Downes et al. v. Oglethorpe University, Inc., 342 Ga.App. 250 (Ga.App. 2017)

Downes et al. v. Oglethorpe University, Inc., 342 Ga.App. 250 (Ga.App. 2017)

342 Ga.App. 250 (Ga.App. 2017)

802 S.E.2d 437

Downes et al. v. Oglethorpe University, Inc

A17A0246

Court of Appeals of Georgia

June 30, 2017

Assumption of the risk. DeKalb State Court. Before Judge Polk, pro hac vice.

Katherine L. McArthur, Caleb F. Walker, for appellants.

Swift, Currie, McGhee & Hiers, David M. Atkinson, for appellee.

OPINION

[802 S.E.2d 438]

Ellington, Presiding Judge.

Erik Downes, then a 20-year-old college student, drowned in the Pacific Ocean on January 4, 2011, while he was in Costa Rica attending a study-abroad program organized by Oglethorpe University, Inc. Elvis Downes and Myrna Lintner (the ” Appellants” ), as Downes’s parents and next of kin, and in their capacity as administrators of Downes’s estate, brought this wrongful death action alleging that Oglethorpe’s negligence and gross negligence were the proximate cause of Downes’s drowning. The trial court granted Oglethorpe’s motion for summary judgment, and the Appellants appeal. We affirm because, as a matter of law, Downes assumed [802 S.E.2d 439] the risk of drowning when he chose to swim in the Pacific Ocean.

Under OCGA § 9-11-56 (c), [s]ummary judgment is warranted if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, 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. We review the grant or denial of a motion for summary judgment de novo, and we view the evidence, and the reasonable inferences drawn therefrom, in a light most favorable to the nonmovant. (Citations and punctuation omitted.) Assaf v. Cincinnati Ins. Co., 327 Ga.App. 475, 475-476 (759 S.E.2d 557) (2014). See also Johnson v. Omondi, 294 Ga. 74, 75-76 (751 S.E.2d 288) (2013) (accord).

So viewed, the evidence shows the following. During the 2010-2011 academic year, Oglethorpe offered to their students a 12-day study-abroad trip to Costa Rica. The students were charged a fee for the trip to pay for expenses such as airfare, lodging, and food. The students were also required to pay the ” per credit tuition rate” and were to receive four credits toward their degree for academic work associated with the trip. Oglethorpe retained Horizontes, a Costa Rican tour operator, to coordinate the trip and to provide transportation and an English-speaking guide.

Dr. Jeffrey Collins was then the director of Oglethorpe’s study-abroad program. According to Collins, Oglethorpe tried to follow ” best practices,” which is ” defined as those protocols, procedures that as best and as far as possible ensure[ ] the safety of students.” He acknowledged that students would swim on the trips. Collins was not aware of any potential dangers in Costa Rica and did no investigation to ascertain if there were potential dangers in Costa Rica.

During pre-trip meetings with Downes and the five other students who had registered for the program, Dr. Roark Donnelly and Dr. Cassandra Copeland, the two professors who accompanied the students on the trip, asked the students if everyone was a good swimmer, and the students agreed that they were. The group also discussed swimming in the ocean, including ” that there are going to be currents.” One of the professors told the students that, during a previous study-abroad trip to another location, a student had recognized that he was a weak swimmer and was required to wear a life jacket during all water activities. After hearing this, the students continued to express that they were good swimmers. Before leaving on the trip, the students were required to sign a release agreement which included an exculpatory clause pertaining to Oglethorpe.

The students and professors flew to Costa Rica on December 28, 2010. During the course of the trip, on the afternoon of January 4, 2011, the group arrived at a hotel on the Pacific coast. The six students, two professors, the guide, and the driver got into their bus and drove to a nearby beach, Playa Ventanas, which had been recommended by the hotel. Upon their arrival, there were other people on the beach and in the water. There were no warning signs posted on the beach, nor any lifeguards or safety equipment present.

The students swam in the ocean, staying mostly together, and eventually ventured out into deeper water. After about 20 minutes, Dr. Donnelly yelled for the students to move closer to shore. Shortly thereafter, student Robert Cairns, a former lifeguard, heard a female student screaming. Cairns swam toward the screams, and the student informed him that Downes needed help. Cairns realized that ” some kind of current … had pulled us out.” Cairns swam to within ten feet of Downes and told him to get on his back and try to float. Downes could not get on his back, and Cairns kept telling him he had to try. After some time, Downes was struck by a wave, went under the water, and disappeared from Cairns’s view. Downes’s body was recovered from the ocean three days later.

The Appellants filed this wrongful death action claiming that Downes’s death was the proximate result of Oglethorpe’s negligence and gross negligence. Evidence adduced during discovery included the testimony of Dr. John Fletemeyer, the Appellants’ expert in [802 S.E.2d 440] coastal sciences, that Downes had been caught in a ” rip current” [1] when he became distressed and ultimately drowned. Dr. Fletemeyer opined that some beaches on the western coast of Costa Rica are particularly dangerous ” mainly [because of] the lack of lifeguards,” but also because of physical conditions such as ” high wave energy force” and ” pocket beaches,” and that Playa Ventanas was a pocket beach.[2] He also testified that, in the context of the ocean, ” every beach you go to is extremely dangerous.” Other testimony showed that a continuing problem with drownings on beaches along the Pacific coast of Costa Rica was well publicized in Costa Rica, and that the United States Consular Authority in Costa Rica had ” published statistics about the danger of swimming on Costa Rica’s beaches and identified specifically the west coast beaches as being the most dangerous.” [3]

Following discovery, Oglethorpe moved for summary judgment and argued that (i) Oglethorpe owed no legal duty to Downes; (ii) the Appellants’ negligence claims are barred by Downes’s written waiver of liability and there is a lack of evidence that Oglethorpe was grossly negligent; and (iii) Downes assumed the risk of swimming in the ocean. The trial court granted Oglethorpe’s motion for summary judgment.

1. The Appellants contend that Oglethorpe was not entitled to summary judgment on the ground that Downes, as a matter of law, assumed the risk of drowning when he swam in the ocean.[4]

The affirmative defense of assumption of the risk bars a plaintiff from recovering on a negligence claim if it is established that he[,] without coercion of circumstances, chooses a course of action with full knowledge of its danger and while exercising a free choice as to whether to engage in the act or not. (Citation and punctuation omitted.) Vaughn v. Pleasent, 266 Ga. 862, 864 (1) (471 S.E.2d 866) (1996).

A defendant asserting an assumption of the risk defense must establish that the plaintiff (i) had knowledge of the danger; (ii) understood and appreciated the risks associated with such danger; and (iii) voluntarily exposed himself to those risks. The knowledge requirement does not refer to a comprehension of general, non-specific risks. Rather, the knowledge that a plaintiff who assumes the risk must subjectively possess is that of the specific, particular risk of harm associated with the activity or condition that proximately causes injury.

(Citation and punctuation omitted.) Gilreath v. Smith, 340 Ga.App. 265, 268 (1) (797 S.E.2d 177) (2017). ” As a general rule, whether a party assumed the risk of his injury is an issue for the jury that should not be decided by summary judgment unless the defense is conclusively established by plain, palpable and undisputed evidence.” (Citation and punctuation omitted.) Findley v. Griffin, 292 Ga.App. 807, 809 (2) (666 S.E.2d 79) (2008).

[342 Ga.App. 254] It is well established under Georgia law that ” [t]he danger of drowning in water is a palpable and manifest peril, the knowledge of which is chargeable to [persons] in the absence of a showing of want of ordinary capacity.” Bourn v. Herring, 225 Ga. 67, 69 (2) (166 S.E.2d 89) (1969). See, e.g., White v.

[802 S.E.2d 441]Ga. Power Co., 265 Ga.App. 664, 666 (1) (595 S.E.2d 353) (2004) (the ” [p]erils of deep water are instinctively known” ). The record does not show that Downes was aware of the presence of rip currents in the waters off the beach; however, ” [i]t is the body of water per se that presents an obvious risk of drowning, not its attendant conditions such as a strong unseen current or a deep unknown hole.” Id. at 667 (1). As Downes was a competent adult, he was necessarily aware of the risk of drowning when he voluntarily entered the Pacific Ocean.

The Appellants contend that Oglethorpe had a duty to exercise ordinary care in the planning and implementing of its study-abroad program to avoid exposing the students to a risk of drowning. Because Oglethorpe owed this duty, they contend, the fact that Downes entered the water voluntarily does not establish as a matter of law that he assumed the risk of drowning. Rather, they contend, Oglethorpe created the dangerous situation by taking Downes to the beach without investigating its dangers, adopting an emergency preparedness plan, ensuring the professors in charge had adequate training and procedures for supervising swimming students, and supplying safety equipment.

Assuming that Oglethorpe, having undertaken a study-abroad program, was under a duty to act with reasonable care, and that there is evidence of record that Oglethorpe failed to do so, assumption of risk is nevertheless a defense to negligence. ” Even if a defendant is negligent, a determination that a plaintiff assumed the risk or failed to exercise ordinary care for [his] own safety bars recovery for the resulting injury suffered by the plaintiff, unless the injury was wilfully and wantonly inflicted.” (Citation omitted.) City of Winder v. Girone, 265 Ga. 723, 724 (2) (462 S.E.2d 704) (1995). In Rice v. Oaks Investors II, 292 Ga.App. 692, 693-694 (1) (666 S.E.2d 63) (2008), the defendant was entitled to a directed verdict where, notwithstanding evidence that the defendants were negligent per se in failing to properly enclose the pool in which the ten-year-old decedent drowned, the child’s own negligence was the sole proximate cause of her death because the risk of swimming in the pool was obvious as a matter of law. Similarly, notwithstanding whether a defendant breached a duty to care for or supervise a decedent, the decedent’s assumption of the risk of injury may bar recovery. See Sayed v. Azizullah, 238 Ga.App. 642, 643-644 (519 S.E.2d 732) (1999) (finding no need to reach the issue [342 Ga.App. 255] of whether a duty was owed by the defendant to care for the 17-year-old decedent because the decedent was charged with appreciating the risk of swimming in the lake as a matter of law, and he voluntarily assumed that risk); Riley v. Brasunas, 210 Ga.App. 865, 868 (2) (438 S.E.2d 113) (1993) (any failure of the defendant to exercise the duty of an ordinary responsible guardian in watching over the seven-year-old child, who was injured using a trampoline, could not be the proximate cause of the child’s injuries where the child knowingly exposed himself to the obvious danger). See also Bourn v. Herring, 225 Ga. at 69-70 (2) (as the decedent, who was over 14 years old, was chargeable with diligence for his own safety against palpable and manifest peril, plaintiff could not recover against defendants for failure to exercise ordinary care in supervising the decedent in and around the lake in which he drowned).

As Appellants show, a decedent’s decision to enter a body of water with awareness of the physical circumstances is not necessarily determinative of whether the decedent assumed the risk of drowning. For example, the breach of a duty to provide statutorily required safety equipment may be ” inextricable from the proximate cause of the damage.” (Citation and punctuation omitted.) Holbrook v. Exec. Conference Center, 219 Ga.App. 104, 107 (2) (464 S.E.2d 398) (1995) (finding that a jury could determine that the absence of statutorily mandated safety equipment was the proximate cause of the decedent’s drowning in the defendant’s pool). See Alexander v. Harnick, 142 Ga.App. 816, 817 (2) (237 S.E.2d 221) (1977) (where the decedent drowned after she jumped from the defendant’s houseboat into the water in an attempt to rescue her dog, and the defendant did not have any throwable life preservers on board, nor readily accessible life vests, as required by law, ” a jury would not be precluded [802 S.E.2d 442] from finding that the absence of the safety equipment was the proximate cause of the decedent’s death merely because she entered the water voluntarily” ). And in premises liability actions, the general rule is ” that owners or operators of nonresidential swimming facilities owe an affirmative duty to exercise ordinary and reasonable care for the safety and protection of invitees swimming in the pool.” Walker v. Daniels, 200 Ga.App. 150, 155 (1) (407 S.E.2d 70) (1991).

Appellants do not show, however, that Oglethorpe was under a statutory or common law duty to provide safety equipment to its students during an excursion to the beach, or that the ocean is analogous to a nonresidential swimming pool. Nor can we conclude that Oglethorpe became an insurer for the safety of its students by undertaking a study-abroad program, or that it was responsible for the peril encountered by Downes in that it transported him to the beach. Compare Alexander v. Harnick, 142 Ga.App. at 817 (3) (an issue of fact remained as to whether, by taking decedent onto the water without the statutorily required safety equipment, defendant helped to create her peril). Because he was a competent adult, Downes would have appreciated the specific risk of drowning posed by entering a body of water so inherently dangerous as the Pacific Ocean. As Downes voluntarily did so, Oglethorpe established that he assumed that risk. Although Downes’s death was undeniably tragic, we are constrained to conclude that the trial court correctly granted Oglethorpe’s motion for summary judgment.

2. The Appellants’ other claims of error are moot.

Judgment affirmed.

Andrews and Rickman, JJ., concur.

Notes:

[1]The evidence showed that ” [a] rip current is a strong outflow or stream of water usually beginning at the beach, moving perpendicular to the beach, beginning with the neck and then terminating at some point beyond the surf line[.]”

[2]Fletemeyer’s testimony is not explicit as to why pocket beaches are dangerous to swimmers, although, in the context of the line of questioning, his testimony implies that the physical characteristics of pocket beaches are associated with the formation of rip currents.

[3]The evidence did not show that Playa Ventanas, in particular, had an unusually high number of drownings.

[4]The Appellants also contend that the trial court erred in granting Oglethorpe’s motion for summary judgment (1) because Oglethorpe owed a duty to exercise ordinary care for the safety of its students in the planning and implementation of its study-abroad program, and material issues of fact remain regarding Oglethorpe’s negligence, (2) the exculpatory clause in the release agreement signed by Downes is not enforceable, and (3) gross negligence cannot be waived by an exculpatory clause, and material issues of fact remain as to whether Oglethorpe was grossly negligent.


Langlois v. Nova River Runners, Inc., 2018 Alas. LEXIS 31

Langlois v. Nova River Runners, Inc., 2018 Alas. LEXIS 31

Vanessa L. Langlois, Personal Representative of the Estate of Stephen J. Morton, Appellant, v. Nova River Runners, Inc., Appellee.

Supreme Court No. S-16422, No. 1669

Supreme Court of Alaska

2018 Alas. LEXIS 31

March 21, 2018, Decided

NOTICE: MEMORANDUM DECISIONS OF THIS COURT DO NOT CREATE LEGAL PRECEDENT. SEE ALASKA APPELLATE GUIDELINES FOR PUBLICATION OF SUPREME COURT DECISIONS. ACCORDINGLY, THIS MEMORANDUM DECISION MAY NOT BE CITED FOR ANY PROPOSITION OF LAW, NOR AS AN EXAMPLE OF THE PROPER RESOLUTION OF ANY ISSUE.

PRIOR HISTORY: [*1] Appeal from the Superior Court of the State of Alaska, Third Judicial District, Anchorage, Pamela Scott Washington, Judge pro tem. Superior Court No. 3AN-15-06866 CI.

CASE SUMMARY

OVERVIEW: HOLDINGS: [1]-A release entitled defendant rafting company to wrongful

COUNSEL: Mara E. Michaletz and David K. Gross, Birch Horton Bittner & Cherot, Anchorage, for Appellant.

Howard A. Lazar, Scott J. Gerlach, and Luba K. Bartnitskaia, Delaney Wiles, Inc., Anchorage, for Appellee.

JUDGES: Before: Stowers, Chief Justice, Winfree, Maassen, Bolger, and Carney, Justices. Winfree, Justice, with whom Carney, Justice, joins, dissenting.

OPINION

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND JUDGMENT*

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* Entered under Alaska Appellate Rule 214.

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I. INTRODUCTION

The estate of a man who drowned on a rafting trip challenged the validity of the pre-trip liability release. The superior court granted summary judgment in favor of the rafting company. Because there were no genuine issues of material fact and the release was effective under our precedent, we affirm.

II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

In May 2013 Stephen Morton took part in a whitewater rafting trip on Six Mile Creek near Hope. The trip was conducted by NOVA River Runners (NOVA). This case arises out of Morton’s tragic death by drowning after his raft capsized.

A. The Release

Before embarking on a rafting trip, participants typically receive and sign [*2] NOVA’s liability release (the Release). The Release is provided as a single two-sided document. One side is entitled “Participant’s Acknowledgment of Risks” and begins with a definition of activities: “any adventure, sport or activity associated with the outdoors and/or wilderness and the use or presence of watercraft, including but not limited to kayaks, rafts, oar boats and glacier hiking and ice climbing equipment, including crampons, ski poles, climbing harnesses and associated ice climbing hardware.” The Release then states:

Although the concessionaire has taken reasonable steps to provide you with appropriate equipment and/or skilled guides so you can enjoy an activity for which you may not be skilled, we wish to remind you this activity is not without risk. Certain risks cannot be eliminated without destroying the unique character of the activity.

The Release then provides a list of “some, but not all” of the “inherent risks,” including “[m]y . . . ability to swim . . . and/or follow instructions” and “[l]oss of control of the craft, collision, capsizing, and sinking of the craft, which can result in wetness, injury, . . . and/or drowning.” The Release next asks participants to [*3] affirm that they possess certain qualifications, including physical capability and safety awareness. The last section of the first side purports to waive liability for the negligent acts of NOVA and its employees. There is no designated space for signatures or initials on this side.

At the top of the other side, participants are asked to acknowledge that “[They] have read, understood, and accepted the terms and conditions stated herein” and that the agreement “shall be binding upon [the participant] . . . and [their] estate.” No terms or conditions appear on this side. There are then three signature blocks where up to three participants can sign, with space to include an emergency contact, allergies, and medications.

Brad Cosgrove, NOVA’s “river manager” for this trip, did not recall whether Morton read the Release before signing it, but stated that “[n]obody was rushed into signing” and that he “physically showed each participant” both sides of the Release. Bernd Horsman, who rafted with Morton that day, stated that he recalled “sign[ing] a document that briefly stated that you waive any liability in case something happens” but thought the document only had one side. He did not recall [*4] “someone physically show[ing]” the Release to him, but he wasn’t rushed into signing it. Both Horsman’s and Morton’s signatures appear on the Release.

B. The Rafting Trip

The rafting trip consisted of three canyons. NOVA would routinely give participants the opportunity to disembark after the second canyon, because the third canyon is the most difficult. Morton did not choose to disembark after the second canyon, and his raft capsized in the third canyon. Cosgrove was able to pull him from the river and attempted to resuscitate him. NOVA contacted emergency services and delivered Morton for further care, but he died shortly thereafter.

C. Legal Proceedings

Morton’s widow, Vanessa Langlois, brought suit as the personal representative of Morton’s estate (the Estate) in May 2015 under AS 09.55.580 (wrongful death) and AS 09.55.570 (survival), requesting compensatory damages, plus costs, fees, and interest. The Estate alleged that NOVA was negligent and listed multiple theories primarily based on the employees’ actions or omissions.

NOVA moved for summary judgment in November 2015, arguing that the Release barred the Estate’s claims. NOVA supported its position with the signed Release and affidavits from NOVA’s owner [*5] and Cosgrove. The Estate opposed and filed a cross-motion for summary judgment to preclude NOVA from relying on the Release. The parties then stipulated to stay formal discovery until the court had ruled on these motions but agreed on procedures for conducting discovery in the interim if needed. Pursuant to the stipulation, the parties deposed Horsman and filed supplemental briefing.

In June 2016 the superior court granted NOVA’s motion for summary judgment and denied the Estate’s, reasoning that the Release was valid under our precedent. This appeal followed. The Estate argues that the superior court erred in granting summary judgment because the Release did not satisfy the six elements of our test for a valid waiver.

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

“We review grants of summary judgment de novo, determining whether the record presents any genuine issues of material fact.”1 “If the record fails to reveal a genuine factual dispute and the moving party was entitled to judgment as a matter of law, the trial court’s grant of summary judgment must be affirmed.”2 “Questions of contract interpretation are questions of law that we review de novo . . . .”3

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1 Donahue v. Ledgends, Inc., 331 P.3d 342, 346 (Alaska 2014) (citing Hill v. Giani, 296 P.3d 14, 20 (Alaska 2013)).2 Id. (citing Kelly v. Municipality of Anchorage, 270 P.3d 801, 803 (Alaska 2012)).3 Sengul v. CMS Franklin, Inc., 265 P.3d 320, 324 (Alaska 2011) (citing Norville v. Carr-Gottstein Foods Co., 84 P.3d 996, 1000 n.1 (Alaska 2004)).

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IV. DISCUSSION

Alaska Statute 09.65.290 provides that “[a] person who [*6] participates in a sports or recreational activity assumes the inherent risks in that sports or recreational activity and is legally responsible for . . . death to the person . . . that results from the inherent risks in that sports or recreational activity.” The statute does not apply, however, to “a civil action based on the . . . negligence of a provider if the negligence was the proximate cause of the . . . death.”4 Thus, in order to avoid liability for negligence, recreational companies must supplement the statutory scheme by having participants release them from liability through waivers.

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4 AS 09.65.290(c).

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Extrapolating from principles articulated in three earlier cases,5 we recently adopted, in Donahue v. Ledgends, Inc., a six-element test for finding effective waiver:

(1) the risk being waived must 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 . . . ; (4) the release must not violate public policy; (5) if a release seeks to exculpate a defendant from liability for acts of negligence unrelated [*7] 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.6

The Estate argues that NOVA’s release does not satisfy this test. We analyze these six elements in turn and conclude that NOVA’s Release is effective.7

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5 See Donahue, 331 P.3d at 346-48 (discussing Ledgends, Inc. v. Kerr, 91 P.3d 960 (Alaska 2004); Moore v. Hartley Motors, Inc., 36 P.3d 628 (Alaska 2001); and Kissick v. Schmierer, 816 P.2d 188 (Alaska 1991)).6 Id. at 348. In Donahue, a woman sued a rock climbing gym after she broke her tibia by falling a few feet onto a mat at the instruction of an employee, and we concluded that the release barred her negligence claim. Id. at 344-45.7 Our review of the record reveals no genuine issues of material fact with respect to the existence and terms of the Release.

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A. The Release Specifically And Clearly Sets Forth The Risk Being Waived.

The Estate first argues that the Release was not a “conspicuous and unequivocal statement of the risk waived” because the Release was two-sided and the sides did not appear to incorporate each other.8 For support, the Estate cites an “analogous” Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) case from Florida for the proposition that “a disclaimer is likely inconspicuous where ‘there is nothing on the face of the writing to call attention to the back of the instrument.'”9 The Estate points out that the release in Donahue had two separate pages, and the participant initialed the first page and signed the second.10 The Estate also identifies Horsman’s confusion about whether the Release had one or two sides as evidence that the Release was not conspicuous, raising possible issues of material fact about whether Morton [*8] would have been aware of the other side or whether Cosgrove actually showed each participant both sides.11

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8 See Donahue, 331 P.3d at 348.9 The Estate quotes Rudy’s Glass Constr. Co. v. E. F. Johnson Co., 404 So. 2d 1087, 1089 (Fla. Dist. App. 1981) (citing Massey-Ferguson, Inc. v. Utley, 439 S.W.2d 57 (Ky. 1969); Hunt v. Perkins Mach. Co., 352 Mass. 535, 226 N.E.2d 228 (Mass. 1967)).10 See Donahue, 331 P.3d at 345.11 The Estate raises these arguments outside the context of Donahue, but we address them here.

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We note that Participants in a recreational activity need not read a release for it to be binding if the language of the release is available to them.12 We conclude that NOVA’s Release was sufficiently clear, even without an initial block on the first side. The signature page stated, “I have read, understood, and accepted the terms and conditions stated herein,” but no terms and conditions appeared on this side. A reasonable person, after reading the word “herein,” would be on notice that the document had another side.

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12 See Donahue, 331 P.3d at 349 (citing Lauvetz v. Alaska Sales & Serv., 828 P.2d 162, 164-65 (Alaska 1991)).

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The Estate also argues that NOVA’s Release “does not specifically and clearly set forth the risk that the NOVA instructors may have been negligently trained or supervised, or that they may give inadequate warning or instructions.” But NOVA’s Release, like the release in Donahue, “clearly and repeatedly disclosed the risk of the specific injury at issue”13 — here, death by drowning. Like the plaintiff in Donahue, the Estate, “[r]ather than focusing on [the] injury[,] . . . focuses on its alleged cause,”14 i.e., negligent training or instruction. But the [*9] Release covers this risk as well; it indemnifies the “Releasees” in capital letters from liability for injury or death, “whether arising from negligence of the Releasees or otherwise,” and specifically defines “Releasees” to include “employees.” In Donahue, we also observed that “[i]t would not be reasonable to conclude that [the defendant] sought a release only of those claims against it that did not involve the acts or omissions of any of its employees.”15 Thus, the Estate’s argument that NOVA’s Release “does not specifically and clearly set forth the risk that the NOVA instructors may have been negligently trained or supervised” is not persuasive.

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13 Id. at 348.14 Id. at 349.15 Id.

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B. The Release Uses The Word “Negligence.”

Donahue provides that “a waiver of negligence must be specifically set forth using the word ‘negligence.'”16 The Estate argues that the Release’s “references to negligence are inconsistent,” and therefore it does not fulfill our requirement that a release be “clear, explicit[,] and comprehensible in each of its essential details.”17 But we concluded in Donahue that similar language satisfied this element.

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16 Id. at 348.17 Kissick v. Schmierer, 816 P.2d 188, 191 (Alaska 1991) (quoting Ferrell v. S. Nev. Off-Road Enthusiasts, Ltd., 147 Cal. App. 3d 309, 195 Cal. Rptr. 90, 95 (Cal. App. 1983)).

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The release in Donahue provided: “I hereby voluntarily release, forever discharge, and agree to [*10] indemnify and hold harmless the [defendant] from any and all claims, demands, or causes of action, . . . including any such claims which allege negligent acts or omissions of [the defendant].”18 We emphasized that “[t]he phrase ‘any and all claims’ is thus expressly defined to include claims for negligence.”19

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18 Donahue, 331 P.3d at 345.19 Id. at 349.

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Here, the Release reads, in relevant part:

I . . . HEREBY RELEASE NOVA . . . WITH RESPECT TO ANY AND ALL INJURY, DISABILITY, DEATH, or loss, or damage to persons or property incident to my involvement or participation in these programs, WHETHER ARISING FROM NEGLIGENCE OF THE RELEASEES OR OTHERWISE, to the fullest extent permitted by law.

I . . . HEREBY INDEMNIFY AND HOLD HARMLESS all the above Releasees from any and all liabilities incident to my involvement or participation in these programs, EVEN IF ARISING FROM THEIR NEGLIGENCE to the fullest extent permitted by law.

NOVA’s Release uses the word “negligence” twice, and there is no material difference between the “any and all claims” language used in Donahue and the “any and all liabilities” language used here. We therefore conclude that the Release specifically set forth a waiver of negligence.

C. The Release Uses Simple Language And [*11] Emphasized Text.

Donahue provides that The intent of a release to waive liability for negligence “must be brought home to the releasor in clear, emphasized language.”20 The Estate argues that the Release fails to use clear language or adequately define the “activity” it covered and thus does not waive liability for negligence. This argument does not withstand the application of Donahue.

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20 Id. at 348.

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In Donahue, the clauses addressing negligence “[did] not appear to be ‘calculated to conceal'” and were “in a logical place where they [could not] be missed by someone who reads the release.”21 Here, the Release uses capital letters to highlight the clauses waiving negligence. Though the clauses fall near the bottom of the page, they were certainly “in a logical place where they [could not] be missed by someone who reads the release” from start to finish, and thus under Donahue they were not “calculated to conceal.” And though these clauses contain some legalese, ” releases should be read ‘as a whole’ in order to decide whether they ‘clearly notify the prospective releasor . . . of the effect of signing the agreement.'”22 The list of inherent risks uses very simple language: “cold weather,” “[m]y sense of balance,” [*12] “drowning,” “[a]ccidents or illnesses,” and “[f]atigue, chill and/or dizziness.”

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21 Id. at 350.22 Id. at 351 (quoting Kissick, 816 P.2d at 191).

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The Release extends to other activities such as “glacier hiking and ice climbing,” but any ambiguity is cleared up by the explicit list of inherent risks relating to whitewater rafting. We therefore conclude that the Release brings home to the reader its intent to waive liability for negligence using simple language and emphasized text.

D. The Release Does Not Violate Public Policy.

Donahue requires that “the release must not violate public policy.”23 Citing no legal authority, the Estate asserts that NOVA’s waiver “unquestionably violates public policy due to its vast scope.”

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23 Id. at 348.

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“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.”24 In evaluating public policy arguments in the context of liability waivers, we have previously considered “[o]f particular relevance . . . the type of service performed and whether the party seeking exculpation has a decisive advantage in bargaining strength because of the essential nature [*13] of the service.”25 The type of service likely to inspire additional scrutiny on public policy grounds is “a service of great importance to the public, which is often a matter of practical necessity for some members of the public.'”26 Using this analysis, we deemed an all-terrain vehicle safety course “not an essential service,” meaning that “the class providers did not have a ‘decisive advantage of bargaining strength’ in requiring the release for participation in the class.”27

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24 Id. at 348 n.34 (citing Kissick, 816 P.2d at 191).25 Moore v. Hartley Motors, Inc., 36 P.3d 628, 631 (Alaska 2001) (citing Municipality of Anchorage v. Locker, 723 P.2d 1261, 1265 (Alaska 1986)).26 Id. (quoting Locker, 723 P.2d at 1265).27 Id. at 631-32 (citing Locker, 723 P.2d at 1265).

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Similarly, here, whitewater rafting, far from being a matter of practical necessity, is an optional activity, meaning that under Moore v. Hartley Motors, Inc., NOVA did not have an advantage in bargaining strength. We therefore conclude that the Release does not violate public policy.

E. The Release Suggests An Intent To Exculpate NOVA From Liability For Employee Negligence.

Donahue provides 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.”28 But regardless of whether acts of negligence are related to inherent risks, this requirement is met when “the injury and its alleged causes are all expressly covered [*14] in the release.”29 The Estate argues that the Release does not suggest an intent to exculpate NOVA from liability for employee negligence. We disagree.

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28 Donahue, 331 P.3d at 348.29 Id. at 352.

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As we have explained, the Release specifically covered employee negligence by including “employees” in the clause releasing NOVA from liability for negligence. Because the injury — death by drowning — and its alleged cause — employee negligence — are expressly included in the Release, it satisfies this Donahue element.30

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30 We further observe that the Release’s list of inherent risks tracks some of the Estate’s allegations about employee negligence. For example, the Estate alleged that NOVA “fail[ed] to preclude those participants who were not qualified to handle the rafting trip,” but the Release discloses that a participant’s “ability to swim . . . and/or follow instructions” was an inherent risk of the trip.

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The Estate correctly notes that the Donahue release specifically covered the risk of “inadequate warnings or instructions” from employees, unlike the general reference to employee negligence here.31 Ideally NOVA’s Release would include a more detailed description of the types of negligence it covers, such as “employee negligence” and “negligent training.” But doing so is not a requirement under Donahue. We therefore conclude that the Release suggests an intent to exculpate NOVA from liability for acts of employee negligence.32

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31 Donahue, 331 P.3d at 352.32 We therefore do not reach the question whether employee negligence is unrelated to inherent risks of guided whitewater rafting. See id. at 348.

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F. The Release Does Not Represent Or Insinuate Standards Of Safety Or Maintenance.

Donahue provides that “the release agreement must not represent or insinuate standards of safety or maintenance.”33 The [*15] Estate argues that the Release violates this element with the following statement: “the concessionaire has taken reasonable steps to provide you with appropriate equipment and/or skilled guides so you can enjoy an activity for which you may not be skilled.” But this statement is introduced by the word “[a]lthough” and falls within the same sentence as the disclosure that “this activity is not without risk.” This sentence is immediately followed by a sentence indicating that “[c]ertain risks cannot be eliminated without destroying the unique character of the activity.” And the Release goes on to list 11 risks inherent in whitewater rafting. Reading the Release as a whole, we cannot conclude that it represented or insinuated standards of safety or maintenance.

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33 Id.

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We noted that the release in Donahue “highlight[ed] the fallibility of [the defendant’s] employees, equipment, and facilities.”34 Here, though the Release does not — and was not required to under the Donahue elements — go that far, it does list as inherent risks “[l]oss of control of the craft” and “sinking of the craft,” raising the possibility of human error, fallible equipment, and adverse forces of nature. The Release also [*16] makes various references to the isolated, outdoor nature of the activity — listing “[c]hanging water flow,” “inclement weather,” and the “remote” location as inherent risks.

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34 Id. at 352.

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The Estate cites Ledgends, Inc. v. Kerr35 in support of its argument that the Release impermissibly both represents a standard of maintenance and tries to disclaim liability for failing to adhere to it. In Kerr, we concluded that a release that contained statements such as “[w]hile we try to make the [premises] safe” and “[w]hile we strive to provide appropriate equipment for people of all abilities and to keep the equipment in good condition” was invalid because, read as a whole, it did “not conspicuously and unequivocally alert” participants of its scope.36 We went on to hold that “[t]he representations in the release regarding the [defendant]’s own efforts toward safety suggest that the release was predicated on a presumption that the [defendant] would strive to meet the standards of maintenance and safety mentioned in the release.”37

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35 91 P.3d 960 (Alaska 2004). Like Donahue, Kerr also arose out of an injury at an indoor rock climbing gym. Id. at 961.36 Id. at 963-64.37 Id. at 963.

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But the Release in question here is dissimilar in key ways. Compared to the release in Kerr, which contained language representing safety standards throughout,38 NOVA’s Release [*17] contains only a single half-sentence to that effect, adequately disclaimed: “Although the concessionaire has taken reasonable steps to provide you with appropriate equipment and/or skilled guides so you can enjoy an activity for which you may not be skilled, this activity is not without risk. Certain risks cannot be eliminated without destroying the unique character of the activity.” And the release in Kerr was much broader — promising to “try to make the [premises] safe” — than NOVA’s Release, which promises merely that the company takes “reasonable steps to provide . . . appropriate equipment and/or skilled guides” while acknowledging in context that these precautions could not mitigate all the risks posed by a whitewater rafting trip. The Estate’s reliance on Kerr is thus misplaced, and we conclude that the Release does not represent or insinuate standards of safety or maintenance.

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38 Id. at 963-64.

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Because it satisfies the six Donahue elements, the Release effectively waived NOVA’s liability for negligence.

V. CONCLUSION

For the reasons explained above, we AFFIRM the superior court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of NOVA.

DISSENT BY: WINFREE

DISSENT

WINFREE, Justice, with whom CARNEY, Justice, joins, dissenting.

I respectfully [*18] dissent from the court’s decision affirming summary judgment in this case. I cannot agree with the court’s conclusions that the self-titled “Participant’s Acknowledgement [sic] of Risks”1 form actually is something other than what it calls itself — i.e., a “Release” form — and that it constitutes a valid release barring the Morton estate’s claims against NOVA River Runners.2 I would reverse the superior court’s decision, hold that the purported release is not valid under our precedent, and remand for further proceedings.

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1 The document is referred to by its title throughout, but the spelling has been changed to conform to our preferred style.2 The Participant’s Acknowledgment of Risks form signed by Stephen Morton is Appendix A to this dissent.

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The court’s application of the six factors we approved in Donahue v. Ledgends, Inc.3 ignores our prior case law from which these factors derived. Most salient to the factual situation and document at issue here is Ledgends, Inc. v. Kerr, affirming a superior court decision denying summary judgment based on a release document — titled “Release of Liability — Waiver of Claims” — that was far clearer, and certainly not less clear, than the purported release in this case.4 And although our prior cases about recreational releases have not focused on a document’s title, a title alerts a reader to the document’s purpose. In each case from which the Donahue factors derived, the [*19] document’s title clearly told the signer that the document was a release or that the signer was waiving legal claims. The release in Donahue was titled “Participant Release of Liability, Waiver of Claims, Assumption of Risks, and Indemnity Agreement — Alaska Rock Gym.”5 In Kerr the form was a “Release of Liability — Waiver of Claims.”6 The rider-safety school in Moore v. Hartley Motors, Inc. presented the participant a form that instructed “You Must Read and Sign This Consent Form and Release.”7 Only in Kissick v. Schmierer did the title of the document not contain the word “release,” but that form, provided by the U.S. Air Force, was a “Covenant Not to Sue and Indemnity Agreement”8 — a title giving notice that the signer was surrendering legal rights before participating in the activity. In contrast, an “Acknowledgment of Risks” in no way alerts a reader of the possibility of waiving all negligence related to an activity. A title indicating that a document will release or waive legal liability surely is a useful starting point for evaluating the validity of a recreational release.

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3 331 P.3d 342, 348 (Alaska 2014).4 91 P.3d 960, 961 (Alaska 2004). The release language in Kerr was included as an appendix to our opinion. Id. at 963-64. The rejected release from Kerr is Appendix B to this dissent for ease of comparison with the purported release in this case.5 331 P.3d at 344.6 91 P.3d at 961.7 36 P.3d 628, 632 (Alaska 2001).8 816 P.2d 188, 190 (Alaska 1991).

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Consistent with the principle that the purpose of contract interpretation is to give effect to the [*20] parties’ reasonable expectations,9 our prior cases require us to consider the agreement as a whole10 and to resolve “any ambiguities in pre-recreational exculpatory clauses . . . against the party seeking exculpation.”11 The agreement as a whole “must ‘clearly notify the prospective releasor or indemnitor of the effect of signing the release.'”12 Applying these directives to the Acknowledgment of Risks form, I conclude the document does not clearly apprise participants that they are surrendering all claims for negligence by NOVA, particularly claims based on inadequate training.

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9 See Peterson v. Wirum, 625 P.2d 866, 872 n.10 (Alaska 1981). A release is a type of contract. See Moore, 36 P.3d at 630-31.10 Kerr, 91 P.3d at 962.11 Id. at 961 (citing Kissick, 816 P.2d at 191).12 Id. at 962 (quoting Kissick, 816 P.2d at 191).

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As can be seen in Appendix A, the Acknowledgment of Risks form’s first indication that it might be anything more than what its title suggests appears approximately three-fourths of the way down a densely printed page that, up to that point, has mentioned only “inherent risks.” There the form asks participants for a self-evaluation of their abilities. After a line break, the form asks participants to certify that they are “fully capable of participating in these activities” and will “assume full responsibility for [themselves].” Then, without another line break or any heading to signify that the form is transitioning [*21] into a liability release rather than an acknowledgment of risks, the document sets out “release” language. While parts of this section are in capital letters, they are not in bold or otherwise set off from the dense text surrounding them. In short, considering the document as a whole, the apparent intent is to hide the release language at the very bottom of a dense, one-page document with a title completely unrelated to release of liability.

Additionally, the signature page in no way alerts the reader that operative release language is contained on another page, presumably the back side of that page. The short paragraph at the top, which the court relies on to hold that the form gave participants adequate notice of the release language, says only, “I have read, understood, and accepted the terms and conditions stated herein and acknowledge that this agreement shall be binding upon myself . . . .” While the court concludes that a reasonable person “would be on notice that the document had another side” solely because of the word “herein,” the court fails to explain its conclusion. In fact, Morton’s companion who was an experienced adventure traveler as well, Horsman, remembered the document [*22] consisting of only one page. As he put it, “[T]he way I read it is ‘conditions herein.’ Well, there’s not much herein . . . .”

In addition to the document’s overall structure, the Acknowledgment of Risks form fails to comply with several standards we previously have applied to recreational activity releases. Specifically, the mere inclusion of the word “negligence” in the release language is insufficient to make the Acknowledgment of Risks form a full release of all claims. The release we held invalid in Kerr also used the word “negligence,” but we agreed with the superior court that “[w]hen read as a whole” the purported release did “not clearly and unequivocally express an intent to release the Gym for liability for its own future negligence” with respect to all matters referenced in the release.13

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13 Id. at 963.

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The superior court’s Kerr decision, which we adopted and published as expressing our own view, highlighted the ineffectiveness of a release that did not “clearly alert climbers that they [were] giving up any claims that the Gym failed to meet the standards of maintenance and safety that the Gym specifically indicate[d] in the release that it [would] strive to achieve and upon which the release [*23] [might] have been predicated.”14 This is precisely what the Morton estate agues here: the Acknowledgment of Risks form promised participants that NOVA would provide adequately skilled guides but did not alert participants that they were giving up claims based on NOVA’s negligent failure to provide adequately skilled guides.

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14 Id.

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NOVA indicated in its Acknowledgment of Risks form that it had “taken reasonable steps to provide [a participant] with appropriate equipment and/or skilled guides so [the participant] can enjoy an activity for which [he] may not be skilled.” This is a representation that NOVA’s guides were adequately skilled to provide participants an enjoyable trip — not one fraught with danger.15 The Morton estate alleged in its complaint that NOVA’s guides were inadequately trained and did not properly screen participants to preclude those who were unable “to handle the rafting trip” from participating. Both specific allegations related to negligent training or failure to provide guides who were adequately skilled to assist unskilled participants to safely complete the trip. The Acknowledgment of Risks form, like the defective release in Kerr, can hardly be said to give a participants [*24] notice that the participants were surrendering claims related to negligent training or supervision.16

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15 The release could be read as requiring NOVA to provide either “appropriate equipment” or “skilled guides” but not both. But a reasonable person with no skill in rafting would almost certainly infer that NOVA intended to provide both appropriate equipment and skilled guides on a trip with Class V rapids.16 See Kerr, 91 P.3d at 963 (holding that release did not bar negligent maintenance claim because release promised to “strive to achieve” safety standards).

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The court concludes otherwise because the express statement that NOVA would provide skilled guides is in a sentence that also says rafting “is not without risk” and the Acknowledgment of Risks form then lists several inherent risks of rafting. But none of the listed risks is in any way related to unskilled guides or negligence in screening other participants.17 To the contrary, the enumerated risks focus on environmental and personal factors and include natural conditions, such as “[c]hanging water flow,” “presence of marine life,” and adverse weather; personal characteristics of the participant like “sense of balance, physical coordination, ability to swim, walk and/or follow instructions” and “[f]atigue, chill and/or dizziness, which may diminish [the participant’s] reaction time and increase the risk of accident”; and the risk of an accident “occurring in remote places where there are no available medical facilities.” The Acknowledgment of Risks form does not include — as the release in Donahue did — risks related to other participants’ “limits”18 or to employees’ “inadequate warnings [*25] or instructions” that might lead to injury.19 In other words, the Acknowledgment of Risks form did not meet the fourth characteristic of a valid release — it did not suggest an intent to release NOVA from liability for negligent acts unrelated to inherent risks.20

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17 In contrast, the valid release we discussed in Donahue explicitly listed in the inherent risks of climbing several types of possible negligence: “improperly maintained equipment,” “displaced pads or safety equipment, belay or anchor or harness failure,” “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,” and “others’ failure to follow the rules of the [Rock Gym] . . . .” Donahue v. Ledgends, Inc., 331 P.3d 342, 350 n.46 (Alaska 2014) (alteration in original).18 Id.19 See id. at 352 (holding that release at issue “expressly covered” both the type of injury “and its alleged causes,” namely “‘inadequate warnings or instructions’ from Rock Gym instructors”).20 The court states that it “do[es] not reach the question of whether employee negligence is unrelated to inherent risks of guided whitewater rafting.” It is hard to see how negligent training or providing inadequately skilled guides would ever be related to an inherent risk of guided whitewater rafting.

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I also disagree with the court’s holding that a release is necessarily valid when it sets out the risk of a specific injury — death by drowning in this case — but not its specific cause — negligent training and the provision of unskilled guides. In Donahue we rejected the participant’s argument that the release did not specifically and clearly set out the risks being waived because the release not only warned of a risk of falling but also cautioned that instructors and other employees could, through their negligence, cause falls or other types of injury.21 Here the only mention of employee negligence, buried at the bottom of a densely written, single-spaced document, is a description only in the most general terms. This type of general waiver simply does not specifically and clearly set out a waiver of the risk on which the Morton estate’s claim is based. The Morton estate alleges that [*26] Morton’s death by drowning was not due solely to the inherent risks of whitewater rafting the release listed, but rather to the provision of unskilled guides who did not adequately screen other participants. The document’s general language fails to specifically and clearly set out the risk of negligence alleged here.

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21 Donahue, 331 P.3d at 348-49.

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Today’s decision allows intentionally disguised pre-recreational activity exculpatory releases and effectively lowers the bar for their validity. Because the release does not meet the standards adopted in the precedent Donahue relied on — and because if the “Release” in Kerr was an invalid release, the “Participant’s Acknowledgment of Risks” Morton signed must be an invalid release — I respectfully dissent from the court’s opinion concluding otherwise.


A fly-fishing lawsuit, a first.

Montana Federal Court covers a lot of interesting legal issues for the OR industry in this decision. However, defendant is in a tough position because the statutes provide no help, he can’t use a release and probably like most fly-fishing guides; he believes he won’t be sued.

McJunkin v. James Yeager d/b/a Jim Yeager Outfitters, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 169321

State: Montana

Plaintiff: Charles P. McJunkin, deceased, by and through his executor and personal representative, Rhett McJunkin, and Rhett McJunkin, executor and personal representative, on behalf of the heirs of Charles P. McJunkin

Defendant: James Yeager d/b/a Jim Yeager Outfitters

Plaintiff Claims: negligence, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and loss of consortium

Defendant Defenses: Montana Recreation Responsibility Act

Holding: Split, mostly for the defendant

Year: 2018

Summary

At the end of a float fly fishing trip, the boat hit a rock throwing the deceased into the river. While attempting to get the deceased back in the boat the deceased partner fell in. The deceased yelled to grab her because she could not swim. The defendant grabbed the girlfriend and maneuvered the boat through rapids.

The deceased drowned, (supposedly). Neither were wearing PFDs.

Facts

Yeager is a professional fishing guide and outfitter. On July 17, 2014, Yeager took a paying client, Charles P. McJunkin on a guided fishing trip in a raft on the Stillwater River. As Yeager was guiding and operating the raft, McJunkin fell into the river and drowned. McJunkin was 81 years old at the time of his death.

McJunkin had gone on similar guided fishing trips with Yeager for approximately 20 years. In fact, in the week preceding the July 17, 2014 accident, McJunkin had floated and fished the Stillwater River three times with Yeager. On each occasion, Yeager put-in at the Johnson Bridge Fishing Access, and used the Swinging Bridge Fishing Access Site for a take-out at the end of the day. The Swinging Bridge take-out is approximately one-quarter mile above a set of rapids known as the Beartooth Drop. Yeager had never floated through the Beartooth Drop with McJunkin.

On the date of the accident, Yeager was guiding McJunkin and his partner, Julia Garner (“Garner”). The plan was to again float from Johnson Bridge to the Swinging Bridge take-out. The river conditions encountered by Yeager that day were characteristic of, and consistent with conditions he previously encountered on that stretch of the river. Yeager approached the Swinging Bridge take-out in the same manner as he had on the three earlier days of fishing. As he approached the take-out, the raft crossed an underwater shelf of rocks. When the rear of the raft passed the shelf, the boat rocked and McJunkin fell into the water. Although the raft was equipped with personal floatation devices (PFDs), McJunkin was not wearing one at the time.

McJunkin swam toward the raft, and Yeager attempted to position the raft so that McJunkin could grab ahold of the side. During this process, the party floated past the Swinging Bridge take-out. To complicate matters further, as Yeager attempted to pull McJunkin into the raft, Garner fell into the water. The parties dispute what caused Garner’s fall. Plaintiffs contend Yeager accidentally hit her with an oar. Yeager indicated he didn’t know what caused her to fall in, testifying “I don’t know if I hit a rock or a wave or whatever, Julie went in.” Garner yelled to Yeager that she could not swim. Yeager made the split-second decision to let go of McJunkin and attempt to save Garner, fearing she would drown otherwise. Yeager was able to pull her back into the raft as they entered the Beartooth Drop. Meanwhile, McJunkin lost contact with Yeager and the raft and floated through the rapid. He ultimately did not survive.

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

Only the legal issues affecting fly fishing or the outdoor industry will be reviewed. This decision is a result of both parties filing motions for summary judgment, so there is no chronological hierarchy of how the decision is written. Each motion is tackled by the judge in the order to make the following arguments more manageable.

A few things to remember. Montana does not allow an outfitter or guide to use a release. See Montana Statutes Prohibits Use of a Release.

Both parties filed motions concerning the Montana Recreation Responsibility Act (MRRA). The MRRA is similar to the Wyoming Recreational Safety Act, both of which are solely assumption of the risk statutes and weak overall. The plaintiff argued the MRRA was unconstitutional on several grounds, all of which were denied. The defendant argued the MRRA should bar the plaintiff’s claims which were also denied.

The first issue was inherent risks under the MRRA are not defined per activity or in general.

Under the plain language of the MRRA, a risk must satisfy two requirements to constitute an “inherent risk” and thus fall within the Act’s protection. There must be (1) a danger or condition that is characteristic of, or intrinsic to the activity, and (2) the danger or condition must be one that cannot be prevented by the use of reasonable care. Mont. Code Ann. § 27-1-752(2).

This leaves a monstrous gap in the protection it affords, in fact, does not afford outfitters and guides in Montana any real protection.

The court did not agree that the MRRA was broad enough to protect the defendant in this case.

Here, there are genuine issues of material fact regarding whether the risk encountered by McJunkin was an inherent risk to the sport of float fishing, or whether Yeager could have prevented the risk using reasonable care. Yeager’s expert opined that drowning is an inherent risk of floating in a raft on a river, and McJunkin’s death was a result of that inherent risk. But Plaintiffs’ expert states the risk of drowning can be prevented by the use of reasonable care. Plaintiffs’ expert also opined that Yeager increased the risks to McJunkin, and failed to adhere to industry standards by not taking basic safety precautions and not having a plan or equipment to retrieve McJunkin from the water.

Because there was a genuine issue of material fact (a mix of plausible opinions) the MRRA was not broad or strong enough to stop the plaintiff’s claims and the defendant’s motion failed.

The plaintiff argued the MRRA was void because it was vague, it did not define inherent risk.

The void-for-vagueness doctrine chiefly applies to criminal statutes, but can apply to civil laws as well. Civil statutes, however, generally receive less exacting vagueness scrutiny. The United States Supreme Court has held “[t]o find a civil statute void for vagueness, the statute must be so vague and indefinite as really to be no rule or standard at all.” The Montana Supreme Court has similarly declared that a statute is unconstitutionally vague on its face only if it is shown “that the statute is vague ‘in the sense that no standard of conduct is specified at all.'” “[P]erfect clarity and precise guidance are not required.” A statute is not vague “simply because it can be dissected or subject to different interpretations.”

The plaintiff also argued that because the MRRA did not define risk that it was void.

A person of common intelligence can understand the risks associated with river sports or activities. There is no indication McJunkin would not have been able to appreciate such risks, including the potential risk involved in floating and fishing. Indeed, in their depositions Plaintiffs were able to articulate risks associated with floating on a river, such as falling out of the boat and drowning.

The plaintiff argued they should be able to sue for negligent infliction of emotional distress (“NEID”).

To constitute ‘serious’ or ‘severe,’ the emotional distress must be ‘so severe no reasonable person could be expected to endure it.'” The question of whether the threshold level of emotional dis-tress can be found is for the Court to determine. (“It is for the court to determine whether on the evidence severe [serious] emotional distress can be found; it is for the jury to determine whether, on the evidence, it has in fact existed.”).

In Feller, the Montana Supreme Court considered several factors in determining whether there is sufficient evidence of severe emotional distress, including: (1) whether the plaintiff had any physical manifestations of grief; (2) whether counseling was sought or recommended; (3) whether the plaintiff took medication or the use of medication dramatically increased; (4) whether the plain-tiff had continuous nights of sleeplessness or days without appetite; (5) whether the plaintiff maintained close relationships with family members and friends; (6) the duration of the emotional dis-tress; and (7) the circumstances under which the infliction incurred, including whether the plaintiff witnessed the distressing event.

The plaintiff also argued they should be able to sue for loss of consortium.

Montana law recognizes loss of consortium claims by an adult child of an injured parent. In Stucky, the Montana Supreme Court held an adult child must meet the following two-part test to establish a claim for loss of parental consortium: “1) a third party tortuously caused the parent to suffer a serious, permanent and disabling mental or physical injury compensable under Montana law; and 2) the parent’s ultimate condition of mental or physical impairment was so overwhelming and severe that it has caused the parent-child relationship to be destroyed or nearly destroyed.”

In establishing a loss of parental consortium claim, the plaintiff may present evidence of the following factors, which the jury may consider in determining both whether the two-part test has been satisfied, and what damages are appropriate: “the severity of injury to the parent; the actual effect the parent’s injury has had on the relationship and is likely to have in the future; the child’s age; the nature of the child’s relationship with the parent; and the child’s emotional, physical and geographic characteristics.”

The court then looked at the issue of abnormally dangerous. A finding of that an activity is abnormally dangerous brings more damages and fewer requirements to prove part of the negligence of the defendant.

“Whether an activity is abnormally dangerous is a question of law.” No court has held float fly fishing is an abnormally dangerous activity, and this Court declines Plaintiffs’ invitation to be the first to do so.

So Now What?

A statute that protects defendants based on assumption of the risk does so because it identifies specific risk and broadens the definitions of what an inherent risk is. An example would be the Colorado Skier Safety Act. That act describes the inherent risk of skiing and then adds dozens of more risk, which are beyond the normal scope of inherent.

Both the MRRA and the Wyoming Recreational Safety Act statutorily defines the common law but does nothing to broaden or strengthen the common law. They could better be defined as politically pandering, an attempt by a politician to make constituents feel better by giving them something, which, in reality, has no value.

The fly-fishing outfitter was caught in Montana’s lack of available defenses, no statutory protection and no availability of a release. He might be able to strengthen his defenses by having his clients sign an Assumption of the Risk Document. He also might offer them PFDs.

Furthermore, remember in most whitewater or cold-water deaths drowning is not the cause of the death. Most people die of a heart attack. risk or Wikipedia: Cold Shock Response.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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McJunkin v. James Yeager d/b/a Jim Yeager Outfitters, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 169321

McJunkin v. James Yeager d/b/a Jim Yeager Outfitters, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 169321

Charles P. Mcjunkin, deceased, by and through his executor and personal representative, Rhett Mcjunkin, and Rhett Mcjunkin, executor and personal representative, on behalf of the heirs of Charles P. Mcjunkin, Plaintiffs, vs. James Yeager d/b/a Jim Yeager Outfitters, Defendant.

CV 17-12-BLG-TJC

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF MONTANA, BILLINGS DIVISION

2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 169321

September 28, 2018, Decided

September 28, 2018, Filed

COUNSEL: [*1] For Charles P. McJunkin, deceased, by and through his executor and personal representative, Rhett McJunkin, Rhett McJunkin, executor and personal representative, on behalf of the heirs of Charles P. McJunkin, Plaintiffs: Philip L. McGrady, LEAD ATTORNEY, McGRADY LAW, Whitefish, MT.

For James Yeager, doing business as, Jim Yeager Outfitters, Defendant: Ross Daniel Tillman, LEAD ATTORNEY, John M. Newman, BOONE KARLBERG, P.C., Missoula, MT.

JUDGES: TIMOTHY J. CAVAN, United States Magistrate Judge.

OPINION BY: TIMOTHY J. CAVAN

OPINION

ORDER

Rhett McJunkin, as personal representative of the estate of Charles P. McJunkin, and on behalf of the heirs of Charles P. McJunkin (“Plaintiffs”), brings this action against Defendant James Yeager, doing business as Jim Yeager Outfitters (“Yeager” or “Defendant”), in relation to a fatal boating accident that occurred on the Stillwater River near Columbus, Montana. Plaintiffs assert claims for negligence, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and loss of consortium. (Doc. 1.)

Presently before the Court are Plaintiffs’ Motion to Amend the Complaint (Doc. 23), Plaintiffs’ Motion for Partial Summary Judgment Regarding the Constitutionality of the Montana Recreation Responsibility Act [*2] (Doc. 28), and Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 31). The motions are fully briefed and ripe for the Court’s review.

Having considered the parties’ submissions, the Court finds Plaintiffs’ Motion to Amend should be DENIED, Plaintiff’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment should be DENIED, and Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment should be GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND1

1 The background facts set forth here are relevant to the Court’s determination of the pending motions for summary judgment and are taken from the parties’ submissions and are undisputed except where indicated.

Yeager is a professional fishing guide and outfitter. On July 17, 2014, Yeager took a paying client, Charles P. McJunkin (“McJunkin”), on a guided fishing trip in a raft on the Stillwater River. As Yeager was guiding and operating the raft, McJunkin fell into the river and drowned. McJunkin was 81 years old at the time of his death.

McJunkin had gone on similar guided fishing trips with Yeager for approximately 20 years. In fact, in the week preceding the July 17, 2014 accident, McJunkin had floated and fished the Stillwater River three times with Yeager. On each occasion, Yeager put-in at the Johnson Bridge Fishing Access, and used the Swinging Bridge Fishing Access Site for a take-out at the end of the day. The Swinging Bridge take-out is approximately one-quarter mile above a set [*3] of rapids known as the Beartooth Drop. Yeager had never floated through the Beartooth Drop with McJunkin.

On the date of the accident, Yeager was guiding McJunkin and his partner, Julia Garner (“Garner”). The plan was to again float from Johnson Bridge to the Swinging Bridge take-out. The river conditions encountered by Yeager that day were characteristic of, and consistent with conditions he previously encountered on that stretch of the river. Yeager approached the Swinging Bridge take-out in the same manner as he had on the three earlier days of fishing. As he approached the take-out, the raft crossed an underwater shelf of rocks. When the rear of the raft passed the shelf, the boat rocked and McJunkin fell into the water. Although the raft was equipped with personal floatation devices (PFDs), McJunkin was not wearing one at the time.

McJunkin swam toward the raft, and Yeager attempted to position the raft so that McJunkin could grab ahold of the side. During this process, the party floated past the Swinging Bridge take-out. To complicate matters further, as Yeager attempted to pull McJunkin into the raft, Garner fell into the water. The parties dispute what caused Garner’s fall. Plaintiffs [*4] contend Yeager accidentally hit her with an oar. Yeager indicated he didn’t know what caused her to fall in, testifying “I don’t know if I hit a rock or a wave or whatever, Julie went in.” Garner yelled to Yeager that she could not swim. Yeager made the split-second decision to let go of McJunkin and attempt to save Garner, fearing she would drown otherwise. Yeager was able to pull her back into the raft as they entered the Beartooth Drop. Meanwhile, McJunkin lost contact with Yeager and the raft and floated through the rapid. He ultimately did not survive.

II. LEGAL STANDARD FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

[HN1] Summary judgment is appropriate where the moving party demonstrates the absence of a genuine issue of material fact and entitlement to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). Material facts are those which may affect the outcome of the case. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986). A dispute as to a material fact is genuine if there is sufficient evidence for a reasonable fact-finder to return a verdict for the nonmoving party. Id. “Disputes over irrelevant or unnecessary facts will not preclude a grant of summary judgment.” T.W. Elec. Serv., Inc. v. Pac. Elec. Contractors Ass’n, 809 F.2d 626, 630 (9th Cir. 1987).

[HN2] The party seeking summary judgment always bears the initial burden of establishing the absence of a genuine [*5] issue of material fact. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. The moving party can satisfy this burden in two ways: (1) by presenting evidence that negates an essential element of the nonmoving party’s case; or (2) by demonstrating that the nonmoving party failed to make a showing sufficient to establish an element essential to that party’s case on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial. Id. at 322-23. If the moving party fails to discharge this initial burden, summary judgment must be denied and the court need not consider the nonmoving party’s evidence. Adickes v. S. H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 159-60, 90 S. Ct. 1598, 26 L. Ed. 2d 142 (1970).

[HN3] If the moving party meets its initial responsibility, the burden then shifts to the opposing party to establish that a genuine issue as to any material fact actually does exist. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586, 106 S. Ct. 1348, 89 L. Ed. 2d 538 (1986). In attempting to establish the existence of this factual dispute, the opposing party must “go beyond the pleadings and by ‘the depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file,’ designate ‘specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324 (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e)). The opposing party cannot defeat summary judgment merely by demonstrating “that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 586; Triton Energy Corp. v. Square D Co., 68 F.3d 1216, 1221 (9th Cir. 1995) (“The mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the [*6] nonmoving party’s position is not sufficient.”) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252).

III. DISCUSSION

A. Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment Related to the Montana Recreation Responsibility Act

Plaintiffs assert Yeager’s negligence caused McJunkin’s death. Yeager contends Plaintiffs’ negligence claim fails as a matter of law because it is barred by Montana’s Recreation Responsibility Act (the “MRRA”), Mont. Code Ann. § 27-1-751, et seq. Thus, Yeager argues summary judgment on the negligence claim is warranted.

Plaintiffs counter that the MRRA is unconstitutionally vague, and violates the constitutional guarantee of equal protection and right to full legal redress. Plaintiffs, therefore, move for partial summary judgment declaring the MRRA unconstitutional. Plaintiffs further assert that even if the MRRA is constitutional, there are genuine issues of material fact which preclude summary judgment.

1. Yeager’s Motion for Summary Judgment under the MRRA

[HN4] The MRRA limits the liability of recreational opportunity providers for injuries resulting from the inherent risks of sports or recreational opportunities.2 Specifically, the MRRA provides in relevant part:

(1) A person who participates in any sport or recreational opportunity assumes the inherent risks in [*7] that sport or recreational opportunity, whether those risks are known or unknown, and is legally responsible for all injury or death to the person and for all damage to the person’s property that result from the inherent risks in that sport or recreational opportunity.

(2) A provider is not required to eliminate, alter, or control the inherent risks within the particular sport or recreational opportunity that is provided.

(3)(a) Sections 27-1-751 through 27-1-754 do not preclude an action based on the negligence of the provider if the injury, death, or damage is not the result of an inherent risk of the sport or recreational opportunity.

Mont. Code. Ann. § 27-1-753.

2 “Sport or recreational opportunity” is defined broadly in the MRRA as “any sporting activity, whether undertaken with or without permission, include but not limited to baseball, softball, football, soccer, basketball, bicycling, hiking, swimming, boating, hockey, dude ranching, nordic or alpine skiing, snowboarding, snow sliding, mountain climbing, river floating, whitewater rafting, canoeing, kayaking, target shooting, hunting, fishing, backcountry trips, horseback riding and other equine activity, snowmobiling, off-highway vehicle use, agritourism, an on-farm educational opportunity, and any similar recreational activity.” Mont. Code. Ann. § 27-1-752(4).

The MRRA defines “Inherent risks” as:

[T]hose dangers or conditions that are characteristic of, intrinsic to, or an integral part of any sport or recreational activity and that cannot be prevented by the use of reasonable care.

Mont. Code Ann. § 27-1-752(2).

[HN5] When interpreting a statute, a court is required to look to the plain meaning of the words. Clarke v. Massey, 271 Mont. 412, 897 P.2d 1085, 1088 (1995). A court will only resort to the legislative history of a statute if the legislative intent cannot be determined from the statute’s plain wording. Id. “[T]he office of judge is simply to ascertain and declare what is in terms or in substance contained therein, not to insert [*8] what has been omitted or to omit what has been inserted.” Mont. Code Ann. § 1-2-101.

Yeager maintains that the statute has a simple, straight-forward application to the facts of this case. He argues McJunkin’s death was caused by drowning; falling out of a boat and drowning is an inherent risk of fishing from a raft; therefore, Plaintiffs’ negligence claim is barred under the MRRA as a matter of law. In short, Yeager asserts because the injury in this case involved drowning while fishing from a raft, the MRRA precludes Plaintiffs’ claim. (Doc. 32 at 15.)

Yeager reads the MRRA much too broadly. Construing the statute in this fashion would immunize providers of recreational activities from their own negligence. The Court finds that such a construction would be contrary to the statute’s plain words, the legislative intent in enacting the legislation, and would likely render the MRRA unconstitutional.

[HN6] Under the plain language of the MRRA, a risk must satisfy two requirements to constitute an “inherent risk” and thus fall within the Act’s protection. There must be (1) a danger or condition that is characteristic of, or intrinsic to the activity, and (2) the danger or condition must be one that cannot be prevented [*9] by the use of reasonable care. Mont. Code Ann. § 27-1-752(2). Therefore, the MRRA does not insulate a provider from all risks which are characteristic of, or intrinsic to the activity. It only provides protection for those risks which cannot be prevented with the use of reasonable care. In order to make this determination, it is necessary to look at the facts and circumstances of each case and the specific risk or condition involved.

Wyoming has a similar “Recreation Safety Act.” Wyo. Stat. Ann. §§ 1-1-121 through 1-1-123. Like the MRRA, the Wyoming Act provides that “[a]ny person who takes part in any sport or recreational opportunity assumes the inherent risk in that sport or recreational opportunity, whether those risks are known or unknown . . . .” Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-1-123(a). It also similarly states that a provider of the “recreational opportunity is not required to eliminate, alter, or control the inherent risks” of the activity. Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-1-123(b). One critical difference between the two acts, however, is the definition of an inherent risk. The MRRA and the Wyoming Act both define inherent risk to mean “those dangers or conditions which are characteristic of, intrinsic to, or an integral part” of the activity. Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-1-122(a)(i). But the Wyoming Act’s definition does not also include the MRRA’s requirement [*10] that the risk “cannot be prevented by the use of reasonable care.”

Nevertheless, the construction of the Wyoming Act is instructive as far as the similarities go. Courts which have construed and applied the Wyoming statute have rejected the broad, general interpretation advanced by Yeager in this case. To determine what risks are inherent, decisions under the Wyoming Act have consistently required that a court “go beyond a broad characterization and inquire into the specific circumstances of both [the plaintiff’s] actions and those of the recreation provider.” Creel v. L & L, Inc., 2012 WY 124, 287 P.3d 729, 736 (Wyo. 2012).

In Cooperman v. David, 214 F.3d 1162 (10th Cir. 2000), for example, the plaintiff was injured during a guided horseback trail ride. The injury occurred when the plaintiff’s saddle slipped around to the belly of the horse, causing the plaintiff to fall to the ground. The defendant moved for summary judgment under the Wyoming Recreation Safety Act, arguing that a slipping saddle is an inherent risk of horseback riding. In determining the application of the Act, the Tenth Circuit made clear that the risk in question must be not be evaluated broadly or generally, but in the context of the specific factual setting presented.

Horseback riding undoubtedly carries some inherent risk [*11] that the rider will fall off the horse and get injured. A horse could stumble on an uneven path, or rear, or simply begin to gallop for no apparent reason. All of these risks clearly would qualify as inherent risks of horseback riding. Simply because some risks are inherent in horseback riding, however, does not mean that all risks of falling from a horse are necessarily inherent; instead, it is necessary to look factually at the specific risk to which the rider was exposed. When attempting to determine whether a risk is inherent to a sport, we can not look at the risk in a vacuum, apart from the factual setting to which the rider was exposed. And, we must evaluate the risk at the greatest level of specificity permitted by the factual record. See Madsen, 31 F.Supp.2d at 1328 (“The Court believes that one must look to the specific facts of a case to see whether there is a duty, and not simply look to the abstract character of the risk.”).

Cooperman, 214 F.3d at 1167.

The same evaluation must be conducted under the MRRA. It is not enough to find that falling out of a boat and drowning is a general risk of fishing from a raft; therefore, drowning is an inherent risk in fishing. Although there may be circumstances where the risk of drowning [*12] cannot be prevented with the use of reasonable care, it is undoubtedly true the risk may be prevented in many other circumstances.

Therefore, each case must be examined in light of the specific factual context of the case to determine whether the specific risk involved could have been prevented using reasonable care. As the Wyoming Supreme Court points out, “[s]ome risks may occur from the choices a recreation provider makes on behalf of the participant and from the conditions in which the recreational opportunity is provided. Thus, atypical or uncharacteristic risks can arise even in those specific sports the Wyoming legislature clearly intended to exempt from liability for inherent risks.” Dunbar v. Jackson Hole Mtn. Resort Corp., 392 F.3d 1145, 1148–49 (10th Cir.2004).

In addition, Yeager’s broad interpretation of the MRRA would effectively immunize providers of a recreational opportunity from their own negligence. If providers were protected from all fishing-related drownings under the MRRA, they would be relieved of liability where the death was caused by negligence, or even by willful or wanton misconduct. For example, it would apply not only to situations where a participant falls out of a raft and drowns without negligent conduct by the provider; it would [*13] also apply where the provider negligently causes a raft to collide with a bridge abutment or other known obstruction in the river.

Such an application would be contrary to the legislative intent of the MRRA, which expressly provides that the Act does not “preclude an action based on the negligence of the provider. . . .” Mont. Code Ann. § 27-1-753. As recognized under the Wyoming Act, the “intent behind the Recreation Safety Act was not to preclude parties from suing for a provider’s negligence, it was merely to stop people from suing providers for those risks that were inherent to a sport.” Madsen v. Wyoming River Trips, 31 F.Supp.2d 1321, 1328 (D. Wyo. 1999).

Finally, construing the MRRA as Yeager urges would likely render the Act unconstitutional. [HN7] Statutes should be construed “to avoid an unconstitutional interpretation if possible.” Hernandez v. Bd. of Cty. Comm’rs, 2008 MT 251, 345 Mont. 1, 189 P.3d 638, 642 (Mont. 2008). The Montana Supreme Court found a prior version of Montana’s Skier Responsibility Act unconstitutional because it prohibited a skier “from obtaining legal recourse against an operator even if the injury is proximately caused by the negligent or even intentional actions of the operator.”3
Brewer v. Ski-Lift, Inc., 234 Mont. 109, 762 P.2d 226, 230 (Mont. 1988). The Court found that although the state had a legitimate interest in protecting the economic vitality of the ski industry, there was no rational relationship [*14] between that purpose and requiring that skiers assume all risks for injuries regardless of the presence of negligence by the ski area operator. Id. at 230. See also, Oberson v. U.S. Dept. of Ag., Forest Serv., 2007 MT 293, 339 Mont. 519, 171 P.3d 715 (Mont. 2007) (snowmobile liability statute’s gross negligence standard, which relieved snowmobile operators from their negligent conduct, violated equal protection).

3 The statute at issue in Brewer barred recovery from a ski area operator if the skier suffered an injury resulting “from participating in the sport of skiing.” Brewer, 762 P.2d at 229 (citing Mont. Code Ann. § 23-2-736(1)).

The purpose of the MRRA is substantially the same as the skier and snowmobile liability statutes — protection of providers of recreational activities from liability for risks over which the provider has no control. Under Yeager’s interpretation of the MRRA, providers of float fly fishing would be immune from liability for drownings, even when caused by the provider’s own negligence. Under Brewer and Oberson, such a construction would violate Plaintiffs’ rights to equal protection, due process, and access to the courts.

Therefore, whether the MRRA protects a provider of recreational opportunities from certain risks cannot be determined by looking at the broad, abstract character of the risk. Instead, the specific facts and circumstances in each case must be examined to determine whether the risk involved can be prevented by the use of reasonable care. If so, the MRRA does not [*15] shield the provider from liability.

That being established, the determination of whether McJunkin’s drowning resulted from an inherent risk of floating and fly fishing is not appropriate for summary judgment. While there may be cases where there are no genuine issue of material fact, and the issue may be appropriately decided as a matter of law, [HN8] the determination of whether a risk is an inherent risk is generally a factual determination for the jury to decide. See e.g. Mead v. M.S.B., Inc., 264 Mont. 465, 872 P.2d 782, 788-89 (Mont. 1994) (holding whether an inherent risk had been established under the Skier Responsibility Act was a question of fact to be resolved by the trier of fact); Cooperman, 214 F.3d at 1169 (noting the question of what is an inherent risk is normally a question of fact for the jury); Halpern v. Wheeldon, 890 P.2d 562, 566 (Wyo. 1995) (“when genuine issues of material fact exist, it is proper to present the issue to the jury of whether a risk is inherent to a particular activity.”).4

4 At the time the Halpern case was decided, the Wyoming Act’s definition of inherent risk was similar to the MRRA. It was defined as “any risk that is characteristic of or intrinsic to any sport or recreational opportunity and which cannot reasonably be eliminated, altered or controlled.” Halpern, 890 P.2d at 564. The highlighted portion of the definition was subsequently removed by the Wyoming legislature.

Here, there are genuine issues of material fact regarding whether the risk encountered by McJunkin was an inherent risk to the sport of float fishing, or whether Yeager could have prevented the risk using reasonable care. Yeager’s expert opined that drowning [*16] is an inherent risk of floating in a raft on a river, and McJunkin’s death was a result of that inherent risk. But Plaintiffs’ expert states the risk of drowning can be prevented by the use of reasonable care. Plaintiffs’ expert also opined that Yeager increased the risks to McJunkin, and failed to adhere to industry standards by not taking basic safety precautions and not having a plan or equipment to retrieve McJunkin from the water.

Accordingly, the Court finds there are genuine issues of material fact regarding whether the risks encountered by McJunkin could have been prevented by the use of reasonable care.

As such, Yeager’s Motion for Summary Judgment is DENIED as to Count I of the Complaint.

2. Plaintiffs’ Motion for Summary Judgment

McJunkin challenges the constitutionality of the MRRA on due process and equal protection grounds. [HN9] Statutes are presumed to be constitutional, and “the party challenging the constitutionality of a statute bears the burden of proving the statute unconstitutional beyond a reasonable doubt.” Globe v. Montana State Fund, 2014 MT 99, 374 Mont. 453, 325 P.3d 1211, 1216 (Mont. 2014). “‘The question of constitutionality is not whether it is possible to condemn, but whether it is possible to uphold the legislative action . . . .'” Davis v. Union Pac. R. Co., 282 Mont. 233, 937 P.2d 27, 31 (1997) (quoting Fallon County v. State 231 Mont. 443, 753 P.2d 338, 340 (Mont. 1988). “[E]very [*17] possible presumption must be indulged in favor of the constitutionality of the Act.” Id. Thus, courts “will construe a statute to further, rather than to frustrate, the Legislature’s intent according to the plain meaning of the statute’s language.” In re Custody and Parental Rights of D.S., 2005 MT 275, 329 Mont. 180, 122 P.3d 1239, 1243 (Mont. 2005). See also Hernandez, 189 P.3d at 642 (stating it is the court’s duty “to avoid an unconstitutional interpretation if possible”).

a. The MRRA is not Unconstitutionally Vague

Plaintiffs argue the MRRA is unconstitutionally vague on its face, and as applied. Plaintiffs contend the MRRA purports to limit liability for injuries that result from inherent risks, but it does not define “inherent risk” in any clear manner. Thus, Plaintiffs argue there is no fair way to apply the statute because it is unclear what constitutes an “inherent risk.”

[HN10] The void-for-vagueness doctrine chiefly applies to criminal statutes, but can apply to civil laws as well. Civil statutes, however, generally receive less exacting vagueness scrutiny. Vill. of Hoffman Estates v. Flipside, Hoffman Estates, 455 U.S. 489, 498-99, 102 S. Ct. 1186, 71 L. Ed. 2d 362 (1982). The United States Supreme Court has held “[t]o find a civil statute void for vagueness, the statute must be so vague and indefinite as really to be no rule or standard at all.” Boutilier v. INS, 387 U.S. 118, 123, 87 S. Ct. 1563, 18 L. Ed. 2d 661 (1967). The Montana Supreme Court has similarly declared that a statute is unconstitutionally [*18] vague on its face only if it is shown “that the statute is vague ‘in the sense that no standard of conduct is specified at all.'” In re Custody, 2005 MT 275, 329 Mont. 180, 122 P.3d 1239, 1243 (Mont. 2005). “[P]erfect clarity and precise guidance are not required.” Id. A statute is not vague “simply because it can be dissected or subject to different interpretations.” Montana Media, Inc. v. Flathead Cty., 2003 MT 23, 314 Mont. 121, 63 P.3d 1129, 1140 (Mont. 2003).

Here, the Court finds the MRRA is not unconstitutionally vague on its face. Section 27-1-752(2) plainly provides a standard for assessing what constitutes an “inherent risk.” The standard is established with common, readily-understood terms, and it incorporates the familiar negligence standard of reasonable care. Mont. Code Ann. § 27-1-752(2).

Further, contrary to Plaintiffs’ argument, the fact the MRRA does not specifically enumerate the risks inherent in each of the 30 recreational activities listed in the statute does not make the Act unconstitutional. [HN11] The Montana Supreme Court has recognized that even if a term in a statute is not exhaustively defined, and allows the court some discretion in determining whether the evidence presented satisfies the statute, the statute will not be rendered unconstitutionally vague. See In re Custody, 122 P.3d at 1243 (holding that although § 41-3-423(2)(a) did not contain an exhaustive list of conduct that constitutes the term “aggravated circumstances,” [*19] the statute was not void for vagueness). Moreover, even the more specific recreational liability statutes that Plaintiffs uses for comparison, provide non-exclusive lists of inherent risks. See e.g. Mont. Code Ann. § 23-2-702(2) (“‘Inherent dangers and risks of skiing’ means those dangers or conditions that are part of the sport of skiing, including: . . .”); § 23-2-822(2) (“Risks inherent in the sport of off-highway vehicle operation include . . .”); § 27-1-726(7) (“‘Risks inherent in equine activities’ means dangers or conditions that are an integral part of equine activities, including but not limited to: . . .”).

The Court further finds the MRRA is not unconstitutionally vague as applied. A person of common intelligence can understand the risks associated with river sports or activities. There is no indication McJunkin would not have been able to appreciate such risks, including the potential risk involved in floating and fishing. Indeed, in their depositions Plaintiffs were able to articulate risks associated with floating on a river, such as falling out of the boat and drowning. Therefore, McJunkin could have understood that the MRRA may limit Yeager’s liability for accidents on the river.

Accordingly, the Court finds the MRRA is not [*20] void for vagueness.

b. The MRRA Does Not Violate the Constitutional Guarantee of Equal Protection

Plaintiffs also argue the MRRA violates the constitutional guarantee of equal protection in two ways. First, Plaintiffs assert the Act eliminates any theory of negligence on the part of recreational providers, essentially excusing them from the consequences of their own negligence. Second, Plaintiffs argue the MRRA arbitrarily treats certain groups of recreationalists differently. Plaintiffs assert that participants in activities covered by the MRRA are treated differently from those participating in activities covered under other activity-specific recreation statutes because the MRRA is vague, whereas the other statutes are not. Plaintiffs further assert the MRRA treats recreationists covered by the Act differently because the MRRA attempts to resurrect the “secondary” assumption of risk defense, and inserts a “primary” assumption of risk defense.

i. The MRRA Does not Eliminate All Theories of Negligence

As discussed above, although a provider is not liable for, or required to eliminate, alter, or control inherent risks under the MRRA, the provider still owes a duty of care for risks that [*21] can be prevented by the use of reasonable care. Thus, the Court finds the MRRA continues to permit negligence claims against a provider if the risk could have been prevented by the use of reasonable care. Thus, the MRRA does not violate Plaintiffs’ equal protection rights by immunizing providers from their own negligence.

ii. The MRRA Does Not Arbitrarily Treat Groups of Recreationists Differently

The MRRA is drawn broadly and defines “sport or recreational opportunity” by reference to a non-exhaustive list of 30 activities. Mont. Code. Ann. § 27-1-752(4). Some of the listed activities are also covered by their own activity-specific recreation liability statutes, such as skiing, snowmobiling and off-road vehicle use. Id.; §§ 23-2-651, et seq.; 23-2-702, et seq.; 23-2-822. Therefore, the MRRA goes on to exclude those activities from its scope. Mont. Code Ann § 27-1-754 (stating the MRRA does “not apply to duties, responsibilities, liability, or immunity related to” activities that are already subject to an activity-specific recreational statute).

Plaintiffs assert that this statutory scheme causes different groups of recreationists to be treated differently. Specifically, Plaintiffs assert the recreationists who fall under the MRRA are disadvantaged in several [*22] respects.

First, Plaintiffs argue the MRRA’s alleged vagueness only affects the subset of recreationists who participate in activities covered by the Act. Whereas, recreationists engaging in other sports, such as skiing or snowmobiling, have specific notice of their rights and the provider’s responsibilities. The Court has determined, however, that the MRRA is not unconstitutionally vague. Further, as noted above, even the activity-specific recreation statutes that specifically identify certain inherent risks do so in a non-exhaustive fashion. Thus, there is no significant difference in treatment between the recreationists who fall under the MRRA, and those who fall under other recreational statutes with respect to notice.

Next, Plaintiffs assert the MRRA departs from other recreational statutes by attempting to revive the “secondary” assumption of risk defense and by suggesting a “primary” assumption of risk defense. Historically, Montana has not used the terms “primary” and “secondary” assumption of risk. Nevertheless, legal commentators have explained [HN12] “primary” assumption of risk refers to the concept of duty, and “secondary” assumption of risk refers to contributory negligence.
[*23] See Dan B. Dobbs, et al., Dobbs’ Law of Torts § 238 (2d ed. 2018) (“[T]he term ‘primary assumption of risk’ is used to indicate the no-duty or no-breach conception and its attendant complete-bar effect; and the term ‘secondary assumption of risk’ is used to indicate the contributory negligence conception.”); 65A C.J.S. Negligence § 398 (2018) (“Primary assumption of risk limits the duty which a person owes to another. Secondary assumption of risk, on the other hand, which is a type of contributory negligence and is an affirmative defense, may be raised by the defendant after the plaintiff has met the burden of showing that the defendant breached a legal duty owed to the plaintiff.”); W. Page Keeton, et al., Prosser and Keeton on the Law of Torts § 68, 480-81 (5th Ed. 1984) (stating “primary” assumption of risk “is really a principle of no duty,” and explaining that under the duty perspective, “the plaintiff voluntarily enters into some relation with the defendant, with knowledge that the defendant will not protect him against one or more future risks that may arise from the relation . . . the legal result is that the defendant is simply relieved of the duty which would otherwise exist.”).

With regard to [*24] “secondary” assumption of risk, Plaintiffs assert the MRRA, “unlike any other recreation act in Montana,” resurrects the “secondary” assumption of risk defense, without articulating any specific inherent risks the participant would be assuming. (Doc. 29 at 15.) As Yeager points out, however, the MRRA is in fact similar to the other recreation statutes in that they also provide that the participant assumes the risks inherent in the particular activity. See e.g. Mont. Code Ann. § 23-2-736(4) (“A skier shall accept all legal responsibility for injury or damage of any kind to the extent that the injury or damage results from inherent dangers and risks of skiing.”); § 23-2-822 (1) (“An off-highway vehicle operator shall accept all legal responsibility for injury or damage of any kind to the extent that the injury or damage results from risks inherent in the sport of off-highway vehicle use. . . .”); 23-2-654(3) (“A snowmobiler shall accept all legal responsibility for injury or damage of any kind to the extent that the injury or damage results from risks inherent in the sport of snowmobiling.”). Further, as discussed in regard to Plaintiff’s vagueness challenge, the MRRA does not fail to put participants on notice of the inherent [*25] risks they are assuming. As such, recreationists participating in activities that fall under the MRRA are not on significantly different legal footing than participants in other recreational activities. Finally, Plaintiffs contend the MRRA’s suggestion of a “primary” assumption of risk defense amounts to an end-run around comparative negligence. As used here, the assumption of risk terminology in the MRRA refers to a principle of no duty. In Halpern v. Wheeldon, 890 P.2d 562, 565 (Wyo. 1995), the Wyoming Supreme Court found the assumption of risk language in the Wyoming Recreation Safety Act, “was intended to limit the duty to which a provider owes to a participant.” The Court explained that because primary assumption of risk was only intended to limit the provider’s duty, it did not affect the comparative negligence scheme. Id. Likewise, here, the Court finds the assumption of risk language in the MRRA affects only the provider’s duty. It does not revive contributory negligence or undermine Montana’s comparative negligence law. Moreover, as noted, the other activity-specific recreation statutes contain similar assumption of risk language. Thus, recreationists are treated the same under both the MRRA and other activity-specific recreation [*26] statutes, and there is no violation of equal protection.

c. The MRRA Does Not Unconstitutionally Interfere With the Right to Trial by Jury

Finally, Plaintiffs argue the MRRA infringes upon the province of the jury by injecting questions of ultimate fact into preliminary legal questions. As discussed above, however, whether McJunkin’s death was the result of an inherent risk of float fly fishing, and whether it could have been prevented by the use of reasonable care, are jury questions. Thus, the Court finds the MRRA does not unconstitutionally interfere with Plaintiffs’ fundamental right to trial by jury.

B. Yeager’s Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiffs’ Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress Claim

Yeager contends Plaintiffs’ claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress (“NEID”) fails as a matter of law because there is insufficient evidence for a jury to find Plaintiffs suffered serious or severe emotional distress.5 The Court agrees.

5 Yeager also asserts Plaintiffs’ NIED claim fails because there is no actionable predicate act of negligence since the MRRA bars Plaintiffs’ negligence claim. As discussed, however, the Court has found there are disputed issues of material fact regarding Plaintiff’s negligence claim. Accordingly, Yeager’s argument fails in this regard.

[HN13] Under Montana law, an independent cause of action for NIED arises “under circumstances where serious or severe emotional distress to the plaintiff was the reasonably foreseeable consequence of the defendant’s negligent act or omission.” Sacco v. High Country Ind. Press, Inc., 271 Mont. 209, 896 P.2d 411, 426 (Mont. 1995). [*27] “To constitute ‘serious’ or ‘severe,’ the emotional distress must be ‘so severe no reasonable person could be expected to endure it.'” Feller v. First Interstate Bancsystem, Inc., 2013 MT 90, 369 Mont. 444, 299 P.3d 338, 344 (Mont. 2013). The question of whether the threshold level of emotional distress can be found is for the Court to determine. Sacco, 896 P.2d at 425 (“It is for the court to determine whether on the evidence severe [serious] emotional distress can be found; it is for the jury to determine whether, on the evidence, it has in fact existed.”) (quoting Restatement (Second) of Torts, § 46, comment j at 78).

In Feller, the Montana Supreme Court considered [HN14] several factors in determining whether there is sufficient evidence of severe emotional distress, including: (1) whether the plaintiff had any physical manifestations of grief; (2) whether counseling was sought or recommended; (3) whether the plaintiff took medication or the use of medication dramatically increased; (4) whether the plaintiff had continuous nights of sleeplessness or days without appetite; (5) whether the plaintiff maintained close relationships with family members and friends; (6) the duration of the emotional distress; and (7) the circumstances under which the infliction incurred, including whether the plaintiff witnessed the distressing event. Feller, 299 P.3d at 345.

Here, the Court finds [*28] Plaintiffs have not presented evidence of the type of emotional distress necessary to demonstrate serious or severe compensable emotional distress. Rhett McJunkin and Charles McJunkin, Jr. testified at deposition that they have both experienced grief, trouble sleeping and have had nightmares. Rhett McJunkin also testified he took sleep medication approximately one year after the accident, but could not recall what the medication was, who prescribed the medication, or how long own long it was taken. Rhett McJunkin also stated he has also experienced “angst” and “anxiety,” and Charles McJunkin, Jr. indicated his focus has been affected.

Nevertheless, there is no indication of any physical manifestation of grief, and neither has sought counseling, taken or increased medication to manage their emotional distress, have suffered a loss of appetite, are unable to maintain close family relationships, and neither witnessed the accident. The Court finds that consideration of the Feller factors does not lead to the conclusion that Plaintiffs’ emotional distress rises to the level where severe emotional distress may be found.

The Court certainly sympathizes with Plaintiffs’ grief for their loss [*29] of their father. Nevertheless, their testimony does not show their emotional distress was so severe that “no reasonable person could be expected to endure it.” Feller, 299 P.3d at 344.

Accordingly, Yeager’s Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED on Count II of the Complaint.

C. Yeager’s Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiffs’ Loss of Consortium Claim

Yeager argues Plaintiffs’ loss of consortium claim also fails as a matter of law because there is insufficient evidence to support the claim.6 The Court finds there are disputed issues of material fact that preclude summary judgment.

6 Yeager again asserts Plaintiffs’ loss of consortium claim fails because there is no actionable predicate act of negligence. As discussed, this argument is again rejected because there are disputed issues of material fact regarding Plaintiffs’ negligence claim.

[HN15] Montana law recognizes loss of consortium claims by an adult child of an injured parent. N. Pac. Ins. Co. v. Stucky, 2014 MT 299, 377 Mont. 25, 338 P.3d 56, 61 (Mont. 2014). In Stucky, the Montana Supreme Court held an adult child must meet the following two-part test7 to establish a claim for loss of parental consortium: “1) a third party tortuously caused the parent to suffer a serious, permanent and disabling mental or physical injury compensable under Montana law; and 2) the parent’s ultimate condition of mental or physical impairment was so overwhelming and severe that it has caused the parent-child relationship to be destroyed or nearly destroyed.” Id. at 66.

7 The Court adopted the two-part test from Keele v. St. Vincent Hosp. & Health Care Ctr., 258 Mont. 158, 852 P.2d 574 (Mont. 1993), which recognized parental loss of consortium claims by minor children. The Montana Supreme Court stated it found no reason to adopt a different standard for an adult child’s claim of loss of parental consortium. Stucky, 338 P.3d at 65. The Court specifically rejected adopting the more stringent “extraordinarily close and interdependent relationship” test from Hern v. Safeco Ins. Co. of Ill., 2005 MT 301, 329 Mont. 347, 125 P.3d 597 (Mont. 2005), which applies to loss of consortium claims brought by the parent of an adult child.

[HN16] In establishing a loss of parental consortium claim, the plaintiff [*30] may present evidence of the following factors, which the jury may consider in determining both whether the two-part test has been satisfied, and what damages are appropriate: “the severity of injury to the parent; the actual effect the parent’s injury has had on the relationship and is likely to have in the future; the child’s age; the nature of the child’s relationship with the parent; and the child’s emotional, physical and geographic characteristics.” Id.

Stucky involved an injury to a parent, rather than the death of a parent. Nevertheless, an adult child’s loss of a parent would readily meet the requirements established in Stucky for the maintenance of a consortium claim. The fact McJunkin died is sufficient to establish the first prong of the test, which requires serious permanent injury. Second, death is obviously an injury so “overwhelming and severe” as to destroy the parent-child relationship. Thus, the second prong of the test is clearly established.

Yeager points out that Plaintiffs are in their late 50’s/early 60’s, they lived hundreds of miles away from their father, received no financial support from him, and saw him only occasionally. Plaintiffs counter that they had [*31] a tight bond with their father, and that Charles McJunkin, Jr. talked to his father on a regular basis. This is evidence for the jury to assess. Stucky, 338 P.3d at 65.

Accordingly, the Court finds there are disputed issues of material fact that preclude summary judgment on Plaintiffs’ loss of consortium claim. Yeager’s Motion for Summary Judgment as to Count III of the Complaint is therefore, DENIED.

III. MOTION TO AMEND COMPLAINT

Plaintiffs have also filed a Motion to Amend the Complaint. (Doc. 23.) Plaintiffs seek to add a new theory of liability to the existing negligence claim. In particular, Plaintiffs seek to add the theory of strict liability based upon an abnormally dangerous activity. Yeager opposes the motion, arguing Plaintiffs were not diligent in moving to amend, and the proposed amendment is futile.

On June 1, 2017, the Court issued a Scheduling order setting the deadline to amend pleadings for July 3, 2017. (Doc. 20.) Plaintiffs filed the instant motion seeking leave to amend on November 29, 2017. (Doc. 23.)

[HN17] In situations where the deadline for amendments to pleadings has passed, a party must show good cause for not seeking leave to amend within the Court’s scheduling order. Fed.R.Civ.P. 16(b)(4) (“[a] schedule may [*32] only be modified for good cause and with the judge’s consent”); Coleman v. Quaker Oats Co., 232 F.3d 1271, 1294 (9th Cir. 2000).

In Johnson v. Mammoth Recreations, Inc., 975 F.2d 604, 609 (9th Cir. 1992), the Ninth Circuit explained that “[u]nlike Rule 15(a)’s liberal [HN18] amendment policy which focuses on the bad faith of the party seeking to interpose an amendment and the prejudice to the opposing party, Rule 16(b)’s ‘good cause’ standard primarily considers the diligence of the party seeking the amendment.” Good cause to excuse noncompliance with the scheduling order exists if the pretrial schedule “cannot reasonably be met despite the diligence of the party seeking the extension.” Id. (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 16 Advisory Committee’s Notes (1983 Amendment)).

Prejudice to the opposing party may provide an additional reason to deny a motion to amend, but “the focus of the inquiry is upon the moving party’s reasons for seeking modification.” Id. at 609. “If that party was not diligent, the inquiry should end.” Id.; see also In re Western States Wholesale Natural Gas Antitrust Litigation, 715 F.3d 716, 737 (9th Cir. 2013) (upholding denial of motion to amend where “the party seeking to modify the scheduling order has been aware of the facts and theories supporting amendment since the inception of the action”).

[HN19] If good cause exists for seeking amendment after the scheduling order’s deadline, the Court then turns to Rule 15(a) to determine whether amendment should be allowed. [*33] “Although Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(a) provides that leave to amend ‘shall be freely given when justice so requires,’ it ‘is not to be granted automatically.'” In re Western States, 715 F.3d at 738 (quoting Jackson v. Bank of Hawaii, 902 F.2d 1385, 1387 (9th Cir.1990)). Under Rule 15(a), the Ninth Circuit directs that courts consider the following five factors to assess whether to grant leave to amend: “(1) bad faith, (2) undue delay, (3) prejudice to the opposing party, (4) futility of amendment; and (5) whether plaintiff has previously amended his complaint.” Id. Each of these factors is not given equal weight, however. “Futility of amendment can, by itself, justify the denial of a motion for leave to amend.” Bonin v. Calderon, 59 F.3d 815, 845 (9th Cir. 1995).

A. Lack of Diligence

As noted above, Plaintiffs seek to amend the Complaint to include an additional theory of strict liability. The Court finds that Plaintiffs did not act diligently in seeking to amend the Complaint. The motion to amend was filed nearly five months after the Court’s deadline to amend pleadings. Plaintiffs’ explanation for the delay is that the additional theory of liability is premised upon Yeager’s expert report, which they did not receive until November 13, 2017.

The Court finds, however, that Plaintiffs were aware of the facts and theories supporting the amendment long prior to receipt of [*34] Yeager’s expert report. The expert report did not provide any new facts, but rather offered opinion evidence that fly fishing from a raft is inherently dangerous, and that the danger cannot be eliminated by reasonable precautions. But Plaintiffs have been aware that Yeager intended to raise an inherent risk defense since Yeager filed his answer on March 6, 2017, and raised the MRRA as an affirmative defense. (Doc. 4 at 7.) Yeager also filed a Preliminary Pretrial Statement approximately six months before the expert report was produced that put Plaintiffs on further notice of this theory of defense. (See Doc. 18 at 6) (stating that “[f]alling out of a raft on a river is a danger that cannot be prevented by the use of reasonable care.”) Therefore, Plaintiffs’ argument that they did not possess information supporting the abnormally dangerous activity theory of liability until after they received the expert report is not persuasive. See Bonin, 59 F.3d at 845 (holding a motion to amend may be denied “where the movant presents no new facts but only new theories and provides no satisfactory explanation for his failure to fully develop his contentions originally”).

B. Futility of Amendment

Even if the Court found “good cause,” under [*35] Rule 16, application of the Rule 15 factors dictate denial of the motion to amend. Although there is no indication Plaintiffs are acting in bad faith, or that amendment would unduly prejudice Yeager, the Court has found undue delay. Moreover, the Court finds the amendment would be futile.

In seeking to impose strict liability, Plaintiffs conflate the concept of inherent risk with an abnormally dangerous activity. The activity at issue here — fly fishing from a raft — is not the kind of activity that has been recognized as abnormally dangerous. [HN20] Simply because an activity has inherent risks, does not mean the activity is abnormally dangerous for purposes of strict liability. A comparison of activities that are considered abnormally dangerous illustrates the point. See e.g. Beckman v. Butte-Silver Bow Cty., 2000 MT 112, 299 Mont. 389, 1 P.3d 348 (Mont. 2000) (trenching); Sunburst Sch. Dist. No. 2 v. Texaco, Inc., 2007 MT 183, 338 Mont. 259, 165 P.3d 1079 (Mont. 2007) (operating a gas refinery near residences and a school); Ulmen v. Schwieger, 92 Mont. 331, 12 P.2d 856 (Mont. 1932) (highway construction); and Stepanek v. Kober Const., 191 Mont. 430, 625 P.2d 51 (Mont. 1981) (construction scaffolding). The Court does not find the characteristics and risks of fly fishing equate in any meaningful way with these types of activities.8

8 Likewise, the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 519, which has been adopted by the Montana Supreme Court, identifies the following as abnormally dangerous activities: “Water collected in quantity in unsuitable or dangerous place,” “Explosives in quantity in a dangerous place,” “Inflammable liquids in quantity in the midst of a city,” “Blasting, in the midst of a city,” “Pile driving, with abnormal risk to surroundings,” “Release into air of poisonous gas or dust,” “Drilling oil wells or operating refineries in thickly settled communities,” and “production of atomic energy.” Again, these activities are of a wholly different nature than float fly fishing.

“Whether an activity is abnormally dangerous is a question of law.” Chambers v. City of Helena, 2002 MT 142, 310 Mont. 241, 49 P.3d 587, 591 (Mont. 2002), overruled on other grounds, Giambra v. Kelsey, 2007 MT 158, 338 Mont. 19, 162 P.3d 134 (Mont. 2007). No court has held float fly fishing is an abnormally dangerous activity, and [*36] this Court declines Plaintiffs’ invitation to be the first to do so.

In addition, the Court has determined the MRRA is constitutional and applies to Plaintiff’s negligence claim. The MRRA limits a recreational provider’s liability. Mont. Code Ann. § 27-1-752(3); 27-1-753. The Montana Legislature enacted the MRRA to protect recreational providers from liability for injuries that are caused by the very characteristics of a particular activity that make it attractive to participants. 2009 Mt. Laws Ch. 331 (H.B. 150), preamble. The Legislature specifically intended to limit providers’ liability and to discourage claims based on damages that result from inherent risks in a sport or activity. Id. The Legislature enacted the MRRA to further the State’s interest in maintaining the economic viability of Montana’s sports and recreational industries. Id.

Imposing strict liability would eviscerate the purpose of the MRRA. Instead of limiting recreational provider’s liability for inherent risks, it would render them strictly liable for those risks. See Christian v. Atl. Richfield Co., 2015 MT 255, 380 Mont. 495, 358 P.3d 131, 150 (Mont. 2015) (“A claim based upon strict liability for the conduct of an abnormally dangerous activity . . . means that the defendant is liable for harm resulting from the activity, even [*37] if the defendant acted with reasonable care.”). In short, it would accomplish the exact opposite of what the MRRA was intended to do.

Therefore, because Plaintiffs have not shown good cause for their delay in seeking amendment, and because the amendment would be futile, Plaintiffs’ Motion to Amend the Complaint is DENIED.

IV. CONCLUSION

For the foregoing reasons, the Court ORDERS as follows: (1) Plaintiffs’ Motion to Amend (Doc. 23) is DENIED;

(2) Plaintiffs’ Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Doc. 28) is DENIED; and

(3) Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 31) is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.

IT IS ORDERED.

DATED this 28th day of September, 2018.

/s/ Timothy J. Cavan

TIMOTHY J. CAVAN

United States Magistrate Judge


Whitewater rafting release upheld by the Alaska Supreme Court.

Language in the release stated the defendant would and had done their best to keep people adequate… that language almost voided the release. Don’t put in a release information that can be used against you!

Langlois v. Nova River Runners, Inc., 2018 Alas. LEXIS 31

State: Alaska, Supreme Court of Alaska

Plaintiff: Vanessa L. Langlois, Personal Representative of the Estate of Stephen J. Morton

Defendant: Nova River Runners, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: Wrongful Death and multiple theories of Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2018

Summary

The deceased died whitewater rafting. Alaska has a six-prong test to determine if a release is valid. Here, the plaintiff argued the release in question failed on every point.

The Alaskan Supreme Court disagreed; however, on a few of the issues, the court struggled to have this release meet the requirements needed.

Facts

The defendant operated whitewater raft trips on Six Mile Creek near Hope, Alaska. The deceased signed a release prior to going rafting. No one could remember if the deceased read both sides of the release, however, ample time was given so the release could have been read.

The release is a 2-sided document. One side is labeled Participants Acknowledgment of Risk. The other side is where the participants acknowledge they have read the release.

The raft trip consists of three canyons. After the first two canyons, the participants are given an opportunity to get off the trip because the third canyon is the hardest. The deceased did not leave the trip. Sometime in the canyon is raft capsized, and the decedent died.

The spouse of the deceased brought his lawsuit on her behalf and as the executor (personal representative) of the estate. The trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims after the defendant filed a motion for summary judgment based on the release signed by the deceased. The plaintiff appealed.

The decision was heard by the Alaska Supreme Court. Alaska does not have an intermediate appellate court so appeals from the trial court go to the Supreme Court.

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

Alaska has a statute, Alaska Statute 09.65.290, that protects recreational defendants from liability from the inherent risks of the activity. The court recognized the statute is weak and stated that business in Alaska must supplement their protection by using a release.

The Alaska Supreme Court decided one prior decision concerning releases Donahue v. Ledgends, Inc., 2014 Alas. LEXIS 153, See Alaskan Supreme Court upholds releases for climbing gym and sets forth requirements on how releases will be upheld in AK. The court relied on its prior decision in Donahue to support its decision here.

In Donahue, the court created a six-part test to test the validity of a release.

…(1) the risk being waived must 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 . . . ; (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 plaintiff argued the release in this case did not satisfy the requirements set forth in Donahue.

The first argument was the release was not conspicuous and unequivocal because the release was two sided, and the sides did not appear to incorporate or be connected to each other.

The court did not agree with the argument because whether or not it was two different documents and whether or not the deceased read both sides was irrelevant because he signed the document. “We note that Participants in a recreational activity need not read a release for it to be binding if the language of the release is available to them.

The next argument was different.

The Estate also argues that NOVA’s Release “does not specifically and clearly set forth the risk that the NOVA instructors may have been negligently trained or supervised, or that they may give inadequate warning or instructions.”

The court found that the language in the release was broad enough to cover this claim.

However, the Release covers this risk as well; it indemnifies the “Releasees” in capital letters from liability for injury or death, “whether arising from negligence of the Releasees or otherwise,” and specifically defines “Releasees” to include “employees.”

The court also found that in Donahue,

…we also observed that “[i]t would not be reasonable to conclude that [the defendant] sought a release only of those claims against it that did not involve the acts or omissions of any of its employees.”

The plaintiffs then argued that a release must use the word negligence in it. This is a requirement of many states. Here, however, the argument failed because the release did use the term negligence, several times. The plaintiff’s argued that each time the word negligence was used, it was used in a way that was different from the prior ways so the release was not clear and explicit.

Next the plaintiff’s argued the language was not clear and did not adequately define the activity. The court found this release used capital letters to highlight the clauses waiving negligence, and the negligence clause was not concealed from view.

The clause contained some legalese; however, releases should be read “as a whole” to determine whether or not the language in the release “clearly notify the prospective releasor of the effect of signing the agreement.”

The release was a general release in that it also included release language for glacier hiking and ice climbing. However, the inherent risks outlined in the release were the risks of whitewater rafting. With that risk language, the court found the reader would know they were signing a release.

Based on that language it is obvious the release would fail for ice climbing and glacier hiking?

The plaintiff’s argued the release violated public policy. However, the court outlined Alaska’s definition of public policy in relation to recreation activities.

In evaluating public policy arguments in the context of liability waivers, we have previously considered “[o]f particular relevance . . . the type of service performed and whether the party seeking exculpation has a decisive advantage in bargaining strength because of the essential nature of the service.”25 The type of service likely to inspire additional scrutiny on public policy grounds is “a service of great importance to the public, which is often a matter of practical necessity for some members of the public.

A release for recreational activities does not violate public policy in Alaska.

The plaintiffs also argued the “release suggests an intent to exculpate nova from liability for employee negligence.

The court said, yes it does and that is OK. However, the court also specifically identified weaknesses in the release in this area. However, the weaknesses were not enough to void the release.

Ideally NOVA’s Release would include a more detailed description of the types of negligence it covers, such as “employee negligence” and “negligent training.” But doing so is not a requirement under Donahue. We therefore conclude that the Release suggests an intent to exculpate NOVA from liability for acts of employee negligence.

The plaintiffs also argued the defendants violated their own requirements set forth in the release. The release stated:

“…the concessionaire has taken reasonable steps to provide you with appropriate equipment and/or skilled guides so you can enjoy an activity for which you may not be skilled.”

The court worked around this stating the language before and after this [stupid] section defined the risks of the activity, which should have shown the deceased that no matter what steps taken, there were still risks. The court stated, read as a whole, the release outlined numerous risks of whitewater rafting.

The plaintiff argued a case out of Florida, which also had numerous safety standards the defendant promised to meet and had not, should be controlling here. The court had been struggling through four paragraphs eventually concluded.

NOVA’s Release contains only a single half-sentence, to that effect, adequately disclaimed: “Although the concessionaire has taken reasonable steps to provide you with appropriate equipment and/or skilled guides so you can enjoy an activity for which you may not be skilled, this activity is not without risk. Certain risks cannot be eliminated without destroying the unique character of the activity.” And the release in Kerr was much broader — promising to “try to make the [premises] safe” — than NOVA’s Release, which promises merely that the company takes “reasonable steps to provide . . . appropriate equipment and/or skilled guides” while acknowledging in context that these precautions could not mitigate all the risks posed by a whitewater rafting trip. The Estate’s reliance on Kerr is thus misplaced, and we conclude that the Release does not represent or insinuate standards of safety or maintenance.

The court found the release met all the six requirements needed in Alaska to be a release and upheld the trial court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims.

So Now What?

If your release, and I hope, it does, covers more than one page, make sure the pages connect or relate to each other. First, if on just one piece of paper, at the bottom of each page put in the footer, “Please Read Other Side.” If the release is more than two pages, besides the admonition to read the other side include page numbers on the document.

Write the document so it flows. You don’t have to have a heading at the top of each page. The two different headings in this case raised the argument it was two separate and unrelated documents. If the document were two different documents, then the first page should have had a signature line also, which is what the plaintiff argued. With no signature line, the first page of the document was a separate document and could not be held against the deceased.

If the writing flows, the paragraph or idea continues on the next page, then this would have been a non-issue.

Next you have to write your release to cover not only could happen but will happen, and it is all tied back to your employees. Always protect your employees and write the release broadly so it covers all the possible actions or acts an employee could take that may lead to a claim.

Never create in your release in a way for the plaintiff to sue you. Never make promises, never say you operate at a level, never say you use the best or even adequate anything. That language in this release almost was enough to defeat the release, and it was obvious the court struggled to find a very weak argument to beat this part of the plaintiff’s claims.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2018 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

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TUSA Recalls Diving Computers Due to Drowning and Injury Hazards

Hazard: The dive computer can malfunction and display an incorrect reading to the diver, posing a drowning and injury hazard due to decompression sickness.

Remedy: Replace

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled diving computers and contact TUSA to receive a free replacement diving computer.

Consumer Contact: TUSA at 800-482-2282 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. PT Monday through Friday or online at http://www.tusa.com/us-en and click on “Recall” for more information.

Photos available at: https://www.cpsc.gov/Recalls/2017/TUSA-Recalls-Diving-Computers

Units: About 175

Description: This recall involves TUSA DC Solar Link IQ1204 diving computers. The black or white and blue wrist-watch style diving computers have a digital screen. TUSA is printed on the front of the diving computer. The model number and serial number is printed on the back of the diving computer below “TUSA DC Solar Link.” Recalled diving computers have serial numbers 6TA0001 – 6TA2864. 

Incidents/Injuries: None reported

Sold at: Sporting goods stores nationwide from March 2016 through June 2016 for about $750.

Importer/Distributor: Tabata USA Inc. (TUSA), of Long Beach, Calif.

Manufactured in: Japan

Retailers: If you are a retailer of a recalled product you have a duty to notify your customers of a recall. If you can, email your clients or include the recall information in your next marketing communication to your clients. Post any Recall Poster at your stores and contact the manufacturer to determine how you will handle any recalls.

For more information on this see:

For Retailers

Recalls Call for Retailer Action

A recall leads to lawsuits because injuries are connected to the product being recalled thus a lawsuit. Plaintiff’s hope the three can be connected

Combination of a Products Liability statute, an Expert Witness Report that was just not direct enough and odd facts holds a retailer liable as manufacture for product defect.

Product Liability takes a different turn. You must pay attention, just not rely on the CPSC.

Retailer has no duty to fit or instruct on fitting bicycle helmet

Summary Judgment granted for bicycle manufacturer and retailer on a breach of warranty and product liability claim.

For Manufacturers

The legal relationship created between manufactures and US consumers

A recall leads to lawsuits because injuries are connected to the product being recalled thus a lawsuit. Plaintiff’s hope the three can be connected

Combination of a Products Liability statute, an Expert Witness Report that was just not direct enough and odd facts holds a retailer liable as manufacture for product defect.

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Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law

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Copyright 2016 Recreation Law (720) Edit Law

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

 

 

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