Twenty years ago, the New Hampshire Supreme Court shows how you can trample common sense to find a release invalid.

Release was signed for a trail ride and plaintiff claimed she told guide his horse was getting ready to act out before it kicked her.

Wright v. Loon Mountain Recreation Corporation, 140 N.H. 166; 663 A.2d 1340; 1995 N.H. LEXIS 119

State: New Hampshire, Supreme Court of New Hampshire

Plaintiff: Brenda Wright

Defendant: Loon Mountain Recreation Corporation d/b/a Loon Mountain Equestrian Center

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: for the Plaintiff

Year: 1995

Summary

Twenty-year-old New Hampshire Supreme Court decisions shows how convoluted a court can get when it decides a release will not be enforced. Court held the language in the release was confusing. However, to get that point the court had to not read the release I think.

Facts

The plaintiff signed up for a trail ride with the defendant. While on the ride she was kicked in the leg by another horse. She sued. On appeal she argued that her guide had failed to respond to indications that his horse, the one that kicked the plaintiff, was about to “act out.”

While on the tour, the plaintiff was kicked in the leg by her guide’s horse and sustained an injury. She brought a negligence action against the defendant, alleging that her tour guide had failed to respond to indications that his horse was about to “act out.”

[Every time I’ve been bit or kicked by a horse there was no warning. Sure, if a horse’s ears go back, there is a warning, but most times, horse 1, Moss 0. I wish there were indications that a horse was going to act out.]

Prior to suing she signed a release. The trial court dismissed her claim because of the release. She appealed.

New Hampshire has a two-tier court system. The trial court is called the Superior Court and appeals from the Superior Court are appealed to the New Hampshire Supreme Court. This appeal was decided by the New Hampshire Supreme Court.

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

The entire issue before the court was “whether an exculpatory contract signed by the plaintiff, Brenda Wright, released the defendant, Loon Mountain Recreation Corporation, from liability for its own negligence.”

The defendant argued the release “clearly and specifically indicated an intent to release Loon Mountain from liability for injury resulting from its own negligence while [the plaintiff] was engaged in the activity of horseback riding’“.

The Supreme Court looked at this decision in its analysis in a slightly different way.

This court will not enforce an exculpatory contract that contravenes public policy. “Once an exculpatory agreement is found unobjectionable as a matter of public policy, it will be upheld only if it appears that the plaintiff understood the import of the agreement or that a reasonable person in his position would have known of the exculpatory provision.”

“Since the terms of the contract are strictly construed against the defendant, the contract must clearly state that the defendant is not responsible for the consequences of his negligence.”

The court then read the release to determine if a reasonable person would have known about the exculpatory clause in the release. The court then worked hard to find a reasonable person would not.

A reasonable person would understand the provision if its language “clearly and specifically indicates the intent to release the defendant from liability for personal injury caused by the defendant’s negligence . . . .” We will assess the clarity of the con-tract by evaluating it as a whole, not by examining isolated words and phrases.

We conclude that the contract structure and organization obscured the exculpatory clauses. Strictly construing the contract language against the defendant, we find the contract did not clearly relieve the defendant of responsibility for the sort of negligence at issue in this case.

The language the court examined was in all caps so the language stood out from the surrounding language. However, the court stated that when the entire agreement was read, the all cap language was unclear. (?) The court’s determination that the clause was not clear was based on the word therefore.

In this case, the term “therefore” is significant. A common definition of “therefore” is “for that rea-son: because of that: on that ground . . . .” Webster’s Third New International Dictionary 2372 (unabridged ed. 1961) (Webster’s). A clause that is introduced by the term “therefore” cannot be understood without reading the antecedent language.

The court found additional language that it held confused the meaning of the release. The court concluded its analysis with this statement.

The exculpatory contract lacks a straightforward statement of the defendant’s intent to avoid liability for its failure to use reasonable care in any way. The agreement easily could have been framed in a manner that would have expressed more clearly its conditions and exclusions.

There was a dissent by two justices. Both who found the majority’s analysis was just a little ridiculous.

So Now What?

Sometimes your release is not going to win. In those cases, you are going to rely on your insurance company. In this case, the court worked hard to find little ways it could justify its desire to not support the release.

Possibly, this release might have had a better chance with a simple clear statement that by signing the release the signor could not sue for negligence. This release reads like it was written by an attorney training to kill trees rather than write documents for consumers.

But!

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Wright v. Loon Mountain Recreation Corporation, 140 N.H. 166; 663 A.2d 1340; 1995 N.H. LEXIS 119

Wright v. Loon Mountain Recreation Corporation, 140 N.H. 166; 663 A.2d 1340; 1995 N.H. LEXIS 119

Brenda Wright v. Loon Mountain Recreation Corporation d/b/a Loon Mountain Equestrian Center

No. 94-266

SUPREME COURT OF NEW HAMPSHIRE

140 N.H. 166; 663 A.2d 1340; 1995 N.H. LEXIS 119

August 22, 1995, Decided

SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: [***1] Released for Publication September 7, 1995.

PRIOR HISTORY: Merrimack County.

DISPOSITION: Reversed and remanded.

CASE SUMMARY:

PROCEDURAL POSTURE: Plaintiff injured brought a negligence action against defendant tour company after being hurt while on a horseback riding tour. The injured appealed the decision of the Superior Court of Merrimack County (New Hampshire), which granted the tour company’s motion for summary judgment.

OVERVIEW: Before going horseback riding on the tour, the injured signed an exculpatory agreement that released the tour company from liability as a result of various occurrences. The tour company successfully argued in the trial court that the exculpatory agreement barred the injured’s suit. The court found that the issue of whether the injured understood the agreement presented an issue of fact. In assessing the clarity of the contract by evaluating it as a whole, the court found that the contract structure and organization obscured the exculpatory clauses and did not clearly relieve the tour company of responsibility for the sort of negligence at issue in the case. The court reasoned that one clause was understandable to relate to the inherent dangers of horseback riding and liability for injures that occurred for that reason. However, the court found that receiving an injury that would not have occurred but for a tour guide’s negligence was not an inherent danger. Because the contract did not put the injured on clear notice, the tour company was not entitled to summary judgment.

OUTCOME: The judgment was reversed, and the case was remanded.

CORE TERMS: horse, exculpatory, horseback riding, reasonable person, exculpatory provision, personal injury, own negligence, summary judgment, public policy, animal, exculpatory clauses, issue of fact, opportunity to prove, contravenes, inclusive, obscured, verb, tour guide, qualifying, notice, ridden, matter of law, entitled to judgment, contract language, misunderstanding, unabridged, exhaustive, quotations, prefaced, genuine

LexisNexis(R) Headnotes

Civil Procedure > Summary Judgment > Burdens of Production & Proof > Movants

Civil Procedure > Summary Judgment > Opposition > General Overview

Civil Procedure > Summary Judgment > Standards > Genuine Disputes

[HN1] The trial court must grant summary judgment when it finds no genuine issue of material fact, after considering the affidavits and other evidence presented in a light most favorable to the non-moving party, and when the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The party opposing summary judgment must put forth contradictory evidence under oath, sufficient to indicate that a genuine issue of fact exists so that the party should have an opportunity to prove the fact at trial. All reasonable doubts should be resolved against the movant.

Contracts Law > Contract Conditions & Provisions > Exculpatory Clauses

Torts > Negligence > Defenses > Exculpatory Clauses > Interpretation

Torts > Procedure > Settlements > Releases > Construction & Interpretation

[HN2] The court will not enforce an exculpatory contract that contravenes public policy. Once an exculpatory agreement is found unobjectionable as a matter of public policy, it will be upheld only if it appears that the plaintiff understood the import of the agreement or that a reasonable person in his position would have known of the exculpatory provision. Since the terms of the contract are strictly construed against the defendant, the contract must clearly state that the defendant is not responsible for the consequences of his negligence.

Contracts Law > Contract Conditions & Provisions > Indemnity

[HN3] The plaintiff’s understanding presents an issue of fact, and the plaintiff should have an opportunity to prove the fact at trial unless the exculpatory language was clear and a misunderstanding was unreasonable.

Contracts Law > Contract Conditions & Provisions > Exculpatory Clauses

Contracts Law > Types of Contracts > Releases

Torts > Procedure > Settlements > Releases > General Overview

[HN4] The court examines the language of the release to determine whether a reasonable person in the plaintiff’s position would have known of the exculpatory provision. A reasonable person would understand the provision if its language clearly and specifically indicates the intent to release the defendant from liability for personal injury caused by the defendant’s negligence. The court assesses the clarity of the contract by evaluating it as a whole, not by examining isolated words and phrases.

HEADNOTES

1. Contracts–Liability for Negligence–Public Policy

New Hampshire Supreme Court will not enforce an exculpatory contract that contravenes public policy.

2. Contracts–Construction–Ambiguity

The plaintiff’s understanding of the release presents an issue of fact, and the plaintiff should have an opportunity to prove the fact at trial unless the exculpatory language was clear and a misunderstanding was unreasonable.

3. Contracts–Liability for Negligence–Exculpatory Provision

A reasonable person would “understand” an exculpatory provision if its language clearly and specifically indicated the intent to release the defendant from liability for personal injury caused by the defendant’s negligence.

4. Contracts–Liability for Negligence–Exculpatory Provision

Release language should be plain; a careful reading should not be necessary to divine the defendant’s intent.

5. Contracts–Liability for Negligence–Exculpatory Provision

The release language fails where it is obscured by qualifying terms and phrases and doesn’t put the plaintiff on clear notice.

COUNSEL: Craig, Wenners, Craig & Casinghino, P.A., of Manchester (Gary L. Casinghino and Gemma M. Dreher on the brief, and Mr. Casinghino orally), for the plaintiff.

Devine, Millimet & Branch, P.A., of Manchester (Gregory D. H. Jones and Joseph M. McDonough, III, on the brief, and Mr. Jones orally), for the defendant.

JUDGES: JOHNSON, J.; THAYER, J., with whom BROCK, C.J., joined, dissented; the others concurred.

OPINION BY: JOHNSON

OPINION

[*167] [**1341] JOHNSON, J. The question presented is whether an exculpatory contract signed by the plaintiff, Brenda Wright, released the defendant, Loon Mountain Recreation Corporation, from liability for its own negligence. The Superior Court (Manias, J.) found that the signed release barred the plaintiff’s negligence claim and granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment. We reverse.

Before embarking on a horseback riding tour at the Loon Mountain Equestrian Center, owned and operated by the defendant, the plaintiff was asked to read, complete, and sign the following exculpatory [***2] agreement:

I accept for use, as is, the animals listed on this form and accept full responsibility for its care while it is in my possession. I have made no misrepresentation to Loon Mountain regarding my name, address or age. I agree to hold harmless and indemnify Loon Mountain Recreation Corporation and its owners, agents and employees for any loss or damage, including any that result from claims for personal injury or property damage related to the use of this animal.

I understand and am aware that horseback riding is a HAZARDOUS ACTIVITY. I understand that the above activity and the use of horses involves a risk of injury to any and all parts of my body. I hereby agree to freely and expressly assume and accept any and all risks of injury or death from the use of this animal while participating in this activity.

I understand that it is not possible to predict every situation and condition of the terrain a horse will be ridden on; therefore, it is impossible to guarantee the horse I am riding will react safely in all riding situations. [*168]

I realize that it is mandatory that I wear a helmet at all times while horseback riding, and that I will obey all trail signs [***3] and remain only on open trails.

I therefore release Loon Mountain Recreation Corporation, its owners, agents and employees FROM ANY AND ALL LIABILITY FOR DAMAGES AND PERSONAL INJURY TO MYSELF OR ANY PERSON OR PROPERTY RESULTING FROM THE NEGLIGENCE OF LOON MOUNTAIN RECREATION CORPORATION TO INCLUDE NEGLIGENCE IN SELECTION, ADJUSTMENT OR ANY MAINTENANCE OF ANY HORSE, accepting myself the full responsibility for any and all damages or injury of any kind which may result. (PLEASE SIGN: Brenda Wright/s)

I agree that there have been no warranties, expressed or implied, which have been made to me which extend beyond the description of the equipment listed on this form. I the undersigned, acknowledge that I have carefully read this agreement and release of liability, and I understand its contents. I understand that my signature below expressly waives any rights I have to sue Loon Mountain Recreation Corporation for injuries and damages.

The plaintiff signed this agreement after the fifth paragraph and at the bottom.

While on the tour, the plaintiff was kicked in the leg by her guide’s horse and sustained an injury. She brought a negligence action against the defendant, alleging [***4] that her tour guide had failed to respond to indications that his horse was about to “act out.” The defendant argued that the exculpatory contract barred the plaintiff’s suit and moved for summary judgment. The Superior Court (Manias, J.) granted its motion, and this appeal followed.

[**1342] On appeal, the defendant argues that we should uphold the trial court’s grant of summary judgment because the contract “clearly and specifically indicated an intent to release Loon Mountain from liability for injury resulting from its own negligence while [the plaintiff] was engaged in the activity of horseback riding.”

[HN1] The trial court must grant summary judgment when it finds no genuine issue of material fact, after considering the affidavits and other evidence presented in a light most favorable to the non-moving party, and when the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The party opposing summary judgment must put forth contradictory [*169] evidence under oath, sufficient to indicate that a genuine issue of fact exists so that the party should have an opportunity to prove the fact at trial. All reasonable doubts should be resolved against the movant.


Phillips v. Verax [***5] Corp., 138 N.H. 240, 243, 637 A.2d 906, 909 (1994) (brackets, ellipses, and quotations omitted).

[HN2] This court will not enforce an exculpatory contract that contravenes public policy. Audley v. Melton, 138 N.H.. 416, 418, 640 A.2d 777, 779 (1994). “Once an exculpatory agreement is found unobjectionable as a matter of public policy, it will be upheld only if it appears that the plaintiff understood the import of the agreement or that a reasonable person in his position would have known of the exculpatory provision.” Barnes v. N.H. Karting Assoc., 128 N.H. 102, 107, 509 A.2d 151, 154 (1986). “Since the terms of the contract are strictly construed against the defendant, the contract must clearly state that the defendant is not responsible for the consequences of his negligence.” Id.

The plaintiff does not argue that the exculpatory contract contravenes public policy. Accordingly, we determine only whether “the plaintiff understood the import of the agreement,” and if not, whether “a reasonable person in [her] position would have known of the exculpatory provision.” Id.

The parties dispute whether the plaintiff understood the agreement to release the defendant from [***6] liability for its own negligence. [HN3] The plaintiff’s understanding presents an issue of fact, and the plaintiff should have an opportunity to prove the fact at trial unless the exculpatory language was clear and a misunderstanding was unreasonable. See Phillips, 138 N.H. at 243, 637 A.2d at 909; Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107, 509 A.2d at 154.

[HN4] We therefore examine the language of the release to determine whether “a reasonable person in [the plaintiff’s] position would have known of the exculpatory provision.” Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107, 509 A.2d at 154; cf. Raudonis v. Ins. Co. of North America, 137 N.H. 57, 59, 623 A.2d 746, 747 (1993) (interpretation of insurance contract language a question of law; we construe terms as would reasonable person in insured’s position). A reasonable person would understand the provision if its language “clearly and specifically indicates the intent to release the defendant from liability for personal injury caused by the defendant’s negligence . . . .” Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107, 509 A.2d at 154. We will assess the clarity of the contract by evaluating it as a whole, not by examining isolated [*170] words and phrases. See Chadwick v. CSI, Ltd., [***7] 137 N.H. 515, 524, 629 A.2d 820, 826 (1993).

We conclude that the contract structure and organization obscured the exculpatory clauses. Strictly construing the contract language against the defendant, we find the contract did not clearly relieve the defendant of responsibility for the sort of negligence at issue in this case. See Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107, 509 A.2d at 154.

The defendant emphasizes the language of the agreement’s fifth paragraph, which states: “I therefore release [the defendant] from ANY AND ALL LIABILITY FOR . . . PERSONAL INJURY TO MYSELF . . . RESULTING FROM THE NEGLIGENCE OF [THE DEFENDANT] TO INCLUDE NEGLIGENCE IN SELECTION, ADJUSTMENT OR ANY MAINTENANCE OF ANY HORSE, accepting myself the full responsibility for any . . . injury of any kind which may result.” (Emphasis added.) We find that when this clause is read within the [**1343] context of the entire agreement, its meaning is less than clear.

In this case, the term “therefore” is significant. A common definition of “therefore” is “for that reason: because of that: on that ground . . . .” Webster’s Third New International Dictionary 2372 (unabridged ed. 1961) (Webster’s). A clause that is introduced [***8] by the term “therefore” cannot be understood without reading the antecedent language.

The paragraphs preceding the exculpatory clause emphasize the inherent hazards of horseback riding. Because the exculpatory clause is prefaced by the term “therefore,” a reasonable person might understand its language to relate to the inherent dangers of horseback riding and liability for injuries that occur “for that reason.” Being kicked by a horse is a danger inherent to horseback riding; receiving an injury that would not have occurred but for a tour guide’s negligence, however, is not.

The exculpatory phrase in the fifth paragraph is further clouded by the qualifying language that follows. Pursuant to the contract, the defendant is released from liability for its negligence “to include negligence in selection, adjustment or any maintenance of any horse.” If we parse these terms, they do not necessarily restrict the defendant’s release to liability for negligent selection, adjustment, or maintenance of any horse. The superfluity of the terms, however, serves to obscure rather than clarify. Moreover, one sense of the word “inclusive” is “covering or intended to cover all items . . . .” Webster’s, [***9] supra at 1143. A reasonable person reading the clause thus might conclude that the agreement relieved the defendant of responsibility for the enumerated types of negligence only.

[*171] Whether the tour guide’s failure to control his horse constitutes “the negligent . . . maintenance of any horse,” is unclear. Webster’s gives several definitions for the word “maintain,” the two most relevant being: (1) “to keep in a state of repair, efficiency, or validity: preserve from failure or decline” and (2) “to provide for: bear the expense of: SUPPORT.” Webster’s, supra at 1362. When read in the context of selection and adjustment, therefore, a reasonable person in the position of the plaintiff might understand “the negligent . . . maintenance of any horse” to relate to negligent upkeep rather than control.

The contract is also unclear with respect to injuries involving horses not ridden by the plaintiff. The first, second, and third paragraphs emphasize only the horse that the plaintiff “accept[s] for use.” We reject the defendant’s argument that the phrase “use of this animal,” used in the first and second paragraphs, “is merely an alternative expression for the activity of ‘horseback [***10] riding.'” We also reject the defendant’s contention that the phrase “use of this animal” does not limit the contract’s application to injuries involving the plaintiff’s horse because “[a] careful reading . . . reveals that it is part of a clause modifying plaintiff’s agreement to ‘hold harmless and indemnify [the defendant] for any loss or damage. . . .'” The Barnes test requires that release language be plain; a careful reading should not be necessary to divine the defendant’s intent.

In Audley, we concluded:

Quite simply, the general release language does not satisfy the Barnes requirement that the contract must clearly state that the defendant is not responsible for the consequences of his negligence. The release fails in this respect not because it neglects to use the word ‘negligence’ or any other special terms; instead it fails because no particular attention is called to the notion of releasing the defendant from liability for his own negligence. The general language in the context of the release simply did not put the plaintiff on clear notice of such intent.


Audley, 138 N.H. at 419, 640 A.2d at 779 (quotations and citations omitted). [***11] Whereas the release language in Audley failed because it was too general, the release language in the present case fails because it is obscured by qualifying terms and phrases. The cases are similar, however, because neither contract put the plaintiff “on clear notice,” id.

The exculpatory contract lacks a straightforward statement of the defendant’s intent [**1344] to avoid liability for its failure to use reasonable [*172] care in any way. The agreement easily could have been framed in a manner that would have expressed more clearly its conditions and exclusions. The defendant was not entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

Reversed and remanded.

THAYER, J., with whom BROCK, C.J., joined, dissented; the others concurred.

DISSENT BY: THAYER

DISSENT

THAYER, J., dissenting: I would uphold the trial court’s grant of summary judgment because the exculpatory contract explicitly indicated an intent to release the defendant from liability for its own negligence. The contract in question purports to release the defendant from “ANY AND ALL LIABILITY FOR . . . PERSONAL INJURY TO MYSELF . . . RESULTING FROM THE NEGLIGENCE OF [THE DEFENDANT] TO INCLUDE NEGLIGENCE IN SELECTION, ADJUSTMENT OR ANY MAINTENANCE [***12] OF ANY HORSE.” The language clearly indicates an intent to release the defendant from liability for its own negligence. I agree with the majority that the use of the word “therefore” restricts the release to negligence associated with the inherent hazards of horseback riding. I do not agree, however, that the negligence alleged is not such a risk. The plaintiff alleged that the defendant’s employee had failed to properly control his horse, and that as a result, the horse “acted out.” Controlling a horse is an essential part of horseback riding. The possibility that someone will fail to exercise the proper control would seem to fall squarely within the category of dangers inherent in the sport.

The majority bases its holding in part on its interpretation of the phrase “to include.” In holding that the list prefaced by the words “to include” is meant to be exhaustive, the majority relies on a definition of the word “inclusive.” Such reliance is misplaced. The contract used the word “include” as a verb. The primary relevant definition of that word is “to place, list, or rate as a part or component of a whole or a larger group, class, or aggregate.” Webster’s Third New International [***13] Dictionary 1143 (unabridged ed. 1961) (Webster’s). “Inclusive,” however, is an adjective and its definition differs from the verb form of the word. See In re Dumaine, 135 N.H. 103, 107, 600 A.2d 127, 129 (1991). The use of the verb form of the word indicates that the listed types of negligence are “component[s] of a whole or a larger group,” Webster’s, supra, and that the list was not exhaustive.

The appropriate question, therefore, is whether the negligence alleged in this case is of the same type as those listed. The plaintiff [*173] alleges that the defendant’s employee failed to properly control his mount. This would seem to fall squarely within the type of negligence defined by the contract. That the horse causing the injury was not ridden by the plaintiff is irrelevant. The contract releases the defendant for negligence resulting from “the use of horses” and specifically from “NEGLIGENCE IN SELECTION, ADJUSTMENT OR ANY MAINTENANCE OF ANY HORSE.” (Emphasis added.) While the contract does refer to the plaintiff’s horse on a number of occasions, it also refers to horses generally and to “any” horse. This language cannot be read to restrict the defendant’s release [***14] solely to injuries caused by the plaintiff’s horse. I disagree with the majority’s reading of the exculpatory contract. Therefore, I respectfully dissent.

BROCK, C.J., joins in the dissent.


Connecticut court rejects motion for summary judgment because plaintiff claimed he did not have enough time to read the release before he signed it

Plaintiff successfully argued he did not have enough time to read the release before he signed it. The court bought it.

DeWitt, Jr. v. Felt Racing, LLC et al., 2017 Conn. Super. LEXIS 235

State: Connecticut, Superior Court of Connecticut, Judicial District of New Haven at New Haven

Plaintiff: Guy DeWitt, Jr.

Defendant: Felt Racing, LLC and Pedal Power, LLC 

Plaintiff Claims: no time to read the release, not told he needed to sign a release

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: for the plaintiff 

Year: 2017 

Summary

This case looks at demoing a bike in Connecticut. The rider/plaintiff argued that he did not have enough time to read the release, and the bike shop was chaotic creating confusing for him. He was injured when the handlebars broke causing him to fall. 

Facts

The plaintiff participated in the Wednesday night right put on by Pedal Power, LLC, one of the defendants. That night Pedal Power made arrangements for people to demo Felt Bicycles. Most people did so and sent their information to Felt Racing so the bikes were fit and ready to go when they arrived.

The plaintiff arrived with his own bike. However, once he got there he decided to demo a felt bicycle. While the bike was being fitted for him, he was handed a release to sign. The plaintiff stated the place was chaotic, and he did not have time to read the release

During the ride, the handlebar failed or cracked causing the plaintiff to fall and hit a tree.

What is disputed is whether the plaintiff was given sufficient time to read and consider the Release and Waiver. The plaintiff claims that he did not read it because there wasn’t time to do so. “Everything was very chaotic and rushed there What is disputed is whether the plaintiff was given sufficient time to read and consider the Release and Waiver. The plaintiff claims that he did not read it because there wasn’t time to do so. “Everything was very chaotic and rushed there to make the ride. I just did not have the time to read that . . .” Further, the plaintiff claims that there was no mention of it until his bike was taken, and the Felt employees had begun custom fitting the Felt bike to him. The defendants, on the other hand, denied during oral argument that the scene was “chaotic” or that the plaintiff was coerced into riding the Felt bike because he had his own personal bike that he could ride. to make the ride. I just did not have the time to read that . . .” Further, the plaintiff claims that there was no mention of it until his bike was taken, and the Felt employees had begun custom fitting the Felt bike to him. The defendants, on the other hand, denied during oral argument that the scene was “chaotic” or that the plaintiff was coerced into riding the Felt bike because he had his own personal bike that he could ride.

 The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, and this was the analysis of the motion by the court. 

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

Each state has its own requirements for when a court can grant a motion for summary judgment. The court in this case set forth those requirements before starting an analysis of the facts as they applied to the law.

“A motion for summary judgment is designed to eliminate the delay and expense of litigating an issue when there is no real issue to be tried. Practice Book section 17-49 provides that summary judgment shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, affidavits and any other proof submitted show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the trial court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.”

Most states apply similar standards to deciding motions for summary judgment. The major point is there is no genuine issue of fact’s material to the case. Meaning no matter how you look at the facts, the motion is going to win because the law is clear.

Additional statements in the case indicated the court was not inclined to grant any motion for summary judgment.

“Summary judgment is particularly ‘ill-adapted to negligence cases, where . . . the ultimate issue in contention involves a mixed question of fact and law . . . [T]he conclusion of negligence is necessarily one of fact . . .”

“The courts hold the movant to a strict standard. To satisfy [their] burden the movant[s] must make a showing that it is clear what the truth is, and that excludes any real doubt as to the existence of any genuine issue of material fact, the nonmoving party has no  obligation to submit documents establishing the existence of such an issue . . . Once the moving party has met its burden, however, the opposing party must present evidence that demonstrates the existence of some disputed factual issue.”

The court then analyzed the entire issue of why summary judgments are rarely granted in this judge’s opinion.

“[T]he fundamental policy purposes of the tort compensation system [are] compensation of innocent parties, shifting the loss to responsible parties or distributing it among appropriate entities, and deterrence of wrongful conduct . . . It is sometimes said that compensation for losses is the primary function of tort law . . . [but it] is perhaps more accurate to describe the primary function as one of determining when tort system is the prophylactic factor of preventing future harm . . . The courts are concerned not only with compensation of the victim, but with admonition of the wrongdoer.” “Thus, it is consistent with public policy ‘to posit the risk of negligence upon the actor’ and, if this policy is to be abandoned, ‘it has generally been to allow or require that the risk shift to another party better or equally able to bear it, not shift the risk to the weak bargainer.’

The writing on the wall, or in the opinion, makes it pretty clear this judge was not inclined to grant motions for summary judgment in tort cases when the risk of the injury would transfer to the plaintiff.

The court then reviewed the requirements of what is required in a release under Connecticut law. 

…requirements for an enforceable agreement as well as the elements which demonstrate that an agreement violates public policy and renders the agreement unenforceable: the agreement concerns a business of a type suitable for regulation; the party seeking to enforce the agreement is engaged in performing a service of great importance to the public; the party holds itself out as willing to perform a service for any member of the public; there is an economic component to the transaction; the agreement is an adhesive contract; and as a result of the transaction, the plaintiff is placed under the control of the seller. 

Nowhere in the requirements does it state a requirement that the plaintiff have enough time to read the release, even if did go ahead and sign the release. 

The language quoted sounds like similar language found in other decisions in other states regarding releases. 

Connecticut also requires “that in order for an exculpatory clause to validly release the defendant, it must be clear and contain specific reference to the term “negligence.” 

In this release, the term negligence is only found once. 

The plaintiff argued that he did not have time to sign the release, and the place was chaotic. This was enough for the court to say there were material facts at issue in this case. “If the plaintiff was not afforded the opportunity to read and consider the Waiver and Release, then the agreement cannot be enforced. It is for the trier of fact to determine this.”

The defendants created the conditions under which the plaintiff could participate in the ride on a Felt bicycle. Enforcement of an agreement requiring the plaintiff to assume the risk of the defendants’ actions when there is a question of fact regarding whether the plaintiff had been given sufficient time to read and consider the Waiver and Release, would violate public policy, even if the language of the agreement was explicit and clear. For this reason, this court denies the defendants’ motions for summary judgment.

The motion for summary judgment was denied. 

So Now What? 

This is the first time I have read a decision where the claim there was not enough time to read the release was upheld by a court. Normally, the court states if the release is signed the signor read and agreed to the terms.

This is one more argument that will eliminate releases in Connecticut. There have been several already, and although there are several decisions that support releases, there is a growing list of decisions that are providing opportunities for the courts to throw them out. 

The final issue to be aware of is the language in this case is identical to language in most other release cases. However, here that language was used to throw out a release rather than support it.

Other Connecticut Decisions Involving Releases

Connecticut court works hard to void a release for a cycling event

Poorly written release failing to follow prior state Supreme Court decisions, employee statement, no padding and  spinning hold send climbing wall gym back to trial in Connecticut.

Connecticut court determines that a release will not bar a negligent claim created by statute.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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bike, ride, summary judgment, public policy, relieve,
bicycle, quotation marks omitted, disputed, participating, chaotic, riding,
custom, rider, tort law, moving party, entitled to judgment, nonmoving party,
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Felt Racing, LLC, Pedal Power, LLC, Products Liability, Release,

 

 

 


DeWitt, Jr. v. Felt Racing, LLC et al., 2017 Conn. Super. LEXIS 235

DeWitt, Jr. v. Felt Racing, LLC et al., 2017 Conn. Super. LEXIS 235

Guy DeWitt, Jr. v. Felt Racing, LLC et al.

CV136040482

SUPERIOR COURT OF CONNECTICUT, JUDICIAL DISTRICT OF NEW HAVEN AT NEW HAVEN

2017 Conn. Super. LEXIS 235

February 6, 2017, Decided

February 6, 2017, Filed

NOTICE: THIS DECISION IS UNREPORTED AND MAY BE SUBJECT TO FURTHER APPELLATE REVIEW. COUNSEL IS CAUTIONED TO MAKE AN INDEPENDENT DETERMINATION OF THE STATUS OF THIS CASE.

CORE TERMS: bike, ride, summary judgment, public policy, relieve, bicycle, quotation marks omitted, disputed, participating, chaotic, riding, custom, rider, tort law, moving party, entitled to judgment, nonmoving party, question of fact, primary function, exculpatory, unambiguous, genuine, movant, entities, sufficient time, sponsored, pre-sized, arranged, sponsors, borrow

JUDGES: [*1] Angela C. Robinson, J.

OPINION BY: Angela C. Robinson

OPINION

MEMORANDUM OF DECISION RE MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENTS #149 AND #150

Guy DeWitt, Jr., the plaintiff, claims that on June 18, 2013, he was injured as a direct result of the negligence and/or actions of the defendants, Felt Racing, LLC and Pedal Power, LLC, in violation of the products liability statute. At the time of the incident, the plaintiff was participating in a group ride of bicyclists that was sponsored by Pedal Power. During the ride, at the time he was injured, the plaintiff was riding a bike he borrowed from Felt Racing. Prior to participating in the ride, and before he was allowed to borrow the Felt bike, the plaintiff signed a Waiver and Release.

The defendants both now move for summary judgment based upon the Waiver and Release, which they argue releases them from all liability. The plaintiff objects to the defendants’ motion claiming that the language of the Release and Waiver does not sufficiently relieve the defendants of liability; and that it violates public policy.

Most of the facts pertinent to the resolution of the motion are not in dispute. Pedal Power sponsored a group ride in Middletown, Connecticut. Felt Racing arranged [*2] to have a Felt bicycle demonstration at the Pedal Power store, and brought 35 Felt bikes to loan out for the ride. The plaintiff had brought his own bike to ride during the activity, but decided to try a Felt bike. The plaintiff was provided with a Felt AR2, which was selected and custom fit to him by a Felt employee. He had not arranged to ride the bike ahead of time. According to Mr. Rudzinsky, Certified USA Cycling Professional Mechanic and agent of Felt Racing, the plaintiff was not one of “the guys that was pre-sized . . .” Rather, “he showed up late.” (Rudzinsky Depo p. 57.) In order to borrow the bike, the plaintiff signed a Waiver, provided a copy of his driver’s license and left his personal bike as collateral. As the plaintiff was riding the Felt AR2 eastbound on Livingston Street in Middletown, Connecticut the right side of the handle bars failed and/or cracked, ejecting him off the bike and causing him to violently hit the ground and collide with a tree.

What is disputed is whether the plaintiff was given sufficient time to read and consider the Release and Waiver. The plaintiff claims that he did not read it because there wasn’t time to do so. “Everything was very chaotic [*3] and rushed there to make the ride. I just did not have the time to read that . . .” (Deposition of Plaintiff attached to Plaintiff’s Objection.) Further, the plaintiff claims that there was no mention of it until his bike was taken, and the Felt employees had begun custom fitting the Felt bike to him. The defendants, on the other hand, denied during oral argument that the scene was “chaotic” or that the plaintiff was coerced into riding the Felt bike because he had his own personal bike that he could ride.

The defendants request that judgment enter in their favor on the plaintiff’s complaint based upon the Release and Waiver.

“A motion for summary judgment is designed to eliminate the delay and expense of litigating an issue when there is no real issue to be tried. Wilson v. New Haven, 213 Conn. 277, 279, 567 A.2d 829 (1989). Practice Book section 17-49 provides that summary judgment shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, affidavits and any other proof submitted show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the trial court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Webster Bank v. Oakley, 265 Conn. 539, 545, 830 A.2d 139 (2003).

“Summary [*4] judgment is particularly ‘ill-adapted to negligence cases, where . . . the ultimate issue in contention involves a mixed question of fact and law . . . [T]he conclusion of negligence is necessarily one of fact . . .” Michaud v Gurney, 168 Conn. 431, 434, 362 A.2d 857 (1975).

“The courts hold the movant to a strict standard. To satisfy [their] burden the movant[s] must make a showing that it is clear what the truth is, and that excludes any real doubt as to the existence of any genuine issue of material fact, the nonmoving party has no obligation to submit documents establishing the existence of such an issue . . . Once the moving party has met its burden, however, the opposing party must present evidence that demonstrates the existence of some disputed factual issue.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Zielinski v Kotsoris, 279 Conn. 312, 318-9, 901 A.2d 1207 (2006).

The defendants claim to be entitled to judgment because the Waiver contains language transferring all the risks of participating in the group ride from Felt Bicycles, and sponsors of the ride to the participant rider borrowing the Felt bike. Specifically, the Waiver provides:

I HEREBY WAIVE, RELEASE, DISCHARGE, AND COVENANT NOT TO SUE Felt Bicycles, Felt Racing, or its . . . agents . . . members, volunteers and employees, and/or other participants, sponsors [*5] . . . and/or where applicable, owners and lessors or (Sic) premises on which the Event takes place . . . from liability, claims, demands, losses or damages.

Though term “negligence” appears only once in the waiver, in paragraph 1, the defendants maintain that this is not determinative of their motion regarding the negligence claims. Further, the defendants argue that the language of the waiver sufficiently covers the actions of the agents and/or employees of Felt, LLC and Pedal Power, LLC, as well as the legal entities, themselves.

To support their arguments, both the defendants and the plaintiff rely primarily upon Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corp., 276 Conn. 314, 885 A.2d 734, (2005). The plaintiff also cites and relies upon Hyson v. White Water Mountain Resorts of Connecticut, 265 Conn. 636, 829 A.2d 827 (2003); Lewis v. Habitat for Humanity of Greater New Haven, Superior Court, Judicial District of New Haven, docket no. CV 095030268 (January 9, 2012, Frechette, J.) [53 Conn. L. Rptr. 512, 2012 Conn. Super. LEXIS 146]; Kelly v. Deere & Co, 627 F.Sup. 564 (D.C. 1986).

In Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant, Corp, the Supreme Court held that because exculpatory agreements relieve a party of liability, they undermine public policy considerations governing our tort system, and should be enforced judiciously, only when certain factors are present. First and foremost, the agreement should be enforced only when “an ordinary person of reasonable intelligence would understand that [*6] by signing the agreement, he or she was releasing the defendants from liability from their future negligence.” Id. at 324-5. But, even if it is clear and unambiguous, it should not be enforced if it violates the principles that undergird Tort Law.

“[T]he fundamental policy purposes of the tort compensation system [are] compensation of innocent parties, shifting the loss to responsible parties or distributing it among appropriate entities, and deterrence of wrongful conduct . . . It is sometimes said that compensation for losses is the primary function of tort law . . . [but it] is perhaps more accurate to describe the primary function as one of determining when tort system is the prophylactic factor of preventing future harm . . . The courts are concerned not only with compensation of the victim, but with admonition of the wrongdoer.” (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Lodge v. Arett Sales Corp., 246 Conn. 563, 578-79, 717 A.2d 215 (1998). “Thus, it is consistent with public policy ‘to posit the risk of negligence upon the actor’ and, if this policy is to be abandoned, ‘it has generally been to allow or require that the risk shift to another party better or equally able to bear it, not shift the risk to the weak bargainer.’ Tunkl v. Regents of the Univ. Of Cal., 60 Cal.2d 92, 101, 383 P.2d 441, 32 Cal.Rptr. 33 (1963).” Hanks v. Powder Ridge Rest. Corp., 276 Conn. 314, 327, 885 A.2d 734.

Hanks sets forth the [*7] requirements for an enforceable agreement as well as the elements which demonstrate that an agreement violates public policy and renders the agreement unenforceable: the agreement concerns a business of a type suitable for regulation; the party seeking to enforce the agreement is engaged in performing a service of great importance to the public; the party holds itself out as willing to perform a service for any member of the public; there is an economic component to the transaction; the agreement is an adhesive contract; and as a result of the transaction, the plaintiff is placed under the control of the seller. These are not the exclusive elements to consider. The “ultimate determination of what constitutes the public interest must be made considering the totality of the circumstances of any given case against the backdrop of current societal expectations.” Id. at 330.

Also, the Hyson v. Whitewater Mountain Resorts court required that in order for an exculpatory clause to validly release the defendant, it must be clear and contain specific reference to the term “negligence.” Id. at 643.

The plaintiff argues that the language of the release is not clear; and that there are insufficient references to the [*8] word “negligence.” Also, the plaintiff asserts that the circumstances under which he was required to sign the release prevented him from reading it or considering the ramifications of it. Defense counsel disputed the characterization of the transaction as “chaotic.”

Because of this factual dispute, the court concludes that the motions should be denied. It is irrelevant to the court’s consideration whether the transaction was commercial or not; whether the language was sufficiently clear and unambiguous; or whether the plaintiff could have ridden his own bike during the ride. If the plaintiff was not afforded the opportunity to read and consider the Waiver and Release, then the agreement cannot be enforced. It is for the trier of fact to determine this.

There is no dispute that Felt Racing brought the bikes to the ride for the specific purpose of demonstrating and loaning them to interested riders and potential future customers. They were prepared for and anticipated last minute requests for bikes. Additionally, they custom fitted the bikes to the riders, regardless of whether the bikes had been pre-sized for them or not.

There are certainly instances in which it may be appropriate and [*9] in line of public policy to enforce contractual agreements which relieve one party of liability to another for injuries. However, Connecticut has a long history of requiring courts to carefully scrutinize such contracts. See e.g., Reardon v. Windswept Farm, LLC, 280 Conn. 153, 905 A.2d 1156 (2006) (“[T]he law does not favor contract provisions which relieve a person from his own negligence . . . Hyson v. White Water Mountain Resorts of Conn., Inc. . . .”).

The defendants created the conditions under which the plaintiff could participate in the ride on a Felt bicycle. Enforcement of an agreement requiring the plaintiff to assume the risk of the defendants’ actions when there is a question of fact regarding whether the plaintiff had been given sufficient time to read and consider the Waiver and Release, would violate public policy, even if the language of the agreement was explicit and clear. For this reason, this court denies the defendants’ motions for summary judgment.

Robinson, A., J.