Kang v. LA Fitness, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 179934, 2016 WL 7476354
Soon Ja Kang Plaintiff,
LA Fitness, LA Fitness of South Plainfield, John Does 1-5, et al., Defendants.
Civil No. 2:14-cv-07147 (KSH) (CLW)
United States District Court, D. New Jersey
December 29, 2016
NOT FOR PUBLICATION
Katharine S. Hayden, U.S.D.J.
Before the Court is defendants’ motion for summary judgment as to the validity and enforceability of an exculpatory clause in a fitness center membership agreement with plaintiff. For the reasons set forth below, the Court finds the liability waiver to be valid and enforceable and defendants’ motion is granted.
Fitness International, LLC d/b/a LA Fitness (incorrectly designated as LA Fitness of South Plainfield) (“LA Fitness”) operates a fitness facility located in Piscataway, NJ. See Final Pretrial Order Stipulation of Facts (“SOF”) (D.E. 19), at ¶ 1. On December 30, 2013, plaintiff Soon Ja Kang went to LA Fitness with her husband to sign up for membership. Id. at ¶ 2. The membership agreement she signed states in relevant part:
IMPORTANT: RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABILITY AND INDEMNITY. You hereby acknowledge and agree that use by Member and/or Member’s minor children of LA Fitness’ facilities, services, equipment or premises, involves risks of injury to persons and property, including those described below, and Member assumes full responsibility for such risks. In consideration of Member and Member’s minor children being permitted to enter any facility of LA Fitness (a “Club”) for any purpose including, but not limited to, observation, use of facilities, services or equipment, or participation in any way, Member agrees to the following: Member hereby releases and holds LA Fitness, its directors, officers, employees, and agents harmless from all liability to Member, Member’s children and Member’s personal representatives, assigns, heirs, and next of kin for any loss or damage, and forever gives up any claim or demands therefore, on account of injury to Member’s person or property, including injury leading to the death of Member, whether caused by the active or passive negligence of LA Fitness or otherwise, to the fullest extent permitted by law, while Member or Member’s minor children are in, upon, or about LA Fitness’ premises or using any LA Fitness facilities, services or equipment. Member also hereby agrees to indemnify LA Fitness from any loss, liability, damage or cost LA Fitness may incur due to the presence of Member or Member’s children in, upon or about the LA Fitness premises or in any way observing or using any facilities or equipment of LA Fitness whether caused by the negligence of Member(s) or otherwise. You represent (a) that Member and Member’s minor children are in good physical condition and have no disability, illness, or other condition that could prevent Member(s) from exercising without injury or impairment of health, and (b) that Member has consulted a physician concerning an exercise program that will not risk injury to Member or impairment of Member’s health. Such risk of injury includes (but is not limited to): injuries arising from use by Member or others of exercise equipment and machines; injuries arising from participation by Member or others in supervised or unsupervised activities or programs at a Club; injuries and medical disorders arising from exercising at a Club such as heart attacks, strokes, heat stress, sprains, broken bones, and torn muscles and ligaments, among others; and accidental injuries occurring anywhere in Club dressing rooms, showers and other facilities. Member further expressly agrees that the foregoing release, waiver and indemnity agreement is intended to be as broad and inclusive as is permitted by the law of the State of New Jersey and that if any portion thereof is held invalid, it is agreed that the balance shall, notwithstanding, continue in full force and effect. Member has read this release and waiver of liability and indemnity clause, and agrees that no oral representations, statements or inducement apart from this Agreement has been made.
LA Fitness Moving Br., Exh. E (D.E. 22-7).
Kang and her husband do not read or understand English, but their daughter was present to translate for them when they signed up. See SOF, at ¶¶ 4-5. Kang signed a membership agreement. She did not initial next to the waiver and liability provision in her membership agreement; however, her husband was asked to initial next to the same provision in his membership agreement, and he did so. Id. at ¶ 6.
On December 31, 2013, Kang was injured while working out on a chin/dip assist pull up machine at LA Fitness’s Piscataway location. See SOF, at ¶¶ 2, 7. She filed the instant action on September 29, 2014 in state court, and LA Fitness filed a notice of removal in this Court on November 14, 2014 on the basis of diversity jurisdiction (D.E. 1). The complaint alleges that Kang was injured as a result of negligence on the part of LA Fitness. Id. Prior to completion of expert discovery, LA Fitness moved for summary judgment on the issue of whether the waiver and liability provision bars the instant action. The motion was fully briefed. (D.E. 22, 25, 26).
The Court makes its decision on the paper.
Summary judgment is warranted where the moving party demonstrates that “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a), (c). The parties have conducted discovery on the circumstances surrounding the formation of Kang’s membership agreement and, as set forth in the analysis below, all facts relevant to the enforceability of the waiver provision are essentially undisputed as set forth in the Final Pretrial Order Stipulation of Facts (D.E. 19). In determining whether the waiver provision is enforceable as a matter of law, the Court “view[s] the evidence in the light most favorable to [Kang] and draw[s] all justifiable, reasonable inferences in [her] favor.” Sgro v. Bloomberg L.P., 331 F.Appx. 932, 937 (3d Cir. 2009).
Pursuant to the release and waiver of liability provision in her membership agreement, Kang released and held LA Fitness harmless for all injuries she might suffer “whether caused by the active or passive negligence of LA Fitness or otherwise, ” while she was “in, upon, or about LA Fitness’ premises or using any LA Fitness facilities, services or equipment.” LA Fitness Moving Br., Exh. E (D.E. 22-7). As her negligence claim for an injury allegedly sustained while using a piece of workout equipment at an LA Fitness facility clearly falls within the ambit of the liability waiver, the issue becomes whether the waiver itself is enforceable against Kang on the facts of this case.
In Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 408 N.J.Super. 435, 454 (App. Div. 2009), aff’d, 203 N.J. 286 (2010), the New Jersey Appellate Division addressed the enforceability of exculpatory releases in fitness center membership agreements:
Such a release is enforceable only if: (1) it does not adversely affect the public interest; (2) the exculpated party is not under a legal duty to perform; (3) it does not involve a public utility or common carrier; or (4) the contract does not grow out of unequal bargaining power or is otherwise unconscionable.
Id. The third factor is inapplicable here, because LA Fitness is not a public utility or common carrier. See Kang Opp. Br., at p. 6. The Court analyzes the remaining Stelluti factors in turn.
1. Does the Exculpatory Clause Adversely Affect the Public Interest?
LA Fitness argues that the exculpatory clause in this case does not adversely affect the public interest because it is “a facility that encourages New Jersey’s public policy promoting physical fitness.” LA Fitness Moving Br., at p. 6. Noting the important policy objective of promoting public health, the Stelutti court held:
[W]e are satisfied that, at least with respect to equipment being used at the club in the course of an exercise class or other athletic activity, the exculpatory agreement’s disclaimer of liability for ordinary negligence is reasonable and not offensive to public policy.
Stelluti, 408 N.J.Super. at 459. The Court agrees with the analysis in Stelluti and finds that the exculpatory clause here does not adversely affect the public interest, at least to the extent that it purports to exculpate LA Fitness with respect to acts or omissions amounting to ordinary negligence.
Kang argues that public policy promoting physical fitness “cannot counteract the other public policy reasons that are in place to protect against improper liability waivers.” Kang Opp. Br., at p. 7. To that end, she argues that the release in this case violates the New Jersey Plain Language Act, which states that “[a] consumer contract entered into on or after the effective date of this amendatory and supplementary act shall be written in a simple, clear, understandable and easily readable way.” N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:12-2. Specifically, Kang argues that the small font size and margins in the contract are such that “[s]omeone who can read and understand English would be substantially confused by this agreement[.]” Kang Opp. Br., at p. 8.
To determine whether the waiver provision violates the Plain Language Act, the Court turns to the plain language of the act itself. Section 56:12-10 provides:
To insure that a consumer contract shall be simple, clear, understandable and easily readable, the following are examples of guidelines that a court . . . may consider in determining whether a consumer contract as a whole complies with this act:
(1) Cross references that are confusing;
(2) Sentences that are of greater length than necessary;
(3) Sentences that contain double negatives and exceptions to exceptions;
(4) Sentences and sections that are in a confusing or illogical order;
(5) The use of words with obsolete meanings or words that differ in their legal meaning from their common ordinary meaning;
(6) Frequent use of Old English and Middle English words and Latin and French phrases.
N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:12-10. Section 56:12-10 further provides:
The following are examples of guidelines that a court . . . may consider in determining whether the consumer contract as a whole complies with this act:
(1) Sections shall be logically divided and captioned;
(2) A table of contents or alphabetical index shall be used for all contracts with more than 3, 000 words;
(3) Conditions and exceptions to the main promise of the agreement shall be given equal prominence with the main promise, and shall be in at least 10 point type.
Id. A Court has discretion as to how much consideration should be given to the above-listed statutory guidelines in finding a violation of the act. See Boddy v. Cigna Prop. & Cas. Companies, 334 N.J.Super. 649, 655 (App. Div. 2000).
Reviewing Kang’s membership agreement in light of the above guidelines, the Court finds that the waiver provision does not violate the New Jersey Plain Language Act. The waiver provision does not contain any cross references, nor does it contain any double negatives or exceptions to exceptions. It does not contain words with obsolete meanings, nor is it clouded by the use of Old English, Middle English, Latin or French phrases. And Kang does not argue-nor does the Court find-that the sentences of the waiver provision are set forth in a confusing or illogical order.
Instead, Kang argues that the waiver provision violates the Plain Language Act because “[t]he size of the font (print) is about size 8, whereas the standard size used in everyday documents is size 12[, ]” and because “[t]he margins on the sides of the pages are about 0.5 inch . . . reflecting the intentions of the drafter to squeeze in additional words.” Kang Opp. Br., at p. 8. However, applying the above guidelines, the Court does not find that the waiver provision in this case is any less prominent that the remainder of the agreement. See N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:12-10b(3). To the contrary, the waiver and liability provision is the only clause in the membership agreement preceded by a title in all caps (“IMPORTANT: RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABILITY AND INDEMNITY”), and it is the only clause that is fully enclosed by a border, creating a visual separation between the waiver and the rest of the agreement.
The Court finds that the waiver provision in this case does not offend public policy under Stelluti and does not otherwise violate the New Jersey Plain Language Act.
2. Is LA Fitness Under a Legal Duty To Perform?
LA Fitness argues that its relationship with Kang does not create any duties prescribed by statute or regulation. See LA Fitness Moving Br., at pp. 6-8. New Jersey courts have found liability waivers to be invalid as against public policy where they conflict with legislatively imposed duties. For example, in Hy-Grade Oil Co. v. New Jersey Bank, 138 N.J.Super. 112, 118 (App. Div. 1975), the court found it against public policy for a bank to exculpate itself from liability or responsibility for negligence in the performance of its function as a night depository service, in part due to the “extensive statutory regulations covering every phase of the banking business[.]” Id. at 118. Similarly, in McCarthy v. Nat’l Ass’n for Stock Car Auto Racing, Inc., 48 N.J. 539, 543 (1967), the New Jersey Supreme Court held a liability waiver invalid as against public policy because it purported to contract away safety requirements prescribed by statute dealing with motor vehicle racing. See id. at 543 (“[t]he prescribed safety requirements may not be contracted away, for if they could be the salient protective purposes of the legislation would largely be nullified”).
Kang argues that “although there are no statutes specific to fitness centers, there are several national associations that have established standards that apply to the fitness industry[.]” Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 8-9. However, there is no indication that these national standards apply with the force of law in New Jersey so as to constitute public policy of the state. Kang further argues that the Stelluti court acknowledged the well-established duties of care that New Jersey business owners owe to patrons that enter their premises. See Kang Opp. Br., at p. 8. However, as noted above in Part B.1. supra, Stelluti expressly held that fitness center liability waivers such as the one at issue here do not violate public policy at least to the extent that they exculpate for ordinary negligence. Stelluti, 408 N.J.Super. at 459. The Court finds that LA Fitness is not under any legal duty that precludes its reliance on the liability waiver in this case.
3. Does the Contract Grow Out of Unequal Bargaining Power or is it Otherwise Unconscionable?
With respect to the final Stelluti factor, Kang argues that the waiver: (1) was not the product of mutual assent; and (2) is unconscionable as a term in a contract of adhesion. See Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 10-14. The Court addresses both arguments in turn.
a. Mutual Assent
Kang argues that the waiver was invalid for lack of mutual assent, based upon the following assertions: (1) Neither Kang nor her husband speaks English; (2) LA Fitness knew as much, as the Kangs’ daughter was present to translate; (3) an LA Fitness employee explained the contract duration and payment terms to the Kangs’ daughter, but did not explain the liability waiver to her; (4) only Kang’s husband was asked to initial next to the waiver provision in his membership agreement, but no one explained to him what he was initialing; and (5) no employee went over the waiver provision with Kang or her daughter. See Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 10-11. Accordingly, Kang argues that she did not “clearly, unequivocally, and decisively surrender[ ] her rights” as is required for a valid waiver. Id. at p. 11.
The Court finds these arguments unavailing. As an initial matter, Kang’s inability to speak English does not bar her from becoming contractually bound. Notwithstanding the fact that her daughter was present to translate, New Jersey courts have unequivocally held that in the absence of fraud, one who signs an agreement is conclusively presumed to understand and assent to its terms and legal effect:
In the absence of fraud or imposition, when one fails to read a contract before signing it, the provisions are nevertheless binding, and the party is conclusively presumed to understand and assent to its terms and legal effect . . . . Even illiterate individuals have been held bound by a signed contract in the absence of misrepresentation. One who signs a document in those circumstances should know its contents or have it read (or otherwise have the contents made known) to him or her.
Statewide Realty Co. v. Fid. Mgmt. & Research Co., 259 N.J.Super. 59, 73 (Law. Div. 1992) (internal citations and quotations omitted); see also Herrera v. Twp. of S. Orange Vill., 270 N.J.Super. 417, 423, 637 (App. Div. 1993) (enforcing release agreement in the absence of fraud, notwithstanding testimony by plaintiff that she did not understand the release because she could not read English).
Under the New Jersey case law cited above, absent allegations of fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation which Kang does not make here, she is conclusively presumed to have understood and assented to the membership agreement’s terms-including the waiver-and legal effect. See Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 203 N.J. 286, 305 (2010) (“Although Stelluti argues that she did not know what she was signing, she does not claim that she signed the waiver form as the result of fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation. Therefore, the trial court was well within reason to presume that she understood the terms of the agreement . . . and the finding to that effect is unassailable.”)
Nor does the fact that LA Fitness may not have explained the waiver to her or her daughter preclude enforcement. See Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 203 N.J. 286, 301- 02 (2010) (enforcing exculpatory clause while giving plaintiff benefit of inference that “Powerhouse may not have explained to Stelluti the legal effect of the contract that released Powerhouse from liability”).
Finally, the Court is not aware of, nor has Kang cited, any requirement that she must have initialed the waiver provision for that clause to be enforceable against her. While she did not initial the waiver provision, she did sign the membership agreement containing it. In the absence of fraud, that is enough to bind her to its terms. See Statewide, 259 N.J.Super. at 73.
Kang also argues that even if the waiver is found to be enforceable, the Court should invalidate it as a contract of adhesion. “[T]he essential nature of a contract of adhesion is that it is presented on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, commonly in a standardized printed form, without the opportunity for the ‘adhering’ party to negotiate except perhaps on a few particulars.” Rudbart v. N. Jersey Dist. Water Supply Comm’n, 127 N.J. 344, 353, 605 A.2d 681, 685 (1992). Kang’s unconscionability argument is essentially an amalgamation of all of her arguments summarized above: that as someone who does not speak English she lacked the sophistication to understand the terms to which she was agreeing, LA Fitness knew that she was in no position to understand those terms, she did not initial next to the waiver provision, the waiver is one-sided and printed on a standard form agreement, and she was not in a position to negotiate the terms of the agreement. Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 12-14.
Notably, not all contracts of adhesion are unenforceable. In Stelluti, the New Jersey Supreme Court held:
Here, Powerhouse’s agreement was a standard pre-printed form presented to Stelluti and other prospective members on a typical ‘take-it-or-leave-it basis.’ No doubt, this agreement was one of adhesion. As for the relative bargaining positions of the parties, . . . we assume that Stelluti was a layperson without any specialized knowledge about contracts generally or exculpatory ones specifically. Giving her the benefit of all inferences from the record, including that Powerhouse may not have explained to Stelluti the legal effect of the contract that released Powerhouse from liability, we nevertheless do not regard her in a classic ‘position of unequal bargaining power’ such that the contract must be voided. As the Appellate Division decision noted, Stelluti could have taken her business to another fitness club, could have found another means of exercise aside from joining a private gym, or could have thought about it and even sought advice before signing up and using the facility’s equipment. No time limitation was imposed on her ability to review and consider whether to sign the agreement. In sum, although the terms of the agreement were presented ‘as is’ to Stelluti, rendering this a fairly typical adhesion contract in its procedural aspects, we hold that the agreement was not void based on any notion of procedural unconscionability.
Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 203 N.J. 286, 301-02 (2010).
Like the defendant in Stelluti, Kang was a layperson without any specialized knowledge of exculpatory contracts, and the Court gives her the benefit of the inference that LA Fitness did not explain the legal effect of the waiver provision to her. However, also like the defendant in Stelluti, Kang was not under any undue pressure to execute the agreement and she could have sought advice before signing. Indeed, her daughter was present to translate. As noted above, the fact that Kang does not speak English does have any legal effect on the contract’s enforceability. Thus, in accordance with Stelluti, the Court finds that although the LA Fitness membership agreement may have been offered on a “take-it-or-leave-it” basis, it is not void on the basis of unconscionability.
Because the exculpatory clause does not offend public policy, the Court finds it to be valid and enforceable. Accordingly, LA Fitness’s motion for summary judgment is granted.
For the foregoing reasons, defendants’ motion for summary judgment is granted, and the clerk of the court is direct to close this case. An accompanying Order will be filed.
Holly Wethington and Makenzie Wethington, Plaintiffs, v. Robert Swainson, d/b/a/ Pegasus Airsport Center, Defendant.
Case No. CIV-14-899-D
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF OKLAHOMA
2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 169145
December 18, 2015, Decided
December 18, 2015, Filed
SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Sanctions allowed by, in part, Sanctions disallowed by, in part Wethington v. Swainson, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 171126 (W.D. Okla., Dec. 23, 2015)
Motion granted by Wethington v. Swainson, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 7421 (W.D. Okla., Jan. 22, 2016)
COUNSEL: [*1] For Holly Wethington, individually, Mackenzie Wethington, Plaintiffs: James E Weger, LEAD ATTORNEY, Jones Gotcher & Bogan, Tulsa, OK; Robert E Haslam, Haslam & Gallagher, Fort Worth, TX.
Robert Swainson, doing business as Pegasus Airsport Center, Defendant, Pro se.
Robert Swainson, Third Party Plaintiff, Pro se.
Joseph Wethington, Third Party Defendant, Pro se.
Robert Swainson, Counter Claimant, Pro se.
For Holly Wethington, individually, Counter Defendant: James E Weger, LEAD ATTORNEY, Jones Gotcher & Bogan, Tulsa, OK; Robert E Haslam, Haslam & Gallagher, Fort Worth, TX.
JUDGES: TIMOTHY D. DEGIUSTI, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
OPINION BY: TIMOTHY D. DEGIUSTI
The determinative issue before the Court concerns the authority of a parent to bind their minor child to an exculpatory agreement, which functions to preclude a defendant’s liability for negligence, before an injury has even occurred. Holly and Makenzie Wethington, mother and daughter (“Plaintiffs”), bring this action against Defendant Robert Swainson, d/b/a/ Pegasus Airsport Center, for injuries suffered by Makenzie while skydiving.1 Under theories of negligence and breach of contract, Plaintiffs contend Defendant (1) provided inadequate training to [*2] Makenzie in preparation for the parachute jump, (2) selected a person to provide radio assistance who had no prior experience, (3) provided old equipment that malfunctioned during Makenzie’s jump, and (4) permitted Makenzie to use a parachute she was ill-prepared to use and which was inappropriate for her skill level. Before the Court is Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. No. 24], to which Plaintiffs have filed their response in opposition [Doc. No. 30]. The matter is fully briefed and at issue.
1 At the time this action was brought, Makenzie was a minor. She has since become eighteen and will thus be referenced by name.
The following facts are undisputed. On January 24, 2014, Makenzie, who was then sixteen years old and accompanied by her parents, went to Defendant to learn how to skydive. As part of the registration process, Makenzie executed a Registration Form and Medical Statement. Near the bottom of the document, Makenzie initialed a disclaimer which read:
I FURTHER UNDERSTAND THAT SKYDIVING AND GLIDING ARE VERY SERIOUS AND HAZARDOUS SPORTS IN WHICH I COULD SUSTAIN SERIOUS AND PERMANENT INJURIES OR EVEN DEATH
Makenzie underwent an instruction course that included [*3] determining the condition of the parachute after deployment, gaining control and resolving any deployment problems and, if necessary, activating her emergency parachute. In connection with her registration and training, Makenzie and her parents both signed and/or initialed an accompanying document entitled “Agreement, Release of Liability and Acknowledgment of Risk” (the Release). The Release contained numerous exculpatory provisions, which stated in pertinent part:
1. RELEASE FROM LIABILITY. I hereby RELEASE AND DISCHARGE [Defendant] from any and all liability claims, demands or causes of action that I may hereafter have for injuries and damages arising out of my participation in parachuting and other aviation activities, including but not limited to LOSSES CAUSED BY THE NEGLIGENCE OR OTHER FAULT OF THE RELEASED PARTIES.
2. COVENANT NOT TO SUE. I further agree that I WILL NOT SUE OR MAKE A CLAIM AGAINST [Defendant] for damages or other losses sustained as a result of my participation in parachuting and other aviation activities.
* * *
5. ACKNOWLEDGMENT OF RISK. I understand and acknowledge that parachuting activities have inherent dangers that no amount of care, caution, instruction or [*4] expertise can eliminate and I EXPRESSLY AND VOLUNTARILY ACKNOWLEDGE ALL RISK OF DEATH OR PERSONAL INJURY SUSTAINED WHILE PARTICIPATING IN PARACHUTING AND OTHER AVIATION ACTIVITIES WHETHER OR NOT CAUSED BY THE NEGLIGENCE OR OTHER FAULT OF THE RELEASED PARTIES, including but not limited to equipment malfunction from whatever cause or inadequate training.
* * *
9. ENFORCEABILITY. I agree that if any portion of this Agreement, Release of Liability and Acknowledgment of risk is found to be unenforceable or against public policy, that only that portion shall fall and all other portions shall remain in full force and effect. . . . I also specifically waive any unenforceability or any public policy argument that I may make or that may be made on behalf of my estate or by anyone who would sue because of injury, damage or death as a result of my participation in parachuting and other aviation activities.
10. LEGAL RIGHTS. It has been explained to me, and I expressly recognize that this Agreement, Release of Liability and Acknowledgment of Risk is a contract pursuant to which I am giving up important legal rights, and it is my intention to do so.
Near the bottom of the form, Makenzie [*5] read and rewrote the following statement: “I hereby certify that I have read this Agreement, Release of Liability and Acknowledgment of Risk, that I fully understand the contents of this contract, that I wish to be bound by its terms, and that I have signed this contract of my own free will.” This statement was signed and dated by Makenzie and initialed by her mother. At the bottom of the Release, under the heading, “RATIFICATION BY PARENT/GUARDIAN if participant is under 18-years-of-age,” both parents attested that they had read the agreement, understood its terms, and agreed to be bound thereby.
Makenzie received four hours of training and instruction. She was assigned a used parachute based on her size and weight. Defendant employed the assistance of Jacob Martinez to act as radio controller. Mr. Martinez’s duty was to help guide the jumpers onto the landing area and it was his first time to assist with the radio. Upon Makenzie’s jump, her chute malfunctioned, causing her to spin with increasing rapidity towards the ground. Makenzie landed at a high speed and impact, causing her to sustain serious injuries.
STANDARD OF DECISION
“Summary judgment is proper if, viewing the evidence in [*6] the light most favorable to the non-moving party, there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Bonidy v. U.S. Postal Service, 790 F.3d 1121, 1124 (10th Cir. 2015) (citing Peterson v. Martinez, 707 F.3d 1197, 1207 (10th Cir. 2013)). The Court’s function at the summary judgment stage is not to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter asserted, but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial. Tolan v. Cotton, U.S. , 134 S.Ct. 1861, 1866, 188 L.Ed.2d 895 (2014). An issue is “genuine” if there is sufficient evidence on each side so that a rational trier of fact could resolve the issue either way. Adler v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 144 F.3d 664, 670 (10th Cir. 1998). An issue of fact is “material” if under the substantive law it is essential to the proper disposition of the claim. Id. Once the moving party has met its burden, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to present sufficient evidence in specific, factual form to establish a genuine factual dispute. Bacchus Indus., Inc. v. Arvin Indus., Inc., 939 F.2d 887, 891 (10th Cir. 1991).
The nonmoving party may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of its pleadings. Rather, it must go beyond the pleadings and establish, through admissible evidence, there is a genuine issue of material fact that must be resolved by the trier of fact. Salehpoor v. Shahinpoor, 358 F.3d 782, 786 (10th Cir. 2004). Unsupported conclusory allegations do not create an issue of fact. Finstuen v. Crutcher, 496 F.3d 1139, 1144 (10th Cir. 2007).
Defendant contends the Release absolves him from all liability [*7] for any injury suffered by Makenzie. Plaintiffs respond that Defendant’s motion should be denied because (1) Makenzie was a minor when she signed the Release, rendering it invalid under Oklahoma law,2 (2) Defendant is clearly liable under the theories asserted, and (3) this Court had a duty to protect Makenzie as a minor.
2 In Oklahoma, a minor is any person under eighteen (18) years of age. 15 Okla. Stat. § 13.
“An exculpatory clause releases in advance the second party for any harm the second party might cause the first party after the contract is entered.” Arnold Oil Properties LLC v. Schlumberger Tech. Corp., 672 F.3d 1202, 1206-07 (10th Cir. 2012) (citation omitted). While generally enforceable, such clauses are considered “distasteful to the law.” Schmidt v. United States, 1996 OK 29, P 8, 912 P.2d 871, 874 (emphasis in original).3 Exculpatory clauses are enforceable only if they meet the three following criteria:
(1) Their language must evidence a clear and unambiguous intent to exonerate the would-be defendant from liability for the sought-to-be-recovered damages;
(2) At the time the contract was executed, there must have been no vast difference in bargaining power between parties; and
(3) Enforcement of the clause would not (a) be injurious to public health, public morals or confidence in administration of the law or (b) so undermine the security of individual [*8] rights vis-a-vis personal safety or private property as to violate public policy.
Schmidt, 912 P.2d at 874. “The clause will never avail to relieve a party from liability for intentional, willful or fraudulent acts or gross, wanton negligence.” Id. at 874 (citations omitted, emphasis in original); Satellite System, Inc. v. Birch Telecom of Okla., Inc., 2002 OK 61, P 11, 51 P.3d 585, 589 (“Oklahoma has a strong legislative public policy against contracts which attempt ‘to exempt anyone from responsibility for his own fraud, or willful injury to the person or property of another.'”) (citing 15 Okla. Stat. § 212).
3 Notwithstanding this admonition, courts should void contract clauses on public-policy grounds “rarely, with great caution and in cases that are free from doubt.” Union Pacific R. Co. v. U.S. ex rel. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 591 F.3d 1311, 1321 (10th Cir. 2010) (quoting Shepard v. Farmers Ins. Co., 1983 OK 103, P 3, 678 P.2d 250, 251).
Oklahoma courts, and others, have upheld exculpatory contracts similar to the present Release, i.e., contracts that exculpate the defendant from injuries suffered by plaintiffs while skydiving. See Manning v. Brannon, 1998 OK CIV APP 17, PP 15-17, 956 P.2d 156, 158-59 (exculpatory contract relieving defendant from any liability for injuries to plaintiff from parachuting activities was valid and enforceable); see also Scrivener v. Sky’s the Limit, Inc., 68 F. Supp. 2d 277, 280 (S.D.N.Y. 1999); Paralift, Inc. v. Superior Court, 23 Cal.App.4th 748, 756, 29 Cal.Rptr.2d 177, 181 (1993); Jones v. Dressel, 623 P.2d 370, 376 (Colo. 1981). This Court, likewise, finds the Release is generally valid on its face.
First, the Release states in clear and unequivocal terms the intention of the parties to excuse Defendant from liability caused [*9] by Defendant’s negligence, equipment failure, or inadequate instruction. Plaintiffs signed and initialed several clauses containing the headings, RELEASE FROM LIABILITY, COVENANT NOT TO SUE, and ACKNOWLEDGMENT OF RISK. Mrs. Wethington and her husband signed a ratification stating they had read the Release, understood its terms, and agreed to be bound thereby. Second, there is no evidence of unequal bargaining power. “Oklahoma courts consider two factors in determining parties’ relative bargaining power: ‘(1) the importance of the subject matter to the physical or economic wellbeing of the party agreeing to the release, and (2) the amount of free choice that party could have exercised when seeking alternate services.'” Arnold Oil, 672 F.3d at 1208 (quoting Schmidt, 912 P.2d at 874). There is no evidence that skydiving was necessary or important to Plaintiffs’ wellbeing. In fact, when asked why she wanted to skydive, Makenzie answered, “It’s on my bucket list.” Moreover, Plaintiffs do not contend Makenzie had no choice but to agree to be trained by and jump with Defendant as opposed to going elsewhere. Third, as noted, Oklahoma courts have upheld such releases as not against public policy. See Manning, 956 P.2d at 159 (“we find a exculpatory contract in the [*10] context of a high-risk sport such as sky diving not against the public policy of this state.”).
Plaintiffs nevertheless maintain the Release is voidable because Makenzie was a minor when she signed it and her subsequent suit disaffirmed the agreement. It is also true that as a matter of public policy, courts have protected minors from improvident and imprudent contractual commitments by declaring the contract of a minor is voidable at the election of the minor after she attains majority. See 15 Okla. Stat. § 19. “A release is a contract.” Corbett v. Combined Communications Corp., 1982 OK 135, P 5, 654 P.2d 616, 617. Under Oklahoma law, a minor’s right to rescind a contract is unaffected by the approval or consent of a parent. Gomes v. Hameed, 2008 OK 3, P 26, 184 P.3d 479, 489 (citing Gage v. Moore, 1948 OK 214, P 8, 200 Okla. 623, 198 P.2d 395, 396).
In this case, however, Makenzie’s parents also knowingly signed the Release on her behalf, ratifying and affirming its exculpatory content, and agreeing to be bound thereby. Nevertheless, Defendant refers this Court to no controlling authority that permits the parent of a minor to, on the minor’s behalf, release or waive the minor’s prospective claim for negligence. The Court is unaware of any such authority, and therefore must predict how the Oklahoma Supreme Court would rule on the question. Ortiz v. Cooper Tire & Rubber Co., No. CIV-13-32-D, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 41544, 2015 WL 1498713, at *5 (W.D. Okla. Mar. 31, 2015) (“A [*11] federal court sitting in diversity must apply state law as propounded by the forum’s highest court. Absent controlling precedent, the federal court must attempt to predict how the state’s highest court would resolve the issue.”) (quoting Royal Maccabees Life Ins. Co. v. Choren, 393 F.3d 1175, 1180 (10th Cir. 2005)).
Although the cases are split on the issue, it is well-recognized that the majority of state courts considering the issue have held a parent may not release a minor’s prospective claim for negligence. See Fedor v. Mauwehu Council, Boy Scouts of Am., 21 Conn. Supp. 38, 143 A.2d 466, 467-68 (Conn. 1958); Kirton v. Fields, 997 So.2d 349, 356 (Fla. 2008) (pre-injury release executed by parent on behalf of minor is unenforceable against minor or the minor’s estate in a tort action arising from injuries resulting from participation in a commercial activity); Hojnowski v. Vans Skate Park, 187 N.J. 323, 901 A.2d 381, 386 (N.J. 2006) (New Jersey public policy prohibits parents of a minor child from releasing a minor child’s potential tort claim arising out of the use of a commercial recreational facility); Meyer v. Naperville Manner, Inc., 262 Ill. App. 3d 141, 634 N.E.2d 411, 414, 199 Ill. Dec. 572 (Ill. App. Ct. 1994) (“[I]n the absence of statutory or judicial authorization, a parent cannot waive, compromise, or release a minor child’s cause of action merely because of the parental relationship . . . . This rule has also been extended to render ineffective releases or exculpatory agreements for future tortious conduct by other persons where such releases had been signed by parents on [*12] behalf of their minor children.”); Galloway v. State, 790 N.W.2d 252, 256 (Iowa 2010) (public policy precluded enforcement of parent’s pre-injury waiver of her child’s cause of action for injuries caused by negligence); Doyle v. Bowdoin College, 403 A.2d 1206, 1208 n. 3 (Me. 1979) (“a parent, or guardian, cannot release the child’s or ward’s, cause of action.”); Childress v. Madison County, 777 S.W.2d 1, 6-7 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1989); Woodman v. Kera, LLC, 280 Mich. App. 125, 760 N.W.2d 641, 655-56 (Mich. Ct. App. 2008) (pre-injury waivers effectuated by parents on behalf of their minor children are not presumptively enforceable); Apicella v. Valley Forge Military Acad. & Junior Coll., 630 F.Supp. 20, 24 (E.D. Penn. 1985) (“Under Pennsylvania law, parents do not possess the authority to release the claims or potential claims of a minor child merely because of the parental relationship.”); Munoz v. II Jaz Inc., 863 S.W.2d 207, 209-10 (Tex. App. 1993) (statute which empowered parents to make legal decisions concerning their child did not give parents power to waive child’s cause of action for personal injuries); Scott v. Pacific West Mountain Resort, 119 Wn.2d 484, 834 P.2d 6, 11-12 (Wash. 1992) (“A parent does not have legal authority to waive a child’s own future cause of action for personal injuries resulting from a third party’s negligence”).4
4 Of the cases enforcing pre-injury releases executed by parents on behalf of minor children, most involve state-enacted legislation permitting such waiver or the minor’s participation in school-run or community-sponsored activities. See, e.g., Squires v. Breckenridge Outdoor Educ. Ctr., 715 F.3d 867, 874 (10th Cir. 2013); Hohe v. San Diego Unified Sch. Dist., 224 Cal. App. 3d 1559, 1564, 274 Cal. Rptr. 647, 649-50 (1990); BJ’s Wholesale Club, Inc. v. Rosen, 435 Md. 714, 80 A.3d 345, 362 (Md. 2013); Sharon v. City of Newton, 437 Mass. 99, 769 N.E.2d 738, 746-47 (Mass. 2002); Zivich v. Mentor Soccer Club, Inc., 82 Ohio St. 3d 367, 1998 Ohio 389, 696 N.E.2d 201, 205 (Ohio 1998).
These decisions have invalidated such agreements on the grounds that (1) parents have no [*13] such power, or (2) the agreements violate public policy. The underlying rationale employed by many is that courts, acting in the role as parens patriae, have a duty to protect minors. Oklahoma recognizes its duty to protect minor children. Baby F. v. Oklahoma County District Court, 2015 OK 24, P 23, 348 P.3d 1080, 1088. In Oklahoma, a parent or guardian may not settle a child’s claim without prior court approval. See 30 Okla. Stat. § 4-702 (“A guardian, with the approval of the court exercising jurisdiction in the suit or proceeding, may compromise and settle any claim made by, on behalf of or against the ward in such suit or proceeding.”). As aptly summarized by the Washington Supreme Court in Scott:
Since a parent generally may not release a child’s cause of action after injury, it makes little, if any, sense to conclude a parent has the authority to release a child’s cause of action prior to an injury. In situations where parents are unwilling or unable to provide for a seriously injured child, the child would have no recourse against a negligent party to acquire resources needed for care and this is true regardless of when relinquishment of the child’s rights might occur.
Scott, 834 P.2d at 11-12 (emphasis added).
Based on the case law in Oklahoma and other jurisdictions, the Court is led to the conclusion [*14] that (1) Makenzie’s acknowledgment and execution of the Release is of no consequence and does not preclude her claims against Defendant, and (2) the Oklahoma Supreme Court would find that an exculpatory agreement regarding future tortious conduct, signed by parents on behalf of their minor children, is unenforceable. Accordingly, to the extent the Release purports to bar Makenzie’s own cause of action against Defendant, it is voidable. Plaintiffs correctly argue that commencement of this lawsuit constitutes a disaffirmance of the Release (see, e.g., Gage, supra; Ryan v. Morrison, 1913 OK 598, 40 Okla. 49, 135 P. 1049), and the contract is void ab initio. Grissom v. Beidleman, 1912 OK 847, P 8, 35 Okla. 343, 129 P. 853, 857 (“The disaffirmance of a contract made by an infant nullifies it and renders it void ab initio; and the parties are returned to the same condition as if the contract had never been made.”). The ratification signed by Makenzie’s parents is likewise unenforceable as a bar to Makenzie’s claims. The Release, however, is otherwise conspicuous and clear so as to bar the parents’ cause of action based upon injury to their child. Therefore, Mrs. Wethington’s causes of action, individually, are barred.5
5 As noted, exculpatory clauses cannot excuse one for, inter alia, gross negligence. The statutory definition [*15] of gross negligence is “want of slight care and diligence.” 25 Okla. Stat. § 6. Under Oklahoma law, “gross negligence” requires the intentional failure to perform a manifest duty in reckless disregard of consequences or in callous indifference to life, liberty, or property of another. Palace Exploration Co. v. Petroleum Dev. Co., 374 F.3d 951, 954 (10th Cir. 2004). Plaintiffs expressly plead in their Complaint only causes of action for negligence and breach of contract. Moreover, although Plaintiffs’ Complaint seeks punitive damages based on Defendant’s alleged “gross, willful, and intentional acts,” Compl., P 8, Plaintiffs neither argue nor present any evidence indicating Defendant’s actions constituted anything beyond ordinary negligence.
Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. No. 24] is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART. Defendant’s motion is granted as to Plaintiff Holly Wethington’s claims and denied as to Plaintiff Makenzie Wethington’s claim for negligence. Since the skydiving contract is rendered void ab initio by means of Makenzie’s lawsuit, her breach of contract claim cannot proceed as a matter of law.
IT IS SO ORDERED this 18th day of December, 2015.
/s/ Timothy D. DeGiusti
TIMOTHY D. DeGIUSTI
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
If your state is not listed here, you should assume a parent cannot waive a minor’s right to sue in your state.
Alaska: Sec. 09.65.292
Sec. 05.45.120 does not allow using a release by ski areas for ski injuries
ARS § 12-553
Limited to Equine Activities
Florida Statute § 744.301 (3)
By Case Law
Allows a release signed by a parent to require arbitration of the minor’s claims
Release can be used for volunteer activities and by government entities
Release upheld for injury to 5 year old in chair care area of store while parents shopped.
Osborn v. Cascade Mountain, Inc., 655 N.W.2d 546, 259 Wis. 2d 481, 2002 Wisc. App. LEXIS 1216, 2003 WI App 1
However the decision in Atkins v. Swimwest Family Fitness Center, 2005 WI 4; 2005 Wisc. LEXIS 2 voided all releases in the state
On the Edge, but not enough to really rely on
Ruling is by the Federal District Court and only a preliminary motion
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What do I look for when evaluating releases or writing one?
If you are getting ready for your summer recreation business it is always a good idea to make sure your paperwork is up to date and ready to go. This is a checklist to help you check your release and make sure your release is doing more than wasting paper.
Not all of these clauses mentioned in the checklist may be needed. However, some of them are critical and they may all be modified based on your activity, program, employees, and ability to undertake the risks.
I’ve divided this checklist into three major parts:
· Required for your Release to be Valid: What is absolutely required
· Needed: What you should have for your release to be valid in most states
· What Your Release Cannot Have: What you should never have in your document
There are some subsections also that are fairly self-explanatory. This will probably not be in all releases, but may be required in your release based on what you are trying to accomplish or what you are doing.
Required for your Release to be Valid
Contract: The legal requirements for a contract are met if the release is signed
Updated Recently: Has your release been reviewed by an attorney in the past year or do you work with an attorney that updates you on changes you need to make to your release?
Notice of Legal Document: Does your release someplace on its face, give notice to the person signing it that they are signing a release or a legal document?
Parties: You have to identify who is to be protected by the release and who the release applies too.
Assumption of Risk Language: Does your release contain language that explains the risk of the activities the release is designed to protect litigation against.
Agreement to Assume Risks: Do your release have language that states the signor agrees to assume the risk
Magic Word: Negligence: Does your release have the signor give up their right to sue for negligence?
Plain Language: Is the release written so that it can be understood? Is it written in plain English?
Venue: Does your release have a Venue Clause?
Jurisdiction: Does your release have a Jurisdiction Clause?
Signatures: Does your release have a place for the signor to date and sign the release
Nothing in your marketing program invalidates your release.
Information to complete the continuing duty to inform
Items that may be Needed Dependent upon the Purpose of the Release
Product Liability Language
Release of Confidential Medical Information
Signor has viewed the Website
Signor has viewed the Videos
Signor has read the information
Signor has conveyed the necessary information to minor child
Reference to required Statute
Notice of Legal Document:
Opening/Introduction: Does your release have an opening or introduction explaining its purpose
Assumption of Risk Language
Minor Injuries Noticed
Major Injuries Noticed
Third party costs
First party costs
How Release is to be interpreted
Breach of Covenant of Good Faith
Permission to release medical information
Waiver of medical confidentiality
Waiver of HIV status
Statement as to Insurance
Incidental issues covered
Release language in Plain English
Agreement that the document has been read
Agreement that the signor agrees to the terms
What Your Release Cannot Have
Places to Initial
No heading or indication of the legal nature
No indication or notice of the rights the signor is giving up
Release Hidden within another document
Important sections with no heading or not bolded
Multiple pages that are not associated with each other
Miscellaneous Clauses your Release may Need
Electronic Signature Clause
Rental Agreement Clause
Understand use of Equipment
Accept Equipment As Is
Agree to ask questions about Equipment
Understand Demo Equipment has more Risk
More articles about releases.
If you are interested in a Professional Review of your Release please let me know.
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Every time someone comes to your business or every time they sign up again they should sign a release. This time it got rid of a major problem.Posted: March 19, 2012
Releases work for future injuries and for injuries that may have all ready occurred.
This is a case where as part of the employment at a ski area, the family of the employee was able to get season passes. A requirement for the season pass was to sign a release.
In this case, the plaintiff was injured skiing on a season pass issued to the family member of an employee. The plaintiff sued the ski resort for his injuries. After the lawsuit had commenced but before trial, the plaintiff got another season pass and signed another release. The second release language was sufficient to stop the lawsuit.
The release was called a post injury release now because it stopped a lawsuit after the injury. Normally, I discuss pre-injury releases. Pre-Injury releases are releases that are signed in case someone is injured in a negligent manner.
Summary of the case
After it was discovered the plaintiff had signed a second release, the defense moved to amend their answer and filed a motion for summary judgment. The trial court granted the motion to amend and add the defense of release and accord and satisfaction. The plaintiff appealed.
“Release” is an affirmative defense. An affirmative defense is one that must be plead immediately in the answer of the defendant or the defense is waived. Release as a defense means that the parties have executed an agreement that releases the defendant from any claims.
“Accord and Satisfaction” are also an affirmative defense. Accord and Satisfaction means the party have come to an agreement, an accord and resolved their differences to the satisfaction of all parties.
The plaintiff argued that the post injury release was unconscionable. The contract should not be enforced because of:
“….inadequacies, such as age, literacy, lack of sophistication, hidden or unduly complex contract terms, bargaining tactics, and the particular setting existing during the contract formation process.”
An unconscionable contract or a contract of adhesion is one that the terms were offered on a take or leave it basis the terms are unjust to the point the court cannot allow the contract to stand. The contract must be so bad as to shock the conscience of the court. However, the contract cannot just be bad to one party.
Here, there are several factors that would not make the contract unconscionable. The contract is not for a necessary service. The services could be received from the same party in other ways. (Instead of signing a release and getting a season pass, the plaintiff could have purchased daily lift tickets and not signed a release.) The services were available from other providers.
The court found there were no coercion, duress, fraud or “sharp practices” by the defendant. The agreement did not change the duty of care nor did it “incentivize negligence.” Each of the contracting parties gained or gave away something of value.
So Now What?
Here the defendant was lucky. The plaintiff unknowingly signed a release to get his season pass that had the language necessary to stop a claim that had already occurred. There are two important points to bring up from this case.
1 Make sure your release has language to top future claims and past claims.
2. Every single time have every single-person sign a release. Get a new season pass, you sign the release again. Go rafting again, you sign the release. Buy another widget sign the release.
You just never know when a release from the future may stop a claim from the past.
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Dearnley v. Mountain Creek, 2012 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 527
Derek Dearnley and Vicky Dearnley, his wife, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. Mountain Creek, its agents, servants and employees, Defendant-Respondent.
Docket no. A-5517-10T1
Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division
2012 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 527
February 29, 2012, Argued
March 12, 2012, Decided
Notice: not for publication without the approval of the appellate division.
Please consult new jersey rule 1:36-3 for citation of unpublished opinions.
Prior History: [*1]
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Sussex County, Docket No. L-540-09.
CORE TERMS: season, summary judgment, ski area, unconscionability, unconscionable, affirmative defenses, resort, Law Division, contract of adhesion, exculpatory provisions, releasor’s, surgery, ski, pass holder, bold, tort liability, de novo, contracting party’s, public policy, sliding scale, unenforceable, snowboarding, exculpatory, non-moving, favorable, equitable, adhesion, binding, bargain, quod
COUNSEL: Evan D. Baker argued the cause for appellants (Law Offices of Rosemarie Arnold, attorneys; Mr. Baker, of counsel and on the brief).
Samuel J. McNulty argued the cause for respondent (Hueston McNulty, P.C., attorneys; Mr. McNulty, of counsel and on the brief; John F. Gaffney and Stephen H. Shaw on the brief).
JUDGES: Before Judges Harris and Koblitz.
Plaintiffs Derek Dearnley and Vicky Dearnley appeal from the June 16, 2011, summary judgment dismissal of their six-count complaint. Plaintiffs sought tort remedies for injuries suffered by Mr. Dearnley while snowboarding at defendant Mountain Creek Resort, Inc.’s ski area in Vernon. We affirm.
1 This appeal arises from the motion court’s grant of summary judgment in defendant’s favor. Accordingly, we present the evidence in the light most favorable to plaintiffs. See Durand v. The Nutley Sun, N.J. , (2012) (slip op. at 3 n.1) (citing G.D. v. Kenny, 205 N.J. 275, 304 (2011) (citations omitted); R. 4:46-2(c)).
Between 1998 and 2010, Mrs. Dearnley was employed by defendant in its retail department. As part of her compensation benefits, [*2] she and her family members were entitled to apply for, and obtain, a free season pass to use defendant’s facilities at its Vernon ski resort. On November 25, 2008, because her husband desired to take advantage of this benefit for the 2008-2009 winter season, Mrs. Dearnley applied for, and obtained, the pass. She signed, on his behalf, a document entitled, “Season Pass Contract, Student Ski & Ride Voucher Program, Rules and Conditions of Sale, Release of Liability and Indemnity Agreement” (the 2008 agreement). The 2008 agreement contained exculpatory provisions purporting to release tort claims before they occurred. For example, the pass holder “fully release[d] Mountain Creek FROM ANY AND ALL LIABILITY for personal injury, death or property damage arising out of or resulting from [the pass holder’s] participation in this sport, MOUNTAIN CREEK’S NEGLIGENCE, conditions on or about the premises and facilities or the operations of the ski area” (capitalization in the original). The outcome of this appeal, however, does not turn on this language.
On January 4, 2009, Mr. Dearnley was snowboarding at the Mountain Creek ski area when he suffered an accident that he attributes to defendant’s [*3] negligence and breach of its duties under N.J.S.A. 5:13-1 to -11 (the Ski Act). As a result of the accident, Mr. Dearnley incurred serious injuries, which required immediate emergency surgery to stabilize his back by the implantation of metal rods and screws. According to his answers to interrogatories, Mr. Dearnley ultimately spent approximately six weeks in the hospital, had to endure three surgeries, and underwent weeks of physical therapy and rehabilitation.
On October 13, 2009, plaintiffs filed their personal injury and per quod complaint against defendant in the Law Division, Sussex Vicinage. Defendant’s answer listed ten affirmative defenses, but did not assert that the 2008 agreement’s exculpatory provisions barred the action.
Two months later, on December 21, 2009, while his wife was still employed by defendant, Mr. Dearnley applied for a season pass for the 2009-2010 winter season. He was presented with, and signed, a two-page document entitled, “Mountain Creek Resort, Inc. 2009-’10 Season Pass Wavier” (the 2009 agreement). In bold, capitalized print at the top of the first page, the 2009 agreement stated, “RELEASE, WARNINGS AND DISCLAIMERS ON SKIING.”
At the top of the second [*4] page, to which Mr. Dearnley affixed his signature, the following appeared in bold typeface:
I FURTHER RELEASE AND GIVE UP ANY AND ALL CLAIMS AND RIGHTS THAT I MAY NOW HAVE AGAINST MOUNTAIN CREEK RESORT, INC. THIS RELEASES ALL CLAIMS, INCLUDING THOSE OF WHICH I AM NOT AWARE AND THOSE NOT MENTIONED IN THIS RELEASE. THIS RELEASE APPLIES TO CLAIMS RESULTING FROM ANYTHING WHICH HAS HAPPENED UP TO NOW.
The 2009 agreement also stated in bold typeface: “I AM AWARE THAT THIS CONTRACT IS LEGALLY BINDING AND THAT I AM RELEASING LEGAL RIGHTS BY SIGNING IT.”
During discovery, the 2008 and 2009 agreements were exchanged between the parties’ attorneys. Upon the realization of what Mr. Dearnley had signed, plaintiffs filed a motion “for an Order barring the affirmative defenses related to two adhesion contracts.” Defendant filed a cross-motion seeking (1) summary judgment, (2) permission to file an amended answer, and (3) denial of plaintiffs’ motion.
On April 29, 2011, Judge Edward V. Gannon heard oral argument. The judge granted defendant’s motion to amend its answer to permit the pleading of (1) release and (2) accord and satisfaction as affirmative defenses. The judge noted that the 2009 agreement [*5] was executed after both the filing of plaintiffs’ complaint and defendant’s answer, and therefore could not have been contemplated by the first exchange of pleadings. Reciprocally, he denied plaintiff’s motion to bar the affirmative defenses. Finally, he reserved decision on what he called “a matter of first impression with regard to this particular type of release.”
On June 16, 2011, Judge Gannon entered an order granting summary judgment dismissing plaintiffs’ complaint with prejudice. He explained his decision in a thorough ten-page statement of reasons, taking pains to carefully explicate the two agreements and then analyze them under the lens of applicable law. This appeal ensued.
Orders granting summary judgment pursuant to Rule 4:46-2 are reviewed de novo, and we apply the same legal standard employed by the Law Division. Canter v. Lakewood of Voorhees, 420 N.J. Super. 508, 515 (App. Div. 2011). In performing our appellate function we consider, as did the motion court, “‘whether the competent evidential materials presented, when viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, are sufficient to permit a rational factfinder to resolve the alleged disputed issue in [*6] favor of the non-moving party.'” Advance Hous., Inc. v. Twp. of Teaneck, 422 N.J. Super. 317, 327 (App. Div. 2011) (quoting Brill v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 142 N.J. 520, 540 (1995)), certif. granted, N.J. (Jan. 24, 2012).
Similarly, when the legal conclusions of a motion court’s Rule 4:46-2 summary judgment decision are reviewed on appeal, “‘[a] trial court’s interpretation of the law and the legal consequences that flow from established facts are not entitled to any special deference[,]’ and, hence, an ‘issue of law is subject to de novo plenary appellate review.'” Estate of Hanges v. Metro. Prop. Cas. Ins. Co., 202 N.J. 369, 382-83 (2010) (quoting City of Atl. City v. Trupos, 201 N.J. 447, 463 (2010)).
Judge Gannon dismissed plaintiffs’ claims based upon the release contained in the 2009 agreement, which was personally executed by Mr. Dearnley months after his injuries and surgeries, months after he hired a lawyer, and months after he filed suit. From our review of the undisputed factual record, we are satisfied that this case does not present any novel or first impression issues. Rather, it revolves around an ordinary release —- not exculpatory —- clause and is governed [*7] by familiar principles of contract interpretation. As Judge Gannon stated,
Invalidating the agreed upon waiver would signal judicial mistrust of our citizen’s ability to intelligently enter contracts, in which benefits derive from the assumptions of burdens. In this case, Mr. Dearnley surrendered his right to maintain this suit in exchange for the benefits afforded to season pass holders. A contracting party’s assumption of a substantial burden is no basis for interfering with our citizens’ right to freely contract.
We affirm substantially for the reasons expressed by Judge Gannon, and add only the following brief comments.
Plaintiffs condemn the 2009 agreement as a contract of adhesion, fraught with unconscionabilty, and contrary to public policy. We emphasize that our review is limited to the 2009 agreement, not the 2008 agreement. We are not concerned with defendant’s efforts to exculpate itself from tort liability before an invitee becomes injured at its ski area. Instead, we parse Mr. Dearnley’s release of a claim after it allegedly accrued.
We begin our analysis of the enforceability of the release contained in the 2009 agreement with recognition of the deep-seated principle that [*8] contracts will be enforced as written. Vasquez v. Glassboro Serv. Ass’n, Inc., 83 N.J. 86, 98-100 (1980). Ordinarily, courts will not rewrite contracts to favor a party, for the purpose of giving that party a better bargain. Relief is not available merely because enforcement of the contract causes oppression, improvidence, or unprofitability, or because it produces hardship to one of the parties. Brunswick Hills Racquet Club, Inc. v. Route 18 Shopping Ctr. Assocs., 182 N.J. 210, 223 (2005). A court cannot “‘abrogate the terms of a contract unless there is a settled equitable principle, such as fraud, mistake, or accident, allowing for such intervention.'” Id. at 223-24 (quoting Dunkin’ Donuts of America, Inc. v. Middletown Donut Corp., 100 N.J. 166, 183-84 (1985)).
Rational personal and economic behavior in the modern post-industrial world is only possible if agreements between parties are respected. The reasonable expectations created by mutual assent ought to receive the protection of the law and courts should not be encouraged to fashion a better arrangement for a party because of a gaffe to which the other party is not privy. In other words, avoidance of a contract is a very stern [*9] remedy that requires clear evidence demonstrating that the consequences of the mistake are so grave that enforcement of the contract would be unconscionable. That formidable threshold has not been surmounted here.
Notwithstanding the foregoing, a contract provision that is procedurally and substantively unconscionable can be set aside. See Muhammad v. Cnty. Bank of Rehoboth Beach, 189 N.J. 1, 15 (2006), cert. denied, 549 U.S. 1338, 127 S. Ct. 2032, 167 L. Ed. 2d 763 (2007). “[P]rocedural unconscionability . . . ‘can include a variety of inadequacies, such as age, literacy, lack of sophistication, hidden or unduly complex contract terms, bargaining tactics, and the particular setting existing during the contract formation process[.]'” Ibid. (quoting Sitogum Holdings, Inc. v. Ropes, 352 N.J. Super. 555, 564-66 (Ch. Div. 2002). A contract of adhesion, presented by the drafting party to the other party on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, as here, typically involves “some characteristics of procedural unconscionability[.]” Id. at 16. The determination “that a contract is one of adhesion, however, ‘is the beginning, not the end, of the inquiry’ into whether a contract, or any specific term therein, [*10] should be deemed unenforceable based on policy considerations.” Id. at 28 (citing Rudbart v. N. Jersey Dist. Water Supply Comm., 127 N.J. 344 (1992)).
Substantive unconscionability essentially refers to the inclusion within a contract of “harsh or unfair one-sided terms.” Id. at 15 (citing Sitogum, supra, 352 N.J. Super. at 564-66). It is also described as “‘the exchange of obligations so one-sided as to shock the court’s conscience.'” B & S Ltd., Inc. v. Elephant & Castle Intern., Inc., 388 N.J. Super. 160, 176 (Ch. Div. 2006)(quoting Sitogum, supra, 352 N.J. Super. at 565).
Generally, courts must undertake “a careful fact sensitive examination into [claims of] substantive unconscionability.” Id. at 16 (footnote omitted). “When making the determination that a contract of adhesion is unconscionable and unenforceable, we consider, using a sliding scale analysis, the way in which the contract was formed and, further, whether enforcement of the contract implicates matters of public interest.” Stelluti v. Casapenn Enters., LLC, 203 N.J. 286, 301 (2010).
The release provisions of the 2009 agreement are not the analytical equivalent of its exculpatory provisions. “The law does not favor exculpatory [*11] agreements because they encourage a lack of care.” Gershon v. Regency Diving Ctr., Inc., 368 N.J. Super. 237, 247 (App. Div. 2004). For that reason, courts closely scrutinize attempts to contract in advance to release tort liability. “‘[C]ourts have not hesitated to strike limited liability clauses that are unconscionable or in violation of public policy.'” Hojnowski v. Vans Skate Park, 187 N.J. 323, 333 (2004) (quoting Lucier v. Williams, 366 N.J. Super. 485, 491 (App. Div. 2004)).
The subject release does not call forth any of the foregoing concerns. Mr. Dearnley’s 2009 agreement with defendant neither eroded defendant’s duty of care nor did it incentivize negligence. Each of the contracting parties gained or gave away something of value. There was no coercion, duress, fraud, or sharp practices afoot. Public policy is not offended by requiring a non-incapacitated adult to honor the type of promise given here. See Raroha v. Earle Fin. Corp., 47 N.J. 229, 234 (1966) (holding that in the absence of fraud, misrepresentation or overreaching by the releasee, in the absence of a showing that the releasor was suffering from an incapacity affecting his ability to understand the meaning of [*12] the release and in the absence of any other equitable ground, it is the law of this State that the release is binding and that the releasor will be held to the terms of the bargain he willingly and knowingly entered).
Judge Gannon properly calibrated the “sliding scale” of our unconscionabilty jurisprudence and correctly determined that the 2009 agreement’s release was enforceable. Mr. Dearnley’s releasor’s remorse is an insufficient basis to return this matter to the Law Division for trial.2
2 Mrs. Dearnley’s claims are entirely derivative of her husband’s and consequently her per quod action must fall in the wake of Mr. Dearnley’s release. See Ryan v. Renny, 203 N.J. 37, 62 n.1 (2011) (noting that “the viability of [that claim] is subject to the survival of [her husband]’s claim” (quoting Sciarrotta v. Global Spectrum, 194 N.J. 345, 350 n.3 (2008)).)
Universal Gym Equipment, Inc. v Vic Tanny International, Inc., 207 Mich. App. 364; 526 N.W.2d 5; 1994 Mich. App. LEXIS 443Posted: January 24, 2011
Universal Gym Equipment, Inc. v Vic Tanny International, Inc., 207 Mich. App. 364; 526 N.W.2d 5; 1994 Mich. App. LEXIS 443
Universal Gym Equipment, Inc., Plaintiff-Appellant, v Vic Tanny International, Inc., and Vic Tanny of Greater Michigan, inc., Defendants-Appellees.
COURT OF APPEALS OF MICHIGAN
207 Mich. App. 364; 526 N.W.2d 5; 1994 Mich. App. LEXIS 443
May 18, 1994, Submitted
November 7, 1994, Decided
SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: [***1] Opinion On Rehearing April 3, 1995, Reported at: 1995 Mich. App. LEXIS 146.
DISPOSITION: Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded.
COUNSEL: Barbier & Barbier, P.C. (by Ralph W. Barbier, Jr.), for the plaintiff.
Petersmarck, Callahan, Bauer & Maxwell, P.C. (by Richard W. West), for the defendants.
JUDGES: Before: Michael J. Kelly, P.J., and Corrigan and C.D. Corwin, * JJ.
* Circuit judge, sitting on the Court of Appeals by assignment.
OPINION BY: MICHAEL J. KELLY
[*366] [**6] MICHAEL J. KELLY, P.J.
Plaintiff appeals as of right a circuit court order granting defendants’ motion for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(7) and (8) and dismissing plaintiff’s complaint for contribution and indemnification following settlement of an underlying suit against plaintiff by a third party. We affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand.
On March 13, 1990, Catherine Ostroski filed suit against plaintiff Universal Gym Equipment, Inc., after she was injured at a Vic Tanny health club while using an exercise machine manufactured by Universal. Ostroski alleged that Universal was at fault. Because of a release [***2] provision in her health club membership contract, Ostroski did not name Vic Tanny as a defendant. However, Vic Tanny was aware of the proceedings and was requested to participate in settlement negotiations. On November 4, 1991, Ostroski reached a settlement agreement with Universal for $ 225,000.
On July 1, 1991, Universal initiated separate proceedings in a complaint against Vic Tanny alleging that Vic Tanny was liable for failure to maintain safe premises and had an obligation to indemnify against or to contribute toward any settlement between Universal and Ostroski. Universal filed an amended complaint after settlement with Ostroski. On July 6, 1992, Vic Tanny filed a motion for summary disposition, which the circuit court granted on September 15, 1992, on the basis that Vic Tanny could not be liable for contribution [*367] or indemnification where it had a valid defense under the release provision.
Universal first argues that the circuit court erred in granting summary disposition of its contribution claim because the release provision in Ostroski’s membership contract was unenforceable as against public policy. Alternatively, Universal contends that any defense provided [***3] by the release clause in an action between Vic Tanny and Ostroski was insufficient to bar recovery by Universal in a separate action for contribution against Vic Tanny.
With respect to thefirst argument, Universal now concedes that the release clause is enforceable in cases of ordinary negligence in light of this Court’s recent decision in Skotak v Vic Tanny Int’l, Inc, [**7] 203 Mich. App. 616; 513 N.W.2d 428 (1994). There, the Court upheld the validity of an identical clause, recognizing that [HN1] “[i]t is not contrary to this state’s public policy for a party to contract against liability for damages caused by its own ordinary negligence.” Id. at 617-618. The Court also found that the release provision “clearly expresses [Vic Tanny’s] intention to disclaim liability for all negligence, including its own.” Id. at 619.
The Skotak Court did not address the enforceability of the release clause with respect to a claim of gross negligence. Universal argues that a preinjury release provision absolving a party from liability for grossly negligent conduct [***4] violates Michigan public policy. We agree. See Klann v Hess Cartage Co, 50 Mich. App. 703, 706; 214 N.W.2d 63 [*368] (1973); Island Creek Coal Co v Lake Shore, Inc, 692 F. Supp. 629, 633(WD Va, 1988) (applying Michigan law). See also Sommer v Federal Signal Corp, 79 N.Y.2d 540, 554; 583 N.Y.S.2d 957; 593 N.E.2d 1365 (1992). Universal claims that Vic Tanny was grossly negligent in failing to maintain the exercise equipment and to train its employees and members regarding proper use of the equipment. Although Universal’s original complaint did not sound in gross negligence, it filed a motion for a second amended complaint that did include allegations of gross negligence. The trial court denied the motion, but Vic Tanny’s response to the motion and the order denying the motion are missing from the record. Because motions to amend a complaint are accorded great liberality, see MCR 2.118, and because the grounds for the trial court’s denial of the motion in this case remain a mystery, we reverse the order of denial and remand for a new hearing on the motion to file a second amended [***5] complaint. If the trial court grants the motion it shall allow further proceedings on the claim of gross negligence. If it denies the motion it shall specify the reasons and grounds for the denial.
The issue still remaining is whether Vic Tanny may invoke the release provision as a defense against Universal’s contribution claim if its conduct amounted to ordinary negligence.
Because this is an issue of first impression in Michigan, plaintiff relies in part on the opinion of the New York Court of Appeals in Sommer, supra, which found a similar release clause wholly unenforceable against a third-party contribution claimant. We consider the analysis in Sommer inapposite [*369] because we are constrained by the Michigan contribution statute, MCL 600.2925a et seq.; MSA 27A.2925(1) et seq., to reach a different result.
The Sommer court addressed the enforceability of an exculpatory clause in a contract between a fire alarm monitoring service and its customer in a contribution action against the monitoring service by third parties. Although the Court found the release clause violative of public policy only in cases of [***6] gross negligence, it went on to hold that the provision did not provide a defense to the contribution claim even in cases of ordinary negligence:
In contribution cases, we have drawn a distinction between the absence of liability to an injured party, and the absence of a duty. Often, the absence of direct liability to plaintiff is merely the result of a special defense, such as the Statute of Limitations or the exclusivity of workers’ compensation, and not because defendant was free of fault. In such cases, we have held that codefendants may seek contribution from the joint wrongdoer, despite the wrongdoer’s own defense to plaintiff’s claim. This principle is fully in accord with the rationale of Dole [v Dow, 30 N.Y.2d 143; 331 N.Y.S.2d 382; 282 N.E.2d 288 (1972)], which promotes equitable distribution of the loss in proportion to actual fault. [79 N.Y.2d at 558 (Citations omitted; emphasis in original.]
See also Moyses v Spartan Asphalt Paving Co, 383 Mich. 314; 174 N.W.2d 797 (1970); Caldwell v Fox, 394 Mich. 401, 419-420; 231 N.W.2d 46 (1975) [***7] (noting that Moyses “returned the doctrine of contribution among non-intentional wrongdoers to the original equitable rules”).
[**8] The Sommer court further explained that the defendant’s exculpatory provision in that case was “akin to a special defense that does not affect the [*370] codefendants’ ability to obtain contribution.” 79 N.Y.2d 558.
. . . Although [the defendant’s] direct liability to [the plaintiff in the underlying action] (by virtue of the exculpatory clause) is triggered only upon gross negligence, its duty is to avoid ordinary negligence. Upon breach of that duty, fairness requires that [the defendant] contribute to the judgment in proportion to its culpability. [Id. (Emphasis in original.)]
Perhaps most persuasive was the court’s observation that “it would be patently unfair to abrogate the [codefendants’] right to contribution based on an exculpatory clause to which they were not a party.” Id. In this case, Universal was not a party to the membership agreement between Vic Tanny and Ostroski. By asserting the release provision as a defense to the contribution claim, Vic Tanny is able to shift all claims [***8] to Universal without its prior knowledge or consent. 1
1 The effect on Vic Tanny’s insurability for such risks is not before us, but certainly an underwriter would weigh these risks in estimating premiums.
Nonetheless, Vic Tanny contends that the language of the contribution statute, enacted after Moyses, supra, dictates a different result from that which we would reach under the rationale of Sommer. Reluctantly, we agree.
[HN2] MCL 600.2925a; MSA 27A.2925(1) provides in pertinent part:
(3) A tort-feasor who enters into a settlement agreement with a claimant is not entitled to recover contribution from another tort-feasor if any of the following circumstances exist:
(a) The liability of the contributee for the injury or wrongful death is not extinguished by the settlement.
[*371] (b) A reasonable effort was not made to notify the contributee of the pendency of [***9] the settlement negotiations.
(c) The contributee was not given a reasonable opportunity to participate in the settlement negotiations.
(d) The settlement was not made in good faith.
(4) In an action to recover contribution commenced by a tort-feasor who has entered into a settlement, the defendant may assert the defenses set forth in subsection (3) and any other defense he may have to his alleged liability for such injury or wrongful death. [Emphasis added.]
Vic Tanny contends that the release provision qualifies as “any other defense,” thereby exonerating it from liability for contribution. We agree that the plain language of the statute cannot be read any other way. The reference to a defendant’s “alleged liability for such injury or wrongful death” clearly refers to liability to the injured party. The statute allows the defendant to apply “any” defense available against such liability to the contribution claim. [HN3] Where the language of a statute is clear, the Legislature must have intended the meaning plainly expressed, and the statute must be enforced as written. Gebhardt v O’Rourke, 444 Mich. 535, 541-542; [***10] 510 N.W.2d 900 (1994). In this case, the release clause effectively provides Vic Tanny with a defense against liability to Ostroski if its conduct constituted ordinary negligence.
Accordingly, while we remand for further proceedings, we conclude that Vic Tanny may be liable for contribution only for gross negligence.
Universal also argues that summary disposition [*372] was improper with respect to its indemnification claim. We disagree.
In Williams v Litton Systems, Inc, 433 Mich 755, 760;449 N.W.2d 669 (1989), the Supreme Court held that [HN4] an action for indemnification can be maintained only on the basis of an express contract or, in the case of common-law or implied contractual indemnification, by a party who is free from negligence or fault. In addition, where the complaint in the underlying action does not contain allegations of derivative or vicarious liability, a claim of implied indemnification is precluded. Employers Mutual Casualty [**9] Co v Petroleum Equipment, Inc, 190 Mich. App. 57, 65-66; [***11] 475 N.W.2d 418 (1991); Hadley v Trio Tool Co, 143 Mich. App. 319, 331; 372 N.W.2d 537 (1985).
Universal’s indemnification claim is not based on an express contractual agreement. Further, Ostroski’s complaint in the underlying action alleged active negligence on the part of Universal. Universal argues that, if the matter had proceeded to trial, the evidence would have shown that Vic Tanny improperly maintained its facilities and failed to apply a warning sticker. [HN5] Where, as here, there are no allegations of vicarious liability and the partyseeking indemnification disputes its own active negligence, it must do so against the plaintiff in the underlying action. See Gruett v Total Petroleum, Inc, 182 Mich. App. 301, 307; 451 N.W.2d 608 (1990), rev’d on other grounds 437 Mich. 876, 463 N.W.2d 711 (1990). Accordingly, the circuit court properly granted Vic Tanny’s motion for summary disposition of the indemnification claim.
Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded for proceedings consistent with [***12] this opinion. We do not retain jurisdiction if the motion to file a second amended complaint is granted. We do retain jurisdiction if it is denied.
/s/ Michael J. Kelly
/s/ Maura D. Corrigan
/s/ Charles D. Corwin