Herberchuk v. Essex County 4H Club Camp, Inc. et al., 1999 Mass. Super. LEXIS 99
Alicia Herberchuk v. Essex County 4H Club Camp, Inc. et al.
SUPERIOR COURT OF MASSACHUSETTS, AT MIDDLESEX
1999 Mass. Super. LEXIS 99
March 11, 1999, Decided
JUDGES: [*1] Raymond J. Brassard, Justice of the Superior Court.
OPINION BY: RAYMOND J. BRASSARD
MEMORANDUM OF DECISION AND ORDER ON DEFENDANTS’ MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT
Plaintiff, Alicia Herberchuk (“Ms. Herberchuk”), brought this action for recovery of damages for injuries sustained while on land owned by defendant, Essex County 4H Club Camp, Inc. (“4H”), while attending an outing accompanied by co-workers employed by defendant, Teleglobe Communications, Inc. (“Teleglobe”). The plaintiff alleges that the injuries were caused by the negligence of the defendants and that there are genuine issues of material fact which preclude the entry of summary judgment on the issue of liability. For the reasons set forth below, defendants’ motions for summary judgment are ALLOWED.
Viewing the facts available at this summary judgment stage in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, Ms. Herberchuk, the undisputed facts are as follows.
On August 28, 1993, Ms. Herberchuk attended an employee outing at a campground owned by 4-H. The campground had been rented through a third party under the name of Teleglobe by certain of its employees, but not by Teleglobe itself. At the cookout [*2] Ms. Herberchuk observed other guests using an apparatus known as a zipwire. The zipwire was used by children who attended the 4H’s camp during the summer months. Using the zipwire involved climbing up a ladder which reached to a platform mounted on a tree, and then leaving the platform to traverse the entire length of the wire. Proper use of the zipwire required a safety helmet, a safety harness, a drag line, and several people assisting the rider. The zipwire also included an 8 inch square 2,000 pound-test pulley to which the safety harness was attached. At the end of the camping season all removable equipment, including the safety equipment, was required to be removed from the zipwire, leaving only the cable and the platform.
On the date in question, a ladder found on or near the campground was propped against the tree upon which the platform was mounted by unidentified parties allowing guests to access the zipwire. Hanging from the zipwire was a nylon rope described as green in color which other guests were using to slide down the wire. No rules or instructions on how to use the zipwire were posted on or near the apparatus on the day in question. After watching several other [*3] people use the zipwire, Ms. Herberchuk decided she wanted to use the apparatus. In order to reach the zipwire, the plaintiff climbed the ladder. Although the ladder did not reach the platform at the end of the wire, Ms. Herberchuk was able to reach the platform by pulling herself up by her hands. Once on the platform Ms. Herberchuk wrapped the rope around her hands as she had seen others do and pushed herself off. Instead of traveling down the wire, however, Ms. Herberchuk fell to the ground sustaining serious injuries, including two elbow fractures and a fractured jaw. As result of these events Ms. Herberchuk commenced this lawsuit against 4H and Teleglobe. Both 4H and Teleglobe have moved for summary judgment on the issue of liability.
[HN1] Summary judgment shall be granted where there are no issues of material fact and the moving party is entitled to as a matter of law. Kourouvacilis v. General Motors Corp., 410 Mass. 706, 716, 575 N.E.2d 734 (1991); Cassesso v. Comm’r of Correction, 390 Mass. 419, 422, 456 N.E.2d 1123 (1983); Community Nat’l Bank v. Dawes, 369 Mass. 550, 553, 340 N.E.2d 877 (1976); Mass.R.Civ.P. 56(c). The moving party bears the burden of affirmatively demonstrating the [*4] absence of a triable issue and that, therefore, she is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Pederson v. Time, Inc., 404 Mass. 14, 17, 532 N.E.2d 1211 (1989). If the moving party establishes the absence of a triable issue, in order to defeat a motion for summary judgment, the opposing party must respond and allege facts which would establish the existence of disputed material facts. Id.
[HN2] A judge, when ruling on a motion for summary judgment must consider “the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, in determining whether summary judgment is appropriate.” Flesner v. Technical Communications Corporation et al., 410 Mass. 805, 807, 575 N.E.2d 1107 (1991). Where no genuine issue of material fact exists, “the judge must ask himself not whether he thinks the evidence unmistakably favors one side or the other but whether a fair-minded jury could return a verdict for the plaintiff on the evidence presented.” Id. citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202, 106 S. Ct. 2505 (1986).
1. The Claim Against 4-H.
[HN3] A property owner has a duty to maintain its property [*5] “in a reasonably safe condition in view of all the circumstances, including the likelihood of injury to others, the seriousness of the injury, and the burden of avoiding the risk.” Mounsey v. Ellard, 363 Mass. 693, 708, 297 N.E.2d 43 (1973). A defendant is not required to “supply a place of maximum safety, but only one which would be safe to a person who exercises such minimum care as the circumstances reasonably indicate.” Toubiana v. Priestly, 402 Mass. 84, 88, 520 N.E.2d 1307 (1988). “A landowner has no duty to protect lawful visitors on his property from risks that would be obvious to persons of average intelligence.” Id. at 89.
In the present case, Ms. Herberchuk claims there are genuine issues of fact concerning the condition in which the zipwire was kept, as well as, what actions 4-H took to prevent unauthorized use of the apparatus. The evidence on the record, for the purposes of this motion, includes affidavits from both Ms. Herberchuk and Mr. Charles G. Ingersoll, a member of the 4-H Board of Trustees, as well as exhibits, including photographs of the area immediately before the accident.
In his affidavit, Mr. Ingersoll states that, while not having [*6] a specific memory of doing so the summer during which Ms. Herberchuk was injured, it was his practice to remove and put away for the winter all those removable parts and safety equipment associated with the zipwire at the end of each camping season (before the outing). Mr. Ingersol also stated that the ladder used by the plaintiff to get to the platform was not one of those presently used by the camp and that the pulley was not on the line the day of the outing. Ms. Herberchuk admitted in her affidavit that when she first arrived at the outing there was no ladder attached to the tree and that when she attempted to make her way to the platform she had to pull herself up because the wooden ladder placed there did not reach the platform. Ms. Herberchuk stated further that she did not know if the pulley was attached to the wire or where the strap had come from.
[HN4] “The question to be decided is whether the jury reasonably could have concluded that, in view of all the circumstances, an ordinarily prudent person in the defendant’s position would have taken steps, not taken by the defendant, to prevent the accident that occurred.” Id. at 89. In this case the evidence shows that 4-H [*7] had removed both the ladder and the safety equipment used with the zipwire during the camping season. Upon arriving at the outing Ms. Herberchuk saw no ladder allowing entry to the platform rendering the zipwire inaccessible, it being twenty feet above the ground. Ms. Herberchuk chose to use the zipwire without the benefit of safety equipment or instructions on the use of the device. Ms. Herberchuk also admitted in her deposition that she knew there was a chance she could be injured but decided to use the apparatus. Further, 4-H did not have a duty to warn Ms. Herberchuk of the obvious dangers involved with using the zipwire without safety equipment or instruction. “There is no duty to warn of dangers obvious to persons of average intelligence.” Thorson v. Mandell, 402 Mass. 744, 749, 525 N.E.2d 375 (1988). On this evidence, a fair minded jury could not return a verdict for the plaintiff.
2. The Claim Against Teleglobe.
[HN5] “Before liability for negligence can be imposed there must first be a legal duty owed by the defendant to the plaintiff, and a breach of that duty proximately resulting in the injury.” Davis v. Westwood Group, 420 Mass. 739, 743, 652 N.E.2d 567 (1995). [*8] Ms. Herberchuk urges that Teleglobe played a part in the organization and funding of the outing at which the plaintiff was injured. The evidence, however, is to the contrary. First, the outing was organized by Teleglobe employees because the company no longer sponsored such events. Second, the money to pay for the outing was raised by a group of employees independent of Teleglobe through the use of a raffle. Finally, Ms. Herberchuk’s attendance was not required by her employment and she received no compensation for attending. On this evidence a reasonable jury could not find that Teleglobe owed any duty to Ms. Herberchuk.
For the foregoing reasons, it is hereby ORDERED that defendants’, 4-H and Teleglobe, motions for summary judgment are ALLOWED.
Raymond J, Brassard
Justice of the Superior Court
Dated: March 11, 1999
Donahue v. Ledgends, Inc., 2014 Alas. LEXIS 153
Claire A. Donahue, Appellant and Cross-Appellee, v. Ledgends, Inc. d/b/a Alaska Rock Gym, Appellee and Cross-Appellant.
Supreme Court Nos. S-14910/14929, No. 6932
SUPREME COURT OF ALASKA
2014 Alas. LEXIS 153
August 1, 2014, Decided
THIS OPINION IS SUBJECT TO CORRECTION BEFORE PUBLICATION IN THE PACIFIC REPORTER. READERS ARE REQUESTED TO BRING ERRORS TO THE ATTENTION OF THE CLERK OF THE APPELLATE COURTS.
PRIOR HISTORY: [*1] Appeal from the Superior Court of the State of Alaska, Third Judicial District, Anchorage, Andrew Guidi, Judge. Superior Court No. 3AN-10-07305 CI.
OVERVIEW: HOLDINGS: -Plaintiff alleged injured party’s negligence claim failed because a release stated waived risks, used “negligence,” stated important factors in emphasized language, specifically disclaimed liability, did not imply safety standards conflicting with a release, was not contested on public policy grounds, and was not modified by advertising; -The Uniform Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Act, AS 45.50.471 et seq., did not apply because conflicts with a personal injury claim barred assuming such a legislature intent, which “ascertainable loss of money or property” in AS 45.50.531(a) did not state; -It was no clear error to find defendant gym waived Alaska R. Civ. P. 68 attorney’s fees because it only raised its offer of judgment when seeking fees under an indemnity clause, and only raised enhanced fees under Alaska R. Civ. P. 82, before its reconsideration motion.
OUTCOME: Judgment affirmed.
COUNSEL: Christine S. Schleuss, Law Office of Christine S. Schleuss, Anchorage, for Appellant and Cross-Appellee.
Tracey L. Knutson, Girdwood, for Appellee and Cross-Appellant.
JUDGES: Before: Fabe, Chief Justice, Winfree, Stowers, Maassen, and Bolger, Justices.
OPINION BY: MAASSEN
This case arises from an injury at a climbing gym. Claire Donahue broke her tibia during a class at the Alaska Rock Gym after she dropped approximately three to four-and-a-half feet from a bouldering wall onto the floor mat. Before class Donahue had been required to read and sign a document that purported to release the Rock Gym from any liability for participants’ injuries.
Donahue brought claims against the Rock Gym for negligence and violations of the Uniform Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Act (UTPA). The Rock Gym moved for summary judgment, contending that the release bars Donahue’s negligence claim. It also moved to dismiss the UTPA claims on grounds that the act does not apply to personal injury claims and that Donahue failed to state a prima facie [*2] case for relief under the act. Donahue cross-moved for partial summary judgment on the enforceability of the release as well as the merits of her UTPA claims. The superior court granted the Rock Gym’s motion and denied Donahue’s, then awarded attorney’s fees to the Rock Gym under Alaska Civil Rule 82.
Donahue appeals the grant of summary judgment to the Rock Gym; the Rock Gym also appeals, contending that the superior court should have awarded fees under Alaska Civil Rule 68 instead of Rule 82. We affirm the superior court on all issues.
II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS
Ledgends, Inc. does business as the Alaska Rock Gym, a private indoor facility that is open to the public. Its interior walls have fixed climbing holds and routes; for a fee, it provides classes and open gym or free climbing time. There are signs posted around the Rock Gym warning of the dangers of climbing, including falling; at her deposition Donahue did not dispute that the signs were there when she visited the gym.
Donahue had been thinking about trying rock climbing for several years, and she finally decided in March 2008 to attend a class at the Rock Gym called “Rockin’ Women.” She testified that she chose the class because she thought it could be tailored to specific [*3] skill levels, and because she “got the impression [from the advertisements] that that is the type of group it was, that it was a . . . safe way to learn to climb.” She also testified she understood that the essential risk of climbing is falling.
Donahue had no rock climbing experience, but she was an occasional runner and cyclist and had pursued other high-risk athletic activities such as kite-boarding. She had been a river guide on the Colorado River after college. She had engaged in physical occupations such as commercial fishing and construction. She testified that she understood the nature of risky activities and felt competent to decide about them for herself. In connection with other recreational activities, she had signed releases and waivers similar to the one she signed at the Rock Gym. She testified that she understood that parties who sign contracts generally intend to be bound by them.
When Donahue arrived at the Rock Gym for her first class, she was given a document entitled “Participant Release of Liability, Waiver of Claims, Assumption of Risks, and Indemnity Agreement — Alaska Rock Gym.” She was aware of the document’s nature and general intent but testified that although [*4] she signed it voluntarily, she did not read it closely.
The release contains nine numbered sections on two single-spaced pages. There is also an unnumbered introductory paragraph; it defines the Rock Gym to include, among others, its agents, owners, participants, and employees, as well as “all other persons or entities acting in any capacity on its behalf.”
Section one of the release contains three paragraphs. The first recites the general risks of rock climbing, including injury and death, and explains that these risks are essential to the sport and therefore cannot be eliminated. The second paragraph lists about a dozen specific risks inherent in rock climbing, including “falling off the climbing wall,” “impacting the ground,” “the negligence of other[s],” and “my own negligence[,] inexperience, . . . or fatigue.” The third paragraph asserts that the gym and its instructors “seek safety, but they are not infallible.” It describes some errors instructors might make, including being ignorant of a participant’s abilities and failing to give adequate warnings or instructions. The final sentence in the third paragraph reads, “By signing this [release], I acknowledge that I AM ULTIMATELY RESPONSIBLE [*5] for my own safety during my use of or participation in [Rock Gym] facilities, equipment, rentals, or activities.”
Section two begins, “I expressly agree and promise to accept and assume all the risks . . .”; it then highlights the voluntary nature of participation in Rock Gym activities.
Section three is the clause that releases the Rock Gym from liability (the releasing clause). It reads in full,
I hereby voluntarily release, forever discharge, and agree to indemnify and hold harmless the [Rock Gym] from any and all claims, demands, or causes of action, which are in any way connected with my participation in these activities or my use of [the Rock Gym’s] equipment, rentals or facilities, including any such claims which allege negligent acts or omissions of [the Rock Gym].
The next six sections of the release address other issues: indemnification for attorney’s fees, certification that the participant is fit to climb, permission to provide first aid, permission to photograph for promotional purposes, the voluntariness of participation and signing the release, and jurisdiction for claims arising from the release.
The ultimate paragraph is printed in bold. It reads in part,
By signing this [*6] document, I acknowledge that if anyone is hurt or killed or property is damaged during my participation in or use of [Rock Gym] activities or premises or facilities or rental equipment, I may be found by a court of law to have waived my right to maintain a lawsuit against [the Rock Gym] on the basis of any claim from which I have released them herein.
Finally, centered on the second page, in bold capital letters directly above the signature line, the release reads: “I HAVE HAD SUFFICIENT OPPORTUNITY TO READ THIS ENTIRE DOCUMENT. I HAVE READ AND UNDERSTOOD IT, AND I AGREE TO BE BOUND BY ITS TERMS.”
Donahue’s hand-printed name and the date appear on the first page of the release, and her initials are at the bottom of the page; her signature appears on the second page, along with her printed name, her contact information, and the date.
Donahue completed her first class on harnessed climbing on March 23, 2008, and returned for a second class on May 11. When class began she was told that the day’s focus would be on bouldering, or unharnessed climbing on low walls. She did not express any hesitation. She climbed for almost two hours, successfully ascending and descending a number of routes. [*7] During this time she saw other people drop from the wall without injury. After another successful ascent near the end of the lesson, she felt unable to climb down using the available holds. Her feet were somewhere between three and four-and-a-half feet from the ground. Her instructor suggested that she drop to the mat and told her to be sure to bend her knees. Donahue landed awkwardly and broke her tibia in four places. She was attended to immediately by Rock Gym personnel and a physician who happened to be present.
The Rock Gym had run various advertisements during the two years preceding Donahue’s accident, using a number of different slogans. One newspaper ad, running on at least three occasions, stated: “[T]the only safe place in town to hang out.” Another Rock Gym ad showed an adult bouldering and a child climbing while harnessed; its text contained the same slogan and added, in part, “Trust us, it still exists. . . . [E]very child in your family will be reminded of what it’s all about — friends and fun.” A third ad described climbing programs for everyone in the family and said, “[Y]ou have nothing to lose and everything to gain.” In an affidavit, Donahue testified she had read these ads.
Donahue [*8] sued the Rock Gym for negligent failure to adequately train and supervise its instructors. She alleged that the Rock Gym was liable for its employee’s negligent instruction to drop from the bouldering wall. She also alleged a violation of the Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Act, contending that the Rock Gym’s advertisements “misleadingly advertised [the gym] as a safe place where users of its services had nothing to lose and everything to gain.”
The Rock Gym moved for summary judgment on all of Donahue’s claims. She opposed the motion and cross-moved for partial summary judgment herself, arguing that the Rock Gym had violated the UTPA as a matter of law and that the release she had signed was null and void.
The superior court granted the Rock Gym’s motion and denied Donahue’s cross-motion. It then granted the Rock Gym, as prevailing party, partial attorney’s fees under Civil Rule 82(a)(3).
III. STANDARDS OF REVIEW
[HN1] We review grants of summary judgment de novo, determining whether the record presents any genuine issues of material fact.1 In making this determination, we construe the facts in favor of the non-moving party.2 If the record fails to reveal a genuine factual dispute and the moving [*9] party was entitled to judgment as a matter of law, the trial court’s grant of summary judgment must be affirmed.3
1 Hill v. Giani, 296 P.3d 14, 20 (Alaska 2013) (citing Yost v. State, Div. of Corps., Bus. & Prof’l Licensing, 234 P.3d 1264, 1272 (Alaska 2010)).
2 Id. (citing McCormick v. City of Dillingham, 16 P.3d 735, 738 (Alaska 2001)).
3 Kelly v. Municipality of Anchorage, 270 P.3d 801, 803 (Alaska 2012).
[HN2] We decide questions of law, including statutory interpretation, using our independent judgment.4 We will adopt the most persuasive rule of law in light of precedent, reason, and policy.5 This requires us, when interpreting statutes, to “look to the meaning of the language, the legislative history, and the purpose of the statute.”6
4 Therchik v. Grant Aviation, Inc., 74 P.3d 191, 193 (Alaska 2003).
5 ASRC Energy Servs. Power & Commc’ns, LLC v. Golden Valley Electric Ass’n, 267 P.3d 1151, 1157 (Alaska 2011).
[HN3] “A superior court’s determination whether waiver occurred is a question of fact that we review for clear error.”7
7 Sengul v. CMS Franklin, Inc., 265 P.3d 320, 324 (Alaska 2011).
A. The Release Is Enforceable And Bars Donahue’s Negligence Claims.
Three cases define Alaska law on pre-activity releases from liability.8 [HN4] These cases consistently state that such releases are not per se invalid;9 in each of the cases, however, we concluded that the release at issue did not bar the plaintiff’s claim.
8 Ledgends, Inc. v. Kerr, 91 P.3d 960 (Alaska 2004); Moore v. Hartley Motors, Inc., 36 P.3d 628 (Alaska 2001); Kissick v. Schmierer, 816 P.2d 188 (Alaska 1991).
9 Kerr, 91 P.3d at 961-62 (noting that “under Alaska law pre-recreational exculpatory releases are held to a very high standard of clarity”); Moore, 36 P.3d at 631 (noting that “an otherwise valid release is ineffective when releasing a defendant from liability would violate public policy” (emphasis added)); Kissick, 816 P.2d at 191 (“A promise not to [*10] sue for future damage caused by simple negligence may be valid.” (quoting 15 Samuel Williston, A Treatise on the Law of Contracts § 1750A, at 143-45 (3d ed. 1972)); see also Mitchell v. Mitchell, 655 P.2d 748, 751 (Alaska 1982) (upholding provision not to sue in settlement agreement and noting that, “[a]s a matter of law, . . . a valid release of all claims will bar any subsequent claims covered by the release”).
Kissick v. Schmierer involved a plane crash that caused the deaths of all four people aboard.10 The three passengers had signed a covenant not to sue before they boarded the plane.11 They agreed in the release not to bring a claim “for any loss, damage, or injury to [their] person or [their] property which may occur from any cause whatsoever.”12 When the passengers’ surviving spouses filed wrongful death claims against the pilot, their claims were allowed to proceed despite the release.13 We ruled that [HN5] “[i]ntent to release a party from liability for future negligence must be conspicuously and unequivocally expressed.”14 We also held that a release must use the word “negligence” to establish the required degree of clarity, something the release in Kissick did not do.15 Further, since liability for “death” was not specifically disclaimed and the term “injury” [*11] was ambiguous, we held that the release did not apply to claims for wrongful death, construing it against the drafter.16
10 Kissick, 816 P.2d at 188.
11 Id. at 189.
14 Id. at 191 (citations omitted).
15 Id. (citing W.Page Keeton, et al., Prosser and Keeton on the Law of Torts § 68, at 483-84 (5th ed.1984) (footnotes omitted)).
16 Id. at 191-92.
The second case, Moore v. Hartley Motors, involved an injury during a class on driving all-terrain vehicles (ATVs).17 We first addressed whether the plaintiff’s signed release violated public policy.18 We noted that the type of service involved was neither essential nor regulated by statute;19 these factors, along with the voluntariness of the plaintiff’s participation, persuaded us that the defendants 20 had no “decisive advantage in bargaining strength.”21 We therefore held that the release did not violate public policy.22
17 36 P.3d 628, 629 (Alaska 2001).
18 Id. at 631-32.
19 Id. at 631-32 (noting that ATV riding is similar to parachuting, dirt biking, and scuba diving, for which releases have been upheld in other jurisdictions).
20 The defendants included the dealer that sold the plaintiff the ATV and referred her to the safety course, the ATV Safety Institute that developed the curriculum, and the individual instructor. Id. at 629.
21 Id. at 631-32.
We did decide, however, that the release did not conspicuously and unequivocally [*12] express an intent to release the defendants from liability for the cause of the exact injury that occurred — a rollover when the plaintiff drove over a big rock hidden in tall grass.23 The release covered the inherent risks of ATV riding, but we found that it also included “an implied and reasonable presumption that the course [was] not unreasonably dangerous.”24 We found there to be fact questions about whether “the course posed a risk beyond ordinary negligence related to the inherent risks of off-road ATV riding assumed by the release,” and we held that summary judgment for the defendants on the basis of the release was therefore improper.25
23 Id. at 632.
25 Id. at 633-34.
The third case, Ledgends, Inc. v. Kerr, involved the same rock gym as this case.26 It involved a similar injury as well, sustained when the plaintiff fell from a bouldering wall.27 Unlike Donahue, however, who landed squarely on the floor mat, the plaintiff in Kerr was allegedly injured when her foot slipped through the space between two floor mats.28 The plaintiff alleged the gym knew of the defect in the landing area but had failed to fix it.29
26 91 P.3d 960 (Alaska 2004).
27 Id. at 961.
The superior court, whose order we approved and attached as an appendix to our opinion, cited Kissick [*13] for the notion that a pre-activity release for tortious conduct must be “clear, explicit, and comprehensible in each of its essential details.”30 The superior court also noted the requirement that “such an agreement, read as a whole, must clearly notify the prospective releasor or indemnitor of the effect of signing the release.”31 With these principles in mind, the superior court pointed to language in the release that was problematic because it was internally inconsistent: the release stated that the gym would try to keep its facilities safe and its equipment in good condition, but it simultaneously disclaimed liability for actions that failed to meet such standards.32 The superior court construed this ambiguity against the drafter and held that the release was not valid as a bar to the plaintiff’s negligence claims, a holding we affirmed.33
30 Id. at 961-62 (quoting Kissick v. Schmierer, 816 P.2d 188, 191 (Alaska 1991)) (internal quotation marks omitted).
31 Id. at 962 (quoting Kissick, 816 P.2d at 191) (internal quotation marks omitted).
32 Id. at 963.
In this case, the superior court concluded that Kissick, Moore, and Kerr, considered together, meant that [HN6] “an effective liability release requires six characteristics.” We agree with the superior court’s formulation of the list:
(1) the risk being waived must [*14] be specifically and clearly set forth (e.g. death, bodily injury, and property damage); (2) a waiver of negligence must be specifically set forth using the word “negligence”; (3) these factors must be brought home to the releasor in clear, emphasized language by using simple words and capital letters; (4) the release must not violate public policy; (5) if a release seeks to exculpate a defendant from liability for acts of negligence unrelated to inherent risks, the release must suggest an intent to do so; and (6) the release agreement must not represent or insinuate standards of safety or maintenance.
The superior court found that each of these characteristics was satisfied in this case, and again we agree.34
34 Donahue does not challenge the release on public policy grounds, so the fourth characteristic of a valid release is satisfied here. Alaska recognizes that recreational releases from liability for negligence are not void as a matter of public policy, because to hold otherwise would impose unreasonable burdens on businesses whose patrons want to engage in high-risk physical activities. Kissick, 816 P.2d at 191 (“A promise not to sue for future damage caused by simple negligence may be valid.” (internal citations [*15] and quotation marks omitted)). The New Jersey Supreme Court, in a case involving claims against a health club, held that liability releases in gym cases do not violate public policy in part because gyms remain liable for their gross negligence or recklessness — levels of culpability not alleged in this case. Stelluti v. Casapenn Enters., 203 N.J. 286, 1 A.3d 678, 681 (N.J. 2010); see also City of Santa Barbara v. Super. Ct., 41 Cal. 4th 747, 62 Cal. Rptr. 3d 527, 161 P.3d 1095, 1102-03 (Cal. 2007) (surveying jurisdictions and concluding that “[m]ost, but not all” hold that releases of ordinary negligence in recreational activities do not violate public policy but “the vast majority of decisions state or hold that such agreements generally are void” if they attempt to release “aggravated misconduct” such as gross negligence).
1. The risks being waived (falling and instructor negligence) are specifically and clearly set forth.
[HN7] A conspicuous and unequivocal statement of the risk waived is the keystone of a valid release.35 Here, the release clearly and repeatedly disclosed the risk of the specific injury at issue: injury from falling while climbing. The following are excerpts from the Rock Gym’s release:
I specifically acknowledge that the inherent risks associated with rock climbing . . . include, but [are] not limited to: falling off of the climbing wall, . . . impacting [*16] the ground . . . , general slips/trips/falls or painful crashes while using any of the equipment or walls or bouldering areas or landing pits or work-out areas or the climbing structures or the premises at large, climbing out of control or beyond my or another participant’s limits, . . . my own negligence or inexperience, dehydration or exhaustion or cramps or fatigue . . . .
To the extent that the risk at issue is the risk of hitting the ground after falling (or dropping in what is essentially an intentional fall), the first characteristic of a valid release is satisfied by this language.
35 Kerr, 91 P.3d at 961; Moore v. Hartley Motors, Inc., 36 P.3d 628, 632 (Alaska 2001); Kissick, 816 P.2d at 191.
Rather than focusing on her injury, however, Donahue focuses on its alleged cause, which she argues was the negligent training and supervision of Rock Gym instructors and the consequently negligent instructions she was given. She claims that the release did not specifically and clearly set forth this risk, and that she was therefore unaware that she was waiving the right to sue for instructor negligence.
But the release did cover this risk. The first paragraph expressly incorporates “employees” into the definition of the entity being released. The release further warns that Rock Gym “instructors, [*17] employees, volunteers, agents or others . . . are not infallible” and that “[t]hey may give inadequate warnings or instructions.” In its on-site interactions with the public, the Rock Gym necessarily acts through its instructors and other employees; Donahue knew she would be taking a class and that classes require instructors. It would not be reasonable to conclude that the Rock Gym sought a release only of those claims against it that did not involve the acts or omissions of any of its employees, and we cannot construe the release in that way.36 We agree with the superior court’s conclusion that “the Release clearly expresses that it is a release of liability for the negligence of the releasor-participant, other participants, climbers, spotters or visitors, as well as [the Rock Gym’s] negligence, including [Rock Gym] employees.”
36 See Kahn v. E. Side Union High Sch. Dist., 31 Cal. 4th 990, 4 Cal. Rptr. 3d 103, 75 P.3d 30, 40 (Cal. 2003) (holding that “the risks associated with learning a sport may themselves be inherent risks of the sport. . . . [A]nd . . . liability should not be imposed simply because an instructor asked the student to take action beyond what, with hindsight, is found to have been the student’s abilities” (internal citations and quotation marks omitted)).
Donahue also argues that [*18] she could not understand the risks involved due to the release’s appearance and presentation. However, even viewing the facts in the light most favorable to her, the record does not support her argument. Although Donahue did not carefully read the release before signing it,37 she was aware she was signing a liability release. She has signed a number of such documents in the past and was familiar with their general purpose. When asked to read the release at her deposition, she testified that she understood the pertinent risks it described. There is no reason to believe that she would have found it less comprehensible had she read it at the time she signed it.
37 [HN8] Failure to read a contract in detail before signing it is no defense to its enforceability. Lauvetz v. Alaska Sales & Serv., 828 P.2d 162, 164-65 (Alaska 1991).
2. The waiver of negligence is specifically set forth using the word “negligence.”
Kissick and Kerr both emphasize that a valid release from liability for negligence claims requires use of the word “negligence.”38 This requirement is met here.
38 Kerr, 91 P.3d at 961; Kissick, 816 P.2d at 191.
The Rock Gym’s release first lists negligence among the inherent risks of climbing (“the negligence of other climbers or spotters or visitors or participants” and “my own negligence”). It then provides: [*19] “I hereby voluntarily release, forever discharge, and agree to indemnify and hold harmless the [Rock Gym] from any and all claims, demands, or causes of action, . . . including any such claims which allege negligent acts or omissions of [the Rock Gym].” (Emphasis added.) The phrase “any and all claims” is thus expressly defined to include claims for negligence.
Cases from other jurisdictions support the conclusion that the language in the Rock Gym’s release covers all of Donahue’s negligence claims. In Rosencrans v. Dover Images, Ltd., the plaintiff was injured on a motocross track after falling from his bike and being struck by two other riders.39 A California Court of Appeal concluded that the signed waiver releasing the track from liability for “any losses or damages . . . whether caused by the negligence of [the Releasees] or otherwise” precluded the plaintiff’s claim “for ordinary negligence as well as negligent hiring and supervision” of employees at the racetrack (though it did not release the track from liability for gross negligence — a claim not made here).40
39 192 Cal. App. 4th 1072, 122 Cal. Rptr. 3d 22, 27 (Cal. App. 2011).
40 Id. at 30. See also Morris v. JTM Materials, Inc., 78 S.W.3d 28, 49 (Tex. App. 2002) (“Negligent hiring, retention, and supervision claims are all simple negligence causes of action based on an [*20] employer’s direct negligence rather than on vicarious liability.” (citations omitted)).
In short, the requirement that a waiver of negligence be specifically set out using the word “negligence” is satisfied by the Rock Gym’s release.
3. The important factors are brought home to the releasor in clear, emphasized language with simple words and capital letters.
Donahue argues that although “negligence” is expressly mentioned and disclaimed in the release, its placement at the end of long sentences written in small font rendered its presence meaningless to her. Quoting a California case, she argues that when the risk of negligence is shifted, a layperson “should not be required to muddle through complex language to know that valuable, legal rights are being relinquished.”41 Donahue also cites New Hampshire and Washington cases in which the structure and organization of releases obscured the language that purported to shield the defendants from claims.42 These cases considered factors such as “whether the waiver is set apart or hidden within other provisions, whether the heading is clear, [and] whether the waiver is set off in capital letters or in bold type.”43 In one Washington case, a release [*21] was invalidated because the releasing language was in the middle of a paragraph.44
41 Conservatorship of the Estate of Link v. Nat’l Ass’n for Stock Car Auto Racing, Inc., 158 Cal. App. 3d 138, 205 Cal. Rptr. 513, 515 (Cal. App. 1984).
42 See Wright v. Loon Mtn. Recreation Corp., 140 N.H. 166, 663 A.2d 1340, 1342 (N.H. 1995); Johnson v. UBAR, LLC, 150 Wn. App. 533, 210 P.3d 1021, 1023 (Wash. App. 2009).
43 Johnson, 210 P.3d at 1023 (citing Baker v. City of Seattle, 79 Wn.2d 198, 484 P.2d 405 (Wash. 1971)).
44 Baker, 484 P.2d at 407.
Fundamentally, Donahue argues that the Rock Gym’s release was so ambiguous and laden with legalese that she lacked any real ability to understand that she was agreeing to release the Rock Gym from the negligence of its instructors. She complains of the release’s “lengthy, small-printed, and convoluted” language which required a “magnifying glass and lexicon” to decipher. She points out that the clause purporting to release the Rock Gym from liability is not obvious or emphasized through bold print or capital letters. She testified at her deposition that she believed the waiver shielded the gym only “from frivolous lawsuits, from people blaming them for something that’s not their fault.”
It is true that the release’s text is small and the releasing clause is in the middle of the document toward the bottom of the first page. But the clauses addressing negligence do not appear to be “calculated to conceal,” as Donahue argues. Though not highlighted, they are in a logical place where they cannot be missed by someone who reads the release. The clause releasing the Rock Gym from liability is [*22] a single sentence set out as its own numbered paragraph, and it is not confusing or needlessly wordy.45 The inherent risks of climbing are enumerated in great detail but using ordinary descriptive language that is easy to understand.46 Several sentences are devoted to the role of the gym’s “instructors, employees, volunteers, agents or others,” stating that they “have difficult jobs to perform,” that they “seek safety, but they are not infallible,” and that they may “be ignorant of mine or another participant’s fitness or abilities” and “may give inadequate warnings or instructions.”
45 Paragraph 3 of the release reads: “I hereby voluntarily release, forever discharge, and agree to indemnify and hold harmless the [Rock Gym] from any and all claims, demands, or causes of action, which are in any way connected with my participation in these activities or my use of [the Rock Gym’s] equipment, rentals or facilities, including any such claims which allege negligent acts or omissions of [the Rock Gym].”
46 Paragraph 1 of the release lists the inherent risks of climbing as including “but . . . not limited to”:
falling off of the climbing wall, being fallen on or impacted by other participants, poor or [*23] improper belaying, the possibility that I will be jolted or jarred or bounced or thrown to and fro or shaken about while climbing or belaying, entanglement in ropes, impacting the ground and/or climbing wall, loose or dropped or damaged ropes or holds, equipment failure, improperly maintained equipment which I may or may not be renting from [the Rock Gym], displaced pads or safety equipment, belay or anchor or harness failure, general slips/trips/falls or painful crashes while using any of the equipment or walls or bouldering areas or landing pits or work-out areas or the climbing structures or the premises at large, climbing out of control or beyond my or another participant[‘s] limits, the negligence of other climbers or spotters or visitors or participants who may be present, participants giving or following inappropriate “Beta” or climbing advice or move sequences, mine or others’ failure to follow the rules of the [Rock Gym], my own negligence or inexperience, dehydration or exhaustion or cramps or fatigue — some or all of which may diminish my or the other participants’ ability to react or respond.
Because [HN9] releases should be read “as a whole” in order to decide whether they “clearly [*24] notify the prospective releasor or indemnitor of the effect of signing the agreement,”47 we consider these provisions in the context of the entire document. Three other sections of emphasized text mitigate Donahue’s complaints about ambiguity and incomprehensibility. First, section one reads in part, “I AM ULTIMATELY RESPONSIBLE for my own safety during my use of or participation in [Rock Gym] facilities, equipment, rentals or activities” (bold in original). This alone makes it clear to the reader that the Rock Gym, to the extent it is allowed to do so, intends to shift responsibility to the climber regardless of the actions of anyone else. Second, a final unnumbered paragraph, set out in bold letters, reads in part: “By signing this document, I acknowledge that if anyone is hurt or killed or property is damaged during my participation in or use of [Rock Gym] activities or premises or facilities or rental equipment, I may be found by a court of law to have waived my right to maintain a lawsuit against [the Rock Gym] on the basis of any claim from which I have released them herein.” And finally, directly above the lines where Donahue entered her signature, her printed name, her contact [*25] information, and the date, the release reads, in bold and capital letters, “I HAVE READ AND UNDERSTOOD [THE RELEASE], AND I AGREE TO BE BOUND BY ITS TERMS.” If Donahue had read the release and found herself genuinely confused about any of its terms, she was prominently notified that she should inquire about it before signing.
47 Kissick v. Schmierer, 816 P.2d 188, 191 (Alaska 1991).
The New Hampshire case on which Donahue relies, Wright v. Loon Mountain Recreation Corp., examined the release in question to determine whether “a reasonable person in the position of the plaintiff would have understood that the agreement clearly and specifically indicated the intent to release the defendant from liability for its own negligence.”48 Applying that test here, we conclude that a reasonable person in Donahue’s position could not have overlooked or misunderstood the release’s intent to disclaim liability. Our case law’s third characteristic of a valid release is therefore satisfied.
48 140 N.H. 166, 663 A.2d 1340, 1343-44 (N.H. 1995); see also Johnson, 210 P.3d at 1021 (holding reasonable persons could disagree about the conspicuousness of the release provision in the waiver, and remanding for trial).
4. Regardless of whether falling and instructor negligence are inherent risks of rock climbing, the release specifically disclaims [*26] liability for them.
The fifth characteristic set forth by the superior court 49 is that “if a release seeks to exculpate a defendant from liability for acts of negligence unrelated to inherent risks, the release must suggest an intent to do so.”50 This requirement stems from the release’s ill-defined scope in Moore; the injury that occurred — arguably caused by an unreasonably dangerous ATV training course — was not obviously included in the inherent risks of riding ATVs, which the signed release did intend to cover.51 Here, in contrast, the injury and its alleged causes are all expressly covered by the release, as explained above. Negligence claims are specifically contemplated, as are “falls,” “impact” with the ground, and “inadequate warnings or instructions” from Rock Gym instructors. Regardless of whether these are inherent risks of climbing, they are specifically covered by the release. This characteristic of a valid release is therefore satisfied.
49 As noted above, the fourth characteristic of a valid release — that it not violate public policy — is not at issue on this appeal. See supra note 34.
50 See Moore v. Hartley Motors, Inc., 36 P.3d 628, 633-34 (Alaska 2001).
5. The release does not represent or imply standards of safety or maintenance that [*27] conflict with an intent to release negligence claims.
The sixth characteristic of a valid release is that it does not imply standards of safety or maintenance that conflict with an intent to waive claims for negligence.52 The Rock Gym argues that nothing in the release confuses its purpose, unlike the release at issue in Kerr, which at least implicitly promised that equipment would be kept “in good condition.”53 We agree. In fact, far from providing assurances of safety, the release highlights the fallibility of the Rock Gym’s employees, equipment, and facilities, explicitly stating that the equipment may “fail,” “malfunction[,] or be poorly maintained” and that the staff is “not infallible,” may be ignorant of a climber’s “fitness or abilities,” and “may give inadequate warnings or instructions.”
52 See Ledgends, Inc. v. Kerr, 91 P.3d 960, 962-63 (Alaska 2004).
53 Id. at 963.
Donahue agrees that the release is not internally inconsistent, but she argues that the advertisements run by the Rock Gym had the same confounding impact on her understanding of it as the release’s language about equipment maintenance had in Kerr. She contends that she relied on the ads’ assurances that the gym was “a safe place” and the class “would be a safe way to learn to climb” when [*28] she enrolled in the climbing class. She argues that these assurances created ambiguity that, as in Kerr, requires that the release be interpreted in a less exculpatory way.
Although extrinsic evidence may be admissible as an aid to contract interpretation,54 the release here clearly defines climbing as an inherently risky activity. And we have said that
[HN10] where one section deals with a subject in general terms and another deals with a part of the same subject in a more detailed way, the two should be harmonized if possible; but if there is a conflict, the specific section will control over the general.55
Were we to give the Rock Gym’s advertisements any weight in our analysis of the release, we would not find that their use of the word “safe” overrode the release’s very clear warnings about the specific risks of climbing.
54 Norville v. Carr-Gottstein Foods Co., 84 P.3d 996, 1004 (Alaska 2004) (citing Municipality of Anchorage v. Gentile, 922 P.2d 248, 256 (Alaska 1996)).
55 Id. (quoting Estate of Hutchinson, 577 P.2d 1074, 1075 (Alaska 1978)).
Because the advertisements cannot reasonably be considered as modifications to the release, and because the release does not otherwise contain implicit guarantees of safety or maintenance that could confuse its purpose, we find the final requirement of a valid release to be satisfied. The release thus satisfies all characteristics of a valid release [*29] identified by our case law, and we affirm the superior court’s grant of summary judgment to the Rock Gym on this issue.
B. The UTPA Does Not Apply To Personal Injury Claims.
[HN11] Under the UTPA, “[a] person who suffers an ascertainable loss of money or property as a result of another person’s act or practice declared unlawful by AS 45.50.471 may bring a civil action to recover for each unlawful act or practice three times the actual damages . . . .”56 Donahue alleges that, by publishing ads that gave the impression the Rock Gym was safe, the Rock Gym engaged in “unfair methods of competition and unfair or deceptive acts or practices in the conduct of trade or commerce” which are unlawful under the statute.57 [HN12] We have not yet decided whether the statutory phrase “loss of money or property” includes personal injury claims. We now hold that it does not.
56 AS 45.50.531(a) (emphasis added).
57 AS 45.50.471(a).
[HN13] The UTPA was “designed to meet the increasing need in Alaska for the protection of consumers as well as honest businessmen from the depredations of those persons employing unfair or deceptive trade practices.”58 The act protects the consumer from deceptive sales and advertising practices,59 and it protects honest businesses from their unethical [*30] competitors.60 Donahue concedes that we have limited the UTPA to “regulating practices relating to transactions involving consumer goods and services.”61 She contends, however, that because we have never restricted the types of damages available for conduct within the UTPA’s reach, damages for personal injury should be recoverable.
58 W. Star Trucks, Inc. v. Big Iron Equip. Serv., Inc., 101 P.3d 1047, 1052 (Alaska 2004) (quoting House Judiciary Committee Report on HCSCS for S.B. 352, House Journal Supp. No. 10 at 1, 1970 House Journal 744) (court’s emphasis and internal quotation marks omitted).
59 See, e.g., Kenai Chrysler Ctr., Inc. v. Denison, 167 P.3d 1240, 1244-45 (Alaska 2007) (affirming superior court’s award of treble damages against a car dealer for its insistence on enforcing an invalid contract); Pierce v. Catalina Yachts, Inc., 2 P.3d 618, 624 (Alaska 2000) (holding unconscionable sailboat manufacturer’s warranty in favor of buyers).
60 See, e.g., Garrison v. Dixon, 19 P.3d 1229, 1230-31, 1236 (Alaska 2001) (holding suit to be frivolous where real estate buyer’s agents sued competitors, alleging false and misleading advertising); Odom v. Fairbanks Mem’l Hosp., 999 P.2d 123, 127, 131-32 (Alaska 2000) (holding viable physician’s claims against hospital for retaliatory and anticompetitive behavior).
61 See Roberson v. Southwood Manor Assocs., LLC, 249 P.3d 1059, 1062 (Alaska 2011) (holding the UTPA does not apply to residential leases) (citing Aloha Lumber Corp. v. Univ. of Alaska, 994 P.2d 991, 1002 (Alaska 1999) (holding the UTPA does not apply to the sale of standing timber because it is real property rather than a consumer good)).
The superior court observed that there is nothing [*31] in the UTPA’s legislative history to support Donahue’s contention that the Alaska Legislature intended the act “to expand liability for personal injury or wrongful death or to supplant negligence as the basis for such liability.” The superior court identified “significant incongruities between the elements of common law personal injury claims and the UTPA, which suggest that the two claims cannot be reconciled.” The court explained:
For most of the past twenty years the Alaska Legislature has enacted and amended, in various forms, multiple iterations of tort reform aimed at reducing, not expanding, the scope of civil liability for personal injury and wrongful death. Expanding UTPA liability to personal injury and wrongful death would contradict many of the tort reform provisions enacted by the legislature in AS 09.17.010-080. For example, AS 09.17.020 allows punitive damages only if the plaintiff proves defendant’s conduct was outrageous, including acts done with malice or bad motives, or with reckless indifference to the interest of another person. The UTPA, on the other hand, does not require such a culpable mental state and almost as a matter of course allows a person to receive trebled actual damages. [*32] AS 09.17.060 limits a claimant’s recovery by the amount attributable to the claimant’s contributory fault; the UTPA, in contrast, does not provide a contributory fault defense. Moreover, AS 09.17.080 apportions damages between multiple tortfeasors whereas the UTPA does not permit apportionment of damages. A UTPA cause of action for personal injury or wrongful death would sidestep all of these civil damages protections.
We agree with the superior court that [HN14] the private cause of action available under the UTPA conflicts in too many ways with the traditional claim for personal injury or wrongful death for us to assume, without clear legislative direction, that the legislature intended the act to provide an alternative vehicle for such suits. The language of AS 45.50.531(a) — “ascertainable loss of money or property” — does not provide that clear direction. The legislature is well aware of how to identify causes of action involving personal injury and wrongful death, does so in other contexts,62 and declined to do so in this statute.
62 See, e.g., AS 04.21.020(e) (for purposes of statute governing civil liability of persons providing alcoholic beverages, ” ‘civil damages’ includes damages for personal injury, death, or injury to property of a person”); [*33] AS 05.45.200(4) (in statutes governing liability of ski resorts, “‘injury’ means property damage, personal injury, or death”); AS 09.10.070(a) (providing general statute of limitations for “personal injury or death”); AS 09.17.010 (limiting noneconomic damages recoverable “for personal injury or wrongful death”); AS 46.03.825(b)(1) (providing that limitations on oil spill damages do not apply to “an action for personal injury or death”).
Other states have similar laws, and their courts’ interpretations are helpful. Section 531(a) has a counterpart in Oregon’s UTPA, which likewise allows private actions by those who suffer a “loss of money or property.”63 The Oregon Court of Appeals, considering an action for personal injuries occurring after a mechanic allegedly misrepresented the state of a car’s brakes, held that the UTPA was not a vehicle for the pursuit of personal injury claims.64 It held that the Act plainly had a restitutionary purpose — “i.e., restitution for economic loss suffered by a consumer as the result of a deceptive trade practice.”65 It noted the lack of any legislative history “to the effect that by the adoption of that provision the legislature intended to confer upon private individuals a new cause of action for personal injuries, including [*34] punitive damages and attorney fees,” or of “any decisions to that effect by the courts of any of the many other states which have adopted similar statutes.”66 It emphasized the availability of common law remedies, which provided a range of possible causes of action for personal injury — negligence, breach of warranty, and strict products liability — and noted that these remedies provide for a more expansive range of damages, such as pain and suffering, not available under the UTPA.67
63 ORS 646.638(1); ORS 646.608.
64 Gross-Haentjens v. Leckenby, 38 Ore. App. 313, 589 P.2d 1209, 1210-11 (Or. App. 1979).
65 Id. at 1210; see also Fowler v. Cooley, 239 Ore. App. 338, 245 P.3d 155, 161 (Or. App. 2010).
66 Gross-Haentjens, 589 P.2d at 1210-11.
67 Id. at 1211. Other courts have reached similar conclusions. See Beerman v. Toro Mfg. Corp., 1 Haw. App. 111, 615 P.2d 749, 754 (Haw. App. 1980) (“[T]hough individual actions based on damage to a consumer’s property may be within the purview of [the Hawaii consumer protection act], the scope of the statutes does not extend to personal injury actions.”); Kirksey v. Overton Pub, Inc., 804 S.W.2d 68, 73 (Tenn. App. 1990) (“We must hold that the General Assembly intended for the Consumer Protection Act to be used by a person claiming damages for an ascertainable loss of money or property due to an unfair or deceptive act or practice and not in a wrongful death action.”); Stevens v. Hyde Athletic Indus., Inc., 54 Wn. App. 366, 773 P.2d 871, 873 (Wash. App. 1989) (“We hold actions for personal injury do not fall within the coverage of the [Washington consumer protection act].”).
We agree with the reasoning of the Oregon court and conclude that Alaska’s [*35] UTPA does not provide the basis for a claim for personal injury.
C. The Superior Court Did Not Clearly Err In Finding That The Rock Gym Waived Any Claim For Rule 68 Attorney’s Fees.
The superior court granted the Rock Gym, as the prevailing party, 20 percent of its reasonable, actual attorney’s fees under Civil Rule 82(b)(2). [HN15] Twenty percent of “actual attorney’s fees which were necessarily incurred” is the presumptively reasonable award for a party who prevails in a case resolved short of trial but who does not recover a money judgment.68
68 See Williams v. Fagnani, 228 P.3d 71, 77 (Alaska 2010) (“Awards made pursuant to the schedule of Civil Rule 82(b) are presumptively correct.”).
The Rock Gym contends that it should have been awarded fees under Civil Rule 68 instead. [HN16] Rule 68 provides that (a) where an adverse party makes an offer to allow judgment entered against it in complete satisfaction of the claim, and (b) the judgment finally entered is at least five percent less favorable to the offeree than the offer, the offeree shall pay a percentage of the reasonable actual attorney’s fees incurred by the offeror from the date of the offer, the percentage depending on how close the parties are to trial when the offer is made. The Rock Gym made a Rule 68 offer of judgment on February 7, 2012, over two months before [*36] the April trial date. Donahue rejected the offer. Under these facts, once judgment was granted in the Rock Gym’s favor, the conditions for an award of 30 percent of “the offeror’s reasonable actual attorney’s fees” under the Rule 68 schedule were satisfied.69
69 Alaska R. Civ. P. 68(b)(3). We note that the award of fees under Rule 68 was likely to be only nominally greater than that under Rule 82. Rule 68 affects only fees incurred after the date the offer is made, here February 7, 2012. The parties had already completed their summary judgment briefing by that time, and summary judgment was entered a month later.
The question presented here, however, is whether the Rock Gym waived any request for Rule 68 fees. The Rock Gym initially argued to the superior court that it should be awarded full fees because of express language in the release, which reads:
Should [the Rock Gym] or anyone acting on their behalf, be required to incur attorney’s fees and costs to enforce this agreement, I agree to indemnify and hold them harmless for all such fees and costs.
While arguing this point, the Rock Gym noted in a footnote that it was eligible for full fees under AS 09.30.065 (the statute authorizing the Rule 68 procedure). But it made that observation only in support of its argument [*37] for full fees under the release. Its motion did not otherwise mention Rule 68; rather, as an alternative to fees under the indemnity clause, the Rock Gym asked the court to use its discretion to award up to 80 percent of its fees under Rule 82 — far more than the scheduled award of 20 percent — in light of Donahue’s “vexatious” behavior, particularly having complicated the case with claims under the UTPA.
The superior court denied the Rock Gym’s request for full fees based on the release and ordered it to submit an affidavit detailing its counsel’s billings. The order also stated, “Plaintiff should address the effect, if any, of defendant’s Rule 68 offer on the amount of fees that may be awarded.” The Rock Gym submitted the required fee affidavit and also moved for reconsideration, again arguing that full fees should be awarded under the release’s indemnity clause; again relying on Rule 82 as an alternative; and failing to mention Rule 68 at all. Donahue submitted no response.
The superior court again rejected the Rock Gym’s argument based on the release’s indemnity clause and ordered the Rock Gym to submit a more detailed fee affidavit. The Rock Gym filed another affidavit which did not address the offer of judgment. [*38]
In its third order, the superior court again rejected the Rock Gym’s request for full attorney’s fees and awarded 20 percent of its fees under Rule 82(b)(2). The Rock Gym again moved for reconsideration. This time the Rock Gym argued that it was entitled to 30 percent of its fees under Rule 68, relying on the footnote in its first motion to contend that the argument was not waived.70
70 As noted above, the increased percentage of attorney’s fees would only apply to those fees incurred after the date the offer of judgment was made; the amount at issue thus appears to be minimal.
The superior court then issued its fourth order on fees. It reaffirmed its Rule 82 award, finding that the Rock Gym had not adequately or timely made a claim under Rule 68. The court observed that the Rock Gym’s failure to make the claim earlier was likely a “tactical decision, initially, to pursue full attorney fees based on indemnity rather than present all of its alternative fee award theories at once.”
[HN17] The superior court’s finding that the Rock Gym waived a request for fees under Rule 68 is reviewed for clear error.71 We see no clear error here. The Rock Gym’s reference to its offer of judgment in its motion for attorney’s fees was made only to support its [*39] request for full fees under the indemnity provision of the release; the only alternative it expressly requested was an award of enhanced fees under Rule 82. As the superior court observed, it was not the court’s duty in this context “to solicit additional arguments for a moving party.”72 Nor was the superior court obliged to consider the Rule 68 argument when it was raised for the first time in motions for reconsideration.73 And under the circumstances of this case, including the modest difference between fee awards under Rule 82 and Rule 68 and an apparent deficiency in the Rule 68 offer itself,74 we cannot see plain error.75
71 See Sengul v. CMS Franklin, Inc., 265 P.3d 320, 324 (Alaska 2011).
72 See, e.g., Forshee v. Forshee, 145 P.3d 492, 498 (Alaska 2006).
73 See Haines v. Cox, 182 P.3d 1140, 1144 (Alaska 2008) (holding that the plaintiff’s submission of evidence only when she moved for reconsideration forecloses her claim that the court abused its discretion by failing to rely on that evidence); Koller v. Reft, 71 P.3d 800, 805 n.10 (Alaska 2003) (noting that superior court is not obliged to consider documents presented for the first time with a motion for reconsideration).
74 The offer did not encompass the Rock Gym’s counterclaim against Donahue for contractual indemnity. See Progressive Corp. v. Peter ex rel. Peter, 195 P.3d 1083, 1089 (Alaska 2008) (“Both Rule 68 and AS 09.30.065 . . . implicitly require that an offer of judgment include all claims between the parties and be capable of completely resolving the case by way of a final [*40] judgment if accepted.”).
75 [HN18] The plain error doctrine requires a party to prove that the error waived below was “so prejudicial that failure to correct it will perpetuate a manifest injustice.” Forshee, 145 P.3d at 500 n.36 (quoting Hosier v. State, 1 P.3d 107, 112 n.11 (Alaska App. 2000)) (internal quotation marks omitted).
The judgment of the superior court is AFFIRMED.
Making statements contrary to release can be barred by a release, maybe, but may be gross, wilful and wanton negligence which the release does not stop.Posted: August 11, 2014
Plaintiff signed a release to participate in the Warrior Dash race. An employee of the race was encouraging participants to dive into a mud pit. Plaintiff dove into the mud pit rendering himself a quadriplegic.
State: Federal District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan
Plaintiff: James Sa
Defendant: Red Frog Events, LLC, an Illinois corporation
Plaintiff Claims: negligence, gross negligence, and willful and wanton misconduct
Defendant Defenses: release and failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted
Holding: for the defendant on the negligence claim because of the release, for the plaintiff on the gross negligence, and willful and wanton misconduct claims
This case is possible still ongoing. How the final decision will evolve is unknown. However, the federal district court did arrive at some great analysis of the case.
This case comes out of the new fad, extreme obstacle racing. In these races participants run through live electrical wires, jump through fire and here, crawl through a mud pit. These races are known by various names, Warrior Dash, Spartan Race and Tough Mudder are the most well-known.
In this case, the plaintiff signed up for a Warrior Dash 5K race and signed a release. The release specifically warned against diving into the mud pit. The mud pit was right in front of the bleachers and the last obstacle on the course.
At the mud, pit was an employee of the defendant with a microphone, and loudspeaker “acting as an emcee” for the event.
Over the course of the event, this individual continually enticed, encouraged, and specifically told participants to dive into the mud pit. It was common knowledge among participants that diving into the mud pit was not only permitted, but encouraged.
So many people were diving into the mud pit that people were blogging about it and posting photos online.
The plaintiff followed the emcee’s “encouragement” and dove into the mud pit resulting in paralysis from the chest down. The plaintiff sued, and the defendant filed a motion to dismiss.
A motion to dismiss is usually filed by the defendant prior to filing an answer. The basis is the pleadings are so lacking in any facts or there is no law to support a claim. In reviewing the motion, the court must accept the allegations and facts in the complaint as true. It is unclear in reading this case when the motion to dismiss was filed. This opinion is the court’s response to the motion to dismiss.
Summary of the case
The court first looked at whether the release acted to stop the negligence claims of the plaintiff. Releases are valid in Michigan. Under Michigan law a release’s validity:
…turns on the intent of the parties. A release must be fairly and knowingly made to be valid. If the language of a release is clear and unambiguous, the intent of the parties is ascertained from the plain and ordinary meaning of the language.
Whether the release is valid is a question of law. The plaintiff did not argue that he signed the release. The court pointed out possible ways the plaintiff could void the release which the plaintiff did not use.
He does not argue, for example, that (1) he “was “dazed, in shock, or under the influence” when he signed the Waiver; (2) “the nature of the instrument was misrepresented, or (3) there was other fraudulent or overreaching conduct.
Ninety-nine percent of the time plaintiff’s attack the validity of the release based on their competence or understanding of the release. In not doing so, I would guess the plaintiff shocked the judge so he put in this language. The plaintiff’s first argued the release was invalid because:
…that “Red Frog fails to indemnify itself from its own negligent acts” because it “did not use the term ‘negligent’ and/or ‘negligence’ anywhere within the four corners of it’s (sic) Waiver & Release Agreement.
(This argument has been used endlessly and is so easily avoided. Use the word negligence in your release.)
Here the language used by the defendant met the requirements to put the plaintiff on notice that he was giving up his rights to sue for negligence. “…although an indemnity provision does not expressly state that the indemnitee will be shielded from its own negligence, such language is not mandatory to provide such indemnification.”
The release language under Michigan’s law is called the indemnity provision or clause. That translation of the phrase is different from most other states. Here, it is like saying, by signing the release the plaintiff agrees to indemnify himself for his injuries.
…the Waiver, titled as a “Waiver and Release of Claims, Assumption of Risk and Warning of Risk,” informed Plaintiff that he was relinquishing his right to sue Defendant for claims resulting from his participation in the Warrior Dash.
The next argument of the plaintiff’s is brilliant and if successful would bring down hundreds of releases across the United States. Releases written by attorneys or non-attorneys in an attempt to soften the blow will put statements in the release about how safe the activity is, how well run the operation is or that accidents rarely happen.
The plaintiff argued that other statements in the release gave the plaintiff the impression that the defendant would not be negligent in the operation of the race.
For support, Plaintiff points to the disclaimer portion of the Waiver stating that Red Frog: (1) “is committed to conducting its race and activities in a safe manner and holds the safety of participants in high regard;” and (2) “continually strives to reduce such risks and insists that all participants follow safety rules and instructions that are designed to protect the participants’ safety.
The court did not accept this argument because the paragraph this language was in went on stating there was a risk of injury entering the race.
The final argument by the plaintiff was also unique and if accepted would invalidate dozens of releases. The plaintiff argued that the statements by the employee of the defendant, the emcee, invalidated the release. In legal language, the statements of the emcee “constituted a waiver and modification of the release of liability.”
In sum, Plaintiff argues, “[t]his conduct led James [the plaintiff] to believe a waiver had occurred and it was okay and safe to dive into the mud pit. Red Frog failed to correct the actions of participants who dove into the mud pit or further instruct through the speaker system that this type of behavior was not permitted.”
Under Michigan’s law, any waiver of a written contract must be in writing unless the waiver language is consistent with the strict compliance language of the contract. Meaning the waiver language must be of the same type and of the same legal tone as the original contract.
Even assuming that Michigan law permits parties to orally modify a waiver and release, the most Plaintiff has alleged is that Defendant’s actions modified the provision prohibiting Plaintiff from diving into the mud pit head first. Defendant’s actions cannot be interpreted, as pled by Plaintiff, as an agreement to modify the Waiver such that Plaintiff could hold Defendant liable for negligence due to injuries arising out of his participation in the Warrior Dash. Therefore, the Waiver bars Plaintiff’s negligence claim.
The court upheld the validity of the release and held the release stopped the simple negligence claims of the plaintiff.
On the second and third claims, gross negligence, and willful and wanton misconduct, a release under Michigan’s law does not work. The issue then becomes are there enough allegations to the facts in the complaint and documents filed with the court to this point to support the plaintiff’s claim of gross negligence, and willful and wanton misconduct.
Under Michigan’s law:
Gross negligence is “conduct so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether injury results.” M.C.L. § 600.2945(d); Xu, 257 Mich. App. at 269. “Evidence of ordinary negligence does not create a question of fact regarding gross negligence.”
Under Michigan’s law, a release does not stop claims for gross negligence. So the gross negligence claim survives the defense of release. The issue then is whether the plaintiff as plead enough facts that a jury may find give rise to gross negligence.
…it is plausible that the act of encouraging Plaintiff — and other participants — to dive into the mud pit head first was so reckless to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury would result.
The court, based upon the statements of the emcee at the mud pit encouraging people to dive into the pit were enough to possibly support a claim for gross negligence.
Under Michigan’s law, Wilful and Want misconduct is different and distinct from gross negligence.
“[W]ilful and wanton misconduct . . . [is] qualitatively different from and more blameworthy than ordinary, or even gross, negligence.”). The elements of a willful and wanton misconduct claim are: “(1) knowledge of a situation requiring the exercise of ordinary care and diligence to avert injury to an-other, (2) ability to avoid the resulting harm by ordinary care and diligence in the use of the means at hand, and (3) the omission to use such care and diligence to avert the threatened danger, when to the ordinary mind it must be apparent that the result is likely to prove disastrous to another.”
…willful and wanton misconduct is made out only if the conduct alleged shows an intent to harm or, if not that, such indifference to whether harm will result as to be the equivalent of a willingness that it does. Willful and wanton misconduct is not . . . a high degree of carelessness.
Here again, the court found the actions of the emcee in encouraging participants to dive into the mud pit might be found to be an intent to harm or an indifference.
Here, a reasonable jury might conclude that the act of encouraging participants to jump head-first into the mud pit despite knowing the risks, to the contrary — at the end of a grueling physical endurance challenge when participants are likely to be physically and mentally exhausted — could be interpreted as such “indifferen[ce] to the likelihood that catastrophe would come to a [race participant.]”
Consequently, the court granted the motion to dismiss on the negligence claims and denied the motion to dismiss on the claims of gross negligence and wilful and wanton misconduct.
Again, this case probably is not over yet.
So Now What?
Don’t give an injured participant the opportunity to sue you. Don’t dance with the possibility that your language you use instead of the word negligence will meet the requirements of the law.
JUST USE THE WORD NEGLIGENCE IN YOUR RELEASE!
Second, don’t allow anyone who is an employee or may appear to participants to be an employee to encourage people to take actions that might injure them or is contrary to the rules of your activity.
It seems to be common sense; however, in the heat of the activity or an unfounded belief the release is ironclad, people get excited and might encourage a participant to take risks they are not expected or ready for.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
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Proof of negligence requires more than an accident and injuries. A Spectator at a rodeo needed proof of an improperly maintained gate.Posted: July 14, 2014
Spectators are business invitees, which are owed a high degree of care and never sign a release. Any event, sport, race or contest, the greatest chance of a lawsuit winning comes from those watching.
State: Arkansas Supreme Court
Plaintiff: Melonie Mahan as Next and Best Friend of Shawn Mahan
Defendant: Keith Hall, d/b/a Keith Hall Rodeo
Plaintiff Claims: negligence
Defendant Defenses: no negligence
Holding: for the defendant
The injured minor paid to attend a rodeo put on by the defendant at the local fairgrounds. After finding their seat, the minor and a friend went to get a drink. They then walked around looking at the event. A horse bucked it’s rider off, circled the inside of the arena then broke through the gate where the two youth were standing injuring them. The plaintiff also argued that their view of the horse coming at them was blocked by the rodeo announcer.
The mother of the injured youth sued on behalf of herself and her son. The fairground was sued and settled out of court. The rodeo was put on by the defendant Keith Hall Rodeo. The court directed a verdict for the defendant finding the plaintiff had not proven their case. No evidence was presented that the defendant Rodeo was negligent.
A directed verdict is a decision by the court that one party has completely failed to prove their case, and the other party must win. Directed verdicts can be granted at any time during a trial or after the jury has rendered its verdict. “A motion for directed verdict may only be granted if there is no substantial evidence to support a jury verdict.” Directed verdicts are rare.
Summary of the case
The injured youth was a business invitee which the defendant owed a “duty to use reasonable care to prevent injuries” to him. The plaintiff argued that the fact the horse got through the gate was proof the gate was not secure. However, proof of an injury is not proof of negligence.
The trial court agreed, finding that while Ms. Mahan had proven an accident and had shown where it had occurred, she had not shown any breach of duty on the part of Mr. Hall. It is from the trial court’s granting of Mr. Hall’s motion for a directed verdict that Shawn appeals.
The court defined negligence as:
…the failure to do something which a reasonably careful person would do; a negligent act arises from a situation where an ordinarily prudent person in the same situation would foresee such an appreciable risk of harm to others that he would not act or at least would act in a more careful manner.
However, the plaintiff was not able to present any testimony or proof that the gate was not maintained in a reasonably safe condition. “…the fact that a[n] injury, collision or accident occurred is not of itself evidence of negligence or fault on the part of anyone.”
The Supreme Court upheld the directed verdict of the trial court.
So Now What?
Two important points can be found in this decision. The first is just because there is an injury does not mean there is a lawsuit. The defendant must have done something or not done something to create liability.
The second is the identification of a very large group of potential plaintiffs. If you host/put on/conduct events/contests/races or other activities were spectators are present, anything goes wrong injuring a spectator you might be liable. Spectators are owed a high degree of care, based on the state, and you are probably required to keep them safe. Spectators don’t sign releases and if they are viewing the activity in an area where you have allowed them to stand, then assumption of the risk is probably not available as a defense.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
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This case is interesting because one of the attempts to remove the release from the decision was a claim the plaintiff was at the defendant gym working out because he was told to by a physician, and the gym was owned by a different physician.
Plaintiff: James Massengill and Kaylea Massengill
Defendant: S.M.A.R.T. Sports Medicine Clinic, P.C.
Plaintiff Claims: Negligence, loss of consortium
Defendant Defenses: Release
Holding: For the defendant
The plaintiff was injured when a pin in a lat-pull-down machine that secured the weights came out, and he fell backwards injuring his wrist. The plaintiff sued, and the defendant raised the defense of release.
The plaintiff was told by his physician to exercise more. One day while at a drugstore, he had met an owner of the defendant gym, a physician, who talked to him about the gym.
The plaintiff and his wife went to the gym. They were given a release and told to take it home and read it. Three days later the plaintiff’s came back, signed the release and began to use the facilities.
The plaintiff had not asked for instructions on the lat-pull-down machine and did not ask for any because he had used one previously. He had been using the particular machine for a month and had noticed that the pin did not appear to fit when he was injured.
The trial court ruled the release was valid and barred the claims of the plaintiffs, dismissing the case. The plaintiff’s appealed. This case is based in Wyoming, which only has trial courts and the Wyoming Supreme Court, in intermediate appellate courts.
Summary of the case
The court first looked at the language of the release, to determine if the language was clear and unequivocal.
Our reading of the Agreement and Release convinces us that the intention of S.M.A.R.T., and the Massengills is expressed in clear and unequivocal language. The language clearly assigns the risk to members who agree to be liable for any and all risks. The Agreement and Release continues with an unequivocal statement that S.M.A.R.T. shall not be liable for any injuries or damages to any member or the member’s property, including those caused by the negligence of S.M.A.R.T.
The court found the language was clear and unequivocal as well as broad and specially released the defendant from claims and actions for negligence.
The court then examined the release based on contract law. Releases are contracts and are interpreted using traditional contract principles. The entire document is examined as a whole.
The language of the Agreement and Release is clear in manifesting an intention to release S.M.A.R.T. and those involved with the facility from liability; it specifically states that S.M.A.R.T. will not be held liable for “those damages resulting from acts of negligence on the part of S.M.A.R.T. SPORTS, its officers or agents.”
Wyoming has four factors to examine to determine if a release is valid.
(1) whether a duty to the public exists;
(2) the nature of the service performed;
(3) whether the contract was fairly entered into; and
(4) whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language
The court found the release in question was properly reviewed by the trial court, and the release met all four tests. The court then looked at the plaintiff’s claims the release violated public policy. Under Wyoming law, a duty to the public exists “if the nature of the business or service affects the public interest, and the service performed is considered an essential service.” A release that affecting a public interest giving rise to a duty to the public is one that:
“concerns a business of a type generally thought suitable for public regulation. The party seeking exculpation is engaged in performing a service of great importance to the public, which is often a matter of practical necessity for some members of the public. The party holds himself out as willing to perform this service for any member of the public who seeks it * * *. As a result of the essential nature of the service, in the economic setting of the transaction, the party invoking exculpation possesses a decisive advantage of bargaining strength against any member of the public who seeks his services.”
In Wyoming, this list of businesses would be “common carriers, hospitals and doctors, public utilities, innkeepers, public warehousemen, employers, and services involving extra-hazardous activities.”
A health club or gym is recreational in nature and do not meet the requirements and do not qualify as a business suitable for public regulation. A gym or health club is not essential.
The services offered by S.M.A.R.T. to its members were those of a private recreational business which did not qualify as suitable for public regulation because they did not affect the public interest nor could they be considered as necessary or essential….
Then court then looked at the plaintiff’s claims that he was at the gym for medical reasons. However, the court could find no evidence that the plaintiff was at the gym engaging in rehabilitation.
The court then looked at the plaintiff’s claim that there was a disparity of bargaining power between the parties which should void the release. However, this argument also failed.
Since membership in a private recreational facility such as S.M.A.R.T. is purely optional and does not qualify as an essential service, no decisive bargaining advantage exists. “A disparity of bargaining power will be found when a contracting party with little or no bargaining strength has no reasonable alternative to entering the contract at the mercy of the other’s negligence.
The plaintiff’s raised one final argument that claimed the Wyoming Recreational Safety Act, Wyo. Stat. Ann. §§ 1-1-121 to 1-1-123:
…creates a statutory duty on the part of providers of a sport or recreational opportunity because it preserves actions based upon negligence if damage or injury is not the result of an inherent risk of the sport or recreational opportunity.
The court called this a convoluted argument and did not agree with the argument.
The final argument was based on the wife’s claim for loss of consortium. The court held there were two different ways this claim also failed. The first was the wife signed a release at the same time as her husband; the plaintiff and the release stopped her suit. Also because her claim of loss of consortium is derivative, meaning only can exist if the original claim exists, then her claim fails also.
The record reflects that Massengill’s participation was purely recreational and S.M.A.R.T. did not owe him a public duty. S.M.A.R.T. is not engaged in a type of business generally thought suitable for public regulation, and Massengill was engaged in a recreational activity not an activity pursuant to a physician’s order.
The court upheld the trial courts dismissal of the claims.
So Now What?
This is a great decision to assist in writing a release in Wyoming. Of interest was the fact the court pointed out, the plaintiffs were given three days to review the release before signing.
The four requirements for a release are similar to most other states. How you deal with the issue of someone at your facility for health or rehabilitation reasons might present a problem.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
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Parveen v. Tiki Tubing, LLC, 2011 1477 (La.App. 1 Cir. 03/23/12); 2012 La. App. Unpub. LEXIS 115
Neelam Parveen, Individually and on Behalf of Mansoor Raja and their Minor Children Versus Tiki Tubing, LLC and Abc Insurance Company
NO. 2011 CA 1477
COURT OF APPEAL OF LOUISIANA, FIRST CIRCUIT
2011 1477 (La.App. 1 Cir. 03/23/12); 2012 La. App. Unpub. LEXIS 115
March 23, 2012, Judgment Rendered
NOTICE: NOT DESIGNATED FOR PUBLICATION.
PLEASE CONSULT THE LOUISIANA RULES OF APPELLATE PROCEDURE FOR CITATION OF UNPUBLISHED OPINIONS.
SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Writ denied by Parveen v. Tiki Tubing, LLC, 90 So. 3d 1063, 2012 La. LEXIS 1798 (La., June 15, 2012)
PRIOR HISTORY: [*1]
On Appeal from the 21st Judicial District Court, in and for the Parish of Livingston, State of Louisiana. District Court No. 128,216. The Honorable Elizabeth P. Wolfe, Judge Presiding.
COUNSEL: Nicholas M. Graphia, Monroe, La., Counsel for Plaintiff/Appellant, Neelam Parveen, individually and on behalf of Mansoor Raja and their minor children.
C. David Vasser, Jr., Baton Rouge, La., Counsel for Defendant/Appellee, Tiki Tubing, L.L.C.
JUDGES: BEFORE: CARTER, C.J., PARRO AND HIGGINBOTHAM, JJ.
OPINION BY: CARTER
[Pg 2] CARTER, C.J.
The plaintiff appeals the summary judgment dismissing her suit for damages arising from the drowning death of her husband. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.
STATEMENT OF FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Tiki Tubing, L.L.C. (Tiki) is a commercial enterprise located on the banks of the Amite River. During peak summer months, Tiki employs 10-15 full time employees. For a fee, Tiki provides customers with parking, tube rental, a bus ride upstream, and a beach entry and exit on the river. The tubing route on the Amite River takes approximately four hours to complete. The Tiki website describes the Amite River as “smooth and slow moving and … 1 to 3 feet deep with a few deeper holes from [*2] 6 to 8 feet deep.” The website continues: “All bodies of water have some inherent risks. Tiki . . . and its affiliates assume no liability for personal injury or loss of personal property.” The tubers are grouped together at the Tiki hut and bused upstream to the ingress point on the river. At this point, the tubers select their tubes and enter the water.
According to John Fore, the managing member of Tiki, there are no warning signs posted at the hut or along the river. Tiki provides life jackets free of charge to customers; however, customers are not required to wear them. Neither Fore nor the Tiki employees were aware of any prior drowning on the tubing route. There are no lifeguards or rescuers on staff, and employees are not trained in water safety or in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Tiki employees do not travel the river with the tubers, and there is no emergency equipment along the river route or at the Tiki [Pg 3] facility. Tiki does hire off-duty Livingston Parish Deputies as independent contractors to assist with crowd control, public drinking, drugs, broken glass, and unlocking of cars. The deputies are not posted on the tubing route; they are not hired to handle medical [*3] emergencies.
On June 21, 2009, 37-year-old Mansoor Raja and two of his friends decided to tube the Amite River. Raja had never tubed before, and after reading about Tiki from its internet website, Raja, Akhlaq Akhtar, and Tariq Mehmood drove to the facility. The group was presented with a liability waiver at the hut, and Akhtar printed all three men’s names on the bottom of the sheet.1 Although Raja was with Akhtar when Akhtar completed the form, Raja did not read or sign the waiver. Akhtar remembered the men being given a document containing safety instructions and that this information also was posted on a board. According to Akhtar, all three men read the instructions, which specifically mentioned the availability of life jackets. Akhtar asked the other men if they needed life jackets, but the general consensus was that the water would not be deep enough and that the life jackets were not needed. The waiver sheet is the only “warning” at the Tiki facility.
1 The waiver is entitled “Participant’s Agreement, Release, and Assumption of Risk.” The bottom of the form has multiple lines upon which customers write their names.
The three men boarded the bus, rode upstream, retrieved their tubes, [*4] and entered the river. According to Akhtar, Raja and Mehmood were playing around and getting caught in trees in the water. Akhtar tried to rush the other two men along so that they would not get separated from the group. The water was shallow, and Raja and Mehmood were leaving their tubes and [Pg 4] swimming freely in the river. The three men continued in this fashion for 15 to 20 minutes.
On the river trip, Raja was “getting excited.” He would leave his tube, swim downstream with the current, then wait for his tube to float to him. Raja did this four or five times. The men stopped to take a photograph, after which Raja said he would swim just one more length. Suddenly, while swimming ahead of his tube, Raja disappeared under the water. Then, Mehmood began having trouble in the water. Akhtar floated toward his friends and was able to help Mehmood get hold of the tube and out of the water. Raja, however, panicked and was unable to grasp the tube. According to Akhtar, the water was “too far deep” and moving much faster underneath the surface. Akhtar did not leave his tube in an attempt to pull Raja from the water because, according to Akhtar, the water was too deep and the current would [*5] have pulled him under too. Akhtar explained: “If you go to somebody who’s drowning, he’ll take you with him even if you are [a] good swimmer….”
Other floaters, noticing the commotion, began calling for help; the authorities were alerted with a call to 911, and another tuber ran toward the ingress point where several employees were working to notify them that someone was “lost.” Christopher Seese, a teenage employee of Tiki, stated that he first thought someone had simply gotten off his tube and run off. Upon realizing there was a problem, three employees ran to the scene. Fifteen to twenty tubers were sitting on the beach, and several tubers were swimming around in the deeper area of the river. The employees immediately entered the river. It took Christopher five to ten minutes to [Pg 5] locate Raja in the eight-foot-deep pocket in the river by dragging his foot in the water. Raja’s body was resting against a submerged log. According to Christopher, the current in the pocket was no stronger than the rest of the river; however, the water was deeper. It was estimated that it took an additional three to four minutes to get Raja out of the water and onto the shore.
Raja was brought to [*6] the shore, and another tuber was the first to attempt CPR. Because he was on the opposite side of the river, Akhtar estimated that it took him ten minutes to get to Raja after he was pulled from the water. Upon reaching shore, Akhtar observed that the unidentified tuber was performing CPR incorrectly, so Akhtar took over.2 Akhtar blew air into Raja’s chest, and Tiki employee Jacob Bourgeois assisted with chest compressions. Ultimately, four different people performed chest compressions on Raja, assisting Akhtar with CPR until the rescue helicopter arrived. According to Akhtar, Raja’s pulse was restored and he was warm to the touch prior to the arrival of paramedics and being airlifted to a hospital. Raja’s death certificate indicates he died the next day, June 22, 2009.
2 Akhtar explained that he had received training in CPR during military service.
Raja’s surviving spouse, Neelam Parveen, filed this wrongful death and survival action for damages against Tiki and its insurer, alleging Tiki’s negligent acts and omissions were a proximate cause of Raja’s death. After answering the petition, Tiki filed a motion for summary judgment, alleging Tiki did not breach any legal duty to Raja. Subsequent [*7] to the filing of Tiki’s motion for summary judgment, but prior to the hearing on the motion, the trial court granted the plaintiff leave to file a supplemental and amending [Pg 6] petition for damages. Therein the plaintiff alleged that she was entitled to punitive damages under general maritime law in that Tiki’s conduct was grossly negligent, reckless, and wanton. Thereafter, the plaintiff filed an opposition to Tiki’s motion for summary judgment, with attachments thereto, as well as a supplemental opposition.
Following a hearing, the trial court granted Tiki’s motion for summary judgment, and the plaintiff’s claims against Tiki were dismissed with prejudice. The plaintiff appeals, asserting several arguments in support of her position that summary judgment was improperly granted.
A motion for summary judgment is a procedural device used to avoid a full-scale trial when there is no genuine issue of material fact. All Crane Rental of Georgia, Inc. v. Vincent, 10-0116 (La. App. 1 Cir. 9/10/10), 47 So. 3d 1024, 1027, writ denied, 10-2227 (La. 11/19/10), 49 So. 3d 387. Summary judgment is properly granted if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions [*8] on file, together with affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the mover is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. La. Code Civ. Proc. Ann. art. 966B. Summary judgment is favored and designed to secure the just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action. La. Code Civ. Proc. Ann. art. 966A(2).
Appellate courts review evidence de novo under the same criteria that govern the trial court’s determination of whether summary judgment is appropriate. All Crane, 47 So. 3d at 1027. On a motion for summary judgment, the burden of proof is on the mover. La. Code Civ. Proc. Ann. art. 966C(2) [Pg 7]. If, however, the mover will not bear the burden of proof at trial on the matter that is before the court on the motion, the mover’s burden does not require that all essential elements of the adverse party’s claim, action, or defense be negated. Id. Instead, the mover must point out to the court that there is an absence of factual support for one or more elements essential to the adverse party’s claim, action, or defense. Id. Thereafter, the adverse party must produce factual evidence sufficient to establish that he will be able to satisfy his evidentiary [*9] burden of proof at trial. Id. If the adverse party fails to meet this burden, there is no genuine issue of material fact, and the mover is entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law. La. Code Civ. Proc. Ann. art. 966C(2); All Crane, 47 So. 3d at 1027.
In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the court’s role is not to evaluate the weight of the evidence or to determine the truth of the matter but, instead, to determine whether there is a genuine issue of triable fact. All Crane, 47 So. 3d at 1027. A court cannot make credibility decisions on a motion for summary judgment. Id. In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the court must assume that all of the witnesses are credible. Id. Factual inferences reasonably drawn from the evidence must be construed in favor of the party opposing the motion, and all doubt must be resolved in the opponent’s favor. Id. Whether a particular fact in dispute is “material” for summary judgment purposes is viewed in light of the substantive law applicable to the case. Richard v. Hall, 03-1488 (La. 4/23/04), 874 So. 2d 131, 137.
[Pg 8] DISCUSSION
The plaintiff advances several theories of recovery for the alleged negligence or gross negligence of Tiki. [*10] Broadly stated, the plaintiff maintains that Tiki had custody of the tubing route on the Amite River and, accordingly, that Tiki owed its patrons a duty to maintain the river so that its guests would not be injured by the river’s vices and defects, a duty to train Tiki employees in emergency rescue and life-saving procedures, and a duty to properly warn Tiki customers of the hazards associated with tubing on the Amite River. The plaintiff also alleges that once Tiki employees involved themselves in attempted life-saving procedures on Raja, those employees assumed a duty to perform those life-saving measures properly.
The elements of a cause of action in tort are fault, causation, and damage. Seals v. Morris, 410 So. 2d 715, 718 (La. 1981). The existence of a legal duty and a breach of that duty are prerequisites to any determination of fault. Id. Although the determination of whether to assign a legal duty is fact-specific, the issue of whether there is a duty ultimately is a question of law. Bowman v. City of Baton Rouge/Parish of East Baton Rouge, 02-1376 (La. App. 1 Cir. 5/9/03), 849 So. 2d 622, 627, writ denied, 03-1579 (La. 10/3/03), 855 So. 2d 315. The inquiry is whether the plaintiff [*11] has any law–statutory, jurisprudential, or arising from general principles of fault– to support her claim. Faucheaux v. Terrebonne Consol. Government, 615 So. 2d 289, 292 (La. 1993); Fredericks v. Daiquiris & Creams of Mandeville, L.L.C, 04-0567 (La. App. 1 Cir. 3/24/05), 906 So. 2d 636, 639, writ denied, 05-1047 (La. 6/17/05), 904 So. 2d 706.
[Pg 9] Under Louisiana Civil Code article 2317, “[w]e are responsible, not only for the damage occasioned by our own act, but for that which is caused by the act of persons for whom we are answerable, or of the things which we have in our custody.” Louisiana Civil Code article 2317.1 modifies Article 2317 and provides in pertinent part:
[The] custodian of a thing is answerable for damage occasioned by its ruin, vice, or defect, only upon a showing that he knew or, in the exercise of reasonable care, should have known of the ruin, vice, or defect which caused the damage, that the damage could have been prevented by the exercise of reasonable care, and that he failed to exercise such reasonable care.
The plaintiff alleges that in accordance with Article 2317.1, Tiki, as custodian3 of the tubing route on the Amite River, owed a duty to its patrons [*12] to employ safety measures to prevent drowning and to discover any unreasonably dangerous condition and to either correct the condition or warn of its existence. In order to prevail on a claim of negligence under Articles 2317 and 2317.1, the plaintiff will have the ultimate burden at trial of proving by a preponderance of the evidence each of the following elements: (1) Tiki is the custodian of the portion of the Amite River that includes the tubing route; (2) that portion of the Amite River is defective and that the defect presented an unreasonable risk of harm; (3) Tiki knew or should have known of the defect; (4) the plaintiff was damaged by the defect; and (5) Tiki could have prevented the damage to the plaintiff by the exercise of reasonable care, which Tiki failed to exercise. See Riggs v. Opelousas General Hosp. Trust Authority, 08-591 (La. App. 3 Cir. 11/5/08), 997 So. 2d 814, 817. Failure to prove any one of these elements will defeat the [Pg 10] plaintiff’s claim and thus establish the defendant’s entitlement to summary judgment. See Grogan v. Women’s and Children’s Hospital, Inc., 07-1297 (La. App. 3 Cir. 4/16/08), 981 So. 2d 162, 165.
3 There are no allegations or evidence [*13] suggesting that Tiki owned the area of the river, or the land abutting that portion of the river, in which Raja drowned.
The Louisiana Supreme Court has instructed that determining who has custody of a thing is a fact-driven determination. Dupree v. City of New Orleans, 99-3651 (La. 8/31/00), 765 So. 2d 1002, 1009. Courts should consider: (1) whether the person bears such a relationship as to have the right of direction and control over the thing; and (2) what, if any, kind of benefit the person derives from the thing. Dupree, 765 So. 2d at 1009. “The person who has custody or garde of a thing is he who has the legal duty to prevent its vice or defect from harming another.” Id. at 1009. This court has held that a state-owned river cannot be in the custody of a landowner. See Tobey v. State, 454 So. 2d 144, 145 (La. App. 1st Cir. 1984) (a tubing accident did not result from any condition of the land).
Even if the plaintiff were to establish that material issues of fact remain in dispute regarding custody of the tubing route on the Amite River, the plaintiff also must prove that the portion of the Amite River at issue suffered from a vice or defect in order to recover damages under Articles 2317 [*14] and 2317.1. A defect is defined as a condition that creates an unreasonable risk of harm. Moory v. Allstate Ins. Co., 04-0319 (La. App. 1 Cir. 2/11/05), 906 So. 2d 474, 480, writ denied, 05-0668 (La. 4/29/05), 901 So. 2d 1076. The record establishes that Raja drowned in an area of the river described as a drop or a deep pocket. This court has held that the “existence of a hole in a natural lake, that renders the depth of the lake deeper than other portions, would not, ipso facto, constitute a defective [Pg 11] condition.”4 Johnson v. City of Morgan City, 99-2968 (La. App. 1 Cir. 12/22/00), 787 So. 2d 326, 330-31, writ denied, 01-0134 (La. 3/16/01), 787 So. 2d 315. Further, “variations in water depth within natural swimming areas are standard.” Johnson, 787 So. 2d at 330. Citing this court in Johnson, the Fourth Circuit has concluded that there is no distinction between a hole in a lake and a drop off in a river. Sevin v. Parish of Plaquemines, 04-1439 (La. App. 4 Cir. 4/27/05), 901 So. 2d 619, 623-24, writ denied, 05-1790 (La. 1/27/06), 922 So. 2d 550. The plaintiff fails to establish that the deeper pocket in this natural body of water constitutes a defect for purposes of Article 2317.1.
4 Moreover, [*15] not every defect gives rise to statutory liability under Articles 2317 and 2317.1. Ruschel v. St. Amant, 11-78 (La. App. 5 Cir. 5/24/11), 66 So. 3d 1149, 1153. The defect must be of such a nature as to constitute a dangerous condition that reasonably would be expected to cause injury to a prudent person using ordinary care under the circumstances. Ruschel, 66 So. 3d at 1153.
The plaintiff argues that Tiki had a duty to provide an adequate and correct warning to customers regarding the dangers of tubing and the depth and current of the Amite River, and also had a duty to post lifeguards along the tubing route.5 Tubing has been defined as an activity that is obviously and inherently dangerous. See Tobey, 454 So. 2d at 146. Drowning because of currents is a natural and inevitable risk to swimmers in a natural body of water. See Hall v. Lemieux, 378 So. 2d 130, 132 (La. App. 4th Cir. 1979), [Pg 12] writ denied, 381 So. 2d 1220 (La. 1980). When a risk is obvious, there is no duty to warn or protect against it. Moory, 906 So. 2d at 478. Akhtar described Raja as “not a good swimmer.”6 Despite his limited swimming abilities and knowing that the water was over his head in parts, Raja voluntarily [*16] left his tube to swim freely in the river without a life jacket, allowing the current to carry him away from his tube.
5 Louisiana’s general negligence liability provision is found in Louisiana Civil Code article 2315. Louisiana courts have adopted a duty-risk analysis in determining whether to impose liability under Article 2315. Pinsonneault v. Merchants & Farmers Bank & Trust Co., 01-2217 (La. 4/3/02), 816 So. 2d 270, 275. In order for liability to attach under a duty-risk analysis, the plaintiff must prove five separate elements: (1) the defendant had a duty to conform his or her conduct to a specific standard of care (the duty element); (2) the defendant failed to conform his or her conduct to the appropriate standard of care (the breach of duty element); (3) the defendant’s substandard conduct was a cause-in-fact of the plaintiff’s injuries (the cause-in-fact element); (4) the defendant’s substandard conduct was a legal cause of the plaintiff’s injuries (the scope of protection element); and (5) actual damages (the damage element). Pinsonneault, 816 So. 2d at 275-76.
6 During the few times that Akhtar and Raja swam together in a pool, Raja would swim one pool length at a time, keeping [*17] his head out of the water the entire time. Raja would go in water over his head; however, he would hold onto a “pipe.”
Finally, citing to Harris v. Pizza Hut of La., Inc., 455 So. 2d 1364 (La. 1984), the plaintiff argues that Tiki assumed a duty when its employees attempted life-saving measures on Raja and then breached that duty by improperly performing CPR on Raja. In Harris, the supreme court held that a restaurant had a duty, once it hired a security guard, to have that guard protect patrons from the criminal activities of third persons in a reasonable and prudent manner. Id. at 1369. This court has recognized that the negligent breach of an assumed duty may create civil liability. McGowan v. Victory and Power Ministries, 99-0235 (La. App. 1 Cir. 3/31/00), 757 So. 2d 912, 914. If a person voluntarily or gratuitously undertakes a task that he otherwise has no duty to perform, he must nevertheless perform that task in a reasonable or prudent manner. McGowan, 757 So. 2d at 914; see La. Civ. Code Ann. art. 2315.
Tiki employees acknowledged having no formal CPR training. Akhtar stated that he had been trained in CPR, and Akhtar was performing breathing assistance on Raja, while several [*18] others–including Tiki employees–assisted with chest compressions on Raja. The affidavit of the [Pg 13] plaintiff’s expert, Dr. Adam Broussard, set forth the CPR guidelines and concluded that, based on Jacob’s deposition, “the responders did not correctly perform CPR.” Dr. Broussard’s affidavit establishes that early CPR “performed correctly is the single most important intervention that can be performed in the field by a lay person.”
Raja was pulled from the water after being submerged for at least ten minutes. Akhtar stated that when Raja was brought up to the surface, he was not moving and not conscious. Akhtar began breathing into Raja with the assistance of four others, who took turns doing chest compressions. Akhtar observed that after the second person’s turn with chest compressions, Raja was warm to the touch and a pulse was discernible. Although Dr. Broussard’s affidavit establishes that CPR was performed improperly, his affidavit does not establish that the efforts of Tiki employees were unreasonable, imprudent, or, more importantly, a cause-in-fact of Raja’s death or that there was a reasonable probability that proper CPR would have been lifesaving in these circumstances.
The [*19] plaintiff failed to produce factual evidence sufficient to establish that she would be able to meet her burden at trial of proving by a preponderance of the evidence all of the elements of a cause of action in negligence or gross negligence. Despite not being a good swimmer, Raja willingly entered the river without a life jacket and chose to swim away from his tube. It was Raja’s own imprudent actions that led to his tragic death. See Sevin, 901 So. 2d at 624. For the above-stated reasons, we affirm the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendant, Tiki [Pg 14] Tubing, L.L.C, dismissing the suit filed against it by Neelam Parveen, individually and on behalf of Mansoor Raja and their minor children. Costs of this appeal are assessed to the plaintiff, Neelam Parveen.
Whitewater rafting, 13 injuries one death and release in WV are upheld. Management-level employees of DC health care company rafted river in allegedly high water causing injuries.Posted: May 12, 2014
West Virginia Supreme court holds that admiralty or maritime law does not apply to whitewater rafting.
Date of the Decision: December 10, 2008
Plaintiff on Appeal, Defendants at the trial court: River Riders, Inc., and Matthew Knott, Petitioners
Defendant: The Honorable Thomas W. Steptoe
Third parties on appeal: plaintiff’s at the trial court: Executor of the estate of the deceased and the 13 injured plaintiffs
Plaintiff Claims: failed to meet the statutory “standard of care” expected of members of the whitewater guide profession in direct violation of the West Virginia Whitewater Responsibility Act, W. Va. Code
Defendant Defenses: release
Issue on Appeal: Whether the trial court had improperly held the whitewater rafting trip was subject to federal admiralty law.
This is an interesting case from a procedural perspective as well as a factual one. The issue on appeal is not a review of a complete ruling by the trial court but of a ruling that the defendants, and the court felt would influence the final decision. Meaning the defendant could convince the appellate court that the trial court’s ruling was probably wrong and unless corrected now, the entire trial would have to be done again.
The facts are people went rafting on the Shenandoah River in West Virginia. Before embarking on the trip each person signed a “Release, Assumption of Risk and Indemnity Agreement.” The water was higher than average on the day of the raft trip; 12.5 feet compared to an average of 2 to 4 feet. During the raft trip four of the rafts dumped, sending several people into the water, including the deceased and thirteen other rafters into the river.
Two separate lawsuits were filed over the incident. The first was by the estate of the deceased. The second lawsuit was filed by the other thirteen injured rafters.
The complaints of the plaintiff allege several issues:
…River Riders failed to meet the statutory “standard of care” expected of members of the whitewater guide profession in direct violation of the West Virginia Whitewater Responsibility Act, W. Va. Code §20-3B-3(b) (1987).
…that running a raft trip on September 30, 2004, simply was not reasonable under the circumstances, and that the expected standard of care would have obligated River Riders to cancel or reschedule the whitewater expedition on that day because of the river’s high and turbulent waters caused by a recent hurricane that had swept through the area.
…failing to call off or postpone the trip until conditions were safe to go out on the river, by failing to recognize that the operating capabilities of its rafts with the inexperienced customers would be unsafe and hazardous in high, swift and rough water conditions; and by wrongfully electing to navigate the Shenandoah River and in particular the Shenandoah Staircase.
The complaint for the wrongful death included the following claims:
two separate counts: one for negligence, gross negligence, reckless and wanton conduct; the other for negligence per se. Citing fifteen alleged acts or omissions, Count One alleges that the duties owed by River Riders to Mr. Freeman included the duty to conform to the standard of care expected of members of their profession, the duty to conform to safety and other requirements set forth in the West Virginia Code, the duty to conform to rules promulgated by the commercial whitewater advisory board, and the duty not to act in a reckless or wanton manner. Count Two alleges two additional acts or omissions constituting negligence per se, including citations by the West Virginia Division of Natural Resource for failure to mark a commercial water craft and failure to have a valid CPR card as required by W. Va. Code §20-2-23a
Prior to trial, the plaintiff’s filed a motion in limine to exclude the release agreement which the court granted. The court relied upon a prior West Virginia Supreme Court case that held since there was a statute supporting and providing defenses for the whitewater rafting industry, a release was no long available as a defense. Murphy v. North American River Runners, Inc., 186 W. Va. 310, 412 S.E.2d 504 (1991)
Finally, the plaintiff’s filed a motion to consolidate both lawsuits into one and have one trial. This motion was also granted by the court.
The defendants then filed motions with the West Virginia Supreme court arguing that the motions of the trial court were wrong, and the court had to intervene for a fair trial to occur. This motion was called a Writ of Prohibition.
The West Virginia Supreme Court granted the Writ but only as to the issue of whether or not maritime law applied to a whitewater rafting case in West Virginia.
This Court has, on limited occasions, considered challenges from evidentiary rulings in unique circumstances where the matter at issue rose to a level of considerable importance and compelling urgency.
The court declined to review the other issues because a writ of prohibition was not the proper way to argue the issues and timing of those issues were best left to the appeal of the case.
Summary of the case
To be subject to Federal maritime law a two-prong test must be met, “whether the rafting mishap and ensuing tort claims arising therefrom satisfied both prerequisite conditions of 1) location on the navigable waters and 2) connection with maritime activity.”
In determining whether or not the accident occurred on navigable waters the trial court should have included an analysis of “…whether the incident constituted “a potentially disruptive impact on maritime commerce” and that it had a “substantial relationship to traditional maritime activity” and determined the “the activity of whitewater rafting does not constitute traditional maritime activity and is therefore, not governed by maritime law.”
…given the fact that the Shenandoah River maintains average depths of two feet, 18 it is hard to envision how the act of whitewater rafting could have a potentially disruptive impact on maritime commerce, to the extent that this area was unlikely a highly traveled thoroughfare over which trade and travel is conducted.
Nor could the court find any decision where admiralty law had been applied to whitewater rafting.
Whitewater rafting is a recreational activity where participants seek the adventure of paddling a rubber raftin rapidly moving whitewater streams and rivers. Such use of streams and rivers carrying people, not as traveling passengers, but rather as participants seeking adventure, makes it difficult to conceive that whitewater rafting bears a substantial relationship to traditional maritime activity.
The appellate court sent the case back down with two of the rulings intact.
So Now What?
Admiralty law is a separate area of the law. It was developed prior to the formation of the United States for commerce between countries. It has very different rules for liability, worker’s compensation and other legal issues. In the US, admiralty law also applies to travel on major rivers and waterways. When and how admiralty law is applied is dependent upon the federal statute and the type of admiralty activity. As an example there are more than a dozen different definitions of navigable for different maritime activities.
Admiralty law came from commerce. Admiralty law has been applied to recreational activities in the past, such as using personal water craft, however, in all of those cases; the activity was on the ocean or large bodies of water.
Admiralty law could be used in some states on some rafting rivers as a defense, if handled by a law firm knowledgeable in admiralty law. If the jurisdictional issues are met, a defendant can go to court within six months of an accident and file a notice (open a case) and post a bond. The reason for doing this is, under admiralty law, the damages available to the plaintiff’s is limited to the value of the vessel and its contents after the accident. However, by doing this the raft company may be admitting liability and must prove it was an admiralty issue.
This law as created to limit the damages of a ship owner to not bankrupt the owner or the industry. A $10,000 raft, frame and gear are a relatively cheap and easy way to get out from under a potential claim. However, if you fail to meet the requirements but are still subject to admiralty law, you do not have several defenses normally relied upon to stop claims: releases and assumption of the risk.
To some extent, we are left hanging by the decision on whether a release is valid as a defense in a rafting accident in West Virginia. However, the decision on whether the federal maritime law is applicable is valuable.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
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