Atain Specialty Ins. v. Ne. Mountain Guiding, LLC (D. N.J. 2020)Posted: May 9, 2022 Filed under: Climbing, New Jersey, Release (pre-injury contract not to sue) | Tags: Atain Speciality Insurance, Condition of Coverage, Employee, Independent Contractor, Insurance policy, Mountain Climbing, Mountaineering, NE Mountain Guiding, Northeast Mountain Guiding, Rock climbing Leave a comment
Atain Specialty Ins. v. Ne. Mountain Guiding, LLC (D. N.J. 2020)
ATAIN SPECIALTY INSURANCE CO. Plaintiff,
NORTHEAST MOUNTAIN GUIDING, LLC, et al., Defendants.
Case No. 3:16-cv-05129-BRM-LHG
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY
January 30, 2020
NOT FOR PUBLICATION
MARTINOTTI, DISTRICT JUDGE
Before this Court are Motions for Summary Judgment (ECF Nos. 70 & 73) filed by Plaintiff Atain Specialty Insurance Co. (“Atain”) and Third-Party Defendants Donald Pachner, Pachner & Associates, LLC, and Pachner Risk Management (collectively, “Pachner”). Defendant Michael Manchester (“Manchester”) opposes both motions. (ECF No. 80.) Defendants Northeast Mountain Guiding, LLC (“NMG”), Joseph Vulpis (“Vulpis”), and Bryan Enberg (“Enberg”) also oppose both motions. (ECF No. 86.) Pachner supports part and opposes part of Atain’s motion. (ECF No. 81.) Atain opposes part of Pachner’s motion and takes no position as to the remainder. (ECF No. 85.)
Having reviewed the parties’ submissions filed in connection with the motions and having declined to hear oral argument pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 78(b), for the reasons set forth below and for good cause having been shown, Atain’s motion is DENIED and Pachner’s motion is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART.
I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
A. Northeast Mountain Guiding and Its Guides
Vulpis is the founder and sole member of NMG, a limited liability company in the outdoor adventure and education industry. (ECF No. 86-14 ¶ 4.) Vulpis has significant training and experience, as well as multiple certifications, in the field in which NMG operates. (ECF No. 86-14 ¶¶ 5-7.) Enberg provided administrative assistance to NMG, developed a search and rescue training for NMG to provide to clients, and served as a mountaineering guide for NMG. (ECF No. 86-15 ¶ 3.) Manchester performed work for NMG as a Lead Backpacking Guide and Assistant Rock Guide. (ECF No. 70-8, at 16:6-20.)
B. Pachner Procures Insurance from Atain for Northeast Mountain Guiding
Donald Pachner is the sole member of Pachner & Associates, LLC and Pachner Risk Management, LLC. (ECF No. 73-3 ¶ 1.) Donald Pachner and Pachner & Associates, LLC possess insurance broker licenses under New Jersey law. (ECF No. 73-31, at 1-2.)
Vulpis retained Pachner to obtain general commercial liability insurance for NMG. (ECF No. 73-3 ¶ 7.) As part of this process, Pachner and Vulpis worked together to fill out an application (the “Application”) for insurance. (ECF No. 73-3 ¶¶ 8-10; ECF No. 73-33, at ATN000331-41.) The Application required Vulpis to estimate NMG’s gross revenues for the coming year. (ECF No. 73-33, at ATN000332.) On Pachner’s advice, Vulpis checked the “No” box when answering the Application’s question concerning whether NMG “hire[s] Concessionaires, Independent Contractors, or Subcontractors.” (ECF No. 73-33, at ATN 000334; ECF No. 73-12, at 221:11-222:11.) As part of the Application, Vulpis initialed next to a requirement NMG (1) obtain from all participants an Atain-approved waiver of liability form, and (2) maintain those forms for three years. (ECF No. 70-17, at ATN000339.) In response to NMG’s Application, Atain issued an insurance quote (the “Quote”), which Vulpis reviewed with Pachner. (ECF No. 72-1, at 233:24-234:23.) Among other things, the Quote contains a summary of several of the terms the Policy would contain. (ECF No. 73-37, at 2.)
Pachner procured insurance (the “Policy”) from Atain for NMG. (ECF No. 73-3 ¶ 12.) The Policy limits coverage to “GUIDED MOUNTAINEERING INCLUDING TOP ROPE CLIMBING & RAPPELLING; GUIDED KAYAK TRIPS; GUIDED SNOWSHOEING; GUIDED HIKING/BACKPACKING INCLUDING CAMPING.” (ECF No. 86-6, at Atain 47.) The Policy excludes coverage for injuries suffered “in the course of employment by or service to” NMG. (ECF No. 70-5, at ATN000402.)
C. Manchester’s Injury
On November 21, 2015, Manchester suffered an injury (the “Injury”) while using certain equipment (the “Equipment”) to engage in a certain activity (the “Activity”). Much of the dispute in this case centers on the proper characterization of the Activity and the Equipment. The essence of the Activity is that the participant uses the Equipment to move between two points. (ECF No. 73-12, at 16:2-7.) The evidence conflicts concerning whether the Equipment is a “Tyrolean Traverse” or a “Clifftop Zipline.” (ECF No. 86-14 ¶¶ 33-36; ECF No. 73-12, at 75:1-10, 186:6-191:4.) Ziplines were derived from Tyrolean Traverses, but the differences are too fine for untrained individuals to differentiate between the two. (ECF No. 73-12, at 58:5-7.)
On November 21, 2015, three NMG guides—Christy DeMarco, Enberg, and Vulpis—went to Allamuchy State Park to test the Equipment NMG expected to offer in the future for its customers. Vulpis and the other three guides set up the Equipment. (ECF No. 86-14 ¶ 46.) Manchester was present at the time, and engaged in the Activity by traveling on the Equipment. (ECF No. 86-14 ¶¶ 46-47.) While engaged in the Activity, Manchester suffered the Injury. (ECF No. 86-14 ¶ 47.)
Following his Injury, Manchester filed a state court negligence action against Vulpis, Enberg, and NMG. (ECF No. 1 ¶ 12.) NMG made a claim for coverage with Pachner and Atain. (ECF No. 86-14 ¶ 51-52.) When reporting the claim to Atain, Pachner described Manchester as an independent contractor for NMG. (ECF No. 70-21, at 161:11-13.)
Atain filed this coverage action against its Vulpis, Enberg, and NMG, and also joined Manchester as a defendant. (ECF No. 1 ¶ 1-5.) Atain seeks declaratory judgments against Vulpis, Enberg, NMG, and Manchester, authorizing Atain to disclaim coverage Manchester’s Injury. (ECF No. 1 ¶¶ 31-51.) Additionally, Atain seeks a declaratory judgment voiding the Policy under common law rescission principles and the New Jersey Insurance Fraud Prevention Act, N.J. Stat. Ann. § 17:33A-1 et seq. (ECF No. 1 ¶¶ 52-65.)
Vulpis, Enberg, and NMG brought a third-party action against NMG’s insurance broker Pachner, alleging Pachner’s negligence caused any failure of coverage by Atain. (ECF No. 29 ¶¶ 28-34.) Manchester brought a similar action against Pachner. (ECF No. 28, at 3-7.)
II. LEGAL STANDARD
Summary judgment is appropriate “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.” Farrell v. Planters Lifesavers Co., 206 F.3d 271, 278 (3d Cir. 2000). A factual dispute is genuine only if there is “a sufficient evidentiary basis on which a reasonable jury could find for the non-moving party,” and it is material only if it has the ability to “affect the outcome of the suit under governing law.” Kaucher v. Cnty. of Bucks, 455 F.3d 418, 423 (3d Cir. 2006); see also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). Disputes over irrelevant or unnecessary facts will not preclude a grant of summary judgment. See id. at 248. “In considering a motion for summary judgment, a district court may not make credibility determinations or engage in any weighing of the evidence; instead, the non-moving party’s evidence ‘is to be believed and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor.'” Marino v. Indus. Crating Co., 358 F.3d 241, 247 (3d Cir. 2004) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255)); see also Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587, (1986); Curley v. Klem, 298 F.3d 271, 276-77 (3d Cir. 2002). “Summary judgment may not be granted . . . if there is a disagreement over what inferences can be reasonably drawn from the facts even if the facts are undisputed.” Nathanson v. Med. Coll. of Pa., 926 F.2d 1368, 1380 (3rd Cir. 1991) (citing Gans v. Mundy, 762 F.2d 338, 340 (3d Cir.)); Ideal Dairy Farms, Inc. v. John Labatt, Ltd., 90 F.3d 737, 744 (3d Cir. 1996).
The party moving for summary judgment has the initial burden of showing the basis for its motion. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). If the moving party bears the burden of persuasion at trial, summary judgment is appropriate only if the evidence is not susceptible to different interpretations or inferences by the trier of fact. Hunt v. Cromartie, 526 U.S. 541, 553 (1999). On the other hand, if the burden of persuasion at trial would be on the non-moving party, the party moving for summary judgment may satisfy Rule 56’s burden of production by either (1) “submit[ting] affirmative evidence that negates an essential element of the non[-]moving party’s claim” or (2) demonstrating “that the nonmoving party’s evidence is insufficient to establish an essential element of the nonmoving party’s claim.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 330 (Brennan, J., dissenting). Once the movant adequately supports its motion pursuant to Rule 56(c), the burden shifts to the non-moving party to “go beyond the pleadings and by her own affidavits, or by the depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Id. at 324; see also Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 586; Ridgewood Bd. of Ed. v. Stokley, 172 F.3d 238, 252 (3d Cir. 1999). In deciding the merits of a party’s motion for summary judgment, the court’s role is not to evaluate the evidence and decide the truth of the matter, but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. Credibility determinations are the province of the factfinder. Big Apple BMW, Inc. v. BMW of N. Am., Inc., 974 F.2d 1358, 1363 (3d Cir. 1992).
There can be “no genuine issue as to any material fact,” however, if a party fails “to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party’s case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-23. “[A] complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the non[-]moving party’s case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial.” Id. at 323; Katz v. Aetna Cas. & Sur. Co., 972 F.2d 53, 55 (3d Cir. 1992).
A. Coverage for “Guided Mountaineering”
Atain and Pachner both argue Manchester’s Injury is not covered under the Policy because the Policy covers only “guided mountaineering,” and Vulpis and Enberg both testified Manchester’s Injury did not occur during a “guided” activity. (ECF No. 72-1, at 221:4-10; ECF No. 70-7, at 115:19-116:6.) Conflicting evidence prevents the Court from granting summary judgment. First, Vulpis’s testimony was more nuanced than Atain and Pachner suggest. While Vulpis testified he would not consider the Activity to be “guided,” Vulpis did consider the Activity to be “part of guided mountaineering.” (ECF No. 72, at 115:22-116:2.) Second, Vulpis testified Manchester received training and instruction from both Vulpis and Enberg for the Activity immediately prior to Manchester’s Injury. (ECF No. 72, at 85:20-86:12.) A reasonable jury could conclude Vulpis’s and Enberg’s training and instruction “guided” Manchester, who had little previous experience with the Equipment. (ECF No. 72, at 28:7-10.)
The Court is unpersuaded by Atain’s and Pachner’s argument alleging Vulpis’s and Enberg’s testimonies demonstrate the parties’ “intent” the Policy not cover the Activity. “[W]hen interpreting an insurance contract, the basic rule is to determine the intention of the parties . . . .” Simonetti v. Selective Ins. Co., 859 A.2d 694, 698 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2004). While the contractual language is the Court’s primary tool, the Court may consider evidence of the parties’ intention beyond the four corners of the contract when, as here, the language of the insurance contract is ambiguous. See, e.g., Welcome v. Just Apts., No. L-9821-01, 2008 WL 2696252, at *3-4 (N.J. App. Div. July 11, 2008).
Vulpis’s and Enberg’s testimonies are two such pieces of evidence, but not the only evidence, of NMG’s intent when agreeing to the Policy. Other evidence suggests NMG did intend the Policy to cover the Activity. For instance, Vulpis testified he considered the Activity to be “part of guided mountaineering.” (ECF No. 72, at 115:22-116:2.) Enberg testified he understood a “guided” activity to be an activity in which there is “a guide who is leading the activity.”2 (ECF No. 70-7, at 115:17-18.) According to Vulpis’s testimony, this is exactly what happened. Vulpis and Enberg lead the Activity, instructing Manchester before Manchester participated. (ECF No. 72, at 85:20-86:12.) Manchester did not have the requisite training to serve as a guide on the Activity. (ECF No. 86-14 ¶ 11.) In light of this conflicting evidence, a genuine issue of material fact exists concerning whether or not the parties intended for the Policy to cover the Activity. Accordingly, the Court cannot grant summary judgment on this ground.
B. Injury “In the Course of Employment . . . or Service”
Atain next argues the Court should grant it summary judgment because the Employer’s Liability Exclusion precludes coverage for Manchester’s Injury because Manchester was acting “in the course of employment by or service to” NMG. (ECF No. 70-5, at ATN000402.) Pachner3 seeks summary judgment against Atain on this claim, arguing the Employer’s Liability Exclusion does not apply. Neither party is entitled to summary judgment concerning the effect of the Employer’s Liability Exclusion because the evidence conflicts concerning whether Manchester was, in fact, acting in the course of his NMG employment.
Several facts weigh in favor of finding Manchester was a participant acting outside the scope of his NMG employment at the time of his Injury. Manchester testified he had come to participate in the Activity because he “thought it would be fun.” (ECF No. 70-8, at 61:25-62:1.) Vulpis testified similarly: Manchester “came just to travel along the Tyrolean traverse. He wanted to try it out.” (ECF No. 72, at 85:13-14.) Manchester testified he never informed NMG he would be attending the Activity and further testified NMG did not know he would be attending. (ECF No. 70-8, at 62:18-20, 68:5-7.) Manchester did not consider himself an employee or representative of Vulpis or Enberg at the time of the Injury. (ECF No. 70-8, at 20:10-19.)
However, other factors weigh in favor of finding Manchester was acting within the scope of his employment or service to NMG. Most importantly, Manchester acknowledged he performed work for NMG as a Lead Backpacking Guide and Assistant Rock Guide. (ECF No. 70-8, at 16:6-20.) Vulpis and Manchester both testified Manchester came to be at Allamuchy State Park on the date of his Injury because Vulpis posted an invitation to a Facebook group whose members consisted only of NMG guides and staff. (ECF No. 72, at 56:11-57:14; ECF No. 70-8, at 162:8-21.) Enberg testified although Manchester was not involved in setting up the Equipment and mostly observed others do so, Manchester did help Enberg “pull tension once, so just pull on a rope for me.” (ECF No. 70-7, at 95:23-96:8.) Enberg also testified, “[A]s far as I know, we just there all volunteering and testing the system.” (ECF No. 70-7, at 96:19-20.)
In short, the conflicting evidence creates a genuine issue of material fact. Accordingly, no party is entitled to summary judgment either for or against Atain’s claim concerning whether the Employer’s Liability Exclusion precludes coverage.
C. Rescission of the Policy
Atain also argues it is entitled to rescind the Policy in light of NMG’s material misrepresentations in the Application. Pachner argues the Court should grant summary judgment against Atain because Atain ratified the Policy despite knowing of the misrepresentations. The Court cannot grant summary judgment either for or against rescission because genuine issues of material fact remain (1) concerning whether NMG knowingly misrepresented any material facts, and (2) about the factual bases for rescission.
“In the field of insurance, rescission has long been recognized as an available and necessary remedy to combat fraudulent behavior by an insured.” Rutgers Cas. Ins. Co. v. LaCroix, 946 A.2d 1027, 1035 (N.J. 2008). “It is settled that a material factual misrepresentation made in an application for insurance may justify rescission [of the resulting insurance policy] if the insurer relied upon it to determine whether or not to issue the policy.” Citizens United Reciprocal Exch. v. Perez, 121 A.2d 374, 378 (N.J. 2015). “Rescission voids the [insurance policy] ab initio, meaning that it is considered ‘null from the beginning’ and treated as if it does not exist for any purpose.” First Am. Title Ins. Co. v. Lawson, 827 A.2d 230, 237 (N.J. 2003).
Rescission of an insurance policy for fraudulent misrepresentation is appropriate if four conditions are satisfied: (1) the applicant must make an “untruthful” representation to the insurer, (2) the representation must be “material to the particular risk assumed by the insurer,” (3) the insurer must “actually and reasonably rel[y] upon [the representation] in the issuance of the policy,” and (4) if the “insurance application . . . calls for subjective information,” then “the insured [must] kn[o]w that the information was false when completing the application.” Id.
Examples of subjective information include when an insurer asks an insured to indicate a belief about the status of his or her health, or when . . . an insurer asks whether an applicant is aware of any circumstances which may result in a claim being made against the firm[.] [A] subjective question will not constitute equitable fraud if the question is directed toward probing the knowledge of the applicant and determining the state of his mind and . . . the answer is a correct statement of the applicant’s knowledge and belief[.]
Id. (citations omitted).
A “mere oversight or honest mistake” will not support rescission. Rutgers, 945 A.2d at 1035 (quoting Longobardi v. Chubb Ins. Co. of N.J., 582 A.2d 1257, 1261 (N.J. 1990)). “The lie must be willful.” Longobardi, 582 A.2d at 1261. The insurer bears the burden of demonstrating the applicant “knew and believed” the information provided on the application was false and “knowingly misrepresented” the information provided to be true, but need not demonstrate the applicant “harbored an intent to defraud.” Mass. Mut. Life Ins. Co. v. Manzo, 584 A.2d 190, 195 (N.J. 1991).
1. Projected Revenues
First, Atain argues this Court should void the Policy because NMG materially misrepresented its projected revenues on its Application. The Court disagrees because the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to non-movant NMG, precludes the Court from finding NMG knowingly4 misrepresented its projected revenues.5
Atain argues the projected amount listed on the Application was substantially lower than NMG’s actual revenue for the year preceding the Application and disproportionately less than the revenue NMG actually received in the Policy year. The Court declines to find these numerical discrepancies demonstrate a knowing misrepresentation. Vulpis testified several considerations left him doubtful NMG would succeed financially in the coming year when he filled out the Application for NMG. (ECF No. 86-14 ¶ 23.) First, Vulpis was divorcing his spouse, which he believed would impact NMG’s ability to remain in business. (ECF No. 86-14 ¶ 23.) Second, Vulpis had hired new guides, and expected revenues would be lower while his new guides gained experience.6 (ECF No. 86-14 ¶ 23.) Third, “a chronic, life-threatening auto-immune disease” hospitalized Vulpis shortly before he filed the Application, and he was “not sure [he] would live through” the year, “much less have any revenues in NMG.” (ECF No. 86-14 ¶ 23.) Even taking those factors into account, the revenue Vulpis projected on the Application was approximately equal to NMG’s annual revenue two years prior to the Application, and was slightly lower than the average of the revenue for the preceding three years. (ECF No. 86-14 ¶ 23.) Taking these facts in the light most favorable to NMG, a reasonable fact-finder could determine NMG did not knowingly misrepresent its projected income.
Atain also points to Vulpis’s testimony about how he projected NMG’s revenue by merely “guess[ing] what I thought we might do for the season” and answered “no” when asked if he did any math to figure out the projected revenue. (ECF No. 72-1, at 217:3-12.) Atain argues these answers demonstrate Vulpis did not make a good faith revenue projection. The Court disagrees. When read in context, a reasonable fact-finder could determine Vulpis attempted to accurately project NMG’s revenues. Immediately before testifying he “guessed,” Vulpis testified he “guestimated” the revenue figures, and further testified his projection considered revenues “from previous years of business.” (ECF No. 72-1, at 216:23, 217:13-14.) Combined with his more detailed testimony about how Vulpis considered his divorce, new hires, and his medical condition when projecting revenue on the Application, and viewed in the light most favorable to NMG, genuine issues of material fact exists concerning whether Vulpis failed to make a good faith attempt to project NMG’s revenue.
2. Independent Contractors
Atain argues it is entitled to summary judgment because a second, unrelated misrepresentation on the Application—Vulpis’s statement claiming NMG did not use subcontractors or independent contractors—warrants rescission of the Policy. Pachner7 argues the Court should grant summary judgment against Atain on this ground because NMG accurately represented it did not use independent contractors. Pachner also argues summary judgment is appropriate against any claim Pachner negligently (1) advised Vulpis to answer “no” to the question on the Application asking about NMG’s use of subcontractors or independent contractors or (2) misidentified Manchester as an independent contractor when communicating with Atain. The Court rejects all these arguments because the evidence creates genuine issues of material fact concerning whether NMG (1) knowingly misrepresented its use of independent contractors, and (2) used independent contractors at all.8
i. Knowing Misrepresentation
Distinguishing independent contractors from employees is among the most contentiously litigated issues in courts today, arising in a host of different contexts, each with a different standard.9 The variety of tests creates a “paradoxical truth that even when the same person performs the same acts at the same time in the same place under the same conditions,” the person “may be considered an employee for one purpose and an independent contractor for another.” EEOC v. Zippo Mfg. Co., 713 F.2d 32, 35-36 (3d Cir. 1983) (“paradoxical truth”); Hoag v. Brown, 935 A.2d 1218, 1228 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2007) (“may be considered”).
Given the issue’s complexity, the Court is not surprised Vulpis’s testimony suggests he had genuine difficulty distinguishing between employees and independent contractors. Vulpis’s testimony concerning his thinking at the time demonstrates his confusion. For instance, Vulpis described his guides as “1099 employees,” something of a misnomer.10 (ECF No. 86-14 ¶ 17.) When completing the Application, Vulpis discussed how to answer the “independent contractor” question with Donald Pachner, whose less-than-illuminating explanation was to describe the meaning of independent contractor as a “gray area.” (ECF No. 72-1, at 221:19-222:17.) Even when answering interrogatories in this case—presumably with the assistance of counsel—Vulpis initially described his guides as independent contractors, then amended his answer to strike that characterization. (ECF No. 72, at 19:7-23:20.) The Application does not instruct the applicant on the meaning of “independent contractor,” nor does it suggest which (if any) of the legal tests an applicant should apply—missing an opportunity to dispel Vulpis’s confusion. (ECF No. 70-17, at ATN00034.)
Viewed in the light most favorable to non-movant NMG, a reasonable fact-finder could determine Vulpis merely failed to appreciate every nuance of the difference between employees and independent contractors when he wrote on the Application NMG did not use independent contractors or subcontractors. Such a misunderstanding would constitute an “honest mistake,” not a “lie” or a “willful” falsification. Rutgers, 945 A.2d at 1035; Longobardi, 582 A.2d at 1261. Drawing all inferences in non-movant NMG’s favor, a genuine issue of material fact remains concerning whether Vulpis knowingly misrepresented NMG’s use of independent contractors.
ii. Independent Contractors vs. Employees
While Atain is not entitled to summary judgment on its claim concerning Vulpis’s knowing misrepresentation of his use of independent contractors, neither is Pachner entitled to summary judgment against Atain on the same issue. Pachner argues Vulpis’s representation was accurate because NMG’s guides were not independent contractors. A host of evidence suggests the opposite. For instance, Vulpis deducted over $10,000 for “cost of contract labor” and “subcontractors” on the 2015 federal income tax form (and corresponding worksheet) covering NMG’s profit and loss. (ECF No. 70-19, at sch. C, line 11.11) Manchester testified NMG classified its guides as “subcontractors” in its accounting software. (ECF No. 70-7, at 54:12-20.) Manchester further testified Vulpis repeatedly used the term “independent contractor” to describe guides. (ECF No. 70-7, at 54:23-55:8.) Viewed in the light most favorable to non-movant Atain, this evidence creates a genuine issue of material fact concerning whether NMG’s guides were in fact independent contractors.
iii. Pachner’s Advice to Vulpis
Pachner also argues summary judgment is appropriate against any claim concerning Pachner’s negligent advice to Vulpis to answer “no” to the question on the Application asking about NMG’s use of subcontractors or independent contractors. However, as Pachner points out, Pachner’s negligence in this instance “is only relevant insofar [as] Atain is seeking to rescind the Policy based on [NMG’s] answer” concerning independent contractors or subcontractors. (ECF No. 73-2, at 19.) Because genuine issues of material fact exist concerning whether Atain may rescind the Policy on the basis of NMG’s use of independent contractors, see part III.C.2.i., supra, the same genuine issues of material fact necessarily exist concerning Pachner’s alleged negligent advice to Vulpis concerning this question. Accordingly, the Court cannot grant summary judgment on this ground.
iv. Pachner’s Misdentification of Manchester as a Contractor
Pachner asks the Court to grant summary judgment on any claim concerning Pachner’s negligent mislabeling of Manchester as an independent contractor when Pachner first reported Manchester’s Injury to Atain. The Court cannot grant summary judgment. As with Pachner’s advice to Vulpis, Pachner’s statement to Atain identifying Manchester as an independent contractor relates only to Atain’s claim for rescission of the Policy for NMG’s misrepresentation of its use of independent contractors. Because genuine issues of material fact exist concerning whether Atain may rescind the Policy on this basis, see part III.C.2.i., supra, the same genuine issues of material fact exist concerning Pachner’s characterization to Atain of Manchester as an independent contractor. Accordingly, the Court cannot grant summary judgment on this ground.
3. Training and Education Relating to “Search and Rescue” Operations
Atain also argues NMG committed a knowing misrepresentation when it failed to disclose its training and education programs concerning search and rescue operations. The Court declines to grant summary judgment on this claim, because Atain did not plead this claim in its complaint.
“Each and every claim for relief that a plaintiff seeks to press must be set forth in the Complaint.” Bravo v. Union Cty., Civ. No. 12-2848, 2013 WL 2285780, at *8 (D.N.J. May 23, 2013). Failure to do so has consequences. One consequence is that this Court may not “grant summary judgment on a claim that was never pleaded.” Day v. White, 764 F. App’x 164, 166 (3d Cir. 2019) (quoting Michelson v. Exxon Rsrch. & Eng’g Co., 808 F.2d 1005, 1009 (3d Cir. 1987)). “To the extent the plaintiff discovers new information giving rise to additional claims, the plaintiff must amend the Complaint to assert those claims and properly put the defendant on notice of them.” Bravo, 2013 WL 2285780, at *8; see also Tavarez v. Twp. of Egg Harbor, Civ. No. 09-6119, 2012 WL 13186197, at *4 (D.N.J. Aug. 3, 2012); Durham v. Vekios, Civ. No. 09-5376, 2011 WL 3667560, at *4 (D.N.J. Aug. 22, 2011).
Atain contends it “asserted a cause of action for rescission based upon material misrepresentation” in its complaint, which Atain argues is broad enough to cover any misrepresentation relating to NMG’s training and education programs concerning search and rescue. (ECF No. 93, at 29.) The Court disagrees because Atain’s “Material Misrepresentation” claim—Count Six12—alleges only a material misrepresented concerning NMG’s engagement in “Ropes/Challenge Course Facilitation.” (ECF No. 1 ¶¶ 52-59.) Count Six does not mention search and rescue, much less allege a material misrepresentation relating to NMG’s education and training concerning search and rescue operations.
Atain further argues it did not learn of the misrepresentation concerning search and rescue operations until well into the discovery period of this litigation. This fact does not excuse Atain from seeking to amend its complaint. If Atain learned late in the litigation it had an additional claim of which it was previously unaware, its appropriate course was to seek leave to amend its complaint to add the new claim. See Bravo, 2013 WL 2285780, at *8. Atain did not do so. Because Atain’s complaint does not plead any claim related to search and rescue operations, Atain may not obtain summary judgment on this unpleaded claim. See Day, 764 F. App’x at 166.
However, even if Atain did plead this claim, a genuine issue of material fact precludes summary judgment concerning whether NMG knowingly failed to disclose its education and training programs concerning search and rescue operations. The record contains evidence Vulpis and Enberg both believed these activities were no different than NMG’s other activities NMG had already disclosed on NMG’s initial Application. (ECF No. 86-14 ¶¶ 37-42; ECF No. 86-15 ¶¶ 3-6.) Viewed in the light most favorable to non-movant NMG, this evidence13 is sufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact.
4. Ratification of the Policy
Pachner14 argues the Court should grant summary judgment against Atain on its claim for rescission because Atain has ratified the Policy. The Court disagrees because (1) the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure prohibit this Court from construing the allegations in one claim as an admission against an alternative or inconsistent second claim, and (2) the evidence conflicts concerning whether Atain’s actions constitute ratification of the Policy.
i. Ratification by Lawsuit
First, Pachner argues Atain cannot file a lawsuit demanding both to disclaim coverage or, in the alternative, to rescind the Policy. Doing so, Pachner argues, constitutes ratification of the Policy and bars rescission. See Merchants Indem. Corp. v. Eggleston, 179 A.2d 505, 514 (N.J. 1962). Assuming without deciding New Jersey law treats an action to disclaim coverage as a ratification of the Policy and thus prohibits a claim for rescission, Pachner is still not entitled to summary judgment because “[t]he Federal Rules of Civil Procedure permit parties to file pleadings containing inconsistent factual and legal allegations.” W.V. Realty, Inc. v. N. Ins. Co., 334 F.3d 306, 316 (3d Cir. 2003).
“A party may state as many separate claims or defenses as it has, regardless of consistency.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(d)(3). For instance, a plaintiff may simultaneously plead claims for both breach of contract (which requires the existence of a contract) and unjust enrichment (which requires the non-existence of a contract). See Hughes v. TD Bank, N.A., 856 F. Supp. 2d 673, 680 n.4 (D.N.J. 2012); Dewey v. Volkswagen AG, 558 F. Supp. 2d 505, 528-29 (D.N.J. 2008); cf. Showalter v. Brubaker, 283 F. App’x 33, 36 (3d Cir. 2008) (permitting defendants in a civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 to simultaneously plead both (1) they are entitled to governmental immunity and (2) their actions were wholly private and therefore not under color of state law).
Importantly, this allowance for inconsistent claims “has been interpreted to mean that a court ‘may not construe [a plaintiff’s] first claim as an admission against another alternative or inconsistent claim.'” Indep. Enters. v. Pitt. Water & Sewer Auth., 103 F.3d 1165, 1175 (3d Cir. 1997) (quoting Henry v. Daytop Village, 42 F.3d 89, 95 (2d Cir. 1994)). For instance, a claim for abuse of process does not implicitly concede the legitimacy of a prosecution so as to invalidate a simultaneous claim for malicious prosecution. See Evans v. City of Newark, Civ. No. 14-120, 2016 WL 2742862, at *5 n.7 (D.N.J. May 10, 2016).
Atain’s claims are subject to this rule. Assuming without deciding a claim to disclaim coverage and a claim to rescind the Policy are inconsistent under New Jersey law, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure permit Atain to make both claims simultaneously. Accordingly, Atain’s claim for disclaimer of coverage does not constitute a ratification of the Policy.
ii. Ratification by Action
Second, Pachner argues Atain’s actions constitute ratification of the contract. Genuine issues of material fact preclude the issuance of summary judgment on this ground.
“[T]he remedy [of rescission] is discretionary and will not be granted where the claimant has not acted within a reasonable time or where there has been substantial performance.” Farris v. Cty. of Camden, 61 F. Supp. 2d 307, 336 (D.N.J. 1999) (quoting Notch View Assocs. v. Smith, 615 A.2d 676, 680 (N.J. Super. Ct. Law Div. 1992)); see also Rowen Petrol. Props., LLC v. Hollywood Tanning Sys., Inc., Civ. No. 08-4764, 2011 WL 6755838, at *10 (D.N.J. Dec. 23, 2011) (same). “[W]here a party ‘is cognizant of fraud or misrepresentation and fails to promptly rescind the . . . agreement or transaction, and instead engages in conduct which assumes the validity of the [agreement], then the agreement or transaction may be deemed ratified.'” Everest Nat’l Ins. Co. v. Sutton, Civ. No. 07-722, 2008 WL 3833586, at *8 (D.N.J. Aug. 13, 2008) (quoting Notch View, 615 A.2d at 685).
Pachner argues Atain received notice of its potential grounds for rescission on or before November 30, 2015, when Atain received an e-mail with a description of the events leading to Manchester’s Injury and a discussion of how Manchester was an “independent contractor” for NMG. (ECF No. 73-43, at Atain 73-75.) Assuming without deciding this e-mail put Atain on notice of its potential grounds for rescission,15 the evidence of ratification following this date is mixed, precluding summary judgment.
For instance, Atain issued a “Notice of Conditional Renewal” to NMG on January 6, 2016, “to advise that [Atain is] agreeable to renewing this policy subject to” new terms and conditions and a rate increase. (ECF No. 73-45, at 1.) This explicit statement suggests Atain treated the Policy as valid. However, this evidence of ratification is tempered by testimony from Atain’s former director of director of underwriting for recreational programs, Grace Cunningham, who noted Atain issued the conditional renewal “until [Atain] received more information about the claim.” (ECF No. 73-16, at 270:10-11.) Cunningham also testified, “We rescinded this,” after Atain learned more. (ECF No. 73-16, at 270:16-19.)
Other evidence is also ambiguous. Although, Atain appears to have kept the Policy premium16 rather than refund it to NMG, the normal course of rescission litigation appears to allow an insurer to maintain the premium while litigation is pending, and to refund the policy-holder after the litigation is successful. See, e.g., Liebling v. Garden State Indem., 767 A.2d 515, 465 n.1 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2001). Additionally, Atain negotiated an explicit agreement with Vulpis, Enberg, and NMG to allow Atain to follow this procedure. (ECF No. 70-13, at ATN000051, ATN000068.) Under these circumstances, the Court cannot say Atain’s retention of the Policy premium necessarily demonstrates Atain ratified the Policy.
The record also contains contrary evidence suggesting Atain did not act to ratify the Policy, but instead acted with diligence concerning the possibility of rescinding the Policy. For example, Atain wrote a letter to NMG on February 23, 2016, in which it sought to reserve its right to rescind the Policy. (ECF No. 73-44, at 2.) Likewise, Atain negotiated and, on August 8, 2016, executed non-waiver agreements with Vulpis, Enberg, and NMG to protect Atain’s right to seek rescission of the Policy. (ECF No. 70-13, at ATN000049-53, ATN000066-70.) And, of course, Atain filed this action on August 23, 2016. (ECF No. 1, at 21.) Pachner points to deficiencies in Atain’s reservation-of-rights letter, but no matter the deficiencies, the letter, non-wavier agreement, and declaratory judgment action are not the acts of a company taking action to ratify the Policy. Cf. Annito v. Trump Marina Hotel Casino, No. L-5622-02, 2005 WL 4344137, at *8 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. July 25, 2006) (“By paying his casino debts when he was sober, plaintiff ratified his prior promises to repay the loans, even if they were made while he was intoxicated and not competent to contract.”).
However, the most important evidence is missing. Pachner’s critical argument is Atain ratified the Policy by failing to act promptly after learning of the potential grounds for rescission as a result of the November 30, 2015 e-mail. (ECF No. 73-43, at Atain 73-75.) Pachner does not point to any evidence—other than the mere passage of time—showing Atain failed to follow-up on the e-mail or to investigate the potential grounds for rescission the e-mail raised. Coupled with the ambiguous or contrary evidence above, a genuine issue of material fact exists concerning whether Atain ratified the Policy. Accordingly, the Court cannot grant summary judgment against Atain on its claim for rescission.
D. Failure to Maintain Signed Liability Waivers
Atain’s final argument is NMG’s failure to comply with a coverage condition—namely, obtaining a signed waiver and release of liability from all participants in NMG’s activities, and maintaining the signed document for three years—relieves Atain from its obligation to cover NMG’s exposure to Manchester’s underlying litigation. The Court rejects this argument because a genuine issue of material fact exists concerning whether the loss of Manchester’s waiver form appreciably prejudices Atain’s defense of Manchester’s underlying state court litigation.
New Jersey law permits an insurer to escape liability for its obligations under an insurance policy if the insured breaches a condition of coverage, but only if the insurance carrier suffers appreciable prejudice from the breach. See, e.g., Gazis v. Miller, 847 A.2d 591, 595 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2005). When determining the existence of appreciable prejudice, a court must consider two factors. “[F]irst, ‘whether substantial rights have been irretrievably lost’ as a result of the insured’s breach, and second, ‘the likelihood of success of the insurer in defending against the accident victim’s claim’ had there been no breach.” Hager v. Gonsalves, 942 A.2d 160, 164 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2008) (quoting Sagendorf v. Selective Ins. Co. of Am., 679 A.2d 709, 715 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 1996)); see also Ohaus v. Continental Cas. Ins. Co., 679 A.2d 179, 185 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 1996).
The insurer bears the burden of demonstrating appreciable prejudice. See, e.g., Kenny v. N.J. Mfrs. Ins. Co., 746 A.2d 57, 59 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2000). The existence of appreciable prejudice is generally a question for the finder-of-fact, and generally not appropriate for summary judgment. See, e.g., State Nat’l Ins. Co. v. Cty. of Camden, 10 F. Supp. 3d 568, 582-83 (D.N.J. 2014).
A genuine issue of material fact exists concerning whether the loss of Manchester’s misplaced waiver form will appreciably prejudice Atain. First, the record is not clear whether Manchester’s waiver form—and therefore, Atain’s ability to defend the underlying state court litigation using Manchester’s waiver—has been “irretrievably lost.” Hager, 942 A.2d at 164. Although NMG cannot locate the waiver at present, Atain points to no evidence NMG will be unable to locate the waiver in the future. In fact, NMG indicates it will willing to allow opposing counsel access to its physical files to conduct its own search for Manchester’s missing waiver. (ECF No. 86-2 ¶ 5.) Atain does not indicate it has accepted NMG’s offer.
Second, even if Atain cannot obtain Manchester’s waiver in time to rely on the waiver against Manchester in the underlying state court litigation, the absence of Manchester’s waiver will not necessarily reduce “the likelihood of success of the insurer in defending against the accident victim’s claim.” Hager, 942 A.2d at 164. NMG has provided Atain with Manchester’s signed acknowledgment of receipt (ECF No. 86-4, at 1) of NMG’s employee handbook, which contains a waiver form (ECF No. 86-3, at 22-24). Moreover, while Vulpis acknowledged he could not locate the forms, Vulpis testified Manchester had previously signed a waiver (1) when Manchester initially became was a customer of NMG prior to serving as a guide, and (2) for the year 2015, when Manchester served as a guide. (ECF No. 72, at 55:13-56:3, 87:1-6.) The only contrary evidence is Manchester did not sign a waiver on the day of the Injury. (ECF No. 72, at 99:18-100:4; ECF No. 70-8, at 161:23-162:1.) Atain points to no evidence contradicting Vulpis’s testimony concerning Manchester previously signing a waiver before the day of the Injury. Viewing the facts in the light most favorable to NMG, a genuine issue of material fact exists concerning whether NMG’s loss of Manchester’s waiver will appreciably prejudice Atain’s defense of Manchester’s underlying state court litigation.
E. Pachner’s Insurance Producer Licenses
Pachner argues it is entitled to summary judgment on any negligence claim relating to Pachner’s failure to maintain insurance producer licenses. No party opposes Pachner’s argument. Assuming without deciding Pachner owes a duty to its clients or third parties to maintain appropriate licenses as an insurance producer, the uncontested evidence demonstrates Pachner in fact possessed the requisite licenses at the time he assisted NMG with its search for insurance coverage. (ECF No. 73-31, at 1-2.) Therefore, there is no genuine dispute of material fact concerning Pachner’s licensure, and Pachner is entitled to summary judgment on this claim.
F. Pachner’s Explanation of the Policy to NMG
Pachner argues the Court should grant summary judgment against NMG’s claims relating to Pachner’s failure to explain mountaineering-related terms in the Policy or the Application. The Court declines to grant summary judgment because a genuine issue of material fact remains concerning whether Pachner fulfilled his obligations to NMG as a broker.17
An insurance broker’s obligations are “(1) to procure the insurance; (2) to secure a policy that is neither void nor materially deficient; and (3) to provide the coverage he or she undertook to supply.” President v. Jenkins, 853 A.2d 247, 569 (N.J. 2004). “[A]n insurance broker owes a duty to his principal to exercise diligence in obtaining coverage in the area his principal seeks to be protected.” Satec, Inc. v. Hanover Ins. Grp., 162 A.3d 311, 317 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2017) (quoting Werrmann v. Aratusa, Ltd., 630 A.2d 302, 304 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 1993)). A broker’s failure to inform a client about critical facts related to the client’s pursuit of insurance can constitute a breach of the broker’s duty. See Brill v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 666 A.2d 146, 157 (N.J. 1995).
1. Subjective vs. Objective Understanding of Policy Terms
Pachner is not entitled to summary judgment concerning whether Pachner failed to explain certain mountaineering-related terms. The report of NMG’s expert Frank Seigel explains Pachner breached an insurance broker’s duty because Pachner “should have been familiar with how Atain handled and considered ‘mountaineering’ and ‘guided mountaineering’ and whether or not those terms, in Atain’s eyes, included the assembly and use of a Tyrolean Traverse.” (ECF No. 80-4, at 13.) Pachner argues Atain’s subjective understanding of these contested terms is irrelevant because of “the general rule that the terms in an insurance policy should be interpreted in accordance with their plain and commonly-understood meaning,” not the subjective meaning of the insurer. Cypress Point Condo. Ass’n v. Adria Towers, LLC, 143 A.3d 273, 286 (N.J. 2016).
This argument does not entitle Pachner to summary judgment. Pachner is correct that courts must “first consider the plain meaning of the language at issue.” N.J. Transit Corp. v. Underwriters at Lloyd’s, London, ___ A.3d ___, 2019 WL 6109144, at *4 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. Nov. 18, 2019). But the plain language analysis is only one part of the approach to the interpretation of insurance contracts. Courts’ “goal in interpreting [insurance] policies is to ‘discover the intention of the parties[,]’ by considering ‘the contractual terms, the surrounding circumstances, and the purpose of the contract.'” Id. at *5 (quoting Marchak v. Claridge Commons, Inc., 633 A.2d 531 (1993). Atain’s subjective understanding of these terms is relevant to “discover[ing] the intention of the parties.” Id.
2. Vulpis’s Reliance on Pachner’s Information
Pachner also argues none of the Pachner entities breached any duty to inform NMG about relevant Policy terms because Vulpis testified he did not rely on Pachner for information about these terms. Vulpis’s testimony does not entitle Pachner to summary judgment because Vulpis could not have relied on Pachner for information Pachner did not provide, but should have. Cf. Brill, 666 A.2d at 157.
3. Vulpis’s Greater Level of Expertise Compared to Pachner
Pachner further argues Vulpis, as an expert in the mountaineering field, had greater familiarity than Pachner with terms like “mountaineering” and equipment like a “Tyrolean Traverse.” Therefore, Pachner argues, NMG had no need for any explanation from an individual like Pachner with a lesser level of expertise than Vulpis. The Court cannot grant summary judgment on this ground. The fact an insured possesses greater knowledge and expertise in a field than the insured’s broker does not relieve the broker from “exercis[ing] diligence in obtaining coverage in the area his principal seeks to be protected.” Satec, 162 A.3d at 317.
4. Pachner’s and Vulpis’s Awareness of NMG’s Activities
Pachner next points out Vulpis informed Pachner NMG engaged in “mountaineering” activities and requested insurance for those activities (ECF No. 70-17, at ATN000336), but Vulpis never alerted Pachner that NMG engaged in the Activity. Pachner asks this Court for summary judgment because, the argument goes, Pachner could not reasonably have been expected to procure coverage for an Activity of which it had no knowledge. Pachner also argues summary judgment is appropriate because Vulpis was aware the Policy did not cover the Activity because the Activity was not a “mountaineering” activity. The same genuine issue of material fact—namely, the conflicting evidence concerning whether the Activity qualified as a “mountaineering” activity (ECF No. 72-1, at 253:19-24; ECF No. 70-20, at 18:8-13; ECF No. 70-8, at 20:20-21:4)—precludes the entry of summary judgment on both grounds.
G. Pachner’s Failure to Recommend Workers’ Compensation Insurance
Pachner asks the Court to grant summary judgment on NMG’s claim related to Pachner’s failure to procure workers’ compensation insurance, as required by law. The Court cannot grant summary on this basis because genuine issues of material fact exist concerning whether (1) Pachner attempted to procure workers’ compensation insurance for NMG and (2) workers’ compensation insurance would have protected either NMG or Manchester.
An insurance broker’s obligations are “(1) to procure the insurance; (2) to secure a policy that is neither void nor materially deficient; and (3) to provide the coverage he or she undertook to supply.” President v. Jenkins, 853 A.2d 247, 569 (N.J. 2004). “[A]n insurance broker owes a duty to his principal to exercise diligence in obtaining coverage in the area his principal seeks to be protected.” Satec, Inc. v. Hanover Ins. Grp., 162 A.3d 311, 317 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2017) (quoting Werrmann v. Aratusa, Ltd., 630 A.2d 302, 304 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 1993)). When a client retains a broker to procure insurance, the broker must procure legally mandated workers’ compensation insurance. See Schustrin v. Globe Indem. Co. of N.Y., 130 A.2d 897, 898 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 1957) (noting the jury’s finding that broker was obligated to procure workers’ compensation insurance for client).
Pachner argues a broker owes no duty to recommend additional coverage for a client. This argument does not affect the Court’s analysis. Pachner correctly points out New Jersey law imposes “no duty [on an insurance broker] to advise an insured to consider higher amounts of homeowner’s insurance.” Carter Lincoln-Mercury, Inc., Leasing Div. v. EMAR Grp., 638 A.2d 1288, 1292 (N.J. 1994) (citing Wang v. Allstate Ins. Co., 592 A.2d 527, 532-33 (N.J. 1991)). Assuming without deciding this principle extends to workers’ compensation, the principle still does not apply here. NMG does not claim Pachner failed to advise NMG to consider the option of purchasing higher policy limits. Instead, the case concerns an alleged failure by a broker to obtain workers’ compensation insurance for a client who was legally mandated to obtain such insurance. (ECF No. 80-4, at 13-14.) Were the Court to adopt Pachner’s argument, then NMG would possess a legal obligation to obtain workers’ compensation insurance, see N.J. Stat. Ann. § 34:15-71 (requiring employers to obtain workers’ compensation insurance), but NMG’s insurance broker Pachner would have no legal obligation to procure the insurance for NMG. This is not the law in New Jersey. See Schustrin, 130 A.2d at 898.
The delineation of a broker’s duties does not end the Court’s inquiry, because a plaintiff must show more than the failure to procure workers’ compensation insurance before liability will attach. “To succeed in an action against an insurance broker, the plaintiff must prove that in addition to being negligent, the broker’s negligence was a proximate cause of the loss.” Harbor Commuter Serv., Inc. v. Frenkel & Co., 951 A.2d 198, 207 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2008). Put another way, the plaintiff must “establish that its loss would not have occurred but for defendants’ negligence, or that defendants’ negligence constituted a substantial contributing factor to the loss.” Id.
Two genuine issues of material fact preclude summary judgment. First, the record contains conflicting evidence concerning whether Pachner in fact attempted to obtain workers’ compensation insurance for NMG. (ECF No. 73-3 ¶¶ 4-5; ECF No. 73-10, at 6; ECF No. 86-14 ¶ 18.) Taking the evidence in the light most favorable to non-movants NMG and Manchester while making all reasonable inferences in their favor, a reasonable jury could find Pachner did not attempt to obtain workers’ compensation insurance for NMG.
The second genuine issue of material fact concerns whether (1) Pachner’s failure to procure workers’ compensation insurance for NMG either contributed to NMG’s and Manchester’s loss or (2) their loss would not have occurred had NMG purchased workers’ compensation insurance. As discussed earlier, genuine issues of material fact remain concerning whether Manchester qualified as an employee or an independent contractor. See part III.B., supra. Given this uncertainty, the record does not conclusively demonstrate whether or not workers’ compensation insurance would have covered Manchester’s Injury. Viewing this uncertainty in the light most favorable to non-movants NMG and Manchester while making all reasonable inferences in their favor, a reasonable jury could find Pachner’s failure to procure workers’ compensation insurance for NMG either contributed to NMG’s and Manchester’s loss, or their loss would not have occurred but for Pachner’s failure. In light of the two genuine issues of material fact, the Court cannot grant summary judgment against NMG’s and Manchester’s claims related to Pachner’s failure to procure workers’ compensation insurance for NMG.
H. Pachner’s Failure to Provide a Copy of the Policy
Pachner requests summary judgment on any claim it negligently failed to provide NMG with a copy of the Policy. The Court cannot grant summary judgment in light of the conflicting evidence.
An insurance broker has a duty to provide its client with any policy it receives from the insurer within 10 days of receipt by the broker. See N.J. Admin Code § 11:17A-4.6. According to Pachner, when “Pachner & Associates received a copy of the Policy, we made it available to NMG through our web portal.” (ECF No. 73-3 ¶ 13.) Vulpis testified that he never received the Policy until after Manchester’s Injury. (ECF No. 72, at 112:16-25.) In light of the conflicting evidence, a genuine issue of material fact precludes summary judgment.
Pachner argues even if Pachner did not provide Vulpis with a copy of the Policy, Pachner’s failure did not proximately cause any of NMG’s damages because Vulpis received a copy of the Quote. (ECF No. 72-1, at 233:21-236:8.) A genuine issue of material fact also precludes summary judgment on this basis. “To succeed in an action against an insurance broker, the plaintiff must prove that in addition to being negligent, the broker’s negligence was a proximate cause of the loss.” Harbor Commuter Serv., Inc. v. Frenkel & Co., 951 A.2d 198, 207 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2008). Put another way, the plaintiff must “establish that its loss would not have occurred but for defendants’ negligence, or that defendants’ negligence constituted a substantial contributing factor to the loss.” Id.
A genuine issue of material fact exists concerning whether Pachner’s failure to provide the Policy to NMG substantially contributed to NMG’s loss by depriving Vulpis of important Policy details that would have prompted Vulpis to make inquiries about, and adjustments to, NMG’s insurance. The Policy contains substantially more details about coverage than the Quote. For instance, while the Quote merely mentions the insurance “Excludes Injury to Employees, Leased Workers, Volunteers, and Independent Contractors,” the Policy actually defines several of these terms. (ECF No. 73-37, at 2; ECF No. 70-5, at ATN000373-76.) Unlike the Quote, the Policy spells out the exact terms of the exclusion for injury to employees or independent contractors. (ECF No. 70-5, at ATN000383.) Making all reasonable inferences in favor of non-movant NMG, a reasonable jury could find Vulpis would use the more detailed information in the Policy to inquire about his insurance and adjust it so as to explicitly cover incidents like the one in which Manchester suffered an Injury. Accordingly, the Court cannot grant summary judgment.
I. Pachner’s Duty to Manchester
Pachner asks this Court to grant summary judgment against Manchester because New Jersey law precludes Manchester from bringing an action against Pachner until Manchester obtains a judgment against NMG and the judgment is returned unsatisfied.18 The Court disagrees because Manchester is a foreseeable injured third-party to whom Pachner, a broker, owes a duty. See Carter Lincoln-Mercury, Inc., Leasing Div. v. EMAR Grp., 638 A.2d 1288, 1297-98 (N.J. 1994).
“[A]n insurance broker may owe a duty of care not only to the insured who pays the premium and with whom the broker contracts but to other parties found within the zone of harm emanating from the broker’s actions as well.” Id. at 1297. When a broker negligently fails to procure insurance that would cover the injuries of a third-party, the broker owes a duty to the third-party, making the third-party an appropriate plaintiff in a negligence action against the broker. See Impex Ag. Commodities Div. Impex Overseas Corp. v. Parness Trucking Corp., 576 F. Supp. 587, 591 (D.N.J. 1983) (applying New Jersey law). Pachner, as a broker, owes a duty to procure appropriate insurance not just to NMG, but also to Manchester—a foreseeable, injured third-party whose Injury NMG expected the Policy to cover. Because Pachner owes Manchester a duty, Manchester is therefore an appropriate plaintiff in a negligence action. Accordingly, summary judgment against Manchester on this basis is inappropriate. Pachner argues New Jersey is not a direct action state, meaning an injured third party may not bring an action directly against a tortfeasor’s insurance company in lieu of the tortfeasor. See Manukas v. Am. Ins. Co., 237 A.2d 898, 524 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 1968). But Pachner is not an insurance company against whom Manchester brings an action in lieu of the tortfeasor. Rather, Pachner is the tortfeasor. Manchester brings a negligence action against Pachner for Pachner’s negligent failure to obtain appropriate insurance for NMG that would cover Manchester’s Injury. Manchester does not bring an action against Pachner in the capacity of an insurer. Therefore, Pachner’s “direct action” argument is inapposite.
Pachner further argues New Jersey law imposes a bar against direct actions such as this one until the plaintiff obtains a judgment against the tortfeasor and is unable to execute on the judgment. See N.J. Stat. Ann. § 17:28-2. This argument does not entitle Pachner to summary judgment against Manchester for two reasons. First, as previously explained, Manchester has not brought a direct action against an insurer, because Pachner is the tortfeasor, not the tortfeasor’s insurer. Second, the statute’s language merely imposes a requirement on insurance contracts; it does not limit the circumstances under which a plaintiff may bring a tort action. See id. (“No policy of insurance . . . shall be issued or delivered in this state by any insurer authorized to do business in this state, unless [the policy allows the plaintiff to recover directly against the insurer if the tortfeasor is insolvent.]”). Because Manchester is not bringing an action for breach of an insurance contract, the statute has no application here.
Finally, Pachner argues Manchester cannot bring an action against Pachner until it has obtained a judgment against NMG. See Estate of Atanasoski v. Arcuri Agency, Inc., No. A-2291-17T4, 2019 WL 1986539, at *3-6 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. May 6, 2019). Because an action by Manchester against NMG concerning Manchester’s Injury is pending in state court, the appropriate course for this Court would not be to grant summary judgment against Manchester (which would permanently extinguish Manchester’s right to recover against Pachner), but to await the outcome of the state court case before issuing any final judgment against Pachner in favor of Manchester.
J. Action Against Pachner Risk Management
Pachner argues, and the Court agrees, summary judgment is appropriate against Pachner Risk Management (“PRM”) because PRM had no relationship with Manchester, Enberg, Vulpis, or NMG, nor was PRM involved in procuring insurance for NMG. No party contests this argument, and the evidence supports it. Donald Pachner testified PRM has always been an inactive company and further testified PRM has never had anything to do with NMG. (ECF No. 73-11, at 126:14-127:5.) When asked whether “there was anything you came across that suggested [PRM] owed or breached any duty to [NMG],” NMG’s expert Frank Seigel testified he did not recall any reference to PRM in the file he reviewed. (ECF No. 73-15, at 180:8-23.) Because the undisputed evidence shows PRM had no connection to NMG, Vulpis, or the other parties in this case, the Court will grant summary judgment in favor of PRM.
K. Donald Pachner as Agent of His Disclosed Principal, Pachner & Associates
Pachner argues the Court should grant summary judgment in favor of Donald Pachner because he cannot be liable for the torts of his disclosed principal Pachner & Associates if Donald Pachner was merely serving as the agent of Pachner & Associates. See City of Millville v. Rock, 683 F. Supp. 2d 319, 326-28 (D.N.J. 2010). In light of New Jersey’s “participation theory” of principal-agent tort liability, the court disagrees.
Under New Jersey law, the “long-standing rule [is] that ‘[a]n agent who does an act otherwise a tort is not relieved from liability by the fact that he acted at the command of a principal or on account of the principal.'” Ballinger v. Del. River Port Auth., 800 A.2d 97, 110 (N.J. 2002) (quoting Restatement (Second) of Agency § 343 (1958)). New Jersey law refers to this as the “participation theory” of principal-agent tort liability.
[T]he essence of the participation theory is that a corporate officer can be held personally liable for a tort committed by the corporation when he or she is sufficiently involved in the commission of the tort. A predicate to liability is a finding that the corporation owed a duty of care to the victim, the duty was delegated to the officer and the officer breached the duty of care by his own conduct.
Saltiel v. GSI Consults., Inc., 788 A.2d 268, 272 (N.J. 2002); see also Reliance Ins. Co. v. The Lott Grp., 776-77 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2004).
As the sole member of Pachner & Associates who served as the primary individual responsible for dealing with NMG during NMG’s effort to insure its activities, Donald Pachner meets these requirements. (ECF No. 73-3 ¶ 1; ECF No. 86-14 ¶ 16.) Accordingly, the Court may not grant summary judgment on this ground.
For the reasons set forth above, Atain’s motion is DENIED and Pachner’s motion is GRANTED IN PART in favor of PRM on all claims and in favor of all Pachner parties on any claims relating to Pachner’s negligent failure to maintain appropriate licensure and DENIED IN PART in all other respects. An appropriate order will follow.
/s/ Brian R. Martinotti
HON. BRIAN R. MARTINOTTI
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Dated: January 30, 2020
1. The Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332.
2. Pachner also argues the Activity could not be “guided” as the Policy uses the term unless Vulpis or Enberg met the definition of “guide” in NMG’s Guide Handbook—”specially trained and experienced mountaineers, climbers, instructors, and outdoor professionals for hire.” (ECF No. 73-35, at 7.) The Court rejects this argument—which Pachner raises for the first time in a reply brief—because “arguments raised for first time in [a] reply brief will not be considered.” Washington v. Doran, 717 F. App’x 151, 155 (3d Cir. 2017).
Were the Court to consider Pachner’s argument on its merits, the argument would fail. First, Pachner offers no evidence the parties intended the Guide Handbook’s definition of “guide” to govern the Policy’s coverage for “guided” activities, nor any evidence the parties even considered the Guide Handbook’s definition at the time Atain issued the Policy. Second, even if the Guide Handbook’s definition did govern the Policy’s coverage for “guided” activities, Vulpis and Enberg meet the definition. Both Vulpis and Enberg possess special training, and were available for hire. (ECF No. 86-14 ¶¶ 4-7; ECF No. 86-15 ¶¶ 2-3.) The Guide Handbook’s definition does not require Manchester in fact have hired Vulpis or Enberg to guide Manchester on the day of the incident.
3. Manchester joins Pachner’s arguments. (ECF No. 80, at 19.) NMG, Vulpis, and Enberg also join Pachner’s arguments. (ECF No. 86, at 30.)
4. Because a genuine issue of material fact exists concerning whether NMG knowingly misrepresented its projected revenue, the Court need not decide (1) whether NMG’s projected revenue was material to the particular risk assumed by the Atain, nor (2) whether Atain’s remedy is limited to a retroactive increase in the Policy premium.
5. The Court declines to consider two of Atain’s arguments concerning whether NMG knowingly misrepresented its projected revenues. First, Atain argues—for the first time in its reply brief (ECF No. 93, at 25)—Vulpis improperly projected zero revenue from NMG’s Professional Services Division, which NMG had created shortly before applying for Atain’s insurance. Second, Atain argues—again, for the first time in its reply brief (ECF No. 93, at 25-26)—even if NMG’s revenue figures were reasonable at the time of the Application, NMG’s failure to update the figures as circumstances changed constitutes a knowing misrepresentation. The Court will not consider either argument because an argument raised for the first time in a reply brief is waived. See Haberle v. Borough of Nazareth, 936 F.3d 138, 141 n.3 (3d Cir. 2019).
Were the Court to consider Atain’s arguments on their merits, neither argument would prevail. With regard to revenue from NMG’s newly created Professional Services Division, the Court notes, “[m]ost new businesses fail. Pretty much all studies agree on that.” Thomas J. McIntyre, Note, Discriminatory Opportunism: Why Undertaking Self-Employment to Mitigate Damages Creates Unique Challenges, 45 Suffolk U. L. Rev. 549, 550 n.11 (2012) (quoting Scott A. Shane, The Illusions of Entrepreneurship 98 (2008)). That Vulpis projected no revenue from NMG’s new venture is unsurprising. In conjunction with the other evidence and viewed in the light most favorable to non-movant NMG, a reasonable fact-finder could still determine Vulpis did not knowingly misrepresent NMG’s projected revenue. With regard to NMG’s failure to update its revenue figures as its circumstances changed, the evidence viewed in a light most favorable to NMG does not rule out the possibility NMG’s failure to update its Application was a “mere oversight or honest mistake.” Rutgers, 945 A.2d at 1035 (quoting Longobardi, 582 A.2d at 1261).
6. Atain argues the existence of new hires indicates NMG’s business was growing, and is reason to expect a good faith estimate of NMG’s revenues would have been higher. While Atain’s argument is one permissible inference concerning this piece of evidence, the Court must draw all inferences concerning the new hires in favor of non-movant NMG.
7. Manchester joins Pachner’s arguments. (ECF No. 80, at 19.) NMG, Vulpis, and Enberg also join Pachner’s arguments. (ECF No. 86, at 30.)
8. Because these two genuine issues of material fact preclude summary judgment on these issues for both Atain and Pachner, the Court need not decide (1) whether principles of preclusion or estoppel require the Court to treat the guides as independent contractors for purposes of this litigation, nor (2) whether NMG’s representation concerning subcontractors and independent contractors was material to the particular risk assumed by Atain.
9. In the copyright context, a work is “made for hire” if the work’s author or creator is an “employee” under a non-exhaustive thirteen-factor test derived from the common law of agency. See Cmty. for Creative Non-Violence v. Reid (“CCNV”), 490 U.S. 730, 751 (1989). The Fair Labor Standards Act regulates the wages of individuals who meet a six-factor, totality-of-the-circumstances test focusing on the “economic reality” of the employer-employee relationship. See Verma v. 3001 Castor, Inc., 937 F.3d 221, 229-30 (3d Cir. 2019). The Americans with Disabilities Act covers businesses with a minimum number of “employees” as determined by a different six-factor, totality-of-the-circumstances test, focusing on the employer’s right to control the employee. See Clackamas Gastroenterology Assocs. v. Wells, 538 U.S. 440, 449-50 (2003). New Jersey’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act protects a person from retaliation against whistle-blowing if the person is an “employee” under the totality of the circumstances after analyzing a three-consideration, twelve-factor test analyzing both the employer’s right to control the employee and the economic realities of the employer-employee relationship. See D’Annunzio v. Prudential Ins. Co. of Am., 927 A.2d 113, 120-22 (N.J. 2007). When distinguishing employees from independent contractors in the context of federal employment taxes, the U.S. Tax Court, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Court of Federal Claims each use a different test. The Tax Court considers seven factors while the IRS considers twenty, and the Court of Federal Claims adopts the Reid test from copyright law. See Ewens & Miller, Inc. v. Comm’r, 117 T.C. 263, 270 (2001); Consol. Flooring Servs. v. United States, 38 Fed. Cl. 450, 455 (1997) (quoting CCNV, 490 U.S. at 751-52); Rev. Rul. 87-41, 1987-1 C.B. 296, 298-299). This is not an exhaustive list.
10. A business uses IRS Form W-2 to report payments to an employee, but uses IRS Form 1099 to report payments to a non-employee independent contractor. See Hopkins v. Duckett, Civ. No. 02-5589, 2006 WL 3373784, at *4 & n.2 (D.N.J. Nov. 21, 2006).
11. The Court reminds the parties of their obligation to redact social security numbers and tax identification numbers from filings, including copies of tax returns attached as exhibits. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 5.2(a). The parties shall coordinate with the assigned magistrate judge to bring all non-compliant filings into compliance with this rule.
12. Atain does not contend Count Seven, a claim under the New Jersey Insurance Fraud Prevention Act, N.J. Stat. Ann. § 17:33A-1 et seq., covers the claim for misrepresentation concerning the training and education programs for search and rescue operations. (ECF No. 93, at 28-33.)
13. The Court rejects Atain’s argument asking the Court to disregard Vulpis’s and Enberg’s declarations as “conclusory, self-serving affidavits . . . insufficient to withstand a motion for summary judgment.” Gonzalez v. Sec’y of Dep’t of Homeland Sec., 678 F.3d 254, 263 (3d Cir. 2012) (quoting Kirleis v. Dickie, McCamey & Chilcote, P.C., 560 F.3d 156, 161 (3d Cir. 2009)). Vulpis’s and Enberg’s declarations “detail the specific circumstances” surrounding NMG’s education and training programs concerning search and rescue operations, rendering the declarations far from conclusory. Kirleis, 560 F.3d at 161. Notwithstanding any arguable inconsistencies with his deposition testimony, Enberg’s declaration is not so unbelievable that “the [C]ourt, based on all of the evidence, can say with confidence that a rational trier of fact could not credit” Enberg’s declaration. United States v. 717 S. Woodward Street, 2 F.3d 529, 534 (3d Cir. 1993). Both Vulpis’s and Enberg’s declarations (like all declarations) are self-serving, but this is no reason to disregard them entirely. See Paladino v. Newsome, 885 F.3d 203, 209 (3d Cir. 2018). Accordingly, the Court must consider Vulpis’s and Enberg’s testimony, and their testimony creates a genuine issue of material fact precluding summary judgment.
14. Manchester joins Pachner’s arguments. (ECF No. 80, at 19.) NMG, Vulpis, and Enberg also join Pachner’s arguments. (ECF No. 86, at 30.)
15. Atain argues the relevant date is January 5, 2016, when NMG received a letter from Manchester’s attorneys providing a notice of claim. (ECF No. 85-5, at 2.)
16. The record is ambiguous on this point. When asked whether, after Manchester’s Injury, Atain retained NMG’s Policy premiums or returned them to NMG, Atain’s representative testified, “I don’t believe so. I don’t know for sure. I can’t verify.” (ECF No. 73-18, at 149:14-15.) For the purpose of Pachner’s motion, the Court assumes Atain did not refund the Policy premium to NMG in light of Atain’s argument claiming Atain may retain the premium without forfeiting Atain’s right to rescission. (ECF No. 85, at 13-14.)
17. As part of its argument, Pachner contends the testimony of Grace Cunningham is irrelevant because Cunningham was not designated as Atain’s organizational representative under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 30(b)(6) and because she did not work at Atain at the time of her deposition. Accordingly, Pachner argues, the Court should disregard not only Cunningham’s testimony but other evidence relying on Cunningham’s testimony. The Court disagrees. Cunningham’s testimony is relevant to this case and the Court will consider it.
A person need not be an organizational representative under Rule 30(b)(6) nor still employed with a defendant to provide relevant testimony. Cf. Lacey v. Cessna Aircraft Co., 932 F.3d 170, 183 (3d Cir. 1991) (observing “many potentially relevant witnesses may no longer be employed by” a defendant company). Testimony is relevant to the extent “(a) it has any tendency to make a fact more or less probable than it would be without [her testimony]; and (b) the fact is of consequence in determining [this] action.” Fed. R. Evid. 401.
Pachner does not argue any particular item of Cunningham’s testimony fails to meet this definition. Instead, Pachner argues only the Court should wholesale disregard Cunningham’s entire testimony because none of it can be relevant if Atain no longer employs Cunningham. The Court cannot agree. As the director of underwriting for recreational programs at Atain when NMG contracted with Atain under the Policy, Cunningham was personally involved with Atain’s issuance of the Policy to NMG. (ECF No. 70-20, at 12:22-13:6, 32:19-23.) Given her position and personal involvement, the Court cannot say her testimony is entirely irrelevant. Accordingly, the Court considers both Cunningham’s testimony and other evidence relying on her testimony.
18. Pachner characterizes this argument by saying Manchester lacks “standing” to sue Pachner. (ECF No. 73-2, at 25-26; ECF No. 92, at 4-5.) The Court declines to adopt this phrasing, to avoid confusion with the doctrine of justiciability under Article III of the Constitution. See, e.g., Gill v. Whitford, 138 S. Ct. 1916, 1929 (2018). Pachner’s underlying argument concerns whether Manchester is an appropriate plaintiff—which, in a negligence action like this, is best analyzed in terms of whether Pachner owes a duty to Manchester.
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Cyclists looking for more insurance sought to prove he was employed at the time, court rules he was not. Therefore, he will defend a negligent homicide claim on his own.Posted: December 18, 2017 Filed under: Cycling, Insurance, New York | Tags: Bicycling, Central Park, Crosswalk, Cycling, Employee, Employer, Excising Control, Exercise of Control, fatality, Negligent Hiring, Negligent Retention, Propensity, Riding Dangerously, Scope of Employment, Supervision and Control, vicarious liability, Vicariously Liable Leave a comment
By bringing a party to a lawsuit with more insurance or money, many times the defendant can escape with fewer damages. This can happen by the defendant’s actions or sometimes when the plaintiff and the defendant work together to create liability for a third party.
Fein, etc., v. Cook, 2017 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 6607; 2017 NY Slip Op 06603
State: New York
Plaintiff: Randall Fein, etc.,
Defendant: Neil L. Cook, Defendant, Asphalt Green, Inc., Defendant-Respondent
Plaintiff Claims: Negligence
Defendant Defenses: Was working for his employer at the time of the accident
Holding: Not working for his employer and not covered by his employer’s Insurance
The plaintiff and/or defendant attempted to bring the defendant’s employer into the lawsuit as a way to bring more money to the settlement table. The defendant while riding a bicycle killed a pedestrian in a crosswalk in Central Park, New York.
The attempt failed because there was no indication the defendant was under the supervision and control of the employer at the time of the accident.
The defendant was riding his bicycle when he struck and killed a pedestrian in the crosswalk.
Decedent died from injuries sustained when, while in the middle of a crosswalk in Central Park, he was struck by a bike ridden by defendant Neil Cook, a bicyclist and coach employed by AGI, which operates, among other things, a fitness facility on the Upper East Side.
Defendant cyclists attempted to bring into the case his employer where he worked as a bicycle coach. His employer, Asphalt Green, Inc. (AGI), would have more insurance, more resources to pay off the plaintiff and possibly allow the defendant to escape damages he could never pay.
This decision was based on a motion for summary judgment filed by the Defendant/Respondent alleged employer AGI.
It cannot be determined from the decision if the employer AGI was brought in by the plaintiff or the defendant. Nor was it developed that the plaintiff and defendant had agreed to some type of reduction in damages against the defendant if the employee was found to be working for the defendant at the time, making the employer also liable.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
Under New York law, to be working at the time the employer had to be exercising some control over the employee/defendant at the time of the accident. The court did not find any facts to support that allegation and found “there is no indication that AGI was exercising any control over Cook at the time of the accident.”
Nor was the employer separately liable for a claim of negligent hiring and retention of the defendant. To be liable under that theory the employee had to be working for the employer at the time of the accident and the employer had to have known of the employee’s propensity to ride dangerously in Central Park, where the accident happened.
There is no evidence that AGI knew or should have known of Cook’s alleged propensity to dangerously ride his bicycle in Central Park, an element necessary to support the claim for negligent hiring and retention.
The alleged employer was dismissed from the case.
So Now What?
This was a simple way to bring a lot more money to the table for the plaintiff. It might have been done so with the defendant’s help and/or consent. By agreeing to this the defendant might have been able to negotiate with the plaintiff a reduction in the damages he might owe or be completely dismissed from the case upon settlement with the alleged employer.
Although a scary set of facts, you actually see agreements like this often in litigation as the plaintiff’s attempt to get more money than the defendant might have or ever have and the defendant willing to throw his employer under the buss to save his own jersey.
Probably, the defendant already was terminated from his job. You would not want to employ a cycling coach who had killed someone while riding a bike.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
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Fein, etc., v. Cook, 2017 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 6607; 2017 NY Slip Op 06603Posted: November 26, 2017 Filed under: Cycling, Legal Case, New York | Tags: Bicycling, Central Park, Crosswalk, Cycling, Employee, Employer, Excising Control, Exercise of Control, fatality, Negligent Hiring, Negligent Retention, Propensity, Riding Dangerously, Scope of Employment, Supervision and Control, vicarious liability, Vicariously Liable Leave a comment
Fein, etc., v. Cook, 2017 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 6607; 2017 NY Slip Op 06603
Randall Fein, etc., Plaintiff-Appellant, v Neil L. Cook, Defendant, Asphalt Green, Inc., Defendant-Respondent.
SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, APPELLATE DIVISION, FIRST DEPARTMENT
2017 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 6607; 2017 NY Slip Op 06603
September 26, 2017, Decided
September 26, 2017, Entered
THE LEXIS PAGINATION OF THIS DOCUMENT IS SUBJECT TO CHANGE PENDING RELEASE OF THE FINAL PUBLISHED VERSION. THIS OPINION IS UNCORRECTED AND SUBJECT TO REVISION BEFORE PUBLICATION IN THE OFFICIAL REPORTS.
COUNSEL: [*1] Clyde & Co., New York (Jeffrey J. Ellis of counsel), for appellant.
Rutherford & Christie, LLP, New York (Michael C. Becker of counsel), for respondent.
JUDGES: Sweeny, J.P., Renwick, Kapnick, Kern, Moulton, JJ.
Order, Supreme Court, New York County (Richard F. Braun, J.), entered August 22, 2016, which granted defendant Asphalt Green, Inc.’s (AGI) motion for summary judgment, to the extent of dismissing the amended complaint as against it, unanimously affirmed, without costs.
Decedent died from injuries sustained when, while in the middle of a crosswalk in Central Park, he was struck by a bike ridden by defendant Neil Cook, a bicyclist and coach employed by AGI, which operates, among other things, a fitness facility on the Upper East Side.
The motion court correctly determined that AGI could not be held vicariously liable for Cook’s alleged negligence, as Cook was acting outside the scope of his employment. At the time of the accident, Cook was engaged in a weekend bicycle ride, in a public park, using a bicycle that he purchased and equipped, was alone and was not coaching anyone, and was not acting in furtherance of any duties owed to AGI (see Riviello v Waldron, 47 NY2d 297, 391 N.E.2d 1278, 418 N.Y.S.2d 300 ; Weimer v Food Merchants, 284 AD2d 190, 726 N.Y.S.2d 423 [1st Dept 2001]).
Cook’s unsupported belief, as set forth in an [*2] affirmative defense, that his bicycle riding had a work component to it, and his unsworn Response to the Notice to Admit (see CPLR 3123[a]), which improperly sought admissions as to employment status, a contested issue central to the action (see Berg v Flower Fifth Ave. Hosp., 102 AD2d 760, 476 N.Y.S.2d 895 [1st Dept 1984]), do not create triable issues of fact as to whether Cook was acting in the scope of employment. Unlike in Aycardi v Robinson (128 AD3d 541, 9 N.Y.S.3d 262 [1st Dept 2015]), relied upon by plaintiff, there is no indication that AGI was exercising any control over Cook at the time of the accident (see Lundberg v State of New York, 25 NY2d 467, 255 N.E.2d 177, 306 N.Y.S.2d 947 ).
The motion court correctly dismissed plaintiff’s direct negligence claim against AGI. There is no evidence that AGI knew or should have known of Cook’s alleged propensity to dangerously ride his bicycle in Central Park, an element necessary to support the claim for negligent hiring and retention (see White v Hampton Mgt. Co. L.L.C., 35 AD3d 243, 244, 827 N.Y.S.2d 120 [1st Dept 2006]), and plaintiff’s conclusory allegations of deficient training are insufficient to defeat summary judgment (see Richardson v New York Univ., 202 AD2d 295, 296-297, 609 N.Y.S.2d 180 [1st Dept 1994]).
We have considered plaintiff’s remaining arguments and find them unavailing.
THIS CONSTITUTES THE DECISION AND ORDER OF THE SUPREME COURT, APPELLATE DIVISION, FIRST DEPARTMENT.
ENTERED: SEPTEMBER 26, 2017
Zip line put away for the season still found and plaintiff gets injured on rigged system.Posted: September 15, 2014 Filed under: Massachusetts, Summer Camp, Zip Line | Tags: 4H, 4H Camp, Employee, Essex County 4H Club Camp, Herberchuk, Inc., Massachusetts, Summary judgment, Summer Camp, Teleglobe, zip line, Zip Wire, Zip-line Leave a comment
4H Camp not liable for group of people who rig a zip line and borrow a ladder to get to the platform.
Herberchuk v. Essex County 4H Club Camp, Inc. et al., 1999 Mass. Super. LEXIS 99
Date of the Decision: 1999
Plaintiff: Alicia Herberchuk
Defendant: Essex County 4H Club Camp, Inc and Teleglobe Communications, Inc.
Plaintiff Claims: negligence
Defendant Defenses: no duty owed
Holding: for the defendants
The plaintiff attended an event with other employees at a 4H camp that had been rented for the event. The event was not sponsored by the defendant employer Teleglobe but was an event for employees of Teleglobe.
The camp had a zip wire which had been closed for the season. The ladder leading up to the platform for the launch of the zip line had been removed and there was no pulley, harness or other equipment at the zip wire. The plaintiff had noticed upon her arrival that there was no ladder leading up to the platform.
A ladder had been found, and other people at the event were using the zip wire by holding on to a green nylon rope to ride down the wire. The plaintiff decided she wanted to ride the wire. She climbed up the ladder. The ladder that had been found did not reach the platform, and the plaintiff had to pull herself up to the platform.
The plaintiff grabbed the nylon roped and leaped off the platform where she fell injuring herself. The plaintiff sued the 4H camp and her employer. The defendants filed motions for summary judgment, which was granted by the trial court. The plaintiff appealed.
Summary of the case
The first issue presented was the duty of the landowner, the 4H camp to the attendees.
A property owner has a duty to maintain its property “in a reasonably safe condition in view of all the circumstances, including the likelihood of injury to others, the seriousness of the injury, and the burden of avoiding the risk.” A defendant is not required to “supply a place of maximum safety, but only one, which would be safe to a person who exercises such minimum care as the circumstances reasonably indicate.” “A landowner has no duty to protect lawful visitors on his property from risks that would be obvious to persons of average intelligence.”
The court took notice that the camp had removed all the equipment to operate the zip wire, including the ladder. The plaintiff still decided to use the zip wire knowing this. The 4H camp did not have a duty to warn the plaintiff of the dangers of the zip wire because the dangers were obvious with no safety equipment or instruction on how to use it. “There is no duty to warn of dangers obvious to persons of average intelligence.”
The appellate court agreed with the trial court and dismissed the claims against the landowner, the 4H camp.
The next claim was against the employer of the plaintiff. This claim was thrown out even faster. The event was not sponsored by Teleglobe; the money for the event came from employees through a raffle. Finally, the plaintiff was not required to attend the event as part of her employment and was not paid to be there.
So Now What?
As we all know, if there is a way to have more fun or get injured humans can find it and do it. About the only thing you could do in this case is taking the platform down or hiding all ladders at the camp.
As a landowner always understand your obligations to people on your land, whether they pay to be there or not.
If your employees want to do something like this, understand your corporate responsibilities in assisting or not assisting in the event.
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Herberchuk v. Essex County 4H Club Camp, Inc. et al., 1999 Mass. Super. LEXIS 99Posted: August 31, 2014 Filed under: Assumption of the Risk, Legal Case, Massachusetts, Summer Camp, Zip Line | Tags: 4H, Defendant, Employee, MA, Massachusetts, Summary judgment, Summer Camp, zip line, Zip Wire, Zip-line Leave a comment
Herberchuk v. Essex County 4H Club Camp, Inc. et al., 1999 Mass. Super. LEXIS 99
Alicia Herberchuk v. Essex County 4H Club Camp, Inc. et al.
SUPERIOR COURT OF MASSACHUSETTS, AT MIDDLESEX
1999 Mass. Super. LEXIS 99
March 11, 1999, Decided
JUDGES: [*1] Raymond J. Brassard, Justice of the Superior Court.
OPINION BY: RAYMOND J. BRASSARD
MEMORANDUM OF DECISION AND ORDER ON DEFENDANTS’ MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT
Plaintiff, Alicia Herberchuk (“Ms. Herberchuk”), brought this action for recovery of damages for injuries sustained while on land owned by defendant, Essex County 4H Club Camp, Inc. (“4H”), while attending an outing accompanied by co-workers employed by defendant, Teleglobe Communications, Inc. (“Teleglobe”). The plaintiff alleges that the injuries were caused by the negligence of the defendants and that there are genuine issues of material fact which preclude the entry of summary judgment on the issue of liability. For the reasons set forth below, defendants’ motions for summary judgment are ALLOWED.
Viewing the facts available at this summary judgment stage in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, Ms. Herberchuk, the undisputed facts are as follows.
On August 28, 1993, Ms. Herberchuk attended an employee outing at a campground owned by 4-H. The campground had been rented through a third party under the name of Teleglobe by certain of its employees, but not by Teleglobe itself. At the cookout [*2] Ms. Herberchuk observed other guests using an apparatus known as a zipwire. The zipwire was used by children who attended the 4H’s camp during the summer months. Using the zipwire involved climbing up a ladder which reached to a platform mounted on a tree, and then leaving the platform to traverse the entire length of the wire. Proper use of the zipwire required a safety helmet, a safety harness, a drag line, and several people assisting the rider. The zipwire also included an 8 inch square 2,000 pound-test pulley to which the safety harness was attached. At the end of the camping season all removable equipment, including the safety equipment, was required to be removed from the zipwire, leaving only the cable and the platform.
On the date in question, a ladder found on or near the campground was propped against the tree upon which the platform was mounted by unidentified parties allowing guests to access the zipwire. Hanging from the zipwire was a nylon rope described as green in color which other guests were using to slide down the wire. No rules or instructions on how to use the zipwire were posted on or near the apparatus on the day in question. After watching several other [*3] people use the zipwire, Ms. Herberchuk decided she wanted to use the apparatus. In order to reach the zipwire, the plaintiff climbed the ladder. Although the ladder did not reach the platform at the end of the wire, Ms. Herberchuk was able to reach the platform by pulling herself up by her hands. Once on the platform Ms. Herberchuk wrapped the rope around her hands as she had seen others do and pushed herself off. Instead of traveling down the wire, however, Ms. Herberchuk fell to the ground sustaining serious injuries, including two elbow fractures and a fractured jaw. As result of these events Ms. Herberchuk commenced this lawsuit against 4H and Teleglobe. Both 4H and Teleglobe have moved for summary judgment on the issue of liability.
[HN1] Summary judgment shall be granted where there are no issues of material fact and the moving party is entitled to as a matter of law. Kourouvacilis v. General Motors Corp., 410 Mass. 706, 716, 575 N.E.2d 734 (1991); Cassesso v. Comm’r of Correction, 390 Mass. 419, 422, 456 N.E.2d 1123 (1983); Community Nat’l Bank v. Dawes, 369 Mass. 550, 553, 340 N.E.2d 877 (1976); Mass.R.Civ.P. 56(c). The moving party bears the burden of affirmatively demonstrating the [*4] absence of a triable issue and that, therefore, she is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Pederson v. Time, Inc., 404 Mass. 14, 17, 532 N.E.2d 1211 (1989). If the moving party establishes the absence of a triable issue, in order to defeat a motion for summary judgment, the opposing party must respond and allege facts which would establish the existence of disputed material facts. Id.
[HN2] A judge, when ruling on a motion for summary judgment must consider “the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, in determining whether summary judgment is appropriate.” Flesner v. Technical Communications Corporation et al., 410 Mass. 805, 807, 575 N.E.2d 1107 (1991). Where no genuine issue of material fact exists, “the judge must ask himself not whether he thinks the evidence unmistakably favors one side or the other but whether a fair-minded jury could return a verdict for the plaintiff on the evidence presented.” Id. citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202, 106 S. Ct. 2505 (1986).
1. The Claim Against 4-H.
[HN3] A property owner has a duty to maintain its property [*5] “in a reasonably safe condition in view of all the circumstances, including the likelihood of injury to others, the seriousness of the injury, and the burden of avoiding the risk.” Mounsey v. Ellard, 363 Mass. 693, 708, 297 N.E.2d 43 (1973). A defendant is not required to “supply a place of maximum safety, but only one which would be safe to a person who exercises such minimum care as the circumstances reasonably indicate.” Toubiana v. Priestly, 402 Mass. 84, 88, 520 N.E.2d 1307 (1988). “A landowner has no duty to protect lawful visitors on his property from risks that would be obvious to persons of average intelligence.” Id. at 89.
In the present case, Ms. Herberchuk claims there are genuine issues of fact concerning the condition in which the zipwire was kept, as well as, what actions 4-H took to prevent unauthorized use of the apparatus. The evidence on the record, for the purposes of this motion, includes affidavits from both Ms. Herberchuk and Mr. Charles G. Ingersoll, a member of the 4-H Board of Trustees, as well as exhibits, including photographs of the area immediately before the accident.
In his affidavit, Mr. Ingersoll states that, while not having [*6] a specific memory of doing so the summer during which Ms. Herberchuk was injured, it was his practice to remove and put away for the winter all those removable parts and safety equipment associated with the zipwire at the end of each camping season (before the outing). Mr. Ingersol also stated that the ladder used by the plaintiff to get to the platform was not one of those presently used by the camp and that the pulley was not on the line the day of the outing. Ms. Herberchuk admitted in her affidavit that when she first arrived at the outing there was no ladder attached to the tree and that when she attempted to make her way to the platform she had to pull herself up because the wooden ladder placed there did not reach the platform. Ms. Herberchuk stated further that she did not know if the pulley was attached to the wire or where the strap had come from.
[HN4] “The question to be decided is whether the jury reasonably could have concluded that, in view of all the circumstances, an ordinarily prudent person in the defendant’s position would have taken steps, not taken by the defendant, to prevent the accident that occurred.” Id. at 89. In this case the evidence shows that 4-H [*7] had removed both the ladder and the safety equipment used with the zipwire during the camping season. Upon arriving at the outing Ms. Herberchuk saw no ladder allowing entry to the platform rendering the zipwire inaccessible, it being twenty feet above the ground. Ms. Herberchuk chose to use the zipwire without the benefit of safety equipment or instructions on the use of the device. Ms. Herberchuk also admitted in her deposition that she knew there was a chance she could be injured but decided to use the apparatus. Further, 4-H did not have a duty to warn Ms. Herberchuk of the obvious dangers involved with using the zipwire without safety equipment or instruction. “There is no duty to warn of dangers obvious to persons of average intelligence.” Thorson v. Mandell, 402 Mass. 744, 749, 525 N.E.2d 375 (1988). On this evidence, a fair minded jury could not return a verdict for the plaintiff.
2. The Claim Against Teleglobe.
[HN5] “Before liability for negligence can be imposed there must first be a legal duty owed by the defendant to the plaintiff, and a breach of that duty proximately resulting in the injury.” Davis v. Westwood Group, 420 Mass. 739, 743, 652 N.E.2d 567 (1995). [*8] Ms. Herberchuk urges that Teleglobe played a part in the organization and funding of the outing at which the plaintiff was injured. The evidence, however, is to the contrary. First, the outing was organized by Teleglobe employees because the company no longer sponsored such events. Second, the money to pay for the outing was raised by a group of employees independent of Teleglobe through the use of a raffle. Finally, Ms. Herberchuk’s attendance was not required by her employment and she received no compensation for attending. On this evidence a reasonable jury could not find that Teleglobe owed any duty to Ms. Herberchuk.
For the foregoing reasons, it is hereby ORDERED that defendants’, 4-H and Teleglobe, motions for summary judgment are ALLOWED.
Raymond J, Brassard
Justice of the Superior Court
Dated: March 11, 1999
When releases do not work: Employees and Workers CompensationPosted: November 13, 2013 Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: Employee, Employer, Independent Contractor, Intern, Negligence, Worker’s Compensation, Workers Compensation Leave a comment
State Law prohibits releases for employees if they are covered by Worker’s Compensation.
Prior to the creation of Worker’s Compensation, if an employee was injured at work he had to sue his employer and prove the employer was negligent to recover for his injuries. This created problems for both parties. Injured employees went bankrupt attempting to win a suit and employers injured employees rather than keeping workplaces safe. It was cheaper to fight a lawsuit then make a workplace safe.
With the creation of worker’s compensation the employers and employees both gave up and received benefits. Basically, in return for not suing the employer the employee receives medical care and some of their lost wages.
An employee gives up the right to sue the employer if they accept worker’s compensation benefits. The employer is required to carry worker’s compensation on employees or they can suffer fines or damages levied by the state or if sued by the employee additional damages over what are owed.
Colorado Statutes state that if you accept worker’s compensation you give up other rights to sue.
C.R.S. §§ 8-41-104. Acceptance as surrender of other remedies
An election under the provisions of section 8-40-302 (5) and in compliance with the provisions of articles 40 to 47 of this title, including the provisions for insurance, shall be construed to be a surrender by the employer, such employer’s insurance carrier, and the employee of their rights to any method, form, or amount of compensation or determination thereof or to any cause of action, action at law, suit in equity, or statutory or common-law right, remedy, or proceeding for or on account of such personal injuries or death of such employee other than as provided in said articles, and shall be an acceptance of all the provisions of said articles, and shall bind the employee personally, and, for compensation for such employee’s death, the employee’s personal representatives, surviving spouse, and next of kin, as well as the employer, such employer’s insurance carrier, and those conducting their business during bankruptcy or insolvency.
Georgia Statutes state:
O.C.G.A. § 34-9-11 (2013)
§ 34-9-11. Exclusivity of rights and remedies granted to employee under chapter; immunity granted to construction design professionals
(a) The rights and the remedies granted to an employee by this chapter shall exclude all other rights and remedies of such employee, his personal representative, parents, dependents, or next of kin, at common law or otherwise, on account of such injury, loss of service, or death; provided, however, that no employee shall be deprived of any right to bring an action against any third-party tortfeasor, other than an employee of the same employer or any person who, pursuant to a contract or agreement with an employer, provides workers’ compensation benefits to an injured employee, notwithstanding the fact that no common-law master-servant relationship or contract of employment exists between the injured employee and the person providing the benefits, and other than a construction design professional who is retained to perform professional services on or in conjunction with a construction project on which the employee was working when injured, or any employee of a construction design professional who is assisting in the performance of professional services on the construction site on which the employee was working when injured, unless the construction design professional specifically assumes by written contract the safety practices for the project. The immunity provided by this subsection to a construction design professional shall not apply to the negligent preparation of design plans and specifications, nor shall it apply to the tortious activities of the construction design professional or the employees of the construction design professional while on the construction site where the employee was injured and where those activities are the proximate cause of the injury to the employee or to any professional surveys specifically set forth in the contract or any intentional misconduct committed by the construction design professional or his employees.
(b) As used in subsection (a) of this Code section, the term “construction design professional” means any person who is an architect, professional engineer, landscape architect, geologist, or land surveyor who has been issued a license pursuant to Chapter 4, 15, 19, or 23 of Title 43 or any corporation organized to render professional services in Georgia through the practice of one or more such technical professions as architecture, professional engineering, landscape architecture, geology, or land surveying.
(c) The immunity provided by this subsection shall apply and extend to the businesses using the services of a temporary help contracting firm, as such term is defined in Code Section 34-8-46, or an employee leasing company, as such term is defined in Code Section 34-8-32, when the benefits required by this chapter are provided by either the temporary help contracting firm or the employee leasing company or the business using the services of either such firm or company. A temporary help contracting firm or an employee leasing company shall be deemed to be a statutory employer for the purposes of this chapter.
Illinois law states:
§ 820 ILCS 310/5. (Text of Section WITH the changes made by P.A. 89-7, which has been held unconstitutional) [Exclusive remedy against employer; third party liability]
Sec. 5. (a) There is no common law or statutory right to recover compensation or damages from the employer, his insurer, his broker, any service organization retained by the employer, his insurer or his broker to provide safety service, advice or recommendations for the employer or the agents or employees of any of them for or on account of any injury to health, disease, or death therefrom, other than for the compensation herein provided or for damages as provided in Section 3 of this Act [820 ILCS 310/3]. This Section shall not affect any right to compensation under the “Workers’ Compensation Act” [820 ILCS 305/1 et seq.].
No compensation is payable under this Act for any condition of physical or mental ill-being, disability, disablement, or death for which compensation is recoverable on account of accidental injury under the “Workers’ Compensation Act“.
Consequently the battle in worker’s compensation cases is whether or not someone was an employee. Several people are automatically excluded; first independent contractors are not employees. Interns are probably a revolving area of the law, and are probably moving close to being called employees. Several recent federal regulatory changes have required more education for interns and several lawsuits have resulted in interns receiving pay. If interns are paid, then they are employees covered under worker’s compensation.
Interns that have been injured and not covered by worker’s compensation are prevented from recovering because of state law, not because of unequal bargaining power.
The prohibition against lawsuits does not extend to malfunctioning equipment or any third party that might have caused the injury. An example would be an employee working on a road that is hit and injured by a car. The employee’s worker’s compensation would cover his lost wages and medical bills. The injured employee would still sue the driver of the car. However the worker’s compensation insurance company would have the right to recover any damages first before the injured employee based on its subrogation rights.
Simply put, an injury on the job provides guarantees not lawsuits. Those guarantees vary by state, but generally it means 100% of the injured employee’s medical bills are paid and a percentage of their income is replaced. If necessary additional retraining and/or long term disability if the injury is severe enough or permanent.
Employers don’t have to worry about being sued and employees do not have to worry about any defenses to their claims. Statues state that Assumption of the Risk is not a defense to a worker’s comp claim. (C.R.S. 8-41-101 (2013))
8-41-102. Liability of employer complying
An employer who has complied with the provisions of articles 40 to 47 of this title, including the provisions relating to insurance, shall not be subject to the provisions of section 8-41-101; nor shall such employer or the insurance carrier, if any, insuring the employer’s liability under said articles be subject to any other liability for the death of or personal injury to any employee, except as provided in said articles; and all causes of action, actions at law, suits in equity, proceedings, and statutory and common law rights and remedies for and on account of such death of or personal injury to any such employee and accruing to any person are abolished except as provided in said articles.
There is no litigation between employers and employees any more. Now that type of litigation resolves around whether or not someone was an employee. If you are an employer, make sure every person understands that situation and you can prove it, either in writing or some other way. You also must be able to prove that someone is not an employee according to the law. Just saying someone is not an employee is not enough.
Waivers, Employer/Employees, and Bargaining Position
Employer/Employee Waiver Enforced Despite Unequal Bargaining Power
Waiver Protects Chimp Sanctuary from Suit by College Intern
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Plaintiff raised argument in work/team building situation that they were forced to sign releasePosted: December 3, 2012 Filed under: Challenge or Ropes Course, Idaho | Tags: Climbing Wall, Coercion, Employee, Employment, Idaho, Idaho Supreme Court, Northwest Nazarene University, Release, Team Building 3 Comments
Morrison, v. Northwest Nazarene University, 273 P.3d 1253; 2012 Ida. LEXIS 82
Argument that plaintiff was forced to sign a release by an employer did not prevail, but it was taken seriously by the court.
I’ve worried and written on the issue that when a “team-building” exercise is undertaken by an employer how the issue of a release should be handled. If the
employer uses an employer or rope’s course or climbing wall release is this going to give the employee the argument that they were coerced into the act? Where does worker’s compensation arise in employers “required” team building activity? What if the release the employee signs, is one required by the employer?
A defense to a contract is coercion. You cannot be held to a contract if you were forced to enter into the contract.
In this case, the employer contracted with the defendant university to run a team-building exercise. The team-building exercise included using a climbing wall. Prior to the activity, the employer gave the employee a release prepared by the defendant to sign. The release relieved the defendant university of any liability for negligence.
While climbing the belayer, a coworker failed, and the plaintiff was injured. The plaintiff sued the university for failing to train and supervise the belayer. The university moved for summary judgment based upon the release signed by the employee.
Summary of the case
The Idaho Supreme Court first looked at the basis for release law in Idaho. In Idaho, releases are upheld unless one party owes the other party a public duty created by statute or there is an obvious disadvantage in the bargaining power between the parties. The bargaining power must be so unequal that “the party injured has little choice, as a practical matter, but to use the services offered by the party seeking exemption.”
The plaintiff argued the release was void because of the disadvantage of bargaining power between the employee and the employer. The plaintiff argued that:
· all employees were expected to sign the release
· he was not given an option not to sign the release
However, the court pointed out that at no time did the plaintiff say, “that he did not want to climb the climbing wall and that his employer ordered him to do so anyway.”
The release had a statement in it that said:
The undersigned has read and voluntarily signs this release and waiver of liability and indemnity agreement. The undersigned further agrees that no oral representations, statements or inducements apart from the foregoing agreement have been made.”
Between the facts, the plaintiff did not object to signing the release, the team-building exercise or climbing on the wall along with the statement in the release that
he had not been coerced his defense failed.
The plaintiff also argued that the release was overly broad and should not be upheld. In Idaho, the court set forth the requirements on how contracts and releases would be interpreted. “Clauses which exclude liability must speak clearly and directly to the particular conduct of the defendant who caused the harm at issue.” However, the language need not “list the specific, allegedly negligent conduct at issue.” In Idaho, that language must be broad enough to cover future negligence.
The parties to a release need not have contemplated the precise occurrence that caused the plaintiff’s injuries but rather may adopt language to cover a broad range of accidents by specifying injuries involving negligence upon the part of the defendant.
In Idaho, the language must not cover every possible accident but have language that allows the plaintiff to understand the board range of possible accidents. As I say, the life-changing ones should be listed as well as the everyday ones. On a frequency and severity scale, you want the ones with high severity and the ones with high frequency listed on your release.
The court upheld the release as a bar to the plaintiff’s claims. However, it was apparent in the decision that the court took seriously both claims raised by the plaintiff.
There was a dissent about the language of the release which would have ruled for the plaintiff on the issue of the language being broad enough to cover the injuries claimed by the plaintiff.
So Now What?
There are many states where I believe this case would not have survived. In this case if the plaintiff would have asked what happens if I don’t sign or said I don’t want to participate; the release would not have worked.
If you are running team building exercises this places you in an ethical as well as a legal conundrum. How do you protect yourself when the people coming to you
First make sure everyone knows they have an out that they can say public or privately that if they don’t want to do something, they don’t have too. That may defeat the purpose of the team-building exercise in your or the employer’s mind but the long-term costs of litigation over the issue should exceed that issue.
This also places you, the business to take a position, which is against your client. However, I believe you have to protect the participant who does not want to participate from your client. This is a dangerous conflict of interest.
Two, decide advance who will take care of the issue of what to do if someone is sued. It might be easier to have the employer indemnify you for any injuries of employees.
Employees should probably be covered under a worker’s comp policy in situations like this so you might always be subject to a subrogation claim for an injury. Releases stop subrogation claims, and indemnification does not. However, if the worker’s compensation carrier realizes they will be suing their insured because of an indemnification policy it might make a difference.
Three, work everything out in advance. Getting the release to the employer in advance of the activity was great. However, there was still a gap in what to do if someone is injured. Obviously, the employer and the university really never contemplated that someone would get injured, other than their insurance company and legal counsel telling them they must use a release. However, people get hurt all the time; bathrooms can only be avoided for so long. If you and the employer understand who insurance is going to step up and what defenses are available to both parties in advance it might eliminate some suits.
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Morrison, v. Northwest Nazarene University, 273 P.3d 1253; 2012 Ida. LEXIS 82Posted: December 3, 2012 Filed under: Challenge or Ropes Course, Idaho, Legal Case | Tags: Canyon County, Canyon County Idaho, Climbing Wall, Coercion, Employee, Idaho, Indemnity, Negligence, Northwest Nazarene University, Release, Team Building Leave a comment
Morrison, v. Northwest Nazarene University, 273 P.3d 1253; 2012 Ida. LEXIS 82
Paul Morrison, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Northwest Nazarene University, Defendant-Respondent.
Docket No. 37850-2010, 2012 Opinion No. 52
SUPREME COURT OF IDAHO
273 P.3d 1253; 2012 Ida. LEXIS 82
March 22, 2012, Filed
PRIOR HISTORY: [**1]
Appeal from the District Court of the Third Judicial District of the State of Idaho, in and for Canyon County. The Hon. Juneal C. Kerrick, District Judge.
DISPOSITION: The judgment of the district court is affirmed.
COUNSEL: John C. Doubek; Doubek & Pyfer, LLP; Helena, Montana; argued for appellant.
John A. Bailey; Racine Olson Nye Budge & Bailey, Chtd; Pocatello; argued for respondent.
JUDGES: EISMANN, Justice. Chief Justice BURDICK, Justices W. JONES, and HORTON CONCUR. J. JONES, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part.
OPINION BY: EISMANN
[*1254] EISMANN, Justice.
This is an appeal challenging the district court’s ruling on summary judgment that the plaintiff’s action for personal injuries suffered when he fell from a climbing wall was barred by the hold harmless agreement he signed prior to engaging in that activity. We affirm the judgment of the district court.
As a team building exercise, Paul Morrison’s employer wanted him and his coworkers to participate in a program at Northwest Nazarene University that included a climbing wall activity. Several days prior to doing so, Morrison’s employer required him to sign an agreement prepared by the University holding it harmless from any loss or damage he might incur [**2] due to the University’s negligence or that of its employees.
Morrison was severely injured when he fell while on the climbing wall. He filed this action alleging that his injuries were caused by the negligence of the University employees who were supervising the climbing wall activity. One of Morrison’s coworkers was assigned to control the safety rope used to keep the wall climber from falling, and Morrison alleges that his fall was caused by the negligent failure of a University employee to train and supervise that coworker.
The University moved for summary judgment on the ground that Morrison’s cause of action was barred by the hold harmless agreement. The district court agreed and dismissed this action. Morrison then timely appealed.
Did the District Court Err in Failing to Invalidate the Hold Harmless Agreement Due to the Inequality in Bargaining Power
[HN1] “Freedom of contract is a fundamental concept underlying the law of contracts and is an essential element of the free enterprise system.” Rawlings v Layne & Bowler Pump Co., 93 Idaho 496, 499, 465 P.2d 107, 110 (1970). Agreements exempting a party from liability for negligence will be upheld unless the party owes to the other party [**3] a public duty created by statute or the other party is at an obvious disadvantage in bargaining power. Lee v. Sun Valley Co., 107 Idaho 976, 978, 695 P.2d 361, 363 (1984).
In this case, there is no allegation of any public duty that the University owed to Morrison. However, he contends that there was an obvious disadvantage in bargaining power because his employer required that he sign the hold harmless agreement. [HN2] The existence of unequal bargaining power is not, by itself, sufficient to relieve a party from the provisions of a hold harmless agreement. Rather, the party must be “compelled to submit to a provision relieving the other from liability for future negligence [because] . . . the party injured has little choice, as a practical matter, but to use the services offered by the party seeking exemption.” 57A Am. Jur. 2d Negligence § 63 (2004). It is essentially the same test for determining whether unequal bargaining power between parties to a contract is sufficient to constitute procedural unconscionability. See Lovey v. Regence BlueShield of Idaho, 139 Idaho 37, 42, 72 P.3d 877, 882 (2003) (“Lack of voluntariness can be shown . . . by great imbalance on the [*1255] parties’ bargaining [**4] power with the stronger party’s terms being nonnegotiable and the weaker party being prevented by market factors, timing, or other pressures from being able to contract with another party on more favorable terms or to refrain from contracting at all.”)
In this case, Morrison stated in his affidavit: “My said employer told us before we went to the team building exercises that I needed to sign the release in order to participate. All employees were expected to participate and I signed it.” He also stated that he was not given the option of refusing to sign the release and it was required by his employer. Morrison was not injured by signing the release. He was injured by falling from the climbing wall. Absent from his affidavit is any statement that he told his employer that he did not want to climb the climbing wall and that his employer ordered him to do so anyway.1
1 We need not decide whether an employer’s demand that an employee participate in a hazardous activity would be sufficient to void a hold harmless agreement between the employee and the third party that conducted such activity.
[HN3] “With respect to adult participants, the general rule is that releases from liability for injuries [**5] caused by negligent acts arising in the context of recreational activities are enforceable.” 57A Am. Jur. 2d Negligence § 65 (2004). The agreement that Morrison signed stated as a separate paragraph: “The undersigned has read and voluntarily signs this release and waiver of liability and indemnity agreement. The undersigned further agrees that no oral representations, statements or inducements apart from the foregoing agreement have been made.” Morrison has not demonstrated a genuine issue of material fact showing that there was an obvious disadvantage in bargaining power sufficient to relieve him of the provisions of the hold harmless agreement that he signed.
Did the District Court Err in Ruling that the Hold Harmless Agreement Was Valid and that It Applied to the Cause of Action Alleged in the Complaint
Morrison contends that the hold harmless agreement is invalid because it is overly broad and is ineffective to bar his claim because it does not clearly identify the conduct that caused his injuries. [HN4] “Interpretation of unambiguous language in a contract is an issue of law.” McDevitt v. Sportsman’s Warehouse, Inc., 151 Idaho 280, 283, 255 P.3d 1166, 1169 (2011).
The agreement is [**6] entitled “Release / Hold Harmless / Indemnity / Assumption of Risk Agreement,” and it states as follows:
Release: The undersigned, in consideration of being permitted to participate in the Northwest Nazarene University Challenge Course Adventure Program, for educational purposes does irrevocably, personally and for his or her heirs, assigns and legal representatives, release and waive any and all past, present or future claims, demands, and causes of action which the undersigned now has or may in the future have against Northwest Nazarene University, its members, directors, administrators, representatives, officers, agents, employees, and assigns, and each of them (hereinafter jointly and severally referred to as “Releasees”), for any and all past, present or future loss of or damage to property, and/or bodily injury, including death, however caused, resulting from, arising out of or in any way connected with his/her participation in or use of the Northwest Nazarene University Challenge Course Adventure Program.
Hold Harmless/Indemnity: The undersigned agrees to defend, indemnify and hold harmless the Releasees and each of them from any loss, liability, damage or cost she/he might incur [**7] due to her/his participation in or use of the Northwest Nazarene University Challenge Course Adventure Program whether caused by the negligence of the Releasees or otherwise. The undersigned further covenants not to cause any action at law or in equity to be brought or permit such to be brought in his or her behalf, either directly or indirectly, on account of loss or damage to property and/or bodily injury, including death, against the Releasees, resulting [*1256] from, or arising out of, or in any way connected with any claims, demands, and causes of action which now or in the future may be asserted against the Releasees arising out of or by reason of said course described above, including any injury, loss or damage that might occur at any place in connection therewith.
Assumption of Risk: The undersigned further states and affirms that he/she is aware of the fact that the aforesaid course, even under the safest conditions possible, may be hazardous, that he/she assumes the risks of any and all loss or of damage to property and/or bodily injury, including death, however caused, resulting out of or in any way connected with the Northwest Nazarene University Challenge Course Adventure Program; [**8] that he/she is of legal age and is competent to sign this Waiver of Claims and Release of Liability; and that he/she has read and understands all of the provisions herein contained. Risks include but are not limited to the following: [a list of various types of actions that can cause injury and various types of injuries].
Morrison contends that the hold harmless agreement is invalid because it is overbroad. It exempts the University and “its members, directors, administrators, representatives, officers, agents, employees, and assigns, and each of them” from “any and all past, present or future claims, demands, and causes of action which the undersigned now has or may in the future have” for all “bodily injury, including death, however caused, resulting from, arising out of or in any way connected with his/her participation in or use of the Northwest Nazarene University Challenge Course Adventure Program.” It also specifically mentions negligence. The hold harmless agreement is not overbroad. It only applies to all causes of action “resulting from, arising out of or in any way connected with his/her participation in or use of the Northwest Nazarene University Challenge Course Adventure [**9] Program.”2 Due to the dangers inherent in climbing the climbing wall, the University can certainly require such a release from anyone choosing to engage in that activity.
2 There is no contention that the conduct of the University employee was reckless or that the employee intentionally injured Morrison.
The agreement is likewise not inapplicable because of its failure to mention the specific conduct that is alleged to have constituted negligence in this case. In Anderson & Nafziger v. G. T. Newcomb, Inc., 100 Idaho 175, 178, 595 P.2d 709, 712 (1979), this Court stated, “Clauses which exclude liability must speak clearly and directly to the particular conduct of the defendant which caused the harm at issue.” That language can be misinterpreted, because neither that case nor the cases it cited nor our subsequent cases have held that an exculpatory clause must list the specific, allegedly negligent conduct at issue.
The Anderson & Nafziger Court cited three cases as support for the statement. The first one was Valley National Bank v. Tang, 18 Ariz. App. 40, 499 P.2d 991 (Ariz. Ct. App. 1972). In that case, the court stated “that clauses which purport to exclude liability for negligence must speak clearly [**10] and directly to the conduct at issue,” id. at 994, which it explained as meaning that an exculpatory clause would not cover negligence unless the wording was broad enough to include future negligent conduct within its scope. It stated, “The principal reason for such a construction is to assure that there has been actual agreement between the parties that the defendant shall not be liable for the consequences of future conduct which would otherwise be negligent.” Id. The second case was Missouri Pac. R. Co. v. City of Topeka, 213 Kan. 658, 518 P.2d 372 (Kan. 1974). The court held that a contract requiring a railroad to “save the said City of Topeka harmless from all costs, damages and expenses for the payment of which the said city may become liable to any person or persons or corporation by reason of the granting of said right of way to said railway company,” id. at 375, was not broad enough to require the city to pay the railroad the cost of relocating its tracks due to an urban renewal project. The court stated, “As we view the ‘hold harmless’ clause, to which the railroad is deemed to have agreed, there is no suggestion it was intended to [*1257] provide protection against liability for expenses, loss [**11] or damage created or made necessary by actions of the city-franchisor.” Id. at 376. The third case was Walker Bank & Trust Co. v. First Sec. Corp, 9 Utah 2d 215, 341 P.2d 944 (Utah 1959), in which the beneficiary of a life insurance policy sued a bank for damages because the policy had lapsed due to the bank’s failure to charge the insured’s account with drafts for the monthly premiums. The insured had signed an authorization to pay the drafts from her account, but the bank misplaced it. The authorization included a provision stating, “I understand and agree that your compliance herewith shall constitute a gratuity and courtesy accorded me as your customer, and that you assume or incur no liability whatsoever in the premises, and I further agree to hold you harmless of and from any and all claims arising hereunder.” Id. at 947. The court held that the hold harmless agreement only barred claims resulting from the bank’s “compliance herewith,” not its failure to comply with the agreement. The court stated:
It will be noted that the language quoted above purports only to protect the bank from liability arising from its compliance with the authorization, indicating that if it did so it would “incur no [**12] liability whatsoever.” . . . But there is no provision that it would be protected in the event of entire failure to fulfill the arrangement.
Id. (emphasis theirs). None of the cases held that an exculpatory clause was ineffective because the specific conduct that gave rise to the cause of action was not listed.
In Anderson & Nafziger, the buyer contracted to purchase three pivots that the seller agreed to deliver and install in mid-May, and the buyer brought an action for damages when the seller failed to do so. The purchase contract included a provision limiting the seller’s liability which stated as following:
It is hereby understood and agreed that all work ordered hereunder is precarious and uncertain in its nature, and all pulling of pumps, reinstalling pumps, repair work, alterations, well work, sand pumping, corrections, or other work herein specified, etc., shall be strictly at the Purchaser’s risk. The Seller will not be liable for damage of any kind, particularly including loss or damage for diminuation or failure of crop, shortage of water, inability or failure to supply same, or for diminuation or cessation of water flow; nor shall the Seller be liable for any damages or delays [**13] of any kind on account of sticking of pump in the well in any position, either when being pulled out or being reinstated nor shall the Seller be liable for any damages on account of delay in making repairs or installing by virtue of some defect in the well, or by virtue of the well not being in condition to receive the machinery, or by virtue of unforeseen or changing conditions in the well or in or about the premises on which the well is located.
Anderson v. Nafziger, 100 Idaho at 178, 595 P.2d at 712. This Court held that the clause did not preclude liability for crop loss caused by the failure to deliver the pivots because “[a] reading of the total clause indicates that the clause is aimed at limiting the seller’s liability for crop loss which is caused by installation or repair work done by seller.” Id. The clause listed specific types of conduct and causes of damage to which it applied. It did not have a general provision excluding liability for any delay in delivering or installing the equipment.
A review of this Court’s other cases shows that the hold harmless agreement need not specify the exact conduct that was allegedly negligent or caused harm. In H. J. Wood Co. v. Jevons, 88 Idaho 377, 400 P.2d 287 (1965), [**14] a landowner had entered into a contract for the purchase and installation of an irrigation pump in her well. The sales contract included a hold harmless agreement stating as follows:
Seller shall not be liable for damage or for consequential damage, particularly including loss or damage for diminution or failure of crops, shortage of water, or inability or failure to supply same, whether due to improper installation or performance of the machinery or otherwise . . . it being understood and agreed by Buyer that this work is uncertain and precarious in its nature.
[*1258] Id. at 378, 400 P.2d at 289. The landowner sought damages, alleging that she suffered crop losses because “the pump never functioned properly,” because the seller “removed the pump to make repairs and failed to provide appellant with a substitute pump,” and because “in making repairs to said pump [the seller] carelessly and negligently lost the tail pipe of said pump in the well, causing an inadequate flow or supply of water during the irrigation season.” Id. at 380, 400 P.2d at 288. The trial court sustained the seller’s objection to any evidence of crop loss, and then dismissed the landowner’s claim. On appeal, this Court held [**15] that it was not error to exclude evidence of crop loss because “[t]he foregoing quoted portion of the contract is unambiguous and clearly exempts respondent from liability for crop damage.” Id. at 381, 400 P.2d at 289. There was nothing in the exculpatory clause specifying that the seller would not be liable for failing to provide the landowner with a substitute pump while hers was being repaired or for negligently losing the tail pipe in the well, both of which were conduct that she alleged caused her damage. In fact, the clause did not even include the word “negligence.”
In Rawlings v Layne & Bowler Pump Co., 93 Idaho 496, 465 P.2d 107 (1970), the landowner entered into a contract for the purchase and installation of irrigation pumping machinery. He later brought an action seeking damages on the ground that he suffered crop loss because of the allegedly negligent installation of the pumping equipment. Paragraph 10 of the contract between the parties included an exculpatory clause stating:
Seller or Holder shall not be liable for consequential damage particularly including loss or damage for diminution or failure of crops, shortage of water, or inability or failure to supply same, due [**16] to installation or performance of the property sold hereunder, or repair work, pump or well service, nor shall Seller be liable for collapsing, telescoping, separating or otherwise injuring the well or pump, for any cause whatsoever, including negligence, since the Buyer and Seller agree that the work is hazardous and precarious in its nature . . . .
Id. at 497, 465 P.2d at 108. The trial court dismissed the landowner’s claim based upon the above contract provision, and the landowner appealed. In upholding the dismissal, we stated, “It is our opinion that the language contained in paragraph 10 of the contract is clear and unambiguous and its effect is to preclude the seller’s liability for consequential damages such as are sought by the appellant.” Id. at 499, 465 P.2d at 110. We did not require that the exculpatory clause mention the specific conduct that was allegedly negligent. In fact, the specific conduct that allegedly constituted negligent installation was not even identified in the opinion.
In Steiner Corp. v. American District Telegraph, 106 Idaho 787, 683 P.2d 435 (1984), the plaintiff contracted with the defendant to install and maintain a fire alarm system in the plaintiff’s [**17] building. The system failed to detect a fire because the defendant had not checked the electrolyte levels in the system’s batteries for eight months even though they were to be inspected monthly. The parties’ contract included a provision stating that the defendant “shall be exempt from liability for loss or damage due directly or indirectly to occurrences, or consequences therefrom, which the service is designed to detect or avert,” and that the exculpatory clause applied if the loss or damage “results directly or indirectly to person or property from performance or nonperformance of obligations imposed by this contract or from negligence, active or otherwise, of the [defendant], its agents or employees.” Id. at 789, 683 P.2d at 437. The plaintiff sued for strict liability, breach of warranty, and negligence. This Court first held that the complaint did not allege a cause of action under those theories, but then stated that even if the plaintiff could allege a cause of action it was barred by the exculpatory clause. Id. at 791, 683 P.2d at 439. We stated, “This unambiguous clause was clearly intended to apply to exclude liability under any of the bases urged by Steiner.” Id. The clause [**18] did not specifically mention the failure to inspect or maintain the batteries.
In Lee v. Sun Valley Co., 107 Idaho 976, 695 P.2d 361 (1984), the plaintiff, prior to going on a trail ride, signed a rental agreement [*1259] that included an exculpatory clause stating:
Upon my acceptance of horse and equipment, I acknowledge that I assume full responsibility for my safety. I further understand that I ride at my own risk, and I agree to hold the above entity, its officers, employees, etc., harmless from every and all claim which may arise from injury, which might occur from use of said horse and/or equipment, in favor of myself, my heirs, representatives or dependents. I understand that the stable does not represent or warrant the quality or character of the horse furnished.
Id. at 977, 695 P.2d at 362. Prior to the plaintiff mounting his horse, the defendant’s employee adjusted the cinch on the saddle. During the ride, the saddle loosened, and the plaintiff was injured when it rotated and the horse reared as he was attempting to dismount. We upheld the dismissal of the plaintiff’s claim on the ground that it was barred by the exculpatory clause, stating, “The agreement clearly and simply states [**19] that Sun Valley should be held ‘harmless for every and all claim which may arise from injury, which might occur from use of said horse and/or equipment,’ which is both unambiguous and applicable to the facts alleged by plaintiff.” Id. at 978, 695 P.2d at 363. The exculpatory clause did not even mention negligence, nor did it specifically list the failure to properly adjust the cinch as being within its scope. Justice Bistline dissented for that very reason. Id. at 981, 695 P.2d at 366.
Finally, in Empire Lumber Co v Thermal-Dynamic Towers, Inc., 132 Idaho 295, 971 P.2d 1119 (1998), a warehouse lease contained a provision stating, “Except for reasonable wear and tear and damage by fire or unavoidable casualty, Lessee will at all times preserve said premises in as good repair as they now are or may hereafter be put to . . . .” Id. at 297, 971 P.2d at 1121. We held that the clause did not exempt the lessee from liability for fire damage caused by the lessee’s negligence, stating, “The lease language does not clearly indicate, as required by this Court’s decision in Anderson & Nafziger, that the parties intended to release TDT from liability for its negligent acts.” Id. at 300, 971 P.2d at 1124. [**20] The clause made no mention of negligence, nor could its language be construed to apply to negligence. [HN5] Hold harmless agreements are strictly construed against the person relying upon them. Anderson & Nafziger, 100 Idaho at 178, 595 P.2d at 712.
The decisions of this Court have not held that a hold harmless agreement must describe the specific conduct or omission that is alleged to be negligent in order for it to bar recovery. That is consistent with the general law. [HN6] “The parties to a release need not have contemplated the precise occurrence that caused the plaintiff’s injuries but rather may adopt language to cover a broad range of accidents by specifying injuries involving negligence on the part of the defendant.” 57A Am. Jur. 2d Negligence § 53 (2004). In this case, the agreement stated that Morrison held the University harmless “from any loss, liability, damage or cost she/he might incur due to her/his participation in or use of the Northwest Nazarene University Challenge Course Adventure Program whether caused by the negligence of the Releasees or otherwise.” That language clearly stated that the clause applied to negligence and to any loss or damage he might incur from his participation [**21] in the program. The district court did not err in dismissing his negligence claim because it was barred by the hold harmless agreement.
Is the Defendant Entitled to an Award of Attorney Fees
In its issues on appeal, the University states that it “requests attorney fees on appeal pursuant to Idaho Code § 12-120(3), Idaho Code § 12-121, and/or Idaho Rule of Civil Procedure 54(e)(1).” However, it did not again mention attorney fees until it states in the conclusion section of its brief, “Respondent further requests an award of attorney fees on appeal pursuant to Idaho Code § 12-120 (3), Idaho Code § 12-121, and/or I.R.C.P Rule 54(e)(1).” As we held in Weaver v. Searle Brothers, 129 Idaho 497, 503, 927 P.2d 887, 893 (1996), [HN7] where a party requests attorney fees on appeal but does not address the issue in the argument section of [*1260] the party’s brief, we will not address the issue because the party has failed to comply with Idaho Appellate Rule 35.
We affirm the judgment of the district court. We award the respondent costs, but not attorney fees, on appeal.
Chief Justice BURDICK, Justices W. JONES, and HORTON CONCUR.
CONCUR BY: J. JONES (In Part)
DISSENT BY: J. JONES (In Part)
J. JONES, J., concurring in [**22] part and dissenting in part.
I concur in Part II of the Court’s opinion but dissent with respect to Part III. In my view, the Release/Hold Harmless/Indemnity/Assumption of Risk Agreement (Agreement) does not contain language effective to release Northwest Nazarene University (NNU) from liability for its own negligent actions; the release language in the Agreement is overly broad; and it would be contrary to public policy to provide immunity under the particular facts of this case.
Although this Court disfavors contracts purporting to absolve parties from certain duties and liabilities, contracting parties are free to enter into such agreements if they comply with strict criteria. As this Court summarized in Jesse v. Lindsley, 149 Idaho 70, 75, 233 P.3d 1, 6 (2008):
Freedom of contract is a fundamental concept underlying the law of contracts. Rawlings v. Layne & Bowler Pump Co., 93 Idaho 496, 499, 465 P.2d 107, 110 (1970). A contracting party may absolve himself from certain duties and liabilities under the contract, subject to certain limitations. Anderson & Nafziger v. G.T. Newcomb, Inc., 100 Idaho 175, 178, 595 P.2d 709, 712 (1979). However, courts look with disfavor on such attempts [**23] to avoid liability and construe such provisions strictly against the person relying on them, especially when that person is the preparer of the document. Id. Clauses which exclude liability must speak clearly and directly to the particular conduct of the defendant which caused the harm at issue. Id.
Where a party seeks to obtain contractual absolution from the consequences of that party’s own negligence, the release language must be particularly clear. As stated in 57A American Jurisprudence, 2d Negligence § 52 (2004):
Because the law does not favor contract provisions that relieve a person from his or her own negligence, and such provisions are subject to close judicial scrutiny, a greater degree of clarity is required to make such provisions effective. The exculpatory provision must be expressed in clear, explicit, and unequivocal language showing that this was the intent of the parties. The wording of such an agreement must be so clear and understandable that an ordinarily prudent and knowledgeable party to it will know what he or she is contracting away; it must be unmistakable.
American Jurisprudence continues the discussion in section 53:
To be effective, the intentions of the parties [**24] with regard to an exculpatory provision in a contract should be delineated with the greatest of particularity, and the clause must effectively notify the releasor that he or she is releasing the other person from claims arising from that person’s own negligence.
An exculpatory clause will be given effect if the agreement clearly and unambiguously expresses the parties’ intention to exonerate by using the word “negligence” and specifically including injuries definitely described as to time, place, and the like. Thus, the better practice is to expressly state the word “negligence” somewhere in the exculpatory provision. However, a specific reference to the “negligence” of the maker of the clause or agreement is not required if the clause clearly and specifically indicates an intent to release the defendant from liability for a personal injury caused by the defendant’s negligence, if protection against negligence is the only reasonable construction, or if the hazard experienced was clearly within the contemplation of the provision. However, words conveying a similar import must appear; the provision must specifically and explicitly [*1261] refer to the negligence of the party seeking a release [**25] from liability. A preinjury release will not cover negligence if it neither specifically enumerates negligence, nor contains any other language that could relate to negligence.
A general release will not bar claims outside the parties’ contemplation at the time it was executed. For example, a claim for negligence will not be barred by using broad and sweeping language, as by an agreement to release from “any and all responsibility or liability of any nature whatsoever for any loss of property or personal injury occurring on this trip.” Thus, an exculpatory clause must clearly set out the negligence for which liability is to be avoided.
The parties to a release need not have contemplated the precise occurrence that caused the plaintiff’s injuries but rather may adopt language to cover a broad range of accidents by specifying injuries involving negligence on the part of the defendant.
Id. § 53.
The Agreement addresses four subjects–release, hold harmless, indemnity, and assumption of risk. The first paragraph of the Agreement, entitled “Release,” is a general release of liability,3 whereby participants in NNU’s Challenge Course Adventure Program (Program) release and waive claims against [**26] NNU and its agents and employees for property damage or bodily injury arising out of the Program. The word “negligence” does not appear anywhere in the Release. The second paragraph of the Agreement is a hold harmless/indemnity provision,4 whereby the participant “agrees to defend, indemnify and hold harmless” NNU and its agents and employees from liability incurred due to participation in the Program “whether caused by the negligence of the Releasees or otherwise.” Thus, the participant is obligated to defend and hold harmless the releasees against claims arising out of his or her participation in the Program. This paragraph specifically includes indemnity for claims alleging negligence on the part of NNU and its agents and employees. The last paragraph deals with assumption of risk,5 stating that the participant is aware that the course may be hazardous and that participants assume the risk of property damage and bodily injury. However, as with the Release, this paragraph makes no mention of negligence on the part of NNU and its agents and employees.
3 According to Black’s Law Dictionary, a “release” is “[t]he relinquishment or concession of a right, title, or claim.” Black’s Law Dictionary [**27] 1403 (9th ed. 2009).
4 According to Black’s, a “hold-harmless clause” is synonymous with an “indemnity clause,” which is “[a] contractual provision in which one party agrees to answer for any specified or unspecified liability or harm that the other party might incur.” Id. at 800, 837-38.
5 According to Black’s, “assumption of the risk” is “[t]he principle that one who takes on the risk of loss, injury, or damage cannot maintain an action against a party that causes the loss, injury, or damage.” Id. at 143. Although implied assumption of the risk has been abolished as a defense in Idaho, this Court still recognizes that express assumption of risk may preclude a negligence claim. Salinas v. Vierstra, 107 Idaho 984, 989-90, 695 P.2d 369, 374-75 (1985).
It is significant that only the hold harmless/indemnity paragraph of the Agreement includes a provision relating to the negligence of NNU. The word “negligence” appears nowhere else in the Agreement, particularly not in the Release nor in the assumption of risk paragraph. It is important to keep in mind that a hold harmless/indemnity clause does not operate as a bar to a claim in the same way as a “release” or “assumption of risk” clause might. [**28] So, where the party seeking immunity faces the double whammy of our construction principles–construing release provisions strictly against the person relying on them and requiring such provisions to speak clearly and directly to the particular instrumentality that caused the harm–I simply cannot find that the release language here is sufficient to waive Morrison’s claim. NNU could have included a provision in the Release absolving it and its agents and employees from liability, but it did not. It could have done likewise in the assumption of risk paragraph, but it did not. Where such language is specifically included in one paragraph dealing with specific subject matter [*1262] and not in the other paragraphs, both of which deal with other specific subject matter, I think we ought to give weight to that fact, particularly when required to construe such agreements against the avoidance of liability.
Therefore, in my view, the release paragraph of the Agreement is insufficient to immunize against claims asserting injury for negligent acts by NNU and its agents and employees. In my estimation, NNU had a duty to operate the program in a non-negligent manner and Morrison has asserted sufficient [**29] facts to survive summary judgment as to whether NNU breached such duty. Morrison claims that he was not properly instructed on how to scale down the climbing wall and that the person holding the rope, which is apparently designed to keep a participant from falling, was not properly instructed and supervised in performing that task. According to Morrison:
I had very little knowledge of climbing before [the accident]. I trusted and relied that the people running the course would properly instruct me and the people who were holding the rope that allowed me to scale down the wall. I do not believe that they gave me nor Donna Robbins, who was holding my rope, adequate instruction before this event nor do I believe that they adequately supervised Donna in properly handling the rope while I descended the wall.
The person holding the rope, Donna Robbins, agreed that she had not been properly instructed nor supervised. According to her affidavit, “I did feel that I had not been given adequate training to act as the belayer and I felt that I was neglected by the employees at the Rope Course when I was needing help.” In her statement made immediately after the accident, which was incorporated into [**30] her affidavit, she expanded:
The female assistant on site asked me to balet [sic] if I wasn’t going to climb the wall. I wasn’t comfortable working the equipment but I knew I should be a part of the team and help [belay]. I remember feeling like I was thrown in there and did not receive any further instruction other than where to hold my hands. After she strapped me in I was good to go. Soon she realized I was having trouble knowing what to do and informed me that I needed to pull the rope tight and slide the extra rope through my other hand to make it tight. She then placed another girl to my right and instructed her to coil the rope. I was the only one baleting [sic] and had one girl to my right holding the extra rope. As soon as they pulled the [ladder] away and Paul started climbing, I began to have trouble with the rope. The assistant assured me I was strapped down to the pole behind me and that I needed to walk forward away from the pole until I felt it was tight enough to not leave any slack. As soon as Paul reached the middle of the wall, his legs began to get tired and he would rest a little. But every time he would stop to rest, the rope pulled me into the air and the others [**31] around were laughing and joking around about the [sight] of me and my feet being off the ground and my body being pulled into the air. At first, it was comical but I felt like I couldn’t control him. I knew he had to keep climbing or else this strain on me would begin to hurt. So I just cheered him on. I looked around and everyone was just smiling so I figured I wasn’t going anywhere and there was nothing to worry about. Paul looked down and looked a little worried. He asked me if I was ok. I said yes. When Paul finally got to the top, he rang the bell and was ready to let go. When he did, if felt like an extreme pull on me and the assistant came quickly to briefly explain what to do. She told me to hold onto the [brake] (that also releases the rope). I think she thought she was explaining it to me–but she wasn’t. I told her I didn’t know how to use it. She said “its really easy,” just make sure you pull down the level.” She was walking away from me as she was saying this and she seemed very busy with other people. I didn’t think it would be too difficult. As I pulled the lever, Paul began to come down fast and I honestly don’t remember what I was thinking. I tried to grab the rope [**32] but it just stung my fingers and I knew I couldn’t stop it that way. I kept trying to figure it out quickly. The girl to my right [*1263] was helpless as well. The rope was just flying out her hands. I looked up and Paul’s feet, then butt, hit the rocks very fast and head hit very hard on the wooden frame around the rocks.
My feeling throughout the rock-climbing activity was that I was alone and assigned to do it because I had to. I wasn’t comfortable at all but the assistant felt I was well taken care of. Even though I didn’t answer her twice when she asked for volunteers, so she called me out and handed me the [belay]. But I did want to be a part of the team and help but had never done it before and was pretty intimidated.
Even if we were permitted to import the specific reference to negligent conduct from the hold harmless/indemnity paragraph into the Release, that paragraph suffers from another infirmity. It is overly broad. It purports to release NNU and its agents and employees from any claims for property damage or bodily injury “however caused, resulting from, or arising out of or in any way connected with his/her participation in or use of the Northwest Nazarene University Challenge [**33] Course Adventure Program.” The sweeping nature of the provision runs afoul of the specificity requirements noted in sections 52 and 53 of American Jurisprudence. This Court has found a similar all-encompassing provision in a lease agreement to be overly broad. In Jesse v. Lindsley, we dealt with an exculpatory clause that attempted “to relieve the landlord of liability for any type of injury, wherever it may occur.” 149 Idaho at 76, 233 P.3d at 7. We held, “The clause is too broad and does not speak clearly and directly to the particular conduct of the defendant intended to be immunized,” citing Anderson & Nafziger, 100 Idaho 175, 178, 595 P.2d, 709, 712 (1970). We stated:
While we have not considered the question of the enforceability of an overbroad exculpatory clause, we have considered the issue of enforceability of an overbroad contract provision in another area where a contractual provision is disfavored and strictly construed–covenants not to compete in contracts of employment. See Freiburger v. J-U-B Engineers, Inc., 141 Idaho 415, 420, 111 P.3d 100, 105 (2005). A covenant not to compete is reasonable and enforceable only if the covenant “(1) is not greater than necessary to [**34] protect the employer in some legitimate business interest; (2) is not unduly harsh or oppressive to the employee; and (3) is not injurious to the public.” Id. Applying the same principle here, it appears that the language absolving Lindsley of any liability for any occurrence anywhere on his property is simply too broad.
Id. at 76-77, 233 P.3d at 7-8.
In its opinion, the Court nicely summarizes some of our pre-Jesse cases regarding the degree of specificity required in a lease provision, and in my view none of those cases preclude the result I suggest here. In Lee v. Sun Valley Co., 107 Idaho 976, 695 P.2d 361 (1984), the plaintiff was injured when the saddle on a rented horse slipped, causing the horse to buck. Id. at 977, 695 P.2d at 362. The Court found that the plaintiff’s action was precluded by an agreement he signed acknowledging that he assumed the risk of riding and holding the defendant “harmless from every and all claim which may arise from injury, which might occur from use of said horse and/or equipment.” Id. Although the Court articulated little reasoning for its holding, a fall from a horse due to a loose saddle is a danger inherent in horseback riding itself. Thus, the [**35] agreement’s language was sufficient to put the plaintiff on notice of that risk. Of interest, however, is that the release specifically identified the “equipment” as a potential source of injury, which is not the case here.6 In H. J. Wood Co. [*1264] v. Jevons, the Court evaluated a sales contract for an irrigation pump stating the seller “shall not be liable for damage or for consequential damage, particularly including loss or damage for diminution or failure of crops … whether due to improper installation or performance of the machinery or otherwise.” 88 Idaho 377, 378, 400 P.2d 287, 289 (1965). The plaintiff’s claims for crop loss in that case all stemmed from the allegation that “the pump never functioned properly” and the consequences of that malfunction, which is clearly and directly contemplated by the “performance of the machinery” language in the agreement. See id. Thus, the Court correctly applied the rule.
6 In this regard, a case cited in section 53 of American Jurisprudence is relevant. In Beardslee v. Blomberg, 70 A.D.2d 732, 733, 416 N.Y.S.2d 855 (N.Y. App. Div. 1979), a spectator at a stock car race volunteered to take part in a “Powder Puff Derby,” a stock car race for women. When the spectator’s [**36] car struck a retaining wall of the race track, she alleged the defendant raceway was negligent in “providing her with an unsafe vehicle, a defective helmet, and in failing to supply her with a fire suit.” Id. The defendant relied on a release she had signed to bar her claim (the language of which is not entirely quoted in the opinion), but the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, stated:
The release absolves the defendants from liability for any injury plaintiff might sustain while in the “restricted area”, which includes the race track proper. It does not, however, specifically refer to equipment furnished by the defendants. Releases from liability for negligence are closely scrutinized and strictly construed, and a release general in its terms will not bar claims outside the parties’ contemplation at the time it was executed …. Furthermore, since the release herein is not entirely free of ambiguity, an issue of fact exists as to whether the risk of faulty equipment or the failure to furnish essential equipment was within the contemplation of the parties at the time it was executed ….
Another irrigation equipment contract case, Rawlings v. Layne & Bowler Pump Co., was [**37] similar. 93 Idaho 496, 465 P.2d 107 (1970). There, the claim for crop loss was based on negligent installation of pumping equipment, and the Court barred the claim based on an agreement exculpating the seller from liability for consequential damage “due to installation … of the property sold hereunder.” Id. at 497, 465 P.2d at 108.7 Although the particular negligent conduct was not addressed, further specificity was not necessary to put the buyer on reasonable notice of the claim he was waiving. Id. Buying any item under a contract specifically limiting liability for defects in installation clearly brings to mind the discrete array of possible installation-related conduct that entails. Such a contract does far more to notify the signer than simply including blanket language barring liability for any type of negligent conduct imaginable.
7 The contract later specifically identified negligence of the seller as a possible cause. Id.
Similarly, in Steiner Corp. v. American District Telegraph, the defendant contracted with the plaintiff to perform two discrete services–to install and maintain a fire detection system. 106 Idaho 787, 683 P.2d 435 (1984). When the defendant failed to check [**38] the batteries of the system for eight months, the system failed to detect a fire in the plaintiff’s building. Again, the Court found that such negligence fell under an exculpatory clause holding the defendant harmless for “loss or damage due … to occurrences … which the service is designed to detect or avert” resulting from “performance or nonperformance of obligations imposed by this contract or from negligence” of the defendant. Id. at 789, 683 P.2d at 437. This agreement specifically spoke to the alleged conduct by expressly referring to the discrete duties under the contract–to install and maintain. In signing the agreement, the plaintiff undoubtedly understood he was giving up claims for fire damage arising from failure to maintain the system, which reasonably included checking the batteries.
Conversely, in Anderson & Nafziger, the Court refused to find that a sales agreement for irrigation pivots contemplated liability for crop loss caused by delay in delivering the pivots, based on a strict reading of the agreement’s language. 100 Idaho at 178, 595 P.2d at 712. Although the agreement contained blanket language stating that “[t]he Seller will not be liable for damage of any [**39] kind, particularly including loss or damage for diminuation [sic] or failure of crop,” the Court held that the agreement did not apply. Id. The Court stated, “A reading of the total clause indicates that the clause is aimed at limiting the seller’s liability for crop loss which is caused by installation or repair work done by seller.” Id. With a loose reading, the Court might have found that the blanket language exempting liability “for damage of any kind” extended not only to that caused by installation and repair, but also by delay in delivery. However, the Court declined such a broad reading, focusing strictly on the language in the contract.8
8 Another case, Empire Lumber Co. v. Thermal-Dynamic Towers, Inc., also shows the Court taking a closer look at an exculpatory clause, although the result there was more obvious. 132 Idaho 295, 971 P.2d 1119 (1998). In Empire Lumber, a lessee sought to apply a lease provision to excuse its liability for a fire allegedly caused by its negligence. Id. The Court disagreed because the lease merely stated, “Except for reasonable wear and tear and damage by fire or unavoidable casualty, Lessee will at all times preserve said premises in as good repair [**40] as they now are or may hereafter be put to ….” Id. at 297, 971 P.2d at 1121. As the Court properly found, that clause clearly only contemplated incidental or unavoidable damage–not negligence. Id.
[*1265] The upshot of these pre-Jesse cases is that where the dangers or risks inherent in a particular undertaking are, or should be, apparent to a reasonable person and where the release agreement employs clear and direct language to negate liability for such risks or dangers, the release will be effective to shield the releasee from liability. On the other hand, where a reasonable releasor cannot be expected to comprehend the risk or danger that results in injury and where the release does not contain language that speaks directly to limitation of liability for injury caused by such risk or danger, the release will not be enforced.
In the situation at hand, it cannot be said that the danger of falling from the rock wall was not readily apparent to any reasonable person. Morrison would surely have known that he could lose his grip or footing and fall. However, the activity involved a danger that was not so readily apparent. This activity involved equipment and a procedure that may have appeared [**41] on the surface to alleviate or eliminate the risk. The belaying rope, like a trapeze artist’s safety net, was there, apparently to protect participants from the danger of a fall. This certainly would give a participant a certain measure of comfort and well being–knowing that the element of danger might well be alleviated or eliminated by the safety equipment. It is one thing to expose a participant to the “dangers inherent” in a particular activity and ask him to waive a consequent claim for damages, but it is quite another to give the participant the illusion of protective measures–thereby providing a false sense of security–and then fail to properly implement those protective measures. It is akin to a bait and switch. If protective measures are carried out in a competent manner, then an accident occurring in the course of the proceedings cannot be held against the sponsor. However, if those protective measures are inherently inadequate, by reliance on untutored or incapable personnel in their handling, the sponsors should not be shielded from responsibility by a waiver signed by an unwitting participant.
It makes sense to encourage sponsors of risky activities to adopt safety measures [**42] designed to alleviate or eliminate the risk to participants. It is not particularly good policy, however, to allow sponsors to escape liability when those safety measures are handled in an incompetent or negligent manner, unless participants are clearly put on notice that safety measures or equipment may not provide the margin of safety that one might reasonably anticipate. Nothing in the Release here indicates the employment of “equipment,” as the language in Lee did, nor of the possibility that any safety equipment might be operated in a faulty manner. Sponsors should be encouraged to adopt safety measures, but they should be held accountable where those measures are performed in a negligent fashion.
In the past, this Court has not been reluctant to embrace concepts of this nature, designed to provide redress where it may not have been previously available. For instance, the Court has adopted the doctrine that, “[e]ven when an affirmative duty generally is not present, a legal duty may arise if ‘one voluntarily undertakes to perform an act, having no prior duty to do so.'” Baccus v. Ameripride Services, Inc., 145 Idaho 346, 350, 179 P.3d 309, 313 (2008). “In such case, the duty is [**43] to perform the voluntarily-undertaken act in a non-negligent manner.” Id. As with a voluntarily assumed duty, it makes good sense and policy to require that an activity sponsor who purports to make a risky activity safe, by the apparent incorporation of protective measures, be required to ensure the protective measures are carried out in a non-negligent manner or provide specific warning to participants that a risk of negligence in that regard inheres in the activity.9
9 As we have noted on a number of occasions, “Public policy may be found and set forth in the statutes, judicial decisions or the constitution.” Jesse v. Lindsley, 149 Idaho at 75, 233 P.3d at 6 (quoting Bakker v. Thunder Spring-Wareham, LLC, 141 Idaho 185, 189, 108 P.3d 332, 336 (2005)).
[*1266] For all or any one of the foregoing reasons, I would vacate the judgment of the district court on the ground that the Agreement was ineffective to shield NNU from liability for Morrison’s claim. I would therefore remand for further proceedings.