matter of law, which the trial justice denied. However, the plaintiffs also filed a motion for a new trial, which was granted. Thereafter, the state brought the instant appeal arguing that the trial justice erred in granting the plaintiffs’ motion for a new trial, and that, as a matter of law, the state owed no duty to Roy. The plaintiffs filed a cross-appeal arguing that their motion for judgment as a matter of law should have been granted and that the trial justice erred in denying their motion for additur or alternatively their motion for a new trial on damages only. For the reasons set forth herein, [**3] we vacate the judgment of the Superior Court.

I

Facts and Travel

A

World War II Veterans Memorial Park and Pond

In July 2008, the pond at World War II Veterans Memorial Park in Woonsocket [*483] was one of several bodies of water operated by the state as a recreational facility. At trial several state workers testified to the condition and maintenance of the park and pond.

The director of DEM at the time of the incident, W. Michael Sullivan, testified that the man-made pond was “filled mechanically” and “treated much like a swimming pool.” Sullivan testified that, in June 2008, he made the decision to fill the pond, and he appeared at a press conference where he announced his decision.2 Sullivan stated that, in July 2008, there were “no swimming” signs posted, but DEM “expected that there would be people * * * using the park.” Sullivan explained that facilities such as the bathhouses were open, but he stated that he “did not ever consider the beach to be open.” Sullivan agreed that it was prohibited under DEM rules to operate the pond on a “swim-at-your-own-risk” basis, and he explained that, “if there were not lifeguards present at a swimming facility, that the swimming facility was closed.” Sullivan [**4] explained that, in July 2008, staff on-site at the park had been directed “to tell people that the beach — that the water was closed to swimming, to point to signage and refer them to that, but it was not expected that they would stand there and order people out [of the water] * * *.”

2 Sullivan had explained that, in February 2008, World War II Veterans Memorial Park had been “slated for closure” in the budget presented to the Legislature that year. However, at the end of June, after local officials expressed concern, he made the decision as the Director of DEM to fill the pond.

The Associate Director of Natural Resources for DEM, Larry Mouradjian, also testified at trial. He described the pond, explaining that there was a designated lap pool, a swim area, and a diving platform. He testified that he had seen the pond with and without water, and, based on his opinion, diving near the wall into the lap pool would be dangerous because it was too shallow. Mouradjian testified that the pond was typically not filled “until such time as we were able to fully staff the * * * swim area and invite the public to swim at the pond * * *.” Mouradjian stated that he thought the decision to fill the [**5] pond was untimely “[b]ecause the things normally done to prepare the pond to be open to the public had not been done * * *.” He testified that he had spoken to Sullivan and recommended that the pond be drained or left empty until DEM “beg[a]n to acquire the resources necessary.”

The DEM Chief of the Rhode Island Division of Parks and Recreation, Robert Paquette, and the Deputy Chief, John Faltus, also testified at trial. Paquette confirmed that Mouradjian was hesitant to open the pond and that Mouradjian told him that “we should really look into this.” However, Paquette testified that “[Sullivan] was ordering [him] to open up the facility.” Paquette also testified that he had never been told that “there was ever a problem with shallow water [along the wall of the pond].” Faltus testified that he was never “officially informed” that people were diving at the pond, but he had “heard hearsay that there’s possible diving activity after hours.” Faltus stated that generally they did not “allow diving at any [state] swimming areas.” However, he also admitted that “[p]eople [were] allowed to possibly do some shallow entry dives,” explaining that whether diving was allowed “[d]epends on how you define ‘dive.'”

William Mitchell [**6] Jr., the Regional Park Manager for DEM in 2008, testified that there was no “system that was in place to warn people of the depth of the water.” However, he stated that “if a patron * * * [*484] ask[ed] an employee * * * they would advise them as to the depth of the water, [and] if they asked about diving, [they] would tell them the rules and regulations * * *.” Mitchell agreed that Roy’s injury was “[g]enerally” the type of thing that he could foresee and he was concerned that it was the kind of injury that would happen when he was told to fill the pond before lifeguards had been hired.

Peter Lambert, a DEM caretaker supervisor who was employed at World War II Veterans Memorial Park from 1990 to 2008, testified at trial extensively about the physical characteristics and operation of the park and pond. He explained that, as the caretaker supervisor, he was the “acting park manager,” testifying that he “handled pretty much everything that had to do with the park itself: scheduling the staff, supervising the lifeguards, interviewing park rangers, interviewing seasonal people, assigning various work to people.” Essentially he either directly worked on or helped supervise everything that needed to be done at the [**7] park.

Lambert described the park as “16 acres * * * in the center of * * * Woonsocket [with] a man made [sic] pond, * * * two tennis courts, a playground area, horseshoe pits, * * * [an] Olympic pool area, * * * and the beach area * * *.” Lambert described the water depth near the wall where the Olympic pool met the beach area as being “pretty consistent over the years.” He testified that, when the pond was drained, he would try to “smooth the bottom” of it. Lambert explained that the pond “wouldn’t be perfectly level like a pool,” but testified that he “would try to eliminate any erosion, any heels, any high spots.” He testified that he was unable to do “any preparatory work to the bottom” of the pond in 2008 because he had been “informed that the park was closing and the beach wouldn’t be opened that year, and [his] job was being eliminated.” However, Lambert also explained that he did not rake the pond every year because “there were years when there was very little shifting on the bottom.” Subsequently, Lambert testified about the diving policies at the pond. He stated that diving had “never [been] allowed.” However, he admitted to seeing “people periodically dive * * * off of [the] [**8] wall on the pool area, [but] not during hours that [the pond was] in operation.”

B

The Events of July 10, 2008

Kenneth Henderson, a seasonal laborer for DEM who worked as a groundskeeper at the park in 2008, testified at trial that he was working on July 10, 2008. Henderson stated that he saw “about half a dozen” people swimming in the pond that day but did not tell them that swimming was prohibited because, in his words, “[he] had no authority.”

Laura Oliver and Carol Gear had also been at the park on July 10, 2008, and testified at trial. Oliver testified that on July 10 there were no lifeguards, lifeguard chairs, or buoy lines in the pond, and the fountain was off. Oliver said that she allowed her children to go swimming despite the “no swimming” signs “because there [had been] a write-up in the paper, and nobody told [them] different[ly].” She added that there were often “no swimming” signs in place, even when lifeguards were present and watching the swimmers. However, Oliver testified that a DEM employee, who she later learned was a groundskeeper, had told her children not to jump in the water. Oliver explained that she saw people jumping and “do[ing] all kinds of stuff” off the diving platform on July [**9] 10. However, she knew from experience that diving was not allowed in the pond because in previous years if someone [*485] dove into the water, then “lifeguards would be on top of it. If they kept doing it, [the lifeguards] would tell them they had to leave.” She added that she never saw anyone get hurt while diving prior to July 10. Oliver described Roy’s dive as “a belly flop kind of dive; not a complete dive.”

Gear testified that she had been to the pond to swim “[t]hree times” before July 10, 2008, and had seen people dive, but had never seen anyone injured from diving before Roy suffered his injury. Gear described Roy’s actions that she witnessed on July 10, stating: “He threw something on the ground, and [ran], like you run when you bowl, and then he just dove in.” She labeled Roy’s dive as a “[r]egular kind of dive.” She clarified that she would call it “a shallow dive.” She explained that “[i]t was more like he * * * just * * * put his head down and kind of went in. It wasn’t like a real dive like on a diving board.”

Hope Braybon, who accompanied Roy to the pond on July 10, also testified to the events of the day. Braybon stated that she watched Roy “jog” from the car in the parking lot and “d[i]ve in.” She testified [**10] that, as Roy was diving, she “was telling him not to dive over there * * * because it was shallow water.”

Roy was unable to testify at trial but his deposition was read into the record. Roy was six feet tall and twenty-nine years old at the time of the incident. Roy testified that on July 10 he had dropped Braybon, her daughter, and his children at the park and “they * * * walked towards the beach.” He recalled seeing “20 to 30 people, small children, adults, adolescent children in the middle of the pond” swimming, which indicated to him that the park was open. He testified that he “never saw a sign that said ‘[n]o [s]wimming.'” Roy further testified that, when he arrived at the park, he “walked over towards the corner [of the pond], * * * [a]nd * * * wasn’t going to jump in,” but, he described the day as “hot, * * * very hot. So, [he] figured * * * [he would] jump in.” He stated that he looked at the water and “[i]t looked deep enough.” He described the water as “murky” and said that he “definitely couldn’t see the bottom.” He explained that “if the water was too shallow, [he would] be able to see it.” Before jumping in, Roy returned to his car to put his things away and then he “walked down to the end[,] [**11] * * * dove in the water[,] and [he] broke [his] neck.” Roy described his dive as a “shallow dive, just like a normal, flat dive,” meaning, “the only parts that [he] would want to hit the water would be the * * * tops of [his] hand and [his] belly.” Roy testified that around July 2007 he dove in the same spot, and “[n]othing was ever said to [him].” Roy admitted that he knew there was soil erosion in the pond, and, consequently, that soil had been added to the pond in the past. Roy stated that “the way that [he] check[ed] the depth of the water * * * was probably irresponsible * * *.”

C

The Jury Verdict and Posttrial Motions

After the close of evidence, both parties filed motions for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Rule 50 of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure, and the trial justice denied both motions. Subsequently, the jury was charged on May 25, 2011. During the course of deliberations, the jury exchanged over fifty notes with the trial justice. On the morning of the third day of deliberations, the trial justice addressed the jury and asked the jurors to keep deliberating because she was “really confident that the eight [jurors were] going to be able to * * * reach a decision that is fair and just for everyone.”

[*486] On the fourth day of deliberations, [**12] the jury asked the court to “clarify if [six] jurors are for one party and [two] jurors are for another[,] [d]o the questions have to be answered in favor of the way the six jurors feel and the [other two jurors would] not be able to express their own feelings[?]” The trial justice responded that she was “not exactly sure what [they] [were] asking but the jury’s verdict must be unanimous with all [eight] [jurors] agreeing.” Later that day, the trial justice held a chambers conference at which she suggested to counsel that, in light of the jury’s note, the jury might be split six to two.

During the fifth day of deliberations, the jury asked the trial justice to reinstruct them that they needed to follow the instructions of law and not their emotions. After a series of conferences with juror No. 109 and the jury foreperson, individually, the trial justice excused juror No. 109. At approximately 3:50 p.m. that day, the jury sent a note to the trial justice that it could not come to a unanimous agreement. Approximately ten minutes later the trial justice responded: “Is there anything we can do to assist you?” The jury responded that “nothing else will make a difference” and indicated a six-to-one [**13] split. Thereafter, the trial justice released the jurors for the day and asked counsel to think of options and to determine from their respective clients whether they would accept a split verdict.

The following day–day six of deliberations–both parties agreed to accept a six-to-one split decision if the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict. The parties expressed that they “understood at the time that the jury would be sent to deliberate” and that if the jury “inform[ed] the [c]ourt that it could not reach a unanimous verdict, [the trial justice] would then disclose [to the jury] that the parties [had] agreed to accept a [six] to [one] split decision * * *.” Subsequently, the jury exchanged additional notes with the trial justice and returned for additional instructions on the Recreational Use Statute and the issue of liability, included as questions 1 and 2 on the verdict form. Thereafter, the jury indicated that it had reached a verdict.

The jury reached a unanimous verdict and found that the state had not “willfully or maliciously failed to guard or warn against a dangerous condition, use, structure or activity at the pond * * *” and therefore was not liable under question 1. However, the jury [**14] found that the state was liable under question 2 for “willfully or maliciously fail[ing] to guard against a non-obvious, latent dangerous condition, knowing that there existed a strong likelihood that a user of the swimming pond would suffer serious injury or death[.]” The jury rejected the assumption-of-the-risk defense and found that both parties were negligent and assigned a 50/50 split with “zero” damages. The trial justice then called counsel to sidebar where plaintiffs argued that the jurors were not following the instructions because they found in favor of them but awarded no damages; the state disagreed. The trial justice instructed the jury that they were required to award damages. At that time, the state moved for a mistrial “based on the inconsistencies of the answers to the questions on the verdict sheet”; plaintiffs objected, and the trial justice denied the motion. The jury then sent a note explaining that they had “reached a unanimous verdict [because] no money was awarded.” They explained that if they had to award damages, “part of [the] jury [would] have one answer [and] part [would] have another. In other words, [they would] have to begin again.” The trial justice clarified [**15] with the jury that they were “referring to the [six-to-one] split/vote” and then released the jury for the day.

[*487] After the jury was sent home, the trial justice held a chambers conference with counsel. The parties discussed four potential options to consider: (1) a mistrial; (2) accept a six-to-one verdict; (3) accept half of the verdict; or (4) allow the verdict to stand. On the seventh day of deliberations, plaintiffs made a motion for additur or, in the alternative, for a new trial on the issue of damages. The trial justice denied plaintiffs’ motion and offered the parties a choice of accepting a split verdict or a mistrial. Both parties agreed to accept a six-to-one split verdict. The trial justice notified the jury that the parties would accept a six-to-one verdict. The jury returned the verdict and answered “no” to questions 1 and 2–finding no liability on behalf of the state, and judgment entered.

Following the jury verdict, both parties made renewed motions for judgment as a matter of law. In support of its motion, the state argued that plaintiffs failed to establish the state’s liability under the Recreational Use Statute and that, as a matter of law, Roy’s conduct was so “highly [**16] dangerous” that “no duty was owed to him.” The plaintiffs argued that the state’s witnesses admitted sufficient facts at trial to establish the state’s liability as a matter of law under the Recreational Use Statute. Additionally, plaintiffs moved for a new trial on damages, or, in the alternative, a new trial on all the issues. The trial justice issued a written decision on March 26, 2013, denying both parties’ motions for judgment as a matter of law, and granting plaintiffs’ motion for a new trial on all the issues. The state timely appealed this decision, and plaintiffs filed a cross-appeal.

II

Parties’ Arguments on Appeal

On appeal, the state argues that the trial justice erred in refusing to apply the decisions in Banks v. Bowen’s Landing Corp., 522 A.2d 1222 (R.I. 1987) and Bucki v. Hawkins, 914 A.2d 491 (R.I. 2007), which, the state contends, “stand for the proposition that the [s]tate owed no duty to Roy to protect him from an open and obvious natural condition * * *.” The state maintains that, “under the proper application of the Recreational Use Statute, the evidence fails to establish that the state willfully and/or maliciously failed to warn against a dangerous condition.” The state also argues that “Roy assumed the risk of injury by diving into murky water without first checking [**17] its depth” and that plaintiffs failed to prove the element of causation. Furthermore, the state contends that it is shielded from liability under the theory of discretionary immunity. The state also asserts that “the trial justice misconstrued material evidence and committed significant errors of law in granting plaintiffs’ motion for a new trial.” However, the state adds, if the matter is remanded for a new trial, “the statutory cap on damages should apply.”

In response, plaintiffs argue that the trial justice properly granted their motion for a new trial. The plaintiffs aver that they proved liability under the Recreational Use Statute and that the “open and obvious danger” rule articulated in Bucki, 914 A.2d at 496, is inapplicable here due to distinguishable facts. The plaintiffs maintain that Roy could not have “assumed the risk” under these facts as a matter of law and that plaintiffs proved proximate causation. Furthermore, plaintiffs contend that the trial justice and two motion justices properly applied the law and limited the state’s defenses with respect to governmental immunity and the damages cap. On cross-appeal, plaintiffs argue that the trial justice incorrectly denied their motions for additur, [**18] a new trial on the issue [*488] of damages only, and judgment as a matter of law. Additionally, plaintiffs argue that a new trial was warranted based on other legal errors made by the trial justice and that the second jury verdict was “the result of bias, prejudice, or passion.”

Because we conclude that the state owed no duty to Roy, we shall address only the state’s renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law.

III

Judgment as a Matter of Law

A

Standard of Review

[HN1] “In reviewing a trial justice’s decision on a motion for judgment as a matter of law, this Court is bound to follow the same rules and legal standards as govern the trial justice.” Hough v. McKiernan, 108 A.3d 1030, 1035 (R.I. 2015) (quoting Perry v. Alessi, 890 A.2d 463, 467 (R.I. 2006)). “The trial justice, and consequently this Court, must examine ‘the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, without weighing the evidence or evaluating the credibility of witnesses, and draw[] from the record all reasonable inferences that support the position of the nonmoving party.'” Id. (quoting Perry, 890 A.2d at 467). Thus, a trial justice should enter judgment as a matter of law “when the evidence permits only one legitimate conclusion in regard to the outcome.” Id. (quoting Long v. Atlantic PBS, Inc., 681 A.2d 249, 252 (R.I. 1996)).

B

Discussion

[HN2] The Rhode Island Recreational Use Statute, G.L. 1956 [**19] chapter 6 of title 32, limits the liability of landowners, declaring that one

“who either directly or indirectly invites or permits without charge any person to use that property for recreational purposes does not thereby:

“(1) Extend any assurance that the premises are safe for any purpose;

“(2) Confer upon that person the legal status of an invitee or licensee to whom a duty of care is owed; nor

“(3) Assume responsibility for or incur liability for any injury to any person or property caused by an act of omission of that person.” Section 32-6-3.

[HN3] The purpose of this statute “is to encourage owners of land to make land and water areas available to the public for recreational purposes by limiting their liability to persons entering thereon for those purposes.” Section 32-6-1. In order to achieve this, “the [Recreational Use Statute] modifies the common law by treating users of public and private recreational properties as trespassers, thus greatly reducing the duty of care that owners owe to recreational users.” Symonds v. City of Pawtucket, 126 A.3d 421, 424 (R.I. 2015). As we have noted, “it is clear from the unambiguous language of the 1996 amendment [to the Recreational Use Statute] that the [L]egislature intended to include the state and municipalities among owners entitled to immunity [**20] under the statute.” Id. (quoting Pereira v. Fitzgerald, 21 A.3d 369, 373 (R.I. 2011)).3

3 In 1996, the General Assembly amended the definition of “owner” in G.L. 1956 § 32-6-2(3) to include the state and municipalities. P.L. 1996, ch. 234, § 1.

[HN4] Although the Recreational Use Statute limits liability, this limitation is not absolute. Section 32-6-5 provides, in relevant part: “(a) Nothing in this chapter limits in any way any liability which, but for this chapter, otherwise exists: (1) [f]or the willful or malicious failure to guard or [*489] warn against a dangerous condition, use, structure, or activity after discovering the user’s peril * * *.” “Thus, the Legislature declared that all people who use this state’s public recreational resources are classified as trespassers to whom no duty of care is owed, save to refrain from willful or malicious conduct as defined in the [Recreational Use Statute].” Berman v. Sitrin, 991 A.2d 1038, 1044 (R.I. 2010).

On appeal, the state argues that the evidence presented at trial did not establish that the state willfully and/or maliciously failed to warn against a dangerous condition. Specifically, the state argues that “there was no evidence of a substantial number of injuries flowing from a known dangerous condition”; that “the state did not fail to guard or warn against a dangerous condition, use, [**21] structure, or activity”; and that “no witness made testimonial admissions sufficient to extinguish protection under the Recreational Use Statute.” Conversely, plaintiffs argue that they proved liability under the Recreational Use Statute because the evidence supported a finding that the state “breached the duty to refrain from willful and malicious failures to guard and warn against known latent conditions.” In support of this argument, plaintiffs rely on Berman.

In Berman, 991 A.2d at 1042, the plaintiff was walking on the Newport Cliff Walk when the ground “gave way,” causing the plaintiff to suffer injuries that rendered him a quadriplegic. This Court specifically noted that this was “not * * * a case in which a visitor came too close to the edge of a cliff and fell off, as tragic as that would be.” Id. at 1049. Rather, “the events leading to [the plaintiff’s] tragic injury were caused by latent defects in the structure of the Cliff Walk that [were] not obvious to the occasional visitor.” Id. This Court explained that “the record before [it was] replete with evidence demonstrating that * * * the city knew that the forces of natural erosion were taking a toll on the Cliff Walk.” Id. at 1050. Thus, this Court concluded that “because [**22] of the multiple incidents of death and grievous injury * * * the city [could] not successfully defend [the plaintiff’s] claim based on an assertion that it had no specific knowledge of [the plaintiff] or any peril confronting him.” Id. at 1051. Consequently, this Court held that “the immunity provided by the [Recreational Use Statute] [was] not available to defendant City of Newport, in the context of the Cliff Walk” because a “fact-finder reasonably could find that * * * the city voluntarily and intentionally failed to guard against the dangerous condition, knowing that there existed a strong likelihood that a visitor to the Cliff Walk would suffer serious injury or death.” Id. at 1052, 1053.

The plaintiffs argue that this case is comparable to Berman because the “record is replete with evidence of DEM’s admitted knowledge of numerous unique dangerous conditions, including shallow water in areas where users had been known to dive from the park’s structures, and the historic presence of the sandbar in the same (normally deeper) area.” The plaintiffs maintain that the “shallow water and dangers of diving at this particular facility were not obvious to users * * * yet were in fact known to DEM.”

In the case at bar, [**23] although the state admitted knowledge of the unique features of the pond, Roy also admitted that he was aware of the danger of making a dive into shallow water and that “the way that [he] check[ed] the depth of the water * * * was probably irresponsible * * *.” He confirmed that he knew the soil in the pond was eroding and, consequently, that soil was added to the pond. We would note that, examining the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs as we [*490] must, the actions of the defendants are a far cry from the egregious conduct attributed to the City of Newport in Berman. There, we held that “[i]t is because of the multiple incidents of death and grievous injury that we conclude that the city may not successfully defend this claim based on an assertion that it had no specific knowledge of [the plaintiff] or any peril confronting him.” Berman, 991 A.2d at 1051. Here, there is only one indication in the record of a relatively minor injury reported several days before Roy’s catastrophic injuries. Therefore, we are of the opinion that, under these circumstances, this case is distinguishable from Berman. There is no evidence to support a finding that the state “willful[ly] or malicious[ly] fail[ed] to guard or warn against a dangerous condition, [**24] use, structure, or activity after discovering [a] user’s peril * * *.” See § 32-6-5(a)(1). Thus, the state’s motion for judgment as a matter of law should have been granted.

Moreover, even if the Recreational Use Statute did not apply, this Court has held that [HN5] the danger of diving in and of itself is an “open and obvious” danger, Bucki, 914 A.2d at 496, one of “common knowledge,” Banks, 522 A.2d at 1225, such that a landowner does not owe a duty of care to warn individuals who enter the premises. In Banks, 522 A.2d at 1224, the plaintiff filed a negligence claim for injuries he suffered after diving off a railing on the defendant’s property into the Newport Harbor. This Court held that the defendants had not owed any duty of care to the plaintiff in that case in part because “requiring citizens to place warnings against[–]and barriers preventing persons from[–]diving into shallow water would provide little disincentive to individuals * * *. As a practical matter, the danger of diving into shallow water is one of common knowledge, and one [the plaintiff] admit he was aware of.” Id. at 1225. Similarly, in Bucki, 914 A.2d at 493, the plaintiff filed a negligence claim for injuries he sustained after diving into a lake while he was a guest at one defendant’s waterfront property. This Court concluded that [**25] the plaintiff’s harm was foreseeable but again held that the defendants did not have a duty to warn of the dangers of diving. Id. at 496-97. This Court stated that:

“It is only reasonable for a diver, who cannot ascertain the water’s depth by looking, to further inspect the area before diving into dark water. The danger of diving into shallow water was open and obvious to a twenty-four-year-old man, regardless of whether a sign was erected alerting him to the danger.” Id. at 496.

Thus, this Court held that “as a matter of law, [the] plaintiff must be held to have had knowledge and an appreciation of this risk [because][,] [u]ltimately, it was [the] plaintiff’s own behavior that caused his injuries.” Id.

We also note that other courts have reached similar conclusions. For example, the Maryland Court of Appeals commented that:

“Bodies of water like the stream involved in this case have historically and consistently been afforded distinctive treatment in the law relating to landowners’ liability. The necessity, or at least desirability, of maintaining such bodies of water, coupled with known inherent dangers and the difficulty of effectively protecting against those dangers, have led courts across the country to pronounce [**26] water an ‘open and obvious danger,’ for which no warning or special precaution is ordinarily needed.” Casper v. Charles F. Smith & Son, Inc., 316 Md. 573, 560 A.2d 1130, 1134-35 (Md. 1989).

[*491] In a case affirming the grant of summary judgment in favor of the Chicago Park District against swimmers who were injured when they dove into Lake Michigan from concrete seawalls, Bucheleres v. Chicago Park District, 171 Ill. 2d 435, 665 N.E.2d 826, 827, 828, 839, 216 Ill. Dec. 568 (Ill. 1996), the Illinois Supreme Court pronounced:

“In cases involving obvious and common conditions, such as fire, height, and bodies of water, the law generally assumes that persons who encounter these conditions will take care to avoid any danger inherent in such condition. The open and obvious nature of the condition itself gives caution and therefore the risk of harm is considered slight; people are expected to appreciate and avoid obvious risks.” Id. at 832.

The Illinois Supreme Court further reasoned that “bodies of water are ordinarily considered to be open and obvious conditions and thereby carry their own warning of possible danger.” Id. at 835. This is clearly the position adopted by this Court in Bucki, 914 A.2d at 497, where this Court stated that “[w]e are of the opinion that in this case [the] defendant did not owe [the] plaintiff a duty of care, but, rather, that [the] plaintiff voluntarily exposed himself to the perils of an open and obvious danger.” [**27] Because it is our considered opinion that the state bore no liability for Roy’s injuries–either because diving is an open and obvious danger or because it was protected under the Recreational Use Statute–we conclude that the trial justice erroneously denied its motion for judgment as a matter of law.

IV

Conclusion

For the reasons stated herein, we vacate the judgment of the Superior Court and remand the case with instructions to enter judgment in favor of the state. The record shall be returned to the Superior Court.


Hiett v. Lake Barcroft Community Association, Inc., et al., 244 Va. 191; 418 S.E.2d 894; 1992 Va. LEXIS 69; 8 Va. Law Rep. 3381

Hiett v. Lake Barcroft Community Association, Inc., et al., 244 Va. 191; 418 S.E.2d 894; 1992 Va. LEXIS 69; 8 Va. Law Rep. 3381

Robert David Hiett v. Lake Barcroft Community Association, Inc., et al.

Record No. 911395

Supreme Court of Virginia

244 Va. 191; 418 S.E.2d 894; 1992 Va. LEXIS 69; 8 Va. Law Rep. 3381

June 5, 1992

COUNSEL: Bernard S. Cohen (Sandra M. Rohrstaff; Cohen, Dunn & Sinclair, on brief), for appellant.

Joseph D. Roberts (Slenker, Brandt, Jennings & Johnson, on brief), for appellees.

JUDGES: Justice Keenan delivered the opinion of the Court.

OPINION BY: KEENAN

OPINION

[*192]   [**894]  The primary issue in this appeal is whether a pre-injury release from liability for negligence is void as being against public policy.

Robert D. Hiett sustained an injury which rendered him a quadriplegic while participating in the “Teflon Man Triathlon” (the triathlon) sponsored by the Lake Barcroft  [**895]  Community Association, Inc. (LABARCA).  The injury occurred at the start of the swimming event when Hiett waded into Lake Barcroft to a point where the water reachedhis [***2]  thighs, dove into the water, and struck his head on either the lake bottom or an object beneath the water surface.

Thomas M. Penland, Jr., a resident of Lake Barcroft, organized and directed the triathlon. He drafted the entry form which all participants were required to sign.  The first sentence of the form provided:

In consideration of this entry being accept[ed] to participate in the Lake Barcroft Teflon Man Triathlon I hereby, for myself, my heirs, and executors waive, release and forever discharge any and all rights and claims for damages which I may have or  [*193]  m[a]y hereafter accrue to me against the organizers and sponsors and their representatives, successors, and assigns, for any and all injuries suffered by me in said event.

Evelyn Novins, a homeowner in the Lake Barcroft subdivision, asked Hiett to participate in the swimming portion of the triathlon. She and Hiett were both teachers at a school for learning-disabled children.  Novins invited Hiett to participate as a member of one of two teams of fellow teachers she was organizing.  During a break between classes, Novins presented Hiett with the entry form and he signed it.

Hiett alleged inhis [***3]  third amended motion for judgment that LABARCA, Penland, and Novins had failed to ensure that the lake was reasonably safe, properly supervise the swimming event, advise the participants of the risk of injury, and train them how to avoid such injuries.  Hiett also alleged that Penland and Novins were agents of LABARCA and that Novins’s failure to direct his attention to the release clause in the entry form constituted constructive fraud and misrepresentation.

In a preliminary ruling, the trial court held that, absent fraud, misrepresentation, duress, illiteracy, or the denial of an opportunity to read the form, the entry form was a valid contract and that the pre-injury release language in the contract released the defendants from liability for negligence.  The trial court also ruled that such a release was prohibited as a matter of public policy only when it was included: (1) in a common carrier’s contract of carriage; (2) in the contract of a public utility under a duty to furnish telephone service; or (3) as a condition of employment set forth in an employment contract.

Pursuant to an agreement between the parties, the trial court conducted an evidentiary hearing in whichit determined [***4]  that there was sufficient evidence to present to a jury on the issue of constructive fraud and misrepresentation. Additionally, the trial court ruled that as a matter of law Novins was not an agent of LABARCA, and it dismissed her from the case.

The remaining parties proceeded to trial solely on the issue whether there was constructive fraud and misrepresentation by the defendants such as would invalidate the waiver-release language in the entry form.  After Hiett had rested his case, the trial court granted the defendants’ motion to strike the evidence.  This appeal followed.

[*194]  Hiett first argues that the trial court erred in ruling that the pre-injury release provision in the entry form did not violate public policy. He contends that since the decision of this Court in Johnson’s Adm’x v. Richmond and Danville R.R. Co., 86 Va. 975, 11 S.E. 829 (1890), the law in Virginia has been settled that an agreement entered into prior to any injury, releasing a tortfeasor from liability for negligence resulting in personal injury, is void because it violates public policy. Hiett asserts that the later cases of this Court have addressed only therelease of liability [***5]  from property damage or indemnification against liability to third parties. Thus, he contends that the holding in Johnson remains unchanged.  In response, LABARCA and Novins argue that the decisions of this Court since Johnson have established  [**896]  that pre-injury release agreements such as the one before us do not violate public policy. We disagree with LABARCA and Novins.

The case law in this Commonwealth over the past one hundred years has not altered the holding in Johnson.  In Johnson, this Court addressed the validity of a pre-injury release of liability for future negligent acts.  There, the decedent was a member of a firm of quarry workers which had entered into an agreement with a railroad company to remove a granite bluff located on the company’s right of way.  The agreement specified that the railroad would not be liable for any injuries or death sustained by any members of the firm, or its employees, occurring from any cause whatsoever.

The decedent was killed while attempting to warn one of his employees of a fast-approaching train. The evidence showed that the train was moving at a speed of not less than 25 miles per hour, notwithstanding the [***6]  railroad company’s agreement that all trains would pass by the work site at speeds not exceeding six miles per hour.

[1] In holding that the release language was invalid because it violated public policy, this Court stated:

[T]o hold that it was competent for one party to put the other parties to the contract at the mercy of its own misconduct . . . can never be lawfully done where an enlightened system of jurisprudence prevails.  Public policy forbids it, and contracts against public policy are void.

 [*195]  86 Va. at 978, 11 S.E. at 829. This Court emphasized that its holding was not based on the fact that the railroad company was a common carrier.  Rather, this Court found that such  [HN1] provisions for release from liability for personal injury which may be caused by future acts of negligence are prohibited “universally.” 86 Va. at 978, 11 S.E. at 830.

[2] As noted by Hiett, the cases following Johnson have not eroded this principle.  Instead, this Court’s decisions after Johnson have been limited to upholding theright to contract for the release of liability for property damage, as well as indemnification from liability to [***7]  third parties for such damage.

[3] In C. & O. Ry. Co. v. Telephone Co., 216 Va. 858, 224 S.E.2d 317 (1976), this Court upheld a provision in an agreement entered into by the parties to allow the telephone company to place underground cables under a certain railway overpass.  In the agreement, the telephone company agreed to release the C & O Railway Company from any damage to the wire line crossing and appurtenances.  In upholding this property damage stipulation, this Court found that public policy considerations were not implicated.  216 Va. at 865-66, 224 S.E. at 322.

This Court upheld another property damage release provision in Nido v. Ocean Owners’ Council, 237 Va. 664, 378 S.E.2d 837 (1989). There, a condominium unit owner filed suit against the owners’ council of the condominium for property damage to his unit resulting from a defect in the common area of the condominium. This Court held that, under the applicable condominium by-laws, each unit owner had voluntarily waived his right to bring an action againstthe owners’ council for such property damage. 237 Va. at 667, 378 S.E.2d at 838. 1

1 Although the by-law at issue attempted to release the owners’ council for injury to both persons and property, the issue before the Court involved only the property damage portion of the clause.

 [***8]  [4] Other cases decided by this Court since Johnson have upheld provisions for indemnification against future property damage claims.  In none of these cases, however, did the Court address the issue whether an indemnification provision would be valid against a claim for personal injury.

In Richardson – Wayland v. VEPCO, 219 Va. 198, 247 S.E.2d 465 (1978), the disputed claim involved property damage only, although  [**897]  the contract provided that VEPCO would be indemnified against both property damage and personal injury claims.  This  [*196]  Court held that the provision for indemnification against property damage did not violate public policy. In so holding, this Court emphasizedthe fact that the contract was not between VEPCO and a consumer but, rather, that it was a contract made by VEPCO with a private company for certain repairs to its premises.  219 Va. at 202-03, 247 S.E.2d at 468.

This Court also addressed an indemnification clause covering liability for both personal injury and property damage in Appalachian Power Co. v. Sanders, 232 Va. 189, 349 S.E.2d 101 (1986). However, this Court was not required [***9]  to rule on the validity of the clause with respect to a claim for personal injury, based on its holding that the party asserting indemnification was not guilty of actionable negligence.  232 Va. at 196, 349 S.E. at 106.

Finally, in Kitchin v. Gary Steel Corp., 196 Va. 259, 83 S.E.2d 348 (1954), this Court found that an indemnification agreement between a prime contractor and its subcontractor was not predicated on negligence.  For this reason, this Court held that there was no merit in the subcontractor’s claim that the agreement violated public policy as set forth in Johnson.  196 Va. at 265, 83 S.E.2d at 351.

[5] We agree with Hiett that the above cases have notmodified or altered the holding in Johnson.  Therefore, we conclude here, based on Johnson, that the pre-injury release provision signed by Hiett is prohibited by public policy and, thus, it is void. Johnson, 86 Va. at 978, 11 S.E. at 829.

[6] Since we have held that the pre-injury release agreement signed by Hiett is void, the issue whether Novins acted as LABARCA’s agent in procuring Hiett’s signature will not be before the trial court in [***10]  the retrial of this case.  Nevertheless, Hiett argues that, irrespective of any agency relationship, Novins had a common law duty to warn Hiett of the dangerous condition of the uneven lake bottom. We disagree.

[7] The record before us shows that Lake Barcroft is owned by Barcroft Beach, Incorporated, and it is operated and controlled by Barcroft Lake Management Association, Incorporated.  Further, it is undisputed that the individual landowners in the Lake Barcroft subdivision have no ownership interest in the Lake. Since Novins had no ownership interest in or control over the operation of Lake Barcroft, she had no duty to warn Hiett of any dangerous condition therein.  See Busch v. Gaglio, 207 Va. 343, 348, 150 S.E.2d 110, 114 (1966).Therefore, Hiett’s assertion that Novins had a duty to warn him of the condition of the lake bottom, fails as a matter of  [*197]  law, and we conclude that the trial court did not err in dismissing Novins from the case.

Accordingly, we will affirm in part and reverse in part the judgment of the trial court, and we will remand this case for further proceedings consistent with the principles expressed in this opinion. 2

2 Based on our decision here, we do not reach the questions raised by the remaining assignments of error.

[***11]  Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded.

 


Mississippi retailer not liable for injury to a child who rode a bicycle through aisles he found on the store floor.

Attempts by the plaintiff to re-characterize stands and racks did not get past the judge. However, in many cases, the way a plaintiff casts a product can later define how the jury sees the case.

Wilson v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 161 So. 3d 1128; 2015 Miss. App. LEXIS 216

State: Mississippi, Court of Appeals of Mississippi

Plaintiff: Seth Wilson, by and Through His Mother and Next Friend, Suzette Wilson Purser

Defendant: Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: Premises Liability

Defendant Defenses: No duty

Holding: For the Defendant Retailer

Year: 2015

This is a screwy little case, but worth the effort. A family, Step-Father, mother and two sons went into a Wal-Mart to buy a basketball. While there, the two sons walked over to the bicycle aisle and proceeded to ride two bicycles they found through the aisles.

One brother, in attempting to put a bicycle back in the rack, slowed down. The other brother was not used to hand breaks, maneuvered around the brother riding into a shelf where he suffered a cut on his leg.

They both got on bicycles that were on the bicycle rack, and started riding up and down the aisles nearby. The bicycle Seth rode was on the ground when he found it, with its front wheel pushed under the rack and its back wheel in the aisle. Seth was following Wyatt on his bicycle when Wyatt slowed down to put the bicycle he was riding away. Seth was forced to go around him because he was “going real fast” and “[could not] figure out how to stop.” He tried to brake using the pedals, but the bicycle only had handbrakes. Unable to stop, Seth ran into a wall and cut his leg on a shelf. The cut was deep and required stitches.

Of note was the statement that the employee assigned to the area was absent and there were no signs posted prohibiting the use of the bicycles.” (So bars now need to put up signs no drinking from the tap without paying for the product first?). The employee assigned to the department was outside at the time of the accident, and no signs were posted prohibiting the use of the bicycles or otherwise warning of any danger.”

The defendant was ten at the time of the injury so whether or not signs were posted probably would not have made a difference. And it seems that allowing children to ride bikes through the aisles at Wal-Mart in Mississippi is a common practice, which sort of blows my mind.

The injured child’s mother filed a lawsuit on his behalf, since he was a minor, and sued Wal-Mart based on a premise’s liability theory. Wal-Mart filed a motion for summary judgment stating there was no genuine issue of material fact showing that there was a dangerous condition that Wal-Mart should have warned about.

The motion was granted, and the plaintiff appealed the decision.

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

The court first looked at the premises’ liability law that the plaintiff claimed had been breached by Wal-Mart. To prove his case the plaintiff must show that he was an invitee, the duty owed to him based on his status and whether Wal-Mart breached that duty.

Seth’s premises-liability claim, this Court must (1) determine the status of the injured person as either an invitee, licensee, or trespasser, (2) assess, based on the injured party’s status, what duty the landowner or business operator owed to the injured party, and (3) determine whether the landowner or business operator breached the duty owed to the injured. 

Because the plaintiff was there with his parents to purchase a basketball, he was defined as an invitee. As such, the duty of a land owner (or retailer) was to keep the premises reasonably safe and when not reasonably safe, to warn of the hidden dangers. If the peril were in plain and open view, there is no duty to warn of them.

To succeed in a premises-liability action, Seth must prove one of the following: “(1) a negligent act by [Wal-Mart] caused [his] injury; or, (2) that [Wal-Mart] had actual knowledge of a dangerous condition, but failed to warn [him] of the danger; or, (3) the dangerous condition remained long enough to impute constructive knowledge to [Wal-Mart].”

Is a bicycle on display at a retailer a dangerous condition? The plaintiff argued the bicycle should have been locked up so the plaintiff could not ride it. The bicycle was not in a rack at the time the plaintiff found the bike.

He argues that (1) Wal-Mart’s possession of a rack on which to clamp the bicycles, (2) the assignment of an employee to the toy department, and (3) evidence of other children on bicycles in the same aisle at the same Wal-Mart show that unlocked or readily accessible bicycles created a dangerous condition, and that Wal-Mart knew about it and failed to warn its patrons. He cites to no authority to support his position, and nothing in the record supports these allegations.

The plaintiff then characterized the rack that the bike should have been in as a “safety rack.” However, the court caught on to that maneuver and reviewed the operation of the rack and the manufacturer’s description and found the rack was designed only to hold bikes, not to prevent them from being moved.

Seth refers to the rack where the bicycles could be clamped as a safety rack, but there is nothing in the record to indicate that the purpose for the rack was to protect its patrons from the alleged danger posed by unlocked or readily accessible bicycles. The record contains installation instructions for the rack, which were prepared by VIDIR Machine Inc., a vertical storage company, and refers to the rack as a carrier or bike-merchandising system only. The rack does not contain a locking mechanism, and holds bicycles in place utilizing a tire clamp

The plaintiff argued that since the bikes would be difficult to remove from the rack, an employee would need to be there to make sure the bikes were removed properly and only when allowed.

However, the entire argument failed. No employee was stationed at the rack to guard against removing bikes. Other children rode bikes in the aisle without incidence, which indicated there was no real danger and no evidence of a standard was presented indicating a requirement to lock up bikes on the show floor.

Additionally, there is nothing in the record to indicate the assignment of an employee to the toy department was for the purpose of guarding against any known danger; and evidence that other children rode bicycles in the same aisle in the same Wal-Mart without incident does not, in and of itself, tend to show that unlocked or readily accessible bicycles pose a danger. Seth provided no evidence of the industry’s standards, no expert reports, and no evidence of Wal-Mart’s policy regarding who may remove the bicycles from the rack and whether its employees were required to.

The plaintiff then argued a higher duty was owed to the plaintiff because he was a minor. However, the duty owed under a premise’s liability act does not change due to the age of the invitee. The plaintiff also knew how to ride a bicycle and learned at the age of five. The plaintiff had also been involved in numerous bicycle accidents prior to the one that injured him at the retailers’ premises.

An unlocked bicycle was found not to present a dangerous condition such that a warning had to be posted by the retailer about the risk to the consumers.

So Now What?

The first issue which was handled quickly by the court was the attempt by the plaintiff to characterize something as different than it actually was. By calling the bike rack a safety rack the plaintiff could place in the juries mind a requirement that did not exist. It is important that these issues not be allowed to explode and create liability just because thclip_image002_thumb.jpge plaintiff miss-labels part of the case.

Another issue is the fact that parents allow their kids to ride bicycles through the aisles of stores, and the retailer does not put a stop to it. What if the plaintiff had hit another patron rather than a shelf?

As always, the issue of putting warning signs up so people who can’t read, can be protected always makes me wonder. Warning if you are unable to read this sign, please find someone to read it to you. Seriously the entire world is going to be nothing but signs if this continues.

Thankfully, the retailer was not liable for the actions of an inattentive parent for the injuries of their child riding a bike down a store aisle.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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