DeLamar v. Fort Worth Mt. Biker’s Ass’n, 2019 Tex. App. LEXIS 466

DeLamar v. Fort Worth Mt. Biker’s Ass’n, 2019 Tex. App. LEXIS 466

Norman Delamar, Appellant

v.

Fort Worth Mountain Biker’s Association, Appellee

No. 02-17-00404-CV

Court of Appeals of Texas, Second District, Fort Worth

January 24, 2019

On Appeal from the 348th District Court Tarrant County, Texas Trial Court No. 348-283758-16

Before Sudderth, C.J.; Gabriel and Pittman, JJ.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Bonnie Sudderth, Chief Justice.

I. Introduction

Appellant Norman DeLamar filed the underlying lawsuit against Appellee Fort Worth Mountain Biker’s Association (the Association) to recover for injuries he sustained when he was knocked off of his mountain bike after he struck a downed tree across a mountain bike trail at Gateway Park (Gateway). Norman claimed that the Association was negligent in failing to properly maintain a safe mountain bike trail as purportedly required by its contractual agreement with the City of Fort Worth (City). The trial court granted summary judgment on Norman’s claims against the Association. We will affirm.

II. Background

On July 12, 2014, Norman was riding his mountain bike on a trail in Gateway, a park owned by the City, when he came upon a downed tree resting across the trail at head level. Although known to be a “really good rider,” Norman asserts that because he did not have time to stop or avoid the tree, the tree “clotheslined” his head and neck and knocked him off of his bicycle, causing him injuries.

Norman sued the City, asserting claims of general negligence and gross negligence. In a single pleading, the City filed an answer and identified the Association as a responsible third party because of an “Adopt-A-Park Agreement” (Contract) that made the Association “responsible for constructing and maintaining the bike trail in question.” Norman then amended his petition and added the Association as a defendant in the suit.[1] Norman asserted that through the Contract, the Association agreed to “assume responsibility for maintenance, construction and safety of the trails,” and as such owed “a duty to protect the general public from dangerous conditions such as falling trees.” Norman claimed that the Association had breached this alleged duty by

• failing to make any effort to ensure that the trees alongside of the bicycle trail were not a danger to cyclists;

• failing to implement any sort of safety procedure with respect to the danger of falling trees in high bicycle (and pedestrian) traffic areas;

• failing to maintain the trails to prevent dangerous conditions from occurring despite knowing the dangers associated with cycling;

• failing to provide cyclists with adequate safeguards, or any safeguards at all, to prevent dangerous conditions from occurring; and

• consciously disregarding the heath of the trees and the danger that they pose.

The Contract provides that the Association “shall perform all work and services hereunder as an independent contractor . . . . [and] shall have exclusive control of, and the exclusive right to control the details of the work performed hereunder[.]” The Contract specifically provides that the Association “shall, at its sole cost and expense, construct and maintain the Trails in accordance with [the] Agreement,” and it defines “trail maintenance” as including, but not limited to, “repairing, replacing, and rebuilding trails or sections of trails that are eroding or in disrepair; pruning of trees; [and] removal of brush[.]” However, the Contract prohibits the Association from “trimming and pruning, until written approval is obtained from the Director [of the Parks and Community Services Department],” and from “remov[ing] any tree without prior written permission from the City Forester.” [Emphasis added.] Finally, the Contract expressly reserves the City’s right to control and access all portions of Gateway: “The City does not relinquish the right to control the management of the Parks, or the right to enforce all necessary and proper rules for the management and operation of the same. The City . . . has the right at any time to enter any portion of the Parks[.]”

The Association answered and then filed a no-evidence and traditional motion for summary judgment. In its motion, the Association asserted that there was no evidence that

• the Association was negligent as it owed Norman no duty with respect to the condition of the premises; or

• the Association owed a duty to keep the premises in reasonably safe condition, inspect the premise to discover any defects, or to make safe any defect or give an adequate warning of any dangers.

Although the Association clearly challenged the existence of any legal duty it owed to Norman, the Association’s motion primarily argued that Norman’s claim sounded in premises liability rather than general negligence and that he could not artfully plead a general negligence claim when his injuries were caused by a premises defect. Norman filed a response and attached, inter alia, a short affidavit and an expert report from an arborist, Matthew Clemons. In his response, Norman appeared to adopt the Association’s characterization of his claim as one for premises liability and in doing so focused on his status, arguing that he was an invitee. Indeed, Norman’s “Conclusion” sought denial of the summary judgment motions because there was “more than enough credible evidence to find that the [Association] is liable under a premises liability theory for this incident[.]” [Emphasis added.] The Association filed a reply and objected to the expert report from Clemons as inadmissible hearsay.

Following the hearing on the Association’s no evidence and traditional motions for summary judgment, the trial court requested letter briefs and took the matter under advisement. In his letter brief, Norman altered his prior position and for the first time asserted that the Association’s summary judgment theory was flawed because his suit against the Association was based on a general negligence theory, not a premises liability theory. The trial court signed an order sustaining the Association’s objections to Clemons’s expert report and a separate order granting the Association’s no evidence and traditional motions for summary judgment.

On appeal, Norman contends the trial court erred by construing his claim as one for premises liability rather than general negligence and abused its discretion by sustaining the Association’s hearsay objection to Clemons’s report.

III. Norman’s Negligence Claim

A. Standard of Review

The movant for traditional summary judgment has the burden of showing that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Tex. R. Civ. P. 166a(c); Nixon v. Mr. Prop. Mgmt. Co., 690 S.W.2d 546, 548 (Tex. 1985). A defendant who conclusively negates at least one essential element of the nonmovant’s cause of action is entitled to summary judgment as to that cause of action. Randall’s Food Mkts., Inc. v. Johnson, 891 S.W.2d 640, 644 (Tex. 1995). Once the movant has established a right to summary judgment, the nonmovant has the burden to respond to the motion and present to the trial court any issues that would preclude summary judgment. City of Houston v. Clear Creek Basin Auth., 589 S.W.2d 671, 678-79 (Tex. 1979). The only question is whether an issue of material fact is presented. See Tex. R. Civ. P. 166a(c).

After an adequate time for discovery, a party without the burden of proof at trial may move for summary judgment on the ground that there is no evidence of one or more essential elements of a claim or defense. See Tex. R. Civ. P. 166a(i). Once a no evidence motion has been filed in accordance with Rule 166a(i), the burden shifts to the nonmovant to bring forth evidence that raises a fact issue on the challenged evidence. See Macias v. Fiesta Mart, Inc., 988 S.W.2d 316, 317 (Tex. App.-Houston [1st Dist.] 1999, no pet.). We review a no evidence motion for summary judgment under the same legal sufficiency standards as a directed verdict. King Ranch, Inc. v. Chapman, 118 S.W.3d 742, 750-51 (Tex. 2003). A no evidence motion is properly granted if the nonmovant fails to bring forth more than a scintilla of probative evidence to raise a genuine issue of material fact as to an essential element of the nonmovant’s claim on which the nonmovant would have the burden of proof at trial. See id. at 751. If the evidence supporting a finding rises to a level that would enable reasonable, fair-minded persons to differ in their conclusions, then more than a scintilla of evidence exists. Id. A mere scintilla of evidence exists when the evidence is so weak as to do no more than create a mere surmise or suspicion of a fact, and the legal effect is that there is no evidence. See id.

When reviewing traditional and no evidence summary judgments, we perform a de novo review of the entire record in the light most favorable to the nonmovant, indulging every reasonable inference and resolving any doubts against the motion. See Sudan v. Sudan, 199 S.W.3d 291, 292 (Tex. 2006); KPMG Peat Marwick v. Harrison Cty. Hous. Fin. Corp., 988 S.W.2d 746, 748 (Tex. 1999). We are not required to ascertain the credibility of affiants or to determine the weight of evidence in the affidavits, depositions, exhibits and other summary judgment proof. See Gulbenkian v. Penn, 252 S.W.2d 929, 932 (Tex. 1952); Palestine Herald-Press Co. v. Zimmer, 257 S.W.3d 504, 508 (Tex. App.-Tyler 2008, pet. denied).

All grounds in support of or in opposition to a motion for summary judgment must be presented in writing to the trial court. See Tex. R. Civ. P. 166a(c). “When a trial court’s order granting summary judgment does not specify the ground or grounds relied on for the ruling, summary judgment will be affirmed on appeal if any of the theories advanced are meritorious.” State Farm Fire & Cas. Co. v. S.S., 858 S.W.2d 374, 380 (Tex. 1993).

When a party moves for both a traditional and a no evidence summary judgment, we generally first review the trial court’s summary judgment under the no evidence standard of Rule 166a(i). See Ford Motor Co. v. Ridgway, 135 S.W.3d 598, 600 (Tex. 2004). If the no evidence summary judgment was properly granted, we need not reach arguments under the traditional motion for summary judgment. See id.

B. General Negligence vs. Premises Liability Theories of Recovery

Although premises liability is a form of negligence, “[n]egligence and premises liability claims . . . are separate and distinct theories of recovery, requiring plaintiffs to prove different, albeit similar, elements to secure judgment in their favor.” United Scaffolding, Inc. v. Levine, 537 S.W.3d 463, 471 (Tex. 2017); Clayton W. Williams, Jr., Inc. v. Olivo, 952 S.W.2d 523, 529 (Tex. 1997) (stating that “[b]ecause premises defect cases and negligent activity cases are based on independent theories of recovery, a simple negligence [jury] question . . . cannot support a recovery in a premises defect case”); E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co. v. Roye, 447 S.W.3d 48, 57-58 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2014, pet. dism’d) (“Because [claimant] was limited to a premises liability theory of recovery, . . . the trial court erred when it submitted an ordinary negligence cause of action against [appellant] to the jury. . . . Accordingly, the jury’s finding that [appellant] was negligent is immaterial and cannot support a judgment against [appellant].”). As our sister court has explained, premises liability is a “special form of negligence in which the duty owed to the plaintiff depends upon the plaintiff’s status on the premises at the time of the incident.” Wyckoff v. George C. Fuller Contracting Co., 357 S.W.3d 157, 163-64 (Tex. App.-Dallas 2011, no pet.) (citing Scott & White Mem’l Hosp. v. Fair, 310 S.W.3d 411, 412 (Tex. 2010)).[2]

While, theoretically, a litigant may maintain causes of action for both general negligence and premises liability, to be viable, the general negligence theory of recovery must be based not upon an injury resulting from the condition of the property, but upon the defendant’s contemporaneous activity. See Mangham v. YMCA of Austin, Texas-Hays Comtys., 408 S.W.3d 923, 929 (Tex. App.-Austin 2013, no pet.); see also W. Invs., Inc. v. Urena, 162 S.W.3d 547, 550 (Tex. 2005) (analyzing claimant’s negligence and premises liability claims together). If the injury is one caused by a premises defect, rather than a defendant’s contemporaneous activity, a plaintiff cannot circumvent the true nature of the premises defect claim by pleading it as one for general negligence. Sampson v. Univ. of Tex. at Austin, 500 S.W.3d 380, 389 (Tex. 2016).

Because the lines between negligent activity and premises liability are “sometimes unclear,” Del Lago Partners, Inc. v. Smith, 307 S.W.3d 762, 776 (Tex. 2010), determining whether a claim is one for a premises defect or general negligence “can be tricky.” Austin v. Kroger Tex. L.P., 746 F.3d 191, 196 (5th Cir. 2014), certified question answered, 465 S.W.3d 193 (Tex. 2015). The policy undergirding this distinction is that negligence encompasses a malfeasance theory based on affirmative, contemporaneous conduct that caused the injury, whereas premises liability encompasses a nonfeasance theory based on the owner’s failure to take measures to make the property safe. See Del Lago Partners, 307 S.W.3d at 776; Timberwalk Apartments, Partners, Inc. v. Cain, 972 S.W.2d 749, 753 (Tex. 1998) (explaining negligent activity concerns “simply doing or failing to do what a person of ordinary prudence in the same or similar circumstances would have not done or done” while premises liability concerns the “failure to use ordinary care to reduce or eliminate an unreasonable risk of harm created by a premises condition which the owner or occupier [of land] knows about or in the exercise of ordinary care should know about” and quoting Keetch v. Kroger Co., 845 S.W.2d 262, 266-67 (Tex. 1992)).

C. Discussion

In his first issue, Norman argues that the trial court erred by granting summary judgment on a premises liability theory when his claims sounded in general negligence: “The Association characterized [my] lawsuit against it as one for premises liability. This argument is flawed because the Association was not the possessor of the premises when [I] was injured[.]” Norman argues that his “petition is fairly constructed as advancing an ordinary negligence claim” because he pleaded that the Association is liable for “failing to employ any procedure to ensure safety from falling trees, and for failing to maintain a safe bike path and the trees along it.” The Association responds that regardless of how Norman pleaded his claim, he is limited to a premises liability theory of recovery because Norman was injured by an unsafe or dangerous condition on the premises-not by contemporaneous negligent activity.[3]

1. Summary Judgment was Not Granted on an Unaddressed Claim Because the Association’s Motion for Summary Judgment Challenged the Existence of a Legal Duty

As a preliminary matter, we consider Norman’s contention that the trial court improperly granted summary judgment on his negligence claim when the Association’s motion for summary judgment actually addressed only an unpleaded premises-liability claim. See Chessher v. Sw. Bell Tel. Co., 658 S.W.2d 563, 564 (Tex. 1983) (stating it is reversible error to grant summary judgment on a claim not addressed in the motion). Three of our sister courts have addressed similar instances in which defendants filed summary judgment motions on the theory that the plaintiff had impermissibly pleaded a premises defect claim as a general negligence claim. See Griffin v. Shell Oil Co., 401 S.W.3d 150 (Tex. App.-Houston [1st Dist.] 2011, pet. denied); Somoza v. Rough Hollow Yacht Club, Ltd., No. 03-09-00308-CV, 2010 WL 2867372, at *4 (Tex. App.-Austin July 20, 2010, no pet.) (mem. op.); Kalinchuk v. JP Sanchez Construction Co., No. 04-15-00537-CV, 2016 WL 4376628, at *3 (Tex. App.- San Antonio Aug. 17, 2016, no pet.) (mem. op.).

In Griffin, the First District Court of Appeals considered whether “the trial court erred in granting summary judgment in favor of Shell and CH2M on his negligent-activity claims because neither Shell nor CH2M sought summary judgment on these claims.” 401 S.W.3d at 157. After stating that a trial court errs by granting more relief requested by disposing of issues not presented to it in the summary judgment motion, the First court analyzed each defendant’s summary-judgment motion and held that based “upon the plain language,” the defendants sought summary judgment “only on [appellant’s] premises-defect claim” and not his negligent activity claim. Id. at 158-59. Thus, the First court reversed summary judgment on appellant’s negligence claim and remanded the case. Id. The First court did note, however, that “[a] legal duty must be established in order for [appellant] to ultimately recover on his negligent-activity claim[, ]” id. at 163 n.4, thus signaling its concern over the viability of appellant’s negligence claim.

In Somoza, the plaintiff had been injured while operating a jet ski when he allegedly ran into a partially submerged steel cable tethered to a floating dock, near the marina owned and operated by a yacht club. Somoza, 2010 WL 2867372, at *1. He filed suit against the yacht club and alleged negligence and premises liability claims. Id. The yacht club filed a hybrid no evidence and traditional motion for summary judgment, asserting, in part, that the plaintiff “has no claim for general negligence . . . because his negligence claim sounds solely in premises liability,” and that the plaintiff has “produced no evidence of the essential elements of duty, breach, or proximate cause.” Id. The trial court granted the motion.

On appeal, the Third District Court of Appeals considered the plaintiff’s contention that the trial court improperly granted summary judgment on his general negligence claim. Id. at *4. The Third court “assum[ed] without deciding that [the plaintiff] could bring a claim for general negligence despite his failure to allege injury resulting from any contemporaneous activity by the Yacht Club” and nevertheless concluded that “he has still failed to establish the existence of a duty to support a claim in negligence.” Id. at *5.

In Kalinchuk, the plaintiff filed a lawsuit against his putative employer for negligence and gross negligence after he was injured at a baseball field renovation site by a section of bleachers that fell on him. 2016 WL 4376628, at *1. The employer moved for traditional and no evidence summary judgment, and alleged, inter alia, that the plaintiff did not have more than a scintilla of evidence to establish the existence of a legal duty. Id. In its motion, the employer relied on cases involving premises liability claims and asserted that the plaintiff purported to state a claim for negligence when his claim was “actually based on the theory of premises liability because he [sought] to recover for an injury allegedly created by a condition on the premises rather than for an injury created as a result of an activity.” Id. at *3. The plaintiff responded that the employer owed him a common law duty to exercise reasonable care and avoid a foreseeable risk of harm. Id. The trial court granted summary judgment. Id.

On appeal, the Fourth District Court of Appeals reasoned that “[w]hether [plaintiff’s] claim is a claim for negligence as he argues or a premises liability claim as [employer] contends, the question of whether a duty exists remains the same in that it requires a balancing of interrelated factors that make up the risk-utility balancing test.” Id. After applying the risk-utility balancing test to the facts of the case, the Fourth court concluded that the plaintiff had “failed to produce a scintilla of evidence creating a fact issue to support the existence of [a] legal duty owed to him by [the employer.]” Id. at *3-4.

We do not quarrel with the First court’s strict approach in refusing to read into the summary judgment motion a ground that was not clearly articulated. However, we view the approach by the Third and Fourth courts as allowing for a more expedient disposition while maintaining fidelity to Rule 166a(c)’s requirement that summary judgment motions “state the specific grounds therefor.” Tex.R.Civ.P. 166a(c); Somoza, 2010 WL 2867372, at *5; Kalinchuk, 2016 WL 4376628, at *3-4.

The existence of a legal duty is a threshold issue generally decided as a matter of law. Fort Bend Cty. Drainage Dist. v. Sbrusch, 818 S.W.2d 392, 395 (Tex. 1991). And even assuming under these facts that Norman could bring a claim for general negligence, the Association in its motion for summary judgment challenged the existence of a legal duty owed to him regarding the downed tree and maintenance of trail safety regardless of whether the duty arose under a premises liability theory based on Norman’s status at the time of the injury or a general negligence theory balancing test.[4] See Kalinchuk, 2016 WL 4376628, at *3-4 (explaining whether the plaintiff’s claim is a claim for negligence as he argued or a premises liability claim as the defendant contended, “the question of whether a duty exists remains the same in that it requires a balancing of interrelated factors that make up the risk-utility balancing test”); cf. Del Lago Partners, 307 S.W.3d at 767 (applying risk-utility balancing factors to determine duty in premises liability case); Wyckoff, 357 S.W.3d at 164 (“General negligence principles apply to a contractor who has left [a] premises in an unsafe condition.”). Therefore, because the summary judgment motion fairly challenged the existence of a legal duty, we reject Norman’s contention that the trial court erred by granting the motion on an unchallenged ground, and we now analyze whether the Association owed Norman a legal duty under a general negligence theory.

2. No Legal Duty Under a General Negligence Theory

The question of legal duty is a “multifaceted issue” requiring courts to balance a number of factors such as the risk and foreseeability of injury, the social utility of the actor’s conduct, the consequences of imposing the burden on the actor, and any other relevant competing individual and social interests implicated by the facts of the case. Tex. Home Mgmt., Inc. v. Peavy, 89 S.W.3d 30, 33 (Tex. 2002). “Although the formulation and emphasis varies with the facts of each case, three categories of factors have emerged: (1) the relationship between the parties; (2) the reasonable foreseeability of harm to the person injured; and (3) public policy considerations.” Id. at 34. Of these factors, the Supreme Court of Texas has identified “foreseeability as the ‘foremost and dominant consideration’ in the duty analysis.” Id. at 36 (quoting El Chico Corp. v. Poole, 732 S.W.2d 306, 311 (Tex. 1987)). “Foreseeability means that a person who possesses ordinary intelligence should have anticipated the danger that his negligent act would create for others.” Midwest Emp’rs Cas. Co. ex rel. English v. Harpole, 293 S.W.3d 770, 779 (Tex. App.-San Antonio 2009, no pet.). However, foreseeability alone is not sufficient to impose a duty. Id.

Here, Norman pleaded that the Association contractually assumed “responsibility for maintenance, construction and safety of the trails,” and as such, owed a duty to “protect the general public from dangerous conditions[.]” The record, which contains the Contract and deposition excerpts, evidences the Association’s agreement to, and exercise of, some limited control over the construction and maintenance of Gateway’s bike trails by having monthly meetings to discuss maintenance issues and by building trails in the months between May and October. The summary judgment evidence also provided that the Association holds an annual work day in June to make sure the trails are in “tiptop shape” for their annual “fat tire festival.” This workday consists of going through the entire trail to look for places that needed to be trimmed or pruned.

Lawrence “Larry” Colvin, the Association’s president at the time of Norman’s crash, testified that during the monthly meetings, the Association’s members discussed safety of the trees in general as well as identified certain problem trees to City employees who “were the only ones that [could] operate the chainsaws.” Larry also testified that the Association had once asked the City to close the trail because of “so many trees down,” but that the City refused. Larry testified that the Association worked with Melinda Adams, an “urban forester” with the City, who “[took] a look at the trees.” Although Larry acknowledged that the Association had no “tree safety plan” and had never consulted an arborist, he concluded that even retaining a certified arborist to walk Gateway once a week would still not prevent falling trees in a park “hundreds of thousands of trees.”

Larry’s testimony concerning the existence of “hundreds of thousands of trees” along the mountain bike trail provided proof that the danger of a falling tree was plausible. And in his deposition, Larry acknowledged that the likelihood of falling trees would increase in “an unprecedented drought like we were in in 2014”-the year of Norman’s injury.

However, Norman testified in his deposition that he had ridden the same trail “no more [than] two days” earlier and that he had not seen the downed tree, so it was possible that the tree had fallen only a day or two before his crash. Indeed, Norman conceded that it was possible that the tree could have actually fallen only a few hours before his crash. Moreover, the Contract expressly prohibits the Association from pruning trees without the Director’s prior written approval and expressly prohibits the Association from removing any tree without prior written permission from the Forester. Norman does not direct us to any part of the Contract showing that the Association had agreed to assume a legal duty to maintain the safety of the trails for the general public.

Based on our de novo review of the record, we hold that Norman failed to establish that the Association owed him a legal duty to protect him from the downed tree across the trail that the Association did not cause to fall, that may have fallen only hours-but no later than a day or two-before Norman struck it, and that the Association was not even authorized to unilaterally remove.[5] See Felts v. Bluebonnet Elec. Coop., Inc., 972 S.W.2d 166, 169 (Tex. App.-Austin 1998, no pet.) (rejecting complainant’s argument that an electrical co-op’s tree-trimming agreement creating a limited right to trim or clear trees for the purpose of protecting its power lines “created a broader duty to maintain the area for the protection of the general public traveling on the nearby county road”); Jacobs-Cathey Co. v. Cockrum, 947 S.W.2d 288, 292 (Tex. App.-Waco 1997, writ denied) (holding that “a defendant’s policy to remedy dangerous conditions he may come across does not impose a legal duty on him to these third parties” and that a defendant bears “no common law duty to remove debris . . . that was left by some other party”); see also J.P. Morgan Chase Bank, N.A. v. Tex. Contract Carpet, Inc., 302 S.W.3d 515, 530-32 (Tex. App.-Austin 2009, no pet.) (holding a contractual agreement did not create a legal duty to a third party when the contractual benefit to the third party was not clearly intended by the contract and was merely incidental to the agreement).

Therefore, the trial court did not err by granting summary judgment on Norman’s negligence and gross negligence claims. See Gonzalez v. VATR Constr., LLC, 418 S.W.3d 777, 789 (Tex. App.-Dallas 2013, no pet.) (holding that because summary judgment was proper on negligence claim, it was also proper on gross negligence claim). We overrule Norman’s first issue.

IV. Norman’s Excluded Summary Judgment Evidence

Norman’s second issue challenges the trial court’s decision to sustain the Association’s hearsay objection and strike Matthew Clemons’s report. Norman’s contention is that because he submitted an affidavit from Clemons in which Clemons swore that the attached report was a true and correct copy of the report that he had personally prepared, the report was authenticated, “which overcomes the hearsay problem.” The Association responds that Norman misunderstands its objection, which was that the report was inadmissible hearsay, not that it was not properly authenticated.

A. Standard of Review

A trial court’s rulings on the admissibility of evidence are reviewable under an abuse of discretion standard. Gharda USA, Inc. v. Control Sols., Inc., 464 S.W.3d 338, 347 (Tex. 2015). An appellate court must uphold the trial court’s evidentiary ruling if there is any legitimate basis in the record for the ruling. Owens-Corning Fiberglas Corp. v. Malone, 972 S.W.2d 35, 43 (Tex. 1998). A trial court’s discretion in determining whether an expert is qualified to testify on a matter is broad but not unbounded. In re Commitment of Bohannan, 388 S.W.3d 296, 307 (Tex. 2012). A trial court abuses its discretion by excluding expert testimony if the testimony is relevant to the issues in the case and is based on a reliable foundation. Id.; State v. Cent. Expressway Sign Assocs., 302 S.W.3d 866, 870 (Tex. 2009) (op. on reh’g).

B. Analysis

Norman attached a short affidavit from Matthew Clemons which stated, in relevant part, as follows:

I certify that the ‘Initial Assessment of Tree Conditions; Gateway Park Mountain Bike Trail’ was prepared on March 21, 2017 for Jackson Davis regarding Norman DeLamar’s bicycle incident, which is attached as an Exhibit to Plaintiff’s Response to Fort Worth Biker’s Association Traditional and No Evidence Motions for Summary Judgment, is a true and correct copy of the report which I personally prepared and provided Mr. Davis.

The March 21, 2017 letter was attached to Norman’s summary judgment response as Exhibit D.

The Association asserts that Clemons’s affidavit (which was not objected to), may authenticate the attached report, but it does not remove the report from the ambit of hearsay. We agree. See Tex. R. Evid. 801, 802; cf. Petty v. Children’s WorldLearning Ctrs., Inc., No. 05-94-00998-CV, 1995 WL 379522, at *5 (Tex. App.-Dallas May 31, 1995, writ denied) (explaining that “[a]uthenticity is separate and apart from qualification as an exception under the hearsay rule”). Further, the report does not obviously fall within any of the exclusions from hearsay (Tex. R. Evid. 801(e)) or exceptions to the rule against hearsay (Tex. R. Evid. 803)-indeed, Norman does not assert any exclusion or exception.

Accordingly, we hold that the court did not abuse its discretion by sustaining the Association’s hearsay objection to Clemons’s report, and we overrule Norman’s second issue.

V. Conclusion

Having held that the trial court did not err by granting summary judgment on Norman’s negligence and gross negligence claims and that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by excluding Norman’s expert’s report as inadmissible hearsay, we affirm the trial court’s judgment.

—–

Notes:

[1]Norman’s suit against the Association for negligence and gross negligence was eventually severed from his suit against the City.

[2]To prevail on a premises-liability claim, a plaintiff must prove (1) actual or constructive knowledge of some condition on the premises by the owner; (2) that the condition posed an unreasonable risk of harm; (3) that the owner did not exercise reasonable care to reduce or eliminate the risk; and (4) that the owner’s failure to use such care proximately caused the plaintiff’s injuries, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Gonzalez, 968 S.W.2d 934, 936 (Tex. 1998), whereas under the common law doctrine of negligence, a plaintiff must prove (1) a legal duty owed by one person to another; (2) a breach of that duty; and (3) damages proximately resulting from the breach. Helbing v. Hunt, 402 S.W.3d 699, 702 (Tex. App.-Houston [1st Dist.] 2012, pet. denied).

[3]The Association asserts it is a “non-possessory interest holder” which is “the legal equivalent of the occupier” of the bike trail portion of Gateway. Put differently, the Association contends it has rights akin to that of an easement holder. See Brookshire Katy Drainage Dist. v. Lily Gardens, LLC, 333 S.W.3d 301, 309 (Tex. App.- Houston [1st Dist.] 2010, pet. denied) (“[A]n easement is a nonpossessory interest in another’s property that authorizes its holder to use that property for a particular purpose.”).

[4]Although we do not reach the issue, we believe that Norman’s claim sounds in premises liability in any event. See United Scaffolding, 537 S.W.3d at 472 (“We have recognized that slip/trip-and-fall cases have consistently been treated as premises defect causes of action. In such cases, the plaintiff alleges injury as a result of a physical condition or defect left on the premises, not as a contemporaneous result of someone’s negligence.” (internal citation and quotation marks omitted)); Sampson, 500 S.W.3d at 389-90 (citing Univ. of Tex. at Austin v. Hayes, 327 S.W.3d 113 (Tex. 2010) (per curiam), a case with injuries caused by a bicycle crash after the cyclist ran over a metal chain stretched across a college campus driveway as illustrating a “quintessential premises defect claim”); Tex. Dept. of Parks & Wildlife v. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d 217, 230 (Tex. 2004) (concluding that the “allegation of an injury caused by a tree limb falling on [plaintiff] constitutes an allegation of a condition or use of real property and is an allegation of a premises defect”).

[5]Norman also does not persuade us that we should create a legal duty regarding the downed tree and trail safety based on public policy considerations. See Kalinchuk, 2016 WL 4376628, at *4. Indeed, public policy considerations weigh heavily against imposing such a legal duty on what is essentially a group of volunteer mountain bike enthusiasts who have been granted such limited oversight over the safety of the bike trails, if any.

trail, summary judgment, general negligence, premises liability, premises, trial court, legal duty, no evidence, summary judgment motion, pet, hearsay, grant summary judgment, premises liability theory, mountain bike, balancing, nonmovant, falling, dangerous condition, gross negligence, negligence claim, downed tree, contemporaneous, foreseeability, factors, cause of action, yacht club, scintilla, injuries, bicycle, cases


Indoor trampoline park company held liable for its actions in creating safety rules for its sub-groups creating liability for itself from the sub-group’s customers.

The parent company knew the employee handbook, which contained safety rules, which was given to the companies operating trampoline parks would be used to keep the customers of the parks safe. When the employee handbook was badly written, the parent company was liable to the injured plaintiff.

We have seen this before in Bad luck or about time, however, you look at this decision, you will change the way you work in the Outdoor Recreation Industry. A second case will create greater concern and liability for actions of “safety” experts in the outdoor recreation industry.

Citation: Haines v. Get Air Tucson Incorporated, et al., 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 180500, 2018 WL 5118640

State: Arizona, United States District Court, D. Arizona

Plaintiff: Blake Haines

Defendant: Get Air Tucson Incorporated, et al

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence and Gross Negligence

Defendant Defenses:

Holding: for the Plaintiff on the negligence claim and for the defendants on the Gross Negligence claim

Year: 2018

Summary

A prior company of some sort created safety rules in an employee handbook which were poorly written. The prior or parent company gave these rules to the trampoline parks to use. A plaintiff argued, successfully, the parent company was liable to him because the rules were poorly written, and the court agreed.

Third party contractors are increasingly brought into lawsuits because of their actions. The contractors are hired to decrease the risk to the customers, and the courts are holding when they fail, they are liable for their actions.

Facts

These facts on how the injury occurred, and the relationship between the parties came from a different decision in this case.

On September 8, 2013 Haines was at the Get Air Tucson indoor trampoline park and performed a move where he flipped multiple times off of a platform and into a foam pit. Haines “suffered catastrophic injuries from the maneuver, including fractured cervical vertebrae resulting in paralysis.” Following this incident, Haines filed suit in Pima County Superior Court on September 5, 2014 against the following defendants: Get Air Tucson, Inc.; Get Air Tucson Trampolines, LLC; Get Air Management, Inc.; Get Air, LLC; Trampoline Parks, LLC; Patti Goodell; Jacob Goodell; Kiersten Goodell; Scott Goodell; Alan McEwan Jr.; Val Iverson, individually and as owner or operator of Trampoline Parks, LLC; Jane and/or John Does #s 1-20; ABC Corporations 1-10; XYZ Partnerships 1-10; and ABC Limited Liability Corporations (LLCs) 1-10. Haines alleged claims for negligence, negligent design, negligence in safety standards, negligent supervision, negligent hiring and training of personnel, piercing the corporate veil, and punitive damages. Id.

There are three parties to this lawsuit. The plaintiff who was injured at the Defendant Get Air Tucson’s facility, Get Air Tucson and GALLC. GALLC was a former trampoline park that is no longer in business but seemingly a parent company?

GALLC created an employee handbook to be used by its clients (trampoline parks or franchisors). The plaintiff claims he was injured because of the “allegedly deficient safety rules contained in the Employee Handbook.” The handbook does not clearly define what a somersault is. The plaintiff was injured when he did a flip.

As previously found by this Court, Plaintiff has presented evidence that GALLC developed a generic employee handbook (“EH”) for use in other Get Air trampoline parks as part of its support for the expansion of the Get Air business enterprise, and that the EH was used by Get Air Tucson.

The case had been referred to a magistrate who created an order dismissing the gross negligence claims but keeping the negligence claims. That magistrate’s order was then reviewed, which is the decision this article is based on.

Judge Markovich recommended that Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment be granted with respect to Plaintiff’s punitive-damages claim. Judge Markovich rejected Defendant’s other arguments. He found that, as a result of “the special business-customer relationship that was created when GALLC performed an undertaking to develop the EH [employee handbook] as part of its support work for the Get Air entities, ” GALLC owed Plaintiff a duty to exercise reasonable care in developing the safety rules in the EH. Judge Markovich found that summary judgment on the issue of a breach of the standard of care is precluded because there is a material factual dispute concerning whether the rule prohibiting somersaults in the EH was sufficient to prohibit the flip maneuver attempted by Plaintiff.

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

The defendant GALLC argued it had no duty to the plaintiff.

In its Motion for Summary Judgment, Defendant argues (1) it owed no duty to Plaintiff, (2) even if it owed a duty, it was not negligent because the EH prohibited the maneuver that led to Plaintiff’s injuries, (3) it no longer has any potential legal liability because the employee involved in the creation of the EH was dismissed with prejudice; (4) Plaintiff cannot prove causation, and (5) Plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages is factually unsupported.

The court then reviewed how a duty was created and what the courts looked for in making that decision.

To establish a defendant’s liability for a negligence claim, a plaintiff must prove: (1) a duty requiring the defendant to conform to a certain standard of care; (2) breach of that standard; (3) a causal connection between the breach and the resulting injury; and (4) actual damages.

Whether or not a duty exists is a legal question to be determined by a court of law. A duty can arise if a special relationship exists between the parties or because of an “undertaking” of the defendant.

Although there is evidence that the various Get Air enterprises were operated as a closely linked network, the Court does not find that Plaintiff and GALLC had a traditional business-customer relationship.

So, the relationship alone between the plaintiff and GALLC was not enough to create a duty. However, the court did find a relationship because of GALLC’s attempt to create safety rules in the employee handbook for its customers.

However, even though there was no direct business-customer relationship, Plaintiff and GALLC, nevertheless, had a special relationship based on GALLC undertaking to create safety rules for other Get Air trampoline parks, which GALLC included in a generic EH developed as part of its support work for the Get Air entities. Imposition of a duty based on this special relationship is supported by Arizona’s case law as well as sections 323 and 324A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts.

The Restatement (Second) of Torts states:

One who undertakes, gratuitously or for consideration, to render services to another which he should recognize as necessary for the protection of a third person or his things, is subject to liability to the third person for physical harm resulting from his failure to exercise reasonable care to protect his undertaking, if

(a) his failure to exercise reasonable care increases the risk of such harm, or

(b) he has undertaken to perform a duty owed by the other to the third person, or

(c) the harm is suffered because of reliance of the other or the third person upon the undertaking.

Restatement (Second) of Torts § 324A (1965).

The court found that GALLC undertook to render services, the creation of the employee handbook, which contained safety rules, which were necessary to protect the customers of Get Air Tucson. Plaintiff alleged in its complaint that GALLC failed to exercise reasonable care for the creation of the safety rules, thus creating liability.

GALLC, failing to exercise reasonable care in developing the safety rules increased the harm to Get Air Tucson’s’ customers, like the plaintiff.

Additionally, the failure to perform a duty, development of reasonable safety rules, which Get Air Tucson owed to its customers, created liability.

The Court agrees with Judge Markovich that GALLC owed Plaintiff a duty to exercise reasonable care in the development of the safety rules contained in the generic EH supplied to Get Air Tucson.

The court also found that there was a genuine issue of material fact because GALLC allegedly breached its duty to exercise reasonable care in the creation of the safety rules when the definition of a somersault which was used in the rules, and the definition was not clear. The issue was, did the actions of the plaintiff flipping constitute a somersault?

On top of that, when the manual or rules are not clear or are ignored, this creates greater liability on the companies involved.

Even if the maneuver attempted by Plaintiff falls within a technical definition of the term “somersault, “as Defendant argues, Plaintiff has identified evidence showing that Get Air employees did not consider flips to be encompassed by the EH’s safety rule prohibiting somersaults.

The court found GALLC was liable not because of its relationships between the parties, but because its actions constituted an independent undertaking that created a duty.

However, as Judge Markovich found, Plaintiff is not asserting vicarious liability; rather, Plaintiff alleges that GALLC is independently negligent for undertaking to create a generic EH for use in other Get Air parks, including Get Air Tucson, and including allegedly deficient safety rules in that EH. The dismissal with prejudice of Val Iverson does not preclude Plaintiff from asserting a claim against GALLC for its own independent negligence, even if establishing the independent negligence of GALLC may require proof of Val Iverson’s negligence.

So Now What?

Safety is always scary. How much do you write? If you don’t write enough, you don’t cover everything, and you could be found liable. If you write too much you don’t cover everything, and you are still found liable because either you did not cover the issue at hand, or you did not follow the rules you created.

You can’t follow the rules if the rules are too much to remember. You can’t handle an incident with a notebook in one hand trying to figure out what to do next.

Worse, you are a third party, and you inspect or write safety issues, and you are now liable to the customers of your customer who you were trying to protect. In Bad luck or about time, however, you look at this decision, you will change the way you work in the Outdoor Recreation Industry the defendant did an inspection of the property. The injured plaintiff argued the inspection was insufficient, and the defendant owed her a duty.

In this case the rules where insufficient, badly written, and seemingly not enforced, creating a duty to the injured plaintiff.

If you are an inspector or a rule writer, a third-party contractor hired to teach, inspect or write you had better to it correctly and completely. On top of that you better have a great liability insurance policy and contract with your client to protect you.

If you are a third-party contractor, expect to see more claims like this in the future.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Assumption of the Risk is a defense to negligence and gross negligence claims in this case against a college offering for credit tour abroad study.

Student died swimming in the Pacific Ocean and his parents sued the college for his death. College was dismissed because student was an adult and assumed the risk that killed him.

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

State: Georgia, Court of Appeals of Georgia

Plaintiff: Elvis Downes and Myrna Lintner (parents of the deceased)

Defendant: Oglethorpe University, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence and Gross Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Assumption of the Risk

Holding: for the Defendant

Year: 2017

Summary

There are some risks that the courts say you understand and accept the risks because we know of them. Examples are cliffs and water. Here, the family of a student who died on a study abroad trip while swimming in the ocean could not sue because the student assumed the risks of swimming.

What is interesting is the assumption of the risk defense was used to defeat a claim of negligence and Gross Negligence.

Facts

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.

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

The deceased student signed a release in this case, however the trial court and the appellate court made their decisions based on assumption of the risk.

Under Georgia law, assumption of the risk is a complete bra to a recovery.

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.

Absent a showing by the plaintiff of coercion or a lack of free choice assumption of the risk prevents the plaintiff from recovery any damages for negligence from the defendant.

To prove the deceased assumed the risk the college must show:

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 plaintiff does not have to know and understand every aspect and facet of the risk. The knowledge can be that there are inherent risks in an activity even if the specifics of those risks are not known.

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.

Assumption of the risk is usually a jury decision because the jury must weigh whether or not the plaintiff truly understood the risks. However, if the risk is such that there is undisputed evidence that it exists and the plaintiff knew or should have known about it, the court can act.

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.

Drowning is a known and understood risk under Georgia law of being in the water.

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.

Because the deceased student was a competent adult, meaning over the age of 18 and not mentally informed or hampered, the risk was known to him. “As Downes was a competent adult, he was necessarily aware of the risk of drowning when he voluntarily entered the Pacific Ocean.”

The plaintiff’s argued the college created the risk because they did not investigate the beach, have an emergency preparedness plan, ensure the professors had adequate training and did not supply safety equipment. However, the court did not buy this because there was nothing in the record to show the College created or agreed to these steps to create an additional duty on the colleges part.

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.

The college was under not statutory or common law duty to provide any of the issues the plaintiff argued. Nor did the college create a duty by becoming an insurer of the students.

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.

Even then the assumption of the risk defense would apply because assuming the risk relieves the defendant of any 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.

The defendant was not liable because the student, as an adult would have appreciated the risks of drowning in the Pacific Ocean.

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.

So Now What?

There are two important points in this decision.

First, although not discussed, the court allowed assumption of the risk to stop a claim for gross negligence. Normally, like assumption of the risk, whether or not a defendant was grossly negligent requires a review by the jury to determine if the facts alleged meet the definition of gross negligence in the state.

Second is the issue that the less you do the less liability you create. In the pre-trip briefing with the students the risks of swimming in the ocean were discussed. The students all stated they were strong swimmers and nothing more was done.

If the college had made them take a swim test, further questioned their swimming skills by requiring more information or making sure a professor who was a lifeguard was on the trip, the college would have created an additional duty owed to the students.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2019 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

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Word Count: 166

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

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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.


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

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

Supreme Court of New York, Kings County

December 4, 2018, Decided

515257/15

Reporter

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

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

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

Core Terms

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

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

Opinion by: Bernard J. Graham

Opinion

DECISION / ORDER

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

[**2] Background:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[**4] Plaintiff’s contention:

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

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

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

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

Discussion:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion:

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

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

Dated: December 4, 2018 [*12]

Brooklyn, New York

ENTER

/s/ Bernard J. Graham

Hon. Bernard J. Graham, Justice

Supreme Court, Kings County


Backcountry skier sues in Small Claims Court in San Miguel County Colorado for injuries she received when a backcountry snowboarder triggered an Avalanche that injured her.

The defendant snowboarder had agreed not to descend the slope until the lower parties had called and told them they had cleared the area. The defendant failed to wait and admitted he had triggered the Avalanche.

BEFORE COMMENTING READ EVERYTHING. I WAS NOT THE ATTORNEY FOR EITHER PARTY IN THIS CASE. The defendant in his comments about this article made that statement that I was the plaintiff’s attorney. He was the one in court, not me. How he made that mistake I don’t know. But Sober Up!

State: Colorado, San Miguel Small Claims Court

Plaintiff: Jayleen Troutwin

Defendant: Christopher Parke

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses:

Holding: for the plaintiff

Year: 2017

Facts

Under Colorado law, you can create a duty when you agree to act or not act. Here the defendant created a duty when he agreed not to descend the slope until he had received a phone call from the first party that they had cleared the danger area.

This is a first of its kind suit that I have found, and the judge’s decision in this case is striking in its clarity and reasoning. At the same time, it might open up backcountry injuries to more litigation. The facts that created this lawsuit are specific in how the duty was created, and that will be rare in 90% of the backcountry accidents.

I have attached the written decision of the court to this analysis, and I encourage you to read it.

Facts: taken from the complaint, the CAIC Report and The Order of Judgment

The plaintiff was skiing out of bounds in Bear Creek outside of the Telluride Ski Area. While skiing they ran into the defendant and his friend. The defendant and friend were not ready to go, so the plaintiff and friend took off. The plaintiff and friend stated they would call the defendant when they were out of the danger zone at the bottom of the chute they both intended to ski.

The defendant and his friend did not wait, and triggered an avalanche. Plaintiff was still repelling when the avalanche hit her sweeping her off the rappel, and she fell 1200 feet down the slope riding the avalanche. She survived on top of the snow with several injuries.

The defendant admitted that it was his fault, and he would pay for the plaintiff’s medical bills. He made one payment and no others. The Plaintiff’s medical bills were in excess of $50,000. However, she still skied out after the incident.

The plaintiff sued the defendant in Small Claims Court. Small Claims court is for parties without attorneys, and the judge can grant a maximum of $7500.00 in damages.

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

Normally, participants in sporting or outdoor recreation events assume the risks inherent in the sport. Avalanches are an inherent risk of skiing. The Colorado Supreme Court has stated that in Colorado Supreme Court rules that an inbounds Avalanche is an inherent risk assumed by skiers based upon the Colorado Skier Safety Act.

Under most circumstances, the plaintiff in this situation would have assumed the risk of her injuries. What sets this decision apart was the agreement at the top of the mountain between the two groups of people. One group agreed not to descend into the chute until the other group had cleared the chute.

This creates an assumed duty on the part of the defendant. By agreeing to the acts, the plaintiff assumed a duty to the defendant.

The assumed duty doctrine “must be predicated on two factual findings.” “A plaintiff must first show that the defendant, either through its affirmative acts or through a promise to act, undertook to render a service that was reasonably calculated to prevent the type of harm that befell the plaintiff.” “Second, a plaintiff must also show either that he relied on the defendant to perform the service or that defendant’s undertaking increased plaintiff’s risk.”

This assumed duty was done specifically to prevent injuries to the other skiers. The skiers also relied on this agreement when they skied down the slope.

This Court, therefore, finds that the Defendant assumed a duty of care in agreeing not to ski his chosen route while Troutwin and Hope were still skiing theirs in an effort to avoid a skier-triggered avalanche.

Thus, when the defendant started down the chute, he violated the agreed to duty of care to the skiers below them.

The next issue to prove negligence in this case is causation or proximate causation. The breach of the duty by the defendant must be related to the injury the plaintiff received. The court simply found but for the actions of the defendant, the injuries of the plaintiff would not have occurred.

The defendant admitted triggering the avalanche, and the avalanche is what swept the plaintiff off the rappel.

The defendant raised two defenses at trial. Comparative Negligence and Assumption of Risk.

Comparative negligence asks, “did the actions of the plaintiff create or expose the plaintiff to an unreasonable risk of harm?” Comparative negligence is applied to reduce the damages the plaintiff might receive if both parties are at fault in causing the injuries to the plaintiff.

The defendant argued the plaintiff assumed the risk of her injuries and was a partial cause of her injuries when she did not use a backup device on her rappel.

The court looked at the failure to use a backup system on rappel as the same as failing to wear a seatbelt in a car or failing to wear a helmet while riding a motorcycle. Both have been determined by the Colorado Supreme Court to not be a component contributing to comparative negligence.

The reasoning behind this is simple. The plaintiff should not be required to determine in advance the negligence of any third party. Meaning it is not the injured parties’ duty, in advance to determine and then deal with any possible negligence of any other person. If that was the case, you could never leave the house because you never guessed what injury you might have received.

…[f]irst, a defendant should not diminish the consequences of his negligence by the failure of the injured party to anticipate defendant’s negligence in causing the accident itself. Second, a defense premised on an injured party’s failure to wear a protective helmet would result in a windfall to tortfeasors who pay only partially for the harm their negligence caused. Third, allowing the defense would lead to a veritable battle of experts as to what injuries would have or have not been avoided had the plaintiff been wearing a helmet.

The court found that neither comparative negligence, nor assumption of the risk applied to these facts and were not a defense to the plaintiff’s claims.

The court also added a section to its opinion about the future of backcountry skiing and the Policy issues this decision might create. It is well-written and worth quoting here.

51. This Court has determined that Parke’s duty of care is a result of his express assumption of that duty, rather than broader policy concerns that are typically addressed in protracted discussions of legal duty. It is nevertheless, worth noting that given the increasing popularity of backcountry skiing and skiing into Bear Creek, in particular, the risk of skiers triggering avalanches above one-another is likely increasing. In situations where skiers have no knowledge of whether a group is below, the legal outcome of an accident may be different than the result reached here. A liability rule that thus encourages skiers to avoid investigating whether their descent might pose a risk to those below feels averse to sound public policy. Communication and coordination between groups of backcountry skiers is surely good practice.

52. But meaningful communication is not necessarily impossible in these circumstances. This Court is swayed by the availability of radios like that which Troutwin and Hope carried. These radios are a communication option that appears more reliable than cellular telephones. Perhaps if they become more prevalent, more communication between parties will take place. And it follows and is foreseeable that other communications platforms or safety standards will develop to address this specific risk. The liability rule discussed here does not necessarily foreclose those developments.

53. The ethics and liability rules associated with backcountry skiing are likely to continue to evolve as its popularity increases and safety standards emerge. The law is likely to continue to evolve in kind.

It is refreshing to see a judge look at the broader aspect of his or her decision as it applies to an evolving sport.

The court found that the plaintiff suffered $9,660.00 in damages. The jurisdictional limit a Colorado Small Claims court can issue is a maximum of $7,500.00, which is the amount the plaintiff was awarded.

So Now What?

If you say you are going to do something, do it. If you say you are going to wait, wait. It is that simple.

More importantly, litigation has now entered the realm of backcountry skiing. Will it create more litigation, probably? Backcountry skiers who have no health insurance or no income while they recover will be looking for a way to get hospital bill collectors off their phone and pizza coming to the front door. Worse, health insurance companies will look at a way through their subrogation clauses to try to recover the money they pay out on behalf of their insureds.

At the same time, based upon these facts, the defendant was the sole cause of the plaintiff’s injuries not because he triggered an avalanche, but because he agreed not to trigger an avalanche.

Documents Attached:

Notice, Claim and Summons to Appear for a Trial.   

Answer

Trial Exhibits 1 through 9

Exhibit 1

Exhibit 2

Exhibit 3

Exhibit 4

Exhibit 5

Exhibit 6

Exhibit 7

Exhibit 8

Exhibit 9

Order of Judgment

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Arizona University did not owe student a duty of care during a study abroad program when the students organized an “off campus” trip, which resulted in a student’s death

Two different issues determine most outcomes in lawsuits against college & universities, whether the class was for credit or not and whether the incident occurred off campus or on campus.

Boisson v. Arizona Board Of Regents, et. al., 236 Ariz. 619; 343 P.3d 931; 2015 Ariz. App. LEXIS 36; 708 Ariz. Adv. Rep. 7

State: Arizona, Court of Appeals of Arizona, Division One

Plaintiff: Elizabeth Boisson

Defendant: Arizona Board Of Regents, a public entity; State of Arizona, a public entity; Nanjing American University, L.L.C., an Arizona corporation doing business as, or under the trade name of Yangtze International Study Abroad

Plaintiff Claims: negligence

Defendant Defenses: no duty owed

Holding: for the defendant

Year: 2015

The deceased signed up for an international study abroad trip in China through the defendant university. While in China, the deceased and several other students organized a trip to Everest base camp. While at Everest base camp the deceased suffered altitude sickness and died.

From China, you can drive to the North Side base camp of Everest, which is at 19,000 feet.

During a student-organized trip, 14 study abroad students — including Morgan — flew to Lhasa, Tibet. The students then drove to the Mount Everest base camp a few days later. While at base camp, which is approximately 18,000 feet above sea level, Morgan developed and then died of altitude sickness.

The trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims based on the defendant’s motion for summary judgment. This appeal followed.

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

The court first looked at the requirements to prove negligence in Arizona.

Although described in various ways, a plaintiff alleging a claim for negligence under Arizona common law has the burden to show: (1) duty; (2) breach of that duty; (3) cause-in-fact; (4) legal (or proximate) causation and (5) resulting damages.

Arizona uses a five-step test for negligence when most other states use a four-point test. The difference is Arizona expands the definition of proximate causation requiring an actual cause and a proximate cause to prove negligence.

Of the five steps, the first, whether or not there was a duty, is a decision that is made by the court.

The existence of a duty of care is a distinct issue from whether the standard of care has been met in a particular case. As a legal matter, the issue of duty involves generalizations about categories of cases. Duty is defined as an “obligation, recognized by law, which requires the defendant to conform to a particular standard of conduct in order to protect others against unreasonable risks of harm.” . . . .

Whether the defendant owes the plaintiff a duty of care is a threshold issue; absent some duty, an action for negligence cannot be maintained. Thus, a conclusion that no duty exists is equivalent to a rule that, for certain categories of cases, defendants may not be held accountable for damages they carelessly cause, no matter how unreasonable their conduct.

Foreseeability is not an issue under Arizona’s law. Whether or not the defendant could foresee the injury to the plaintiff does not come into play when determining if a duty existed.

The court then looked at the duties owed by a college in Arizona to a student. Most duties arise when the relationships between the school and the student are custodial. Arizona does owe students a duty of reasonable care for on campus activities.

However, the duties owed for off-campus  activities by a university to a student are different.

Therefore, in the student-school relationship, the duty of care is bounded by geography and time, encompassing risks such as those that occur while the student is at school or otherwise under the school’s control.

This analysis has seven steps to determine the duty owed, if any, by an Arizona college.

…Arizona cases have identified the following factors in determining whether an off-campus activity is deemed a school activity: (1) the purpose of the activity, (2) whether the activity was part of the course curriculum, (3) whether the school had supervisory authority and responsibility during the activity, and (4) whether the risk students were exposed to during the activity was independent of school involvement. Courts elsewhere also have looked at whether (5) the activity was voluntary or was a required school activity; (6) whether a school employee was present at or participated in the activity or was expected to do so and (7) whether the activity involved a dangerous project initiated at school but built off campus.

Here the trip was conceived and organized by the students. The students dealt with a Chinese tour company to make the arrangements. Not all the students in the study abroad program undertook the trip. The college offered no academic credit for the trip, and the trip was not in the curriculum of the program.

Defendants had no supervisory authority over, or responsibility for, the trip, and no faculty or staff went on the trip. The risk of altitude sickness was present independent of any involvement by Defendants and the trip did not involve a potentially dangerous project initiated at school but built off campus. Accordingly, applying these factors, the Tibet trip was not an off-campus school activity for which Defendants owed Morgan a duty under Arizona law.

The plaintiff hired an expert witness who stated that the university absolutely had a duty to the plaintiff. However, the court ignored the expert finding the determination of a duty was solely within the province of the court, and the expert witness’s opinion did not matter.

The trial court’s determination was upheld because the appellate court found that the school owed no duty to the deceased.

So Now What?

One important thing that parents seem to forget when their sons and daughters leave for college is not only are they leaving home, but they are also leaving any real supervision, custody or control. Colleges and universities are not baby sitters or parents and parents probably should be reminded of that fact.

Here, the effects were disastrous; however, the issues were clear. A group of students left campus to do something. Where campus is, did not matter and where the students went did not matter. Whether or not the effects of altitude on a student at 19, 000 did also not matter because the college did not arrange, run, manage or control the students.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law

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