The one group of people who never sign a release and to whom you have no defenses are spectators. Here a spectator was injured during a bicycle race.

In this case, the plaintiff attempted to bring in USA Cycling, Inc. Spectators are always at risk, and defendants have little they can do to keep from getting sued except fencing in most cases.

Levine v USA Cycling, Inc., 2018 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 6063; 2018 NY Slip Op 33177(U)

State: New York: Supreme Court of New York, Kings County

Plaintiff: Steven Levine

Defendant: USA Cycling, Inc. & Kissena Cycling Club

Plaintiff Claims:

Defendant Defenses: Sponsor, now in control of event

Holding: For the defendants

Year: 2018

Summary

Plaintiff Cyclists riding inside the race course was injured when a racer struck him. The plaintiff sued the club that put on the event and USA Cycling, Inc. that sanctioned the event. USA Cycling moved for summary judgment arguing it owed no duty to the plaintiff because it had no control over and did not do anything other than sanction the race.

Facts

In the underlying matter, the plaintiff seeks to recover for personal injuries allegedly sustained while cycling in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, New York on June 14, 2014. At the same time the plaintiff was cycling as a recreational activity, a cycling event was taking place in the same area of Prospect Park. The plaintiff was cycling the same route as those participating in the event when he collided with another cyclist who was a participant in the bike race.

As a result of injuries sustained by the plaintiff, which included a fractured and displaced clavicle that required surgical intervention….

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

The defendant USA Cycling was brought into the case to possibly add money to the pot that might be available to the defendant. USA Cycling argued that because they did not own, control or have anything to do with the race other than to sponsor the race for a fee, they could not be held liable for anything that happened.

The court distilled the plaintiff’s claims and the defendant’s defenses into a single argument:

At issue in this matter, is whether defendant USA Cycling owed a duty to the plaintiff and by virtue thereof is liable to the plaintiff for the injuries sustained during the bike tour.

USA Cycling argued the following:

… USA Cycling did not coordinate the Prospect Park event; did not control or employ any of the people organizing or managing or working the race; did not select the location of the race nor supervise the race. They did not have any employees or representatives at the race. In addition, they are not the parent company of Kissena Cycling Club nor is Kissena Cycling Club a subsidiary of USA Cycling.

Mr. Sowl testified at his deposition that while USA Cycling sanctions events in the United States they do not run cycling events. Mr. Sowl stated that while there are benefits to a third party such as Kissena Cycling Club for having an event sanctioned by USA Cycling which includes that a cyclist participating in the event can use the results for upgrading their national results and rankings and the third-party event organizers can independently obtain liability insurance for their event through USA Cycling, he nevertheless maintained that they have no involvement in the operation of the race or the design of the course.

It USA Cycling did not owe the defendant a duty, then there was no negligence. The court defined negligence under New York law as:

To establish a prima facie case of negligence, a plaintiff must demonstrate (a) a duty owed by the defendant to the plaintiff, (2) a breach thereof, and (3) injury proximately resulting therefrom. In the absence of a duty, there is no breach and without a breach there is no liability

So, the issue is, did USA Cycling’s involvement in the race rise to the level that it owed a duty to the plaintiff.

The plaintiff argued the involvement was much more than just providing insurance for the race.

They [USA Cycling] collect some fees to compensate for sanctioning the event and provide insurance for the event.

The plaintiff maintains that the defendant did more than just sanction the race as they issued safety guidelines, rule books, post event forms, permits, an event checklist and insurance information to the Kissena Cycling Club, and even received a copy of the incident report.

The court found the actions of USA Cycling did not rise to the level to create a duty to the plaintiff.

USA Cycling is the national governing body for cycling in the United States. They oversee the discipline of road, mountain bike, Cyc-cross, BMS and track cycling. Mr. Sowl testified that except for a few national championships, they do not actually run events. While they sanction events, the events are generally owned and operated by a third party (such as the Kissena Cycling Club). In sanctioning the race at Prospect Park, USA Cycling recognized the event as an official event and the results when considering national rankings. However, while they sanction events they do not sponsor them. The chief referee at the event is an independent contractor who works for the event organizer and not USA Cycling. Mr. Sowl further testified that USA Cycling does not share in any portion of the fees that are generated by the local events.

The court found USA Cycling had no control over the race. This lack of control could not create a duty to the plaintiff.

This Court finds that the plaintiff has not established a prima facie case that the defendant USA Cycling had a duty to the plaintiff, and not having a duty was not negligent, and thus, not liable to the plaintiff. This Court finds that USA Cycling was not responsible for the layout and design of the race course, and all of the safety precautions that were in place on the day of the race were supervised by the employees and volunteers of Kissena Cycling Club. USA Cycling had no involvement in the positioning of the plaintiff, who was a recreational cyclist, and the riders in the race. The fact that USA Cycling sanctioned the race, provided safety guidelines on its website and assisted the local race organizers in obtaining insurance does not result in a finding that they are liable for an incident that occurred in a local race that is fully operated and managed by a local racing club.

So Now What?

Spectators are necessary to any event. They “pay” for the event by either just being there so advertisers can sell to them or paying to enter the facility. Although the facts in this case are slightly different, other cyclists riding, the issues are still the same. Spectators are not a group of people that the event sponsors, owners; officials can create protection from litigation.

If a spectator gets hurt, there is little available to stop their claims.

Here the news was that USA Cycling had so little involvement in the race, they were able to successfully argue they owed no duty to the plaintiff. This argument is similar in all states; however, the definition of duty in each state and the type of involvement could make this difficult in some jurisdictions.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Cycling, sanctioned, organizer, summary judgment, deposition, duty to plaintiff, participants, recreation, supervise, injuries, signs,


Levine v USA Cycling, Inc., 2018 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 6063 *; 2018 NY Slip Op 33177(U)

Levine v USA Cycling, Inc., 2018 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 6063 *; 2018 NY Slip Op 33177(U)

Supreme Court of New York, Kings County

December 4, 2018, Decided

515257/15

Reporter

2018 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 6063 *; 2018 NY Slip Op 33177(U) **

[**1] STEVEN LEVINE, Plaintiff(s), -against-USA CYCLING, INC. & KISSENA CYCLING CLUB, INC., Defendant(s). Index No: 515257/15

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

Core Terms

Cycling, sanctioned, organizer, summary judgment, deposition, duty to plaintiff, participants, recreation, supervise, injuries, signs

Judges: [*1] Present: Hon. Judge Bernard J. Graham, Supreme Court Justice.

Opinion by: Bernard J. Graham

Opinion

DECISION / ORDER

Defendant, USA Cycling, Inc. (“USA Cycling”) has moved, pursuant to CPLR §3212, for an Order awarding summary judgment to the defendant and a dismissal of the plaintiff’s, Steven Levine, (“Mr. Levine”) complaint upon the grounds that the defendant was not negligent, and thus not liable for plaintiff’s injuries as they owed no duty to the plaintiff. The plaintiff opposes the relief sought by the defendant, USA Cycling, and maintains that the latter was negligent in that they had a greater involvement than just sanctioning the race in which the plaintiff was injured, and they failed to properly supervise, maintain and control the race in which the plaintiff who was not a participant in the race was seriously injured.

[**2] Background:

In the underlying matter, the plaintiff seeks to recover for personal injuries allegedly sustained while cycling in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, New York on June 14, 2014. At the same time the plaintiff was cycling as a recreational activity, a cycling event was taking place in the same area of Prospect Park. The plaintiff was cycling the same route as those participating in the event [*2] when he collided with another cyclist who was a participant in the bike race.

As a result of injuries sustained by the plaintiff, which included a fractured and displaced clavicle that required surgical intervention, an action was commenced on behalf of the plaintiff by the filing of a summons and complaint on or about December 21, 2015. Issue was joined by the service of a verified answer by USA Cycling on or about March 15, 2016. The plaintiff served a response to defendant’s Demand for a Verified Bill of Particulars dated March 24, 2016. Depositions of the plaintiff, as well as Todd Sowl, the chief financial officer of USA Cycling, were conducted on September 27, 2016.

In October 2016, the plaintiff moved to amend their complaint to add Kissena Cycling Club Inc., (“Kissena Cycling Club”) as an additional defendant. Kissena Cycling Club did not appear nor answer the complaint, but a default judgment had not been sought against said party.

In April 2017, plaintiff commenced a separate action against Kissena Cycling Club under index # 507066/2017. Plaintiff then filed a Note of Issue in the underlying action on July 25, 2017.

Defendant’s contention (USA Cycling, Inc.):

The defendant, in [*3] moving for summary judgment and a dismissal of the plaintiff’s complaint, maintains that the relief sought herein should be granted because in the absence of a [**3] duty to the plaintiff there cannot be a breach and without a breach they cannot be liable for negligence.

The defendant maintains that USA Cycling merely sanctioned the event that was run by Kissena Cycling Club. They issued a permit to allow Kissena Cycling Club to use the name of USA Cycling during the event.

Defendant asserts that there is no evidence to support an argument as to the existence of a principal-agent relationship between USA Cycling and Kissena Cycling Club nor was there any evidence of control by USA Cycling or consent by USA Cycling to act on its behalf. In addition, there is no written agreement between the two entities.

In support of defendant’s motion, is the affidavit of Todd Sowl in which he stated that USA Cycling did not coordinate the Prospect Park event; did not control or employ any of the people organizing or managing or working the race; did not select the location of the race nor supervise the race. They did not have any employees or representatives at the race. In addition, they are not the parent [*4] company of Kissena Cycling Club nor is Kissena Cycling Club a subsidiary of USA Cycling.

Mr. Sowl testified at his deposition that while USA Cycling sanctions events in the United States they do not run cycling events. Mr. Sowl stated that while there are benefits to a third party such as Kissena Cycling Club for having an event sanctioned by USA Cycling which includes that a cyclist participating in the event can use the results for upgrading their national results and rankings and the third-party event organizers can independently obtain liability insurance for their event through USA Cycling, he nevertheless maintained that they have no involvement in the operation of the race or the design of the course.

[**4] Plaintiff’s contention:

In opposing the motion of USA Cycling for summary judgment, plaintiff maintains that USA Cycling was sufficiently involved with the cycling event that caused plaintiff’s injuries that would result in their owing a duty to the plaintiff. Plaintiff contends that USA Cycling was negligent in their failure to properly operate, supervise, maintain, manage and control the bicycle race.

The plaintiff asserts that USA Cycling by its chief operating officer, Mr. Sowl, [*5] in both his deposition and his supporting affidavit stated that his organization sanctioned the cycling event in Prospect Park. They collect some fees to compensate for sanctioning the event and provide insurance for the event.

The plaintiff maintains that the defendant did more than just sanction the race as they issued safety guidelines, rule books, post event forms, permits, an event checklist and insurance information to the Kissena Cycling Club, and even received a copy of the incident report.

The plaintiff asserts that negligence cases by their very nature do not lend themselves to summary dismissal since the issue of negligence is a question for jury determination. The plaintiff maintains that the proof submitted by USA Cycling does not satisfy their initial burden of establishing the absence of a material issue of fact.

Discussion:

This Court has considered the submissions of counsel’ for the respective parties, the arguments presented herein, as well as the applicable law, in making a determination with respect to the motion by defendant, USA Cycling, for summary judgment and a dismissal of plaintiff’s action.

[**5] At issue in this matter, is whether defendant USA Cycling owed a duty [*6] to the plaintiff and by virtue thereof is liable to the plaintiff for the injuries sustained during the bike tour.

The moving party in a motion for summary judgment bears the initial burden of demonstrating a prima facie entitlement to judgment as a matter of law by submitting sufficient evidence to demonstrate the absence of any material issue of fact (Drago v. King, 283 AD2d 603, 725 NYS2d 859 [2nd Dept. 2001]).

In support of USA Cycling’s motion for summary judgment, the defendant offers the deposition testimony of Todd Sowl, as well as Charles Issendorf, the event director of Kissena Sports Project Inc. d/b/a Kissena Cycling Club, who was deposed on June 14, 2018 in the related action, as well as case law which examined whether a party under similar circumstances would have been found to be negligent and thus liable to an injured party.

To establish a prima facie case of negligence, a plaintiff must demonstrate (a) a duty owed by the defendant to the plaintiff, (2) a breach thereof, and (3) injury proximately resulting therefrom (Akins v Glens Falls City School Dist., 53 N.Y.2d 325, 333, 424 N.E.2d 531, 441 N.Y.S.2d 644 [1981]. In the absence of a duty, there is no breach and without a breach there is no liability (see Light v. Antedeminico, 259 A.D.2d 737, 687 N.Y.S.2d 422; Petito v. Verrazano Contr. Co., 283 A.D.2d 472, 724 N.Y.S.2d 463 [2nd Dept. 2001]).

In determining whether USA Cycling had a duty to the plaintiff, this Court examined the role of USA Cycling and specifically [*7] its involvement in this race, as well as that of the Kissena Cycling Club. The Court further considered the deposition testimony of Todd Sowl as well as Charles Issendorf.

USA Cycling is the national governing body for cycling in the United States. They oversee the discipline of road, mountain bike, Cyc-cross, BMS and track cycling. Mr. Sowl testified that except for a few national championships, they do not actually run events. While [**6] they sanction events, the events are generally owned and operated by a third party (such as the Kissena Cycling Club). In sanctioning the race at Prospect Park, USA Cycling recognized the event as an official event and the results when considering national rankings. However, while they sanction events they do not sponsor them. The chief referee at the event is an independent contractor who works for the event organizer and not USA Cycling. Mr. Sowl further testified that USA Cycling does not share in any portion of the fees that are generated by the local events.

This lack of control over the event by USA Cycling and by contrast the control exhibited by the Kissena Cycling Club is further demonstrated through the deposition testimony of Charles Issendorf. [*8] Mr. Issendorf as the race director for Kissena Cycling Club has been organizing races for fourteen years. Mr. Issendorf characterized his club as more of a social club where its members race together. There are generally thirty races conducted between the months of March and September with the venues being in both Prospect Park and Floyd Bennett Field which is also situated in Brooklyn, New York. Mr. Issendorf testified that he obtains the permit for the subject race directly from the representatives of Prospect Park. Mr. Issendorf is instructed to have certain safety measures implemented at all races. He sets up the course by putting out the safety measures which includes the safety signs that are needed for the race. He also organizes the race marshals, and the pace and follow motorcycles to ensure that there is a motorcycle in both the front and back of each group.1 Mr. Issendorf further testified that Prospect Park has rules in terms of the placement of safety cones and signs that are needed, as well as the race marshals. Kissena Cycling club provides what could be characterized as “lawn signs” and Mr. Issendorf personally places these signs in the grass along the bike route. There [*9] are also traffic safety cones throughout the course that contain a sign which bear the words “caution, bicycle [**7] race”, that are placed there by Mr. Issendorf. The signs are generally situated one hundred meters apart and they are placed at crosswalks, entrances to the park, as well as at high traffic areas where there is a concentration of people. As to the course, the two lanes to the right of a double white line is where the participants are allowed to race. To the left of the double white line is the location of the pedestrian or the recreation lane. There are written instructions on the website of the club which states that at all times the participants are not allowed to enter the pedestrian or recreation lane. The race organizers also make use of a portable PA system at the race in which the chief referee warns the riders to stay to the right of the white right lane, and if they were to cross into the recreation lane it would result in their disqualification.

This Court finds that while USA Cycling sanctioned the race of June 14, 2014, the plaintiff has not sufficiently refuted the assertion and proof offered by USA Cycling that the latter did not organize, direct, control, supervise [*10] or select the venue nor did they have any employees or agents at the cycling event, and thus, had no duty to the plaintiff. Courts have addressed situations that are akin to the case at bar. The Court in Chittick v. USA Cycling Inc., 54 AD3d 625, 863 NYS2d 679 [1st Dept. 2008]), in finding that an award of summary judgment and a dismissal of the action against USA Cycling was warranted, in which spectators were injured during a bicycle race when struck by the rear pace vehicle, determined that USA Cycling had no duty to prevent any negligence involved therein. The Court in Chittick determined that USA Cycling merely sanctioned the race by lending its name to the race. The fact that USA Cycling provided the rule book to the organizer of the race did not impose a duty upon them to enforce any of the rules thereon. There was also no inference drawn as to the existence of a principal-agency relationship between USA Cycling and the race organizer.

[**8] The Court in Megna v. Newsday, Inc., 245 AD2d 494, 666 NYS2d 718 [2nd Dept. 1997], in granting summary judgment to the defendant, determined that the defendant merely sponsored the race in which the injured plaintiff had participated. It was determined that the defendant owed no duty of care to the plaintiff as the defendant was not in any way involved in the design, layout, maintenance [*11] or control of the race course, and was not in a position to assume such control (see also Mongello v. Davos Ski Resort, 224 A.D.2d 502, 638 N.Y.S.2d 166 [2nd Dept. 1966]; Johnson v. Cherry Grove Island Management Inc., 175 AD2d 827, 573 NYS2d 187 [2nd Dept. 1991]).

This Court finds that the plaintiff has not established a prima facie case that the defendant USA Cycling had a duty to the plaintiff, and not having a duty was not negligent, and thus, not liable to the plaintiff. This Court finds that USA Cycling was not responsible for the layout and design of the race course, and all of the safety precautions that were in place on the day of the race were supervised by the employees and volunteers of Kissena Cycling Club. USA Cycling had no involvement in the positioning of the plaintiff, who was a recreational cyclist, and the riders in the race. The fact that USA Cycling sanctioned the race, provided safety guidelines on its website and assisted the local race organizers in obtaining insurance does not result in a finding that they are liable for an incident that occurred in a local race that is fully operated and managed by a local racing club.

Conclusion:

The motion by defendant, USA Cycling, Inc. for summary judgment and a dismissal of plaintiff’s complaint is granted.

[**9] This shall constitute the decision and order of this Court.

Dated: December 4, 2018 [*12]

Brooklyn, New York

ENTER

/s/ Bernard J. Graham

Hon. Bernard J. Graham, Justice

Supreme Court, Kings County


Release for a health club which had a foam pit included language specific to the injury the plaintiff suffered, which the court used to deny the plaintiff’s claim.

Argument made that the word inherent limited the risks the release covered and as such did not cover the injury the plaintiff received.

Macias, v. Naperville Gymnastics Club, 2015 IL App (2d) 140402-U; 2015 Ill. App. Unpub. LEXIS 448

State: Illinois, Appellate Court of Illinois, Second District

Plaintiff: Kamil Macias

Defendant: Naperville Gymnastics Club

Plaintiff Claims: negligent in its failure to properly supervise the open gym, train participants, and warn participants of hazards and dangers accompanied with activities and use of equipment in the open gym

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2015

Summary

Plaintiff was injured jumping headfirst into a foam pit at the defendant’s gym. The plaintiff had signed a release relieving the defendant of liability, which was upheld by the trial court and the appellate court.

For the first time, the plaintiff argued the release was limited by the language in the release because it used the term inherent in describing the risks. Inherent limits the risks, to those that are part and parcel of the activity and the injury that befell the plaintiff was a freak accident.

Facts

The plaintiff went to the defendant club during open hours when the public could attend with a friend. He paid an admission fee and signed a release. The club had a foam pit. The plaintiff watched other people jump into the pit then tried it himself. He jumped off the springboard and instead of landing feet first he landed head first in the pit.

The plaintiff broke his neck requiring extensive surgery and rehabilitation.

The defendant club filed a motion to dismiss based upon the release signed by the plaintiff. The trial court denied the motion to dismiss because the release was ambiguous.

During discovery, the plaintiff admitted he did not see the rules of the gym but did understand the risks of landing in the pit head first.

Walk around all pits and trampolines,” and he stated that he understood what this meant. The rules also stated: “Do not play on any equipment without proper supervision,” and “Do not do any gymnastics without proper supervision,” and plaintiff stated that he understood what these meant. Plaintiff also stated that he did not see a sign painted on the wall in the gym titled, “Loose foam pit rules.” That sign stated: “Look before you leap,” “No diving or belly flops,” and “Land on feet, bottom or back only.” Plaintiff acknowledged that he understood what these meant

After discovery, the defendant club filed a motion for summary judgment based on the additional information collected during discovery. The trial court granted that motion, and this appeal was dismissed.

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

The appellate court looked at contract law in Illinois.

The primary objective in construing a contract is to give effect to the parties’ intent, and to discover this intent the various contract provisions must be viewed as a whole. Words derive meaning from their context, and contracts must be viewed as a whole by examining each part in light of the other parts. Id. Contract language must not be rejected as meaningless or surplusage; it is presumed that the terms and provisions of a contract are purposely inserted and that the language was not employed idly.

A release is a contract. For the release to be valid and enforceable, it should:

…contain clear, explicit, and unequivocal language referencing the types of activities, circumstances, or situations that it encompasses and for which the plaintiff agrees to relieve the defendant from a duty of care. In this way, the plaintiff will be put on notice of the range of dangers for which he assumes the risk of injury, enabling him to minimize the risks by exercising a greater degree of caution.

The court found the injury suffered by the plaintiff fell within the scope of the possible injuries of the release and contemplated by the plaintiff upon signing the release.

Two clauses in the release stated the plaintiff was in good physical health and had proper physical condition to participate. The plaintiff argued these clauses made the release ambiguous; however, the appellate court did not find that to be true.

Here is the interesting argument in the case.

I have repeatedly stated that releases that limit releases to the inherent risk are limited in their scope. The plaintiff made that argument here.

Plaintiff argues that the use of “inherent risk” language throughout the release creates an ambiguity as to whether the language covers only dangers inherent in gymnastics and not freak accidents. We also reject this argument. As previously stated, the release specifically lists landing on landing surfaces as an inherent risk. Thus, there is no ambiguity as to whether plaintiff’s injury was covered by the release.

The plaintiff also argued his injury was not foreseeable because:

… (1) he lacked specialized knowledge of gymnastics and, in particular, foam pits, to appreciate the danger and foresee the possibility of injury, and (2) his injury was not the type that would ordinarily accompany jumping into a foam pit.

The argument on whether the injury was foreseeable is not whether the plaintiff knew of the risk but:

The relevant inquiry is not whether [the] plaintiff foresaw [the] defendants’ exact act of negligence,” but “whether [the] plaintiff knew or should have known” the accident “was a risk encompassed by his [or her] release.

The court found the injury the plaintiff received was on that was contemplated by the release.

Thus, the issue here is whether plaintiff knew or should have known that the accident was a risk encompassed by the release which he signed. As previously determined, the language of the release in this case was specific enough to put plaintiff on notice. In discussing inherent risks in the sport of gymnastics and use of the accompanying equipment, the release lists injuries resulting from landing on the landing surfaces, which includes injuries to bones, joints, tendons, or death.

The plaintiff also argued the release violated public policy because the release was presented to “opened its gym to the unskilled and inexperienced public” when it opened its gym to the public.

The court struck down this argument because the freedom to contract was greater than the limitation on damages issues.

The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s granting of the summary judgment for the defendant based on the release.

So Now What?

The inherent risk argument here was made but either not effectively argued by the plaintiff or ignored by the court. However, for the first time, the argument that the word inherent is a limiting word, not a word that expands the release was made in an argument.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2018 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

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

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Macias, v. Naperville Gymnastics Club, 2015 IL App (2d) 140402-U; 2015 Ill. App. Unpub. LEXIS 448

Macias, v. Naperville Gymnastics Club, 2015 IL App (2d) 140402-U; 2015 Ill. App. Unpub. LEXIS 448

Kamil Macias, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Naperville Gymnastics Club, Defendant-Appellee.

No. 2-14-0402

APPELLATE COURT OF ILLINOIS, SECOND DISTRICT

2015 IL App (2d) 140402-U; 2015 Ill. App. Unpub. LEXIS 448

March 10, 2015, Order Filed

NOTICE: THIS ORDER WAS FILED UNDER SUPREME COURT RULE 23 AND MAY NOT BE CITED AS PRECEDENT BY ANY PARTY EXCEPT IN THE LIMITED CIRCUMSTANCES ALLOWED UNDER RULE 23(e)(1).

PRIOR HISTORY: [**1] Appeal from the Circuit Court of Du Page County. No. 11-L-1418. Honorable Judges Hollis L. Webster and John T. Elsner, Judges, Presiding.

DISPOSITION: Affirmed.

CORE TERMS: gym, pit, landing, summary judgment, foam, exculpatory clause, gymnastics, release agreement, surface, inherent risk, jumping, discovery, ambiguity, exculpatory, deposition, injury resulting, public policy, risk of injury, physical condition, releasing, ambiguous, sport, bones, supervision, de novo, springboard, encompassed, notice, undersigned, climbing

JUDGES: JUSTICE BURKE delivered the judgment of the court. Presiding Justice Schostok and Justice Zenoff concurred in the judgment.

OPINION BY: BURKE

OPINION

ORDER


Held: Release agreement for the gym was sufficiently clear, explicit, and unequivocal to show intent to protect facility from liability arising from use of its “foam pit”; it was proper for the gym to raise the issue it had raised in the section 2-619 motion in a summary judgment motion as it alleged new facts which were developed during discovery that affected the validity of the release; affirmed.

[*P2] Plaintiff, Kamil Macias, filed a complaint against defendant, Naperville Gymnastics Club (the Club), for injuries he received after jumping off a springboard and landing head first into a “foam pit.” The trial court denied the Club’s motion to dismiss, pursuant to section 2-619 of the Code of Civil Procedure (Code) (735 ILCS 5/2-619 (West 2010)), but it later granted the Club’s motion for summary judgment based on a liability release agreement signed by plaintiff. Plaintiff raises several issues on appeal concerning the release and the effect of the earlier [**2] section 2-619 motion to dismiss. We affirm.

[*P3] I. BACKGROUND

[*P4] On January 15, 2011, plaintiff came to the Club with his friend. The Club offers “open gym” hours where members of the Club and the general public can attend. Plaintiff, who was not a member of the Club, paid a $10 admission fee and he signed a liability release agreement.

[*P5] A foam pit was located in the gym. After seeing participants jumping into the pit, plaintiff jogged up to a springboard in front of the pit, jumped onto the board and into the pit. While attempting to jump feet first, plaintiff’s body moved in the air, causing him to land head first, striking the bottom of the pit. Plaintiff immediately lost all feeling in his body below the neck. He remained in the pit covered by pieces of foam until he was extracted by the Naperville Fire Department. At the time, plaintiff was 20 years old, about 6 feet tall, and weighed 310 pounds. As a result of the accident, plaintiff suffered a broken neck, requiring extensive surgery and rehabilitation. Plaintiff filed a complaint alleging the Club was negligent in its failure to properly supervise the open gym, train participants, and warn participants of hazards and dangers accompanied with activities [**3] and use of equipment in the open gym.

[*P6] The Club filed a section 2-619(a)(9) motion to dismiss (735 ILCS 5/2-619(a)(9) (West 2010)), alleging that plaintiff signed a two-page liability release agreement that contained an exculpatory clause releasing the Club from liability for any acts of negligence.

[*P7] The trial court found the release ambiguous and denied the section 2-619(a)(9) motion without prejudice. In denying the motion, the judge stated that she felt it was inappropriate to dismiss the suit at that point, that there was case law on both sides of “these exculpatory clauses,” and the judge agreed that it was something that could be developed through discovery. She further stated, “But I think it’s something that is better suited for a summary judgment motion if the facts do bear that out from the defense’s perspective.”

[*P8] During discovery, plaintiff was questioned by defense counsel and testified to the following:

“Q. Okay. That first part of the form it says, ‘To gain admission to the activity areas of [the Club], all parts of this form must be read, understood, and signed.’ Do you see that?

A. Yes.

Q. And did you understand what that means?

A. Yes.

* * *

Q. Did you understand this to be an agreement on January 15th, 2011[,] between you and [the [**4] Club]?

A. Had I read this agreement I would have understood.

* * *

Q. And you understand that [the release] means that when you sign it that you’re agreeing to not bring any lawsuit against [the Club]?

A. Correct.

Q. And if you had read it on January 15th of 2011, that’s what you would have understood it to mean?

A. Correct.

* * *

Q. And you agree that the sport of gymnastics is a risky sport?

A. Correct.

Q: And you would have felt the same on January 15th, 2011[,] before your accident?

A. Yes.”

[*P9] At the entrance to the gym was a closed door with a window pane in it. Plaintiff did not recall seeing a sign on the door entitled, “Rules of the Gym.” Plaintiff reviewed the rules at his deposition and admitted that it said to “Walk around all pits and trampolines,” and he stated that he understood what this meant. The rules also stated: “Do not play on any equipment without proper supervision,” and “Do not do any gymnastics without proper supervision,” and plaintiff stated that he understood what these meant. Plaintiff also stated that he did not see a sign painted on the wall in the gym titled, “Loose foam pit rules.” That sign stated: “Look before you leap,” “No diving or belly flops,” and “Land on [**5] feet, bottom or back only.” Plaintiff acknowledged that he understood what these meant.

[*P10] After discovery, the Club filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that plaintiff’s claim was barred by the exculpatory clause of the release signed by plaintiff. The motion included the deposition testimony and that (1) plaintiff denied being given any verbal instructions and denied seeing the warning signs or rules posted in the gym before he was injured, and (2) plaintiff admitted that he would have understood the terms of the liability release, had he read it. Following argument, the trial court granted the Club’s motion for summary judgment. This timely appeal follows.

[*P11] II. ANALYSIS

[*P12] A. Standard of Review

[*P13] Summary judgment is appropriate “if the pleadings, depositions, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” 735 ILCS 5/2-1005(c) (West 2010). The motion should be denied if there are disputed facts, but also if reasonable people could draw different inferences from the undisputed facts. Wood v. National Liability & Fire Insurance Co., 324 Ill. App. 3d 583, 585, 755 N.E.2d 1044, 258 Ill. Dec. 225 (2001). We review an order granting summary judgment de novo. Pielet v. Pielet, 2012 IL 112064, ¶ 30, 978 N.E.2d 1000, 365 Ill. Dec. 497.

[*P14] We review the parties’ [**6] liability release agreement in accordance with well-established contract principles. Joyce v. Mastri, 371 Ill. App. 3d 64, 74, 861 N.E.2d 1102, 308 Ill. Dec. 537 (2007). The primary objective in construing a contract is to give effect to the parties’ intent, and to discover this intent the various contract provisions must be viewed as a whole. Kerton v. Lutheran Church Extension Fund, 262 Ill. App. 3d 74, 77, 634 N.E.2d 16, 199 Ill. Dec. 416 (1994). Words derive meaning from their context, and contracts must be viewed as a whole by examining each part in light of the other parts. Id. Contract language must not be rejected as meaningless or surplusage; it is presumed that the terms and provisions of a contract are purposely inserted and that the language was not employed idly. Id.

[*P15] In order for an exculpatory clause to be valid and enforceable, it should contain clear, explicit, and unequivocal language referencing the types of activities, circumstances, or situations that it encompasses and for which the plaintiff agrees to relieve the defendant from a duty of care. Calarco v. YMCA, 149 Ill. App. 3d 1037, 1040, 501 N.E.2d 268, 103 Ill. Dec. 247 (1986). In this way, the plaintiff will be put on notice of the range of dangers for which he assumes the risk of injury, enabling him to minimize the risks by exercising a greater degree of caution. Neumann v. Gloria Marshall Figure Salon, 149 Ill. App. 3d 824, 827, 500 N.E.2d 1011, 102 Ill. Dec. 910 (1986). The precise occurrence which results in injury need not have been contemplated by the parties at the time the contract [**7] was entered into. Schlessman v. Henson, 83 Ill. 2d 82, 86, 413 N.E.2d 1252, 46 Ill. Dec. 139 (1980). It should only appear that the injury falls within the scope of possible dangers ordinarily accompanying the activity and, thus, reasonably contemplated by the plaintiff. Garrison v. Combined Fitness Centre, Ltd., 201 Ill. App. 3d 581, 585, 559 N.E.2d 187, 147 Ill. Dec. 187 (1990). Further, when interpreting a contract containing an exculpatory clause, the court must interpret the scope of the exculpatory provision in the “context of the entire agreement.” Shorr Paper Products, Inc. v. Aurora Elevator, Inc., 198 Ill. App. 3d 9, 13, 555 N.E.2d 735, 144 Ill. Dec. 376 (1990). We review the interpretation of an exculpatory agreement or release of liability authorization de novo. Stratman v. Brent, 291 Ill. App. 3d 123, 137, 683 N.E.2d 951, 225 Ill. Dec. 448 (1997).

[*P16] In Garrison, a member of a health club who was injured when lifting weights on a bench press brought suit against the club and the manufacturer of the press. The trial court entered summary judgment in favor of the club, and the plaintiff appealed. The First District Appellate Court held that the exculpatory clause could not have been more clear or explicit, as it stated that each member bore the “sole risk” of injury that might result from the use of weights, equipment, or other apparatus provided and that the selection of the type of equipment to be used would be the “entire responsibility” of the member. The court found that the injury the plaintiff sustained clearly fell within the scope of possible dangers [**8] ordinarily accompanying the activity of weightlifting. Id. at 585. The court observed that the injury was of a type that would normally be contemplated by the parties at the time the contract was made and, therefore, the court held that it clearly fell within the parameters of the exculpatory clause. Id. See also Hussein v. L.A. Fitness International, LLC, 2013 IL App (1st) 121426, 987 N.E.2d 460, 369 Ill. Dec. 833; Neumann v. Gloria Marshall Figure Salon, 149 Ill. App. 3d 824, 500 N.E.2d 1011, 102 Ill. Dec. 910 (1986).

[*P17] Similar to Garrison and the cases cited above, the release agreement in the present case is clear and specific regarding the risks it covers and the release of the Club’s negligence. It specifically references the inherent risk of injury resulting from landing on landing surfaces, and plaintiff acknowledged in his deposition that this phrase includes the foam pit in which he was injured. The agreement also releases the Club from any and all claims, including those caused by its negligence. Furthermore, plaintiff’s signature certified that he recognized the dangers inherent with climbing and jumping activities and that he voluntarily assumed the risks.

[*P18] Nevertheless, plaintiff raises several arguments regarding the validity of the release and the effect of the earlier section 2-619 motion.

[*P19] B. Ambiguity of the Release

[*P20] 1. First Clause

[*P21] The first clause of the release, which is typed in capital letters, states: [**9]

“BY SIGNING THIS DOCUMENT YOU ACKNOWLEDGE THAT UNSUPERVISED USE OF ANY AREA OF FACILITY IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED AND COMPLETELY AT THE RISK OF THE PARTICIPANT AND THAT THE RULES [OF] EACH AREA BEING UTILIZED ARE UNDERSTOOD PRIOR TO PARTICIPATION!”

Plaintiff asserts that this clause is ambiguous as to whether supervision and a full understanding of the rules of the Club is a condition precedent to releasing defendant from liability. We agree that the first clause, standing alone, might be construed as stating that supervision and a full understanding of the rules of the Club is a condition preceding releasing the Club from liability. However, case law teaches that we must review the language of the release in its entirety in order to interpret the parties’ intent.

[*P22] The release contains a “Covenant Not to Sue for Injury or Damages,” which provides, in relevant part:

“Notice: This is a legally binding agreement. By signing this agreement, you waive your right to bring a court action to recover compensation or to obtain any other remedy for any injury to yourself *** however caused arising out of use of the facilities of [the Club].

I hereby acknowledge and agree that the sport of gymnastics [**10] and the use of the accompanying equipment has INHERENT RISKS. I have full knowledge of the nature and extent of all of the risks inherent in gymnastics and the use of the facilities of the gym, including but not limited to:

***

5. Injuries resulting from landing on the landing surfaces; and

6. Injuries to bones, joints, tendons, or death.

[*P23] The section of the release agreement entitled “Release Indemnification Liquidation Damages and Agreement to Arbitrate” states, in relevant part:

“In consideration of my use of the GYM, I the undersigned user, agree to release on behalf of myself *** [the Club] *** including but not limited to a claim of NEGLIGENCE.”

[*P24] The clause of the release immediately preceding plaintiff’s signature provides that “the undersigned recognize[s] the dangers inherent with climbing and jumping activities,” and the undersigned is “assuming the hazard of this risk upon myself because I wish to participate. I realize that I am subject to injury from this activity and that no form of pre-planning can remove all of the danger to which I am exposing myself.”

[*P25] In reading the release in its entirety, it is clear that the first clause of the release cannot be construed as plaintiff argues. The [**11] release contains no such limitations as it covers a number of activities, including “[i]njuries resulting from landing on the landing surfaces” (i.e. the “foam pit”), releasing the Club from negligence, and “the dangers inherent with climbing and jumping activities.”

[*P26] 2. Physical Condition Clause

[*P27] Two clauses of the release request the participant to agree that he or she is in good physical health and proper physical condition to participate. Plaintiff cites Calarco v. YMCA of Greater Metropolitan Chicago, 149 Ill. App. 3d 1037, 501 N.E.2d 268, 103 Ill. Dec. 247 (1986), and Macek v. Schooner’s Inc., 224 Ill. App. 3d 103, 586 N.E.2d 442, 166 Ill. Dec. 484 (1991), for the proposition that these types of clauses render the release ambiguous, as it is unclear whether the release only applies to injuries resulting from a participant’s physical ailments. In other words, the release does not apply to participants without physical ailments.

[*P28] We fail to follow the logic of plaintiff’s argument. However, the cases relied on by plaintiff are readily distinguishable. In Calarco, the plaintiff had been injured when metal weights from an exercise machine fell on her hand, breaking her bones. The plaintiff had agreed “to hold free from any and all liability the [defendant] *** for damages which [the plaintiff] may have or which may hereafter accrue to [the plaintiff] arising out of or connected with [the plaintiff’s] participation [**12] in any of the activities of the [defendant].” We held that the exculpatory clause in the membership application for the defendant’s facility was insufficient to protect the defendant from liability as a matter of law because the clause did not adequately describe the covered activities to clearly indicate that defendant’s negligence would be covered by the release. Calarco, 149 Ill. App. 3d at 1043-44. We further noted that the statement immediately following the alleged exculpatory language contained a declaration of physical health by the signer, and that the combination of the two provisions further complicated the interpretation of the release. Id.

[*P29] In Macek, the plaintiff participated in an arm wrestling contest with a machine that broke his arm. The court held that summary judgment was inappropriate because the release did not specify the covered activities but rather merely indicated that damages for “all injuries suffered” are waived. The court found further that the line immediately following the exculpatory language regarding the signer’s physical condition provided additional ambiguity. Id. at 106.

[*P30] In both Calarco and Marek, the releases did not specify the covered activities and did not specifically cover the defendants’ [**13] negligence. Both courts held that the physical condition clause simply added to the ambiguity of the release. However, contrary to Calarco and Marek, the release in this case clearly covers the activities in question and specifically releases defendant from liability for its negligence.

[*P31] 3. Inherent Risk Language

[*P32] Plaintiff argues that the use of “inherent risk” language throughout the release creates an ambiguity as to whether the language covers only dangers inherent in gymnastics and not freak accidents. We also reject this argument. As previously stated, the release specifically lists landing on landing surfaces as an inherent risk. Thus, there is no ambiguity as to whether plaintiff’s injury was covered by the release.

[*P33] C. Forseeability

[*P34] Plaintiff argues that his injury was not foreseeable because (1) he lacked specialized knowledge of gymnastics and, in particular, foam pits, to appreciate the danger and foresee the possibility of injury, and (2) his injury was not the type that would ordinarily accompany jumping into a foam pit.

[*P35] A plaintiff who expressly consents to relieve a defendant of an obligation of conduct toward the plaintiff assumes the risk of injury as a result of the [**14] defendant’s failure to adhere to the obligation. Larsen v. Vic Tanny International, 130 Ill. App. 3d 574, 576, 474 N.E.2d 729, 85 Ill. Dec. 769 (1984). The doctrine of assumption of risk presupposes, however, that the danger which causes the injury is such that it ordinarily accompanies the activities of the plaintiff, and that the plaintiff knows or should know both the danger and the possibility of injury prior to its occurrence. Id. at 576. The standard is a subjective one geared to a particular plaintiff, and the determination ordinarily will be made by a jury. Id. at 576-77.

[*P36] “The foreseeability of a specific danger defines the scope.” Cox v. U.S. Fitness, LLC, 2013 IL App (1st) 122442, ¶ 14, 377 Ill. Dec. 930, 2 N.E.3d 1211. “The relevant inquiry *** is not whether [the] plaintiff foresaw [the] defendants’ exact act of negligence,” but “whether [the] plaintiff knew or should have known” the accident “was a risk encompassed by his [or her] release.” Hellweg v. Special Events Management, 2011 IL App (1st) 103604, ¶ 7, 956 N.E.2d 954, 353 Ill. Dec. 826.

[*P37] Thus, the issue here is whether plaintiff knew or should have known that the accident was a risk encompassed by the release which he signed. As previously determined, the language of the release in this case was specific enough to put plaintiff on notice. In discussing inherent risks in the sport of gymnastics and use of the accompanying equipment, the release lists injuries resulting from landing on the landing surfaces, which includes [**15] injuries to bones, joints, tendons, or death. Plaintiff agreed that the foam pit was a landing surface and that some of the possible injuries that he could sustain at the gym from gymnastics activities included injuries to his bones, and he admitted at deposition that he had not read the release and that, had he read the release, he would have understood it to mean that he could not sue the gym for any injuries he sustained. Based on these facts, plaintiff should have known the risks of injury associated with the activity of jumping into the foam pit. Plaintiff participated in open gym, which reasonably contemplates participating in the use of the accompanying equipment. Plaintiff could have reasonably presumed that, should he jump from a springboard into the foam pit, he might land on his head. It is entirely foreseeable that, if plaintiff accidently fell on his head, he would be hurt by “landing on the landing surfaces,” a risk encompassed by the release agreement. See Oelze v. Score Sports Venture, 401 Ill. App. 3d 110, 121, 927 N.E.2d 137, 339 Ill. Dec. 596 (2010). Although plaintiff suffered a serious injury, we are bound by the release agreement. Accordingly, we find the trial court properly granted summary judgment on the basis that the release barred plaintiff’s negligence [**16] claim.

[*P38] D. Public Policy

[*P39] Plaintiff next argues that it would be against public policy to enforce the release in this case because the Club opened its gym to the unskilled and inexperienced public. Plaintiff does not cite any cases in support of this argument. In fact, the only case he cites, Hamer v. City Segway Tours of Chicago, LLC, 402 Ill. App. 3d 42, 930 N.E.2d 578, 341 Ill. Dec. 368 (2010), is inapposite to his position.

[*P40] Several cases have rejected plaintiff’s argument in the fitness club setting. See, e.g., Kubisen v. Chicago Health Clubs, 69 Ill. App. 3d 463, 388 N.E.2d 44, 26 Ill. Dec. 420 (1979); Owen v. Vic Tanny’s Enterprises, 48 Ill. App. 2d 344, 199 N.E.2d 280 (1964). Had plaintiff, an adult, read the release and disagreed with it, he could have simply refused to participate in open gym. “While exculpatory or limitation of damages clauses are not favored and must be strictly construed against a benefitting party [citation] the basis for their enforcement is the strong public policy favoring freedom of contract.” Rayner Covering Systems, Inc. v. Danvers Farmers Elevator Co., 226 Ill. App. 3d 507, 512, 589 N.E.2d 1034, 168 Ill. Dec. 634 (1992). There does not seem to be any reason in this case to depart from the strong public policy of allowing parties to freely enter into contracts.

[*P41] E. Section 2-619 Motion to Dismiss

[*P42] The Club filed a section 2-619 motion, alleging that plaintiff signed a two-page liability release that contained an exculpatory clause, which released the Club from liability for any acts of negligence. The trial court found the release was ambiguous and denied the motion. However, [**17] the court recognized that disputed facts might affect the validity of the release and indicated that the Club was free to raise the issue again in a summary judgment motion after facts surrounding the execution of the release were developed in discovery.

[*P43] Citing Makowski v. City of Naperville, 249 Ill. App. 3d 110, 117-18, 617 N.E.2d 1251, 187 Ill. Dec. 530 (1993), plaintiff acknowledges that a trial court may allow a party to reassert a defense after previously ruling on the merits only when new evidence is presented. Plaintiff claims that the summary judgment motion did not allege new facts but simply relied on the language of the release as it did in the Club’s section 2-619 motion. We disagree.

[*P44] The Club did allege additional facts in its summary judgment motion that were developed during discovery that affected the validity of the release. Those facts included plaintiff’s acknowledgment that he understood the meaning of the terms of the release, that he understood the inherent risks, and that he understood that the risk of “landing on landing surfaces” would include the foam pit where he was injured. He also testified that had he read the release he would have understood its language to mean that he could not sue the gym for any injuries he sustained. Since we review a summary judgment motion [**18] de novo (Pielet, 2012 IL 112064, ¶ 30), this evidence tends to defeat plaintiff’s ambiguity arguments.

[*P45] III. CONCLUSION

[*P46] For the reasons stated, we affirm the judgment of the Circuit Court of Du Page County granting the Club’s motion for summary judgment.

[*P47] Affirmed.


Defendant was not sanctioned for failing to preserve broken bicycle parts, but only because the plaintiff could not prove the defendant’s acts were willful and contumacious.

Preservation of evidence has become a major issue of lots of litigation. Every business not needs to create a plan for how long to retain  documents, email, records, etc., and why those records are destroyed when they are.

John v. CC Cyclery, 2017 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 3213; 2017 NY Slip Op 31810(U)

State: New York; Supreme Court of New York, Kings County

Plaintiff: Hywel John

Defendant: CC Cyclery and CO LLC and William Svenstrup 

Plaintiff Claims: Motion to strike defenses of the defendant for failing to preserve evidence

Defendant Defenses: failure to preserve the evidence was not willful

Holding: for the Defendant

Year: 2017

Summary

When you are placed on notice of possible litigation, you must preserve all evidence surrounding the facts of the litigation. That includes in this case, broken bicycle parts. Failing to preserve evidence can result in sanctions, including denial of your defenses. 

Facts 

The plaintiff had his bicycle serviced at the defendant’s bicycle shop. While riding his bicycle one day the front wheel of the bike dislodged causing him to fall to the ground.

After the accident, he took his bicycle back to the defendant. While the plaintiff was at the shop, he requested information about the defendant’s insurance policy. The defendant did not provide that information to the plaintiff. The plaintiff later emailed the defendant an ask for the same information and again was not provided it.

The defendant repaired the damages to the bike. After replacing the broken parts, he eventually threw them away. 

In his post-accident repair of plaintiff’s bicycle, Mr. Underwood stated that he replaced several of the parts, including a device called a quick release. Mr. Underwood further admitted that upon showing plaintiff which bicycle parts he fixed, he threw away the broken parts including the quick release. Additionally, Mr. Underwood testified that he held onto the defective parts “until the trash came” on the week that plaintiff picked up his bicycle….

Again, the plaintiff asked for information about the shop’s insurance policy. Again, the shop refused to provide that information. The shop also claimed that it never touched the plaintiff’s quick release, so therefore the shop could not be
at fault for the plaintiff’s accident. 

The plaintiff then filed this lawsuit. Upon being placed on notice of a potential litigation, the law requires all parties to preserve evidence. Because the broken parts of the bicycle were thrown away, the plaintiff filed a motion asking for sanctions against the defendant for failing to preserve the evidence.

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

The basis of the plaintiff’s motion was:

Plaintiff contends that defendants’ Answer should be stricken pursuant to CPLR § 3126 because Mr. Underwood disposed of the bicycle
parts without first “advis[ing] plaintiff or anyone else that he intended to throw out or destroy the purportedly defective parts”. Plaintiff asserts that “Mr. Underwood threw out these parts in spite of having preserved and retained exclusive possession and control over these parts at CC Cyclery from November 28, 2014 (DOA) and continuing until sometime after the plaintiff returned to the shop to pick up his bicycle on January 23, 2015”. According to plaintiff, defendants “knew or should have known that the parts removed and replaced from
plaintiff’s bicycle were significant and material evidence in a reasonably foreseeable litigation, based upon plaintiff’s repeated requests for insurance information in order for him to effectuate a claim for the damages he sustained in this accident”

In order for the court to grant any sanctions against the defendant, the plaintiff must prove the acts of the defendant were done in a willful or contumacious manner.

The issue then resolves around the point in time that the defendant should have known that possible litigation was imminent. The plaintiff argued this occurred, and the defendant was placed on notice when he asked for the defendant’s
insurance information. The defendant argued that since the defendant was a lay person, how could he interpret this as being placed on notice.

Additionally, defendants aver that Mr. Underwood–an unrepresented layperson at the time–would not have interpreted plaintiff’s request for insurance as notice that he was required to preserve the replaced bicycle parts

The defense also argued that loss of the broken bicycle parts was more damaging to them because they could not show how the plaintiff failed to keep his bicycle in proper condition and failed to provide for proper maintenance for his bike.

The court denied the plaintiff’s motion for several reasons. First, the plaintiff could not show that the destruction of the evidence, the broken parts was not “willful, contumacious or in bad faith.” Nor at the time of the destruction of the evidence was the defendant on notice of possible litigation.

Moreover, under the common law, “when a party negligently loses or intentionally destroys key evidence, thereby depriving the non-responsible party from being able to prove its claim or defense, the responsible party may be sanctioned by the striking of its pleading”
Additionally, a pleading may be stricken where the evidence lost or destroyed is so central to the case .that it renders the party seeking the evidence “prejudicially bereft of appropriate means to confront a claim with incisive evidence”. Notably, “even if the evidence was destroyed before the spoliator became a party, [the pleading may nonetheless be stricken] provided [the party] was on notice that the evidence might be needed for future litigation

The plaintiff’s motion was denied. 

So Now What? 

Although not a new area of the law, destruction of evidence has taken on new meaning and value in the digital age. Communications by phone never needed to be kept because there was no way to keep them. Emails can be preserved indefinitely, and this has created tons of litigation setting out the rules for when evidence must be preserved and when it can be destroyed. 

When in doubt, unless told to destroy it by your attorney or your insurance company, keep it. Better, give the broken parts back to your customer. 99% of the time the parts will be thrown away by the time the customer gets back home.

However, this is an area you need to check with your attorney about. Create a plan for how long you are going to hold on to documents, preserve emails and other digital information and what to with broken parts.

Sanctions for failing to preserve evidence in many other states do not have such a high bar to protect the defendant. Willful
and contumacious in most other states is far beyond what is required. So, in many other locals, sanctions are easily levied.

By the way Contumacious means stubbornly or willfully disobedient to authority or is a stubborn refusal to obey authority or, particularly in law, the willful contempt of the order or summons of a court. The term is derived from the Latin word contumacia, meaning firmness or stubbornness.[i]

 What do you think? Leave a comment.

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shop, repair, contumacious, stricken, willful, pick, material evidence, prima
facie case, failed to demonstrate, negligently, discarding, layperson,
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contumacious, quick release, bicycle parts,

 

 

 

 


 

 

 


John v. CC Cyclery, 2017 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 3213; 2017 NY Slip Op 31810(U)

John v. CC Cyclery, 2017 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 3213; 2017 NY Slip Op 31810(U)

Hywel John, Plaintiff, -VS- CC Cyclery and CO LLC and William Svenstrup, Defendants. Index No. 501255/15

501255/15

SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, KINGS COUNTY

2017 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 3213; 2017 NY Slip Op 31810(U)

August 22, 2017, Decided

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

CORE TERMS: bicycle, subject accident, notice, deposition, replaced, shop, repair, contumacious, stricken, willful, pick, material evidence, prima facie case, failed to demonstrate, negligently, discarding, layperson, destroyed, destroy, threw, front wheel, confirmed, repaired, riding, asking, email, bike

JUDGES: [*1] PRESENT: HON. LARRY D. MARTIN, J.S.C.

OPINION BY: LARRY D. MARTIN

OPINION

Upon the foregoing papers, plaintiff Hywel John (“plaintiff”) moves for an order: (1) pursuant to CPLR § 3126, striking the Answer of defendants CC Cyclery and Co LLC and William Svenstrup (collectively, “defendants”) on the grounds of negligent and/or intentional spoliation of material evidence; and (2) extending the time to file a Note of Issue (NOI).

Brief Facts & Procedural History

Plaintiff commenced the instant action to recover compensatory damages for personal injuries he allegedly sustained on. November 28, 2014, when the front wheel of a bicycle (the “subject bicycle”) he was riding dislodged, causing him to be flung from the bicycle onto the ground (the “subject accident”). In the verified bill of particulars, plaintiff alleges, among other things, that defendants “negligently repaired and maintained” (Bill of Particulars, ¶ 13) the subject bicycle.

At his January 11, 2016 deposition, plaintiff testified that he initially went to defendants’ repair shop, CC Cyclery and Co. LLC (“Cyclery”), to have guards placed on the subject bicycle’s wheels and a rack fitted onto the back (Plaintiff’s Affirmation, exhibit E, Hywel Deposition, 26: 24-25; [*2] 27: 13-14; 22-23). Plaintiff returned to Cyclery on the date of the subject accident to pick up his bicycle, and was riding along Avenue A, in Brooklyn, New York, when the subject accident occurred [**2] (id. at 31: 22-25; 32:2-11). Plaintiff testified that immediately after his accident, he returned to Cyclery, informed an individual named Mr. Jeff Underwood (“Mr. Underwood”) of what transpired and left the bicycle in the shop’s possession for further repairs to be performed (id. at 64: 7-12).

Thereafter, plaintiff emailed Mr. Underwood on December 3, 2014 asking for the company’s insurance information, claiming that he was “pretty concerned about [his] healthcare contribution going forward” as well as his “lack of ability to work properly over the next couple of months” due to his injuries (id. at exhibit M). Mr. Underwood responded to plaintiff in an email dated December 9, 2014 stating, among other things, “your front wheel had to be straightened and the tire had to be replaced . . .” and “I also switched out the quick release on the front to a Allen bolt . . .” (id. at exhibit L). Mr. Underwood did not address plaintiff’s request for insurance information in his email. According to plaintiff, he returned [*3] to Cyclery on January 23, 2015 to pick up his bike and, once again, asked Mr. Underwood for the company’s insurance information (id. at 68: 15-17). However, plaintiff claims that Mr. Underwood refused to comply with plaintiff’s request for insurance information (id. at 68: 18-20).

At Mr. Underwood’s deposition on July 26, 2016, he stated that he is the former owner of Cyclery and, among other things, was working as a mechanic for the company at the time of the subject accident (id. at exhibit H, Underwood Deposition, 17: 5-9; 18: 12-14). Mr. Underwood confirmed that he made repairs to plaintiff’s bicycle both before and after the subject accident. Moreover, during his deposition, Mr. Underwood identified a photo of the subject bicycle (previously marked as Defendants’ exhibit A) and confirmed that it accurately depicted the condition of the bike on the date of the accident (id. at 53: 23-25; 54: 2-3; see exhibit K).

In his post-accident repair of plaintiff’s bicycle, Mr. Underwood stated that he replaced several of the parts, including a device called a quick release (id. at 60: 5-22). Mr. Underwood further admitted that upon showing plaintiff which bicycle parts he fixed, he threw away the broken parts including the quick [*4] release (id. at 61: 15-23). Additionally, Mr. Underwood testified that he held onto the defective parts “until the trash came” on the week that plaintiff picked up his bicycle [**3] (id. at 64: 5-9).

According to Mr. Underwood, plaintiff asked him to talk to the shop owner about submitting an insurance claim on plaintiff’s behalf, and Mr. Underwood replied that the company could not do so (id. at 63: 16-19). Mr. Underwood asserted that he never touched the quick release device prior to the subject accident, and, therefore, defendants could not be at fault for plaintiff’s accident (id. at exhibit H, 52: 3-5; 8; 19-21).

Plaintiff thereafter commenced the instant action on February 4, 2015. On March 1, 2016, plaintiff served defendants with a notice to “preserve and retain any and all parts and equipment f[ro]m the plaintiff’s bicycle . . .” (see id. at exhibit F). On May 5, 2016, a compliance conference was held and an order was issued directing, among other things, for plaintiff to “preserve the bicycle at issue for inspection by defendants” (id. at exhibit G).

Discussion

Plaintiff contends that defendants’ Answer should be stricken pursuant to CPLR § 3126 because Mr. Underwood disposed of the bicycle parts without first “advis[ing] plaintiff or [*5] anyone else that he intended to throw out or destroy the purportedly defective parts” (Plaintiff’s Affirmation, ¶ 45). Plaintiff asserts that “Mr. Underwood threw out these parts in spite of having preserved and retained exclusive possession and control over these parts at CC Cyclery from November 28, 2014 (DOA) and continuing until sometime after the plaintiff returned to the shop to pick up his bicycle on January 23, 2015” (id.). According to plaintiff, defendants “knew or should have known that the parts removed and replaced from plaintiff’s bicycle were significant and material evidence in a reasonably foreseeable litigation, based upon plaintiff’s repeated requests for insurance information in order for him to effectuate a claim for the damages he sustained in this accident” (id. at ¶ 54).

In response, defendants assert that they did not act in a willful or contumacious manner in discarding the bicycle parts. Rather, defendants contend that plaintiff’s act in asking Mr. Underwood about insurance was “merely a request for insurance information that [plaintiff] could use to obtain additional health care contributions” and did not constitute notice “that the accident would result [*6] in [**4] litigation with claims of negligence on the part of the defendants” (see Defendants’ Affirmation in Opp, ¶ 4). Additionally, defendants aver that Mr. Underwood–an unrepresented layperson at the time–would not have interpreted plaintiff’s request for insurance as notice that he was required to preserve the replaced bicycle parts (see Defendants’ Affirmation in Opp, ¶ 4). In any event, defendants argue that striking their Answer is not an appropriate sanction in this instance because the missing bicycle parts do not prejudice or impede plaintiff’s ability to make out his prima facie case (id. at ¶ 5). In fact, defendants assert that the loss of such evidence is more prejudicial to them, “as it will be evidence that they now lack to show that plaintiff failed to keep his bicycle in proper condition and failed to request a proper maintenance from defendants at the time that he [initially] brought the bicycle in to be repaired” (id. at ¶ 6).

Based upon a review of the record submitted by the parties and the relevant law, the Court denies plaintiff’s motion. CPLR § 3126 provides for the striking out of a party’s pleadings when that party “refuses to obey an order for disclosure or wilfully fails [*7] to disclose information which the court finds ought to have been disclosed . . .” (CPLR § 3126 [3]). However, such a drastic remedy is “unwarranted absent a ‘clear showing that the failure to comply with discovery demands was willful, contumacious or in bad faith'” (Foncette v LA Express, 295 AD2d 471, 472, 744 N.Y.S.2d 429 [2d Dept 2002]). Moreover, under the common law, “when a party negligently loses or intentionally destroys key evidence, thereby depriving the non-responsible party from being able to prove its claim or defense, the responsible party may be sanctioned by the striking of its pleading” (Baglio v St. John’s Queens Hosp., 303 AD2d 341, 342, 755 N.Y.S.2d 427 [2d Dept 2003]). Additionally, a pleading may be stricken where the evidence lost or destroyed is so central to the case .that it renders the party seeking the evidence “prejudicially bereft of appropriate means to confront a claim with incisive evidence” (Foncette, 295 AD2d at 472; see Awon v Harran Transp. Co., Inc., 69 AD3d 889, 890, 895 N.Y.S.2d 135 [2d Dept 2010]). Notably, “even if the evidence was destroyed before the spoliator became a party, [the pleading may nonetheless be stricken] provided [the party] was on notice that the evidence might be needed for future litigation” (Baglio, 303 AD2d at 342).

[**5] As an initial matter, the Court notes that a Notice to Preserve Evidence was not served on defendants until more than one year after the subject accident occurred and the instant action was commenced (see MetLife Auto & Home v Joe Basil Chevrolet, Inc., 1 NY3d 478, 484, 807 N.E.2d 865, 775 N.Y.S.2d 754 [2004]) [*8] . Absent such notice, the Court finds that plaintiff’s act in requesting insurance information was insufficient to put a layperson such as Mr. Underwood on notice that litigation was contemplated.

Moreover, the Court finds that plaintiff has failed to demonstrate that Mr. Underwood’s act in discarding the removed bicycle parts was willful and contumacious (see Di Domenico v C & S Aeromatik Supplies, 252 AD2d 41, 52, 682 N.Y.S.2d 452 [2d Dept 1998]). Plaintiff also fails to establish that Mr. Underwood’s actions have completely deprived him of the ability to prove his prima facie case (cf. Baglio, 303 AD2d at 342). As defendants note, plaintiff still has at his disposal the photograph reflecting the defective condition of the bicycle at the time of the accident, as well as Mr. Underwood’s undisputed deposition testimony detailing which portions of the bicycle he fixed and which portions he discarded. Thus, while it cannot be said that plaintiff is not adversely affected by the loss of the defective bicycle parts, the Court finds that plaintiff has failed to demonstrate that he is prejudiced by this loss (see Awon, 69 AD3d at 890; Foncette, 295 AD2d at 472).

Conclusion

Accordingly, that portion of plaintiff’s motion seeking to strike defendants’ Answer is denied. That portion of plaintiff’s motion seeking an order providing for the filing of [*9] the NOI is denied as moot. A review of the court’s record indicates that plaintiff filed the NOI herein on October 14, 2016. The parties are reminded of their September 6, 2017 appearance in JCP.

The foregoing constitutes the decision and order of the Court.

ENTER,

/s/ Larry Martin

HON. LARRY MARTIN

J.S.C.