Scott-Moncrieff v. Lost Trails, LLC
, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 146936 *; 2018 WL 4110742
United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania
August 29, 2018, Decided; August 29, 2018, Filed
CIVIL ACTION NO. 3:16-CV-1105
2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 146936 *; 2018 WL 4110742
PATRICE SCOTT-MONCRIEFF, Plaintiff v. THE LOST TRAILS, LLC, et al, Defendants
For The Lost Trails, LLC, d/b/a Lost Trails ATV Adventures, Defendant, Cross Claimant, Cross Defendant: John T. McGrath, Jr., Marshall, Dennehey, Warner, Coleman & Goggin, Scranton, PA; Michael J. Connolly, Moosic, PA.
Before the Court is a motion for summary judgment filed by Defendant, The Lost Trails, LLC (“Lost Trails”) in this matter. The motion (Doc. 50) was filed on November 14, 2017, together with a brief in support (Doc. 52), and Statement of Facts (Doc. 53). Plaintiff, Patrice Scott-Moncrieff, filed a brief in opposition (Doc. 54) on November 28, 2017, a reply brief (Doc. 55) was filed on December 6, 2017, and a sur reply brief (Doc. 62) was filed on January 17, 2018. This motion is ripe for disposition. For the following reasons, the Court will grant the motion for summary judgment.
I. Factual Background and Procedural History
The factual background is taken from Defendant’s Statements of Undisputed Material Facts (Doc. 53). Where the parties dispute certain facts, [*2] those disputes are noted. In addition, the facts have been taken in the light most favorable to the plaintiff as the non-moving party, with all reasonable inferences drawn in her favor. This is in accordance with the Local Rules of this Court, which state, in pertinent part, as follows:
LR 56.1 Motions for Summary Judgment.
A motion for summary judgment filed pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P.56, shall be accompanied by a separate, short and concise statement of the material facts, in numbered paragraphs, as to which the moving party contends there is no genuine issue to be tried.
The papers opposing a motion for summary judgment shall include a separate, short and concise statement of the material facts, responding to the numbered paragraphs set forth in the statement required in the foregoing paragraph, as to which it is contended that there exists a genuine issue to be tried.
All material facts set forth in the statement required to be served by the moving party will be deemed to be admitted unless controverted by the statement required to be served by the opposing [*3] party.
Local Rule 56.1 (emphasis added).
To comply with Local Rule 56.1, Plaintiff should (1) clearly and unequivocally admit or deny whether each fact contained in Defendant’s statement of facts is undisputed and/or material, (2) set forth the basis for any denial if any fact is not admitted in its entirety, and (3) provide a citation to the record that supports any such denial. Occhipinti v. Bauer, No. 3:13-CV-1875, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 136082, 2016 WL 5844327, at *3 (M.D. Pa. Sept. 30, 2016); Park v. Veasie, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 50682, 2011 WL 1831708, *4 (M.D. Pa. 2011). As such, where Plaintiff disputes a fact set forth by Defendant, but fails to provide a citation to the record supporting their denial, that fact will be deemed to be admitted. “Unsupported assertions, conclusory allegations, or mere suspicions” are insufficient to overcome a motion for summary judgment. Schaar v. Lehigh Valley Health Servs., Inc., 732 F.Supp.2d 490, 493 (E.D.Pa. 2010). In this matter, Plaintiff, though including a statement of fact in her brief in opposition to Defendant’s motion for summary judgment (Doc. 54), does not comply with the local rules and submit a separate statement of material facts in opposition to Defendant’s statement of material facts. Notably, despite being given the opportunity to file a sur-reply brief in this matter, after Defendant raises the issue of Plaintiff’s failure to file a statement of facts in its Reply Brief (Doc. 55), Plaintiff still [*4] did not file a separate statement of fact. As such, the facts set forth in Defendant’s statement of material facts will be deemed admitted.
On October 20, 2013, Plaintiff visited Defendant’s ATV facility for the first time and, prior to using the facility, executed a waiver of liability. (Doc. 50-2, at 4-5; DOC. 53, AT ¶¶ 5, 9). Plaintiff did not read the waiver in its entirety prior to signing it, and claims she was rushed during the process. (Doc. 53, at ¶ 7; Doc. 50-2, at 71). On June 22, 2014, Plaintiff returned to the facility, at which time she alleged suffered injuries when she was thrown from the ATV she was riding. (Doc. 1).
In consideration for the opportunity for event participation and utilization of general admission, all facilities, equipment and premises of Lost Trails, LLC (LT), North American Warhorse Inc, (NAW) Theta Land Corp. (TLC), 1000 Dunham Drive LLC (DD), and their respective affiliates, members, agents, employees, heirs and assigns and other associates in furtherance of the sport of Off-Road Riding, racing and any other activities, scheduled or unscheduled, [*5] (hereinafter collectively called “Off-Roading.”) This Waiver shall commence on the date first signed and shall remain binding for all time thereafter.
2. I hereby RELEASE AND DISCHARGE LT, NAW, TLC, DD and all related parties, event volunteers, company officers, directors, elected officials, agents, employees, and owners of equipment, the land used for Off-Roading activities and any owners of adjourning lands to the premises (hereinafter collectively referred to as “Released parties”) from any and all liability claims, demands or causes of action that I, my minor child or my representatives and my heirs may hereafter have for injuries, loss of life, and all other forms of damages arising out of my voluntary participation in Off-Roading activities.
3. I understand and acknowledge that Off-Road riding and racing activities have inherent dangers that no amount of care, caution, instruction or expertise can eliminate and I EXPRESSLY AND VOLUNTARILY ASSUME ALL RISK OF DEATH OR PERSONAL INJURY [*6] OR OTHER FORMS OF DAMAGES SUSTAINED WHILE PARTICIPATING IN OFF-ROADING ACTIVITIES WHETHER OR NOT CAUSED BY THE NEGLIGENCE OF THE RELEASE PARTIES.
4. I further agree that I WILL NOT SUE OR OTHERWISE MAKE A CLAIM on behalf of me and/or on behalf of my minor child, against the Released Parties for damages or other losses sustained as a result of my participation in Off-Roading activities.
5. I also agree to INDEMNIFY AND HOLD THE RELEASED PARTIES HARMLESS from all claims, judgments and costs, including attorneys’ fees, incurred in the connection with any action brought against them, jointly or severally, as a result of my or my minor child’s participation in “Off-Roading” activities.
6. I take full responsibility for, and hold harmless Released Parties for any injury, property damage, or death that I or my minor child may suffer or inflict upon others .or their property as a result of my engaging in Off-Roading activities.
7. I further represent that I am at least 18 years of age, or that as the parent or (adult) legal guardian, I waive and release any and all legal rights that may accrue to me, to my minor child or to the minor child for whom I am (adult) legal guardian, as the result of [*7] any injury or damage that my minor child, the minor child for whom I am (adult) legal guardian, or I may suffer while engaging in Off-Roading activities.
8. I hereby expressly recognize that this Release of Liability, Waiver of Legal Rights and Assumption of Risks is a contract pursuant to which I have released any and all claims against the Released Parties resulting from participation in Off-Roading activities including any claims related to the negligence of the Released Parties by any of the undersigned.
9. I further expressly agree that the foregoing Release of Liability, Waiver of Legal Rights and Assumption of Risks is intended to be as broad and inclusive as is permitted by law of the province or state in which services, materials and/or equipment are provided and the course of business is conducted, and that if any portion thereof is held invalid, it is agreed that the balance shall, notwithstanding, continue in full legal force and effect. I agree that, should any claim or action arise from my participation as described herein, including any issue as to the applicability of this Release or any provision contained within it, proper Jurisdiction and Venue will lie only in Monroe [*8] County, Pennsylvania and I waive Jurisdiction and Venue anywhere else.
l0. Having had ample time and opportunity to raise any concerns or questions that I may have, and having read and understood the information, I certify my acceptance of the aforementioned provisions by signing below.
I am in good health and physical condition. I am voluntarily participating with knowledge that dangers are involved and agree to assume all risks. I also understand that if I am injured or become ill, I agree that Lost Trails LLC, or any of its employees, volunteers or guests will not be held liable should they render medical assistance to me or my minor child.
II. Legal Standard
Under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment should be granted only if “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). A fact is “material” only [*9] if it might affect the outcome of the case. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986). A dispute of material fact is “genuine” if the evidence “is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. In deciding a summary judgment motion, all inferences “should be drawn in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, and where the non-moving party’s evidence contradicts the movant’s, then the non-movant’s must be taken as true.” Pastore v. Bell Tel. Co. of Pa., 24 F.3d 508, 512 (3d Cir. 1994).
A federal court should grant summary judgment “if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Farrell v. Planters Lifesavers Co., 206 F.3d 271, 278 (3d Cir. 2000). In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the court’s function is not to make credibility determinations, weigh evidence, or draw inferences from the facts. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. Rather, the court must simply “determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249.
The party seeking summary judgment “bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion,” and demonstrating the absence of a genuine dispute of any material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). If the movant makes [*10] such a showing, the non-movant must go beyond the pleadings with affidavits or declarations, answers to interrogatories or the like in order to demonstrate specific material facts which give rise to a genuine issue. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324. The non-movant must produce evidence to show the existence of every element essential to its case, which it bears the burden of proving at trial, because “a complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the nonmoving party’s case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. Furthermore, mere conclusory allegations and self-serving testimony, whether made in the complaint or a sworn statement, cannot be used to obtain or avoid summary judgment when uncorroborated and contradicted by other evidence of record. See Lujan v. Nat’l Wildlife Fed’n, 497 U.S. 871, 888, 110 S. Ct. 3177, 111 L. Ed. 2d 695 (1990); see also Thomas v. Delaware State Univ., 626 F. App’x 384, 389 n.6 (3d Cir. 2015) (not precedential) (“[U]nsupported deposition testimony, which is contradicted by the record, is insufficient to defeat summary judgment.”); NLRB v. FES, 301 F.3d 83, 95 (3d Cir. 2002) (“[The plaintiff’s] testimony . . . amounts to an unsupported, conclusory assertion, which we have held is inadequate to satisfy the movant’s burden of proof on summary judgment.”).
As this jurisdiction of this Court is sounded in the diversity of the parties pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a), Pennsylvania substantive [*11] law will apply. Erie R. Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 58 S.Ct. 817, 82 L.Ed. 1188 (1938).
Defendant submits that it is entitled to judgment in its favor because Plaintiff executed a valid waiver of all liability prior to ever engaging in any recreational activities on Defendant’s property; because such releases and waivers are recognized under Pennsylvania law; and because within the waiver, Plaintiff specifically acknowledged that she was assuming all of the risks associated with these activities. (Doc. 52, at 2). In response, Plaintiff argues that Plaintiff did not sign a waiver on the date of the accident, and therefore did not waive any liability or assume any risk; that she was rushed and unable to read the original waiver in its entirety; that the waiver is unenforceable as not properly conspicuous; and finally, that because the earlier waiver signed by Plaintiff was “for all time thereafter” it should not be enforced. (Doc. 54).
A. The Exculpatory Clause is Valid
An exculpatory clause is valid if the following conditions are met: 1) the clause does not contravene public policy; 2) the contract is between parties relating entirely to their own private affairs; and 3) the contract is not one of adhesion. Evans v. Fitness & Sports Clubs, LLC, No. CV 15-4095, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133490, 2016 WL 5404464, at *3 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 28, 2016); [*12]
Topp Copy Prods., Inc. v. Singletary, 533 Pa. 468, 626 A.2d 98, 99 (Pa. 1993). A valid exculpatory clause is only enforceable if “the language of the parties is clear that a person is being relieved of liability for his own acts of negligence.” Id. A waiver of liability violates public policy only if it involves “a matter of interest to the public or the state. Such matters of interest to the public or the state include the employer-employee relationship, public service, public utilities, common carriers, and hospitals.” Seaton v. E. Windsor Speedway, Inc., 400 Pa. Super. 134, 582 A.2d 1380, 1382 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1990); see also Kotovsky v. Ski Liberty Operating Corp., 412 Pa. Super. 442, 603 A.2d 663, 665 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1992). The exculpatory clause at issue in this case does not contravene public policy because it does not affect a matter of interest to the public or the state. See Kotovsky, 603 A.2d at 665-66 (holding that releases did not violate public policy because “[t]hey were [in] contracts between private parties and pertained only to the parties’ private rights. They did not in any way affect the rights of the public.”). Thus, the exculpatory clause meets the first two prongs of the Topp Copy standard for validity.
The contract meets the third prong of the Topp Copy validity standard because it is not a contract of adhesion. Agreements to participate in “voluntary sporting or recreational activities” are not contracts of adhesion because “[t]he signer is a free agent [*13] who can simply walk away without signing the release and participating in the activity, and thus the contract signed under such circumstances is not unconscionable.” Chepkevich v. Hidden Valley Resort, L.P., 607 Pa. 1, 2 A.3d 1174, 1190-91 (Pa. 2010). “The signer is under no compulsion, economic or otherwise, to participate, much less to sign the exculpatory agreement, because it does not relate to essential services, but merely governs a voluntary recreational activity.” Id. The Agreement at issue here is not a contract of adhesion because it is a contract to participate in voluntary recreational activities. The Agreement does not relate to an essential service, and Plaintiff was free to engage in the activity, or not, as she wished. She was under no compulsion to do so. See Chepkevich, supra; see also Hinkal v. Pardoe, 2016 PA Super 11, 133 A.3d 738, 741-2 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2016) (en banc), appeal denied, 636 Pa. 650, 141 A.3d 481 (Pa. 2016) (citing the “thorough and well-reasoned opinion” of the trial court, which held that the plaintiff’s gym membership agreement was not a contract of adhesion because exercising at a gym is a voluntary recreational activity and the plaintiff was under no compulsion to join the gym). The Agreement meets all three prongs of the Topp Copy standard for validity, and thus the exculpatory clause is facially valid.
B. The Exculpatory Clause is Enforceable
Even if an exculpatory clause is [*14] facially valid, it is enforceable only if it clearly relieves a party of liability for its own negligence. Evans v. Fitness & Sports Clubs, LLC, No. CV 15-4095, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133490, 2016 WL 5404464, at *5 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 28, 2016). The following standards guide a court’s determination of the enforceability of an exculpatory clause:
1) the contract language must be construed strictly, since exculpatory language is not favored by the law; 2) the contract must state the intention of the parties with the greatest particularity, beyond doubt by express stipulation, and no inference from words of general import can establish the intent of the parties; 3) the language of the contract must be construed, in cases of ambiguity, against the party seeking immunity from liability; and 4) the burden of establishing the immunity is upon the party invoking protection under the clause.
The Court now turns to Plaintiff’s arguments against the enforceability of the exculpatory clause.
1. Plaintiff’s first waiver is enforceable, including the clause “for all time thereafter.”
Plaintiff submits that the waiver she executed in October 2013 did not apply to her visit to Defendant on June 22, 2014, because “it is uncontroverted that the Defendant has a policy that dictates all [*15] riders must sign a waiver every time they ride an ATV at their park” (Doc. 54, at 4), and Plaintiff did not sign a waiver when she visited the park in June 2014. Defendant counters that Plaintiff is misconstruing the record in making this assertion. (Doc. 55, at 2). Specifically, Defendant submits that the testimony cited by Plaintiff is that of a former maintenance man who has nothing to do with policy or procedure at Defendant’s property, and further, that he neither testifying as a representative of, nor acting on behalf of, Lost Trails, LLC. (Doc. 55-1, at 4). The testimony offered by the Plaintiff on this issue is that of Matthew Anneman, who testified as follows:
The Court finds this testimony to have little to no bearing on the validity and applicability of the October 2013 waiver. Even construing the evidence in the record in Plaintiff’s favor, Mr. Anneman’s testimony does not change the fact Plaintiff did sign a waiver in October 2013, one which indicated that it “shall remain binding for all time thereafter.” (Doc. 54-1, at 20) (emphasis added). Nothing in the record before the Court indicates that Mr. Anneman was responsible for either policy at Defendant’s facility, or in any way even involved with the waiver process. Further, the language of the waiver is clear. In interpreting the language of a contract, courts attempt to ascertain the intent of the parties and give it effect. Sycamore Rest. Grp., LLC v. Stampfi Hartke Assocs., LLC, 2017 Pa. Super. 221, 174 A.3d 651, 656 (2017); LJL Transp., Inc. v. Pilot Air Freight Corp., 599 Pa. 546, 962 A.2d 639, 648 (2009). When a writing is clear and unequivocal, its meaning must be determined by its contents alone. Synthes USA Sales, LLC v. Harrison, 2013 Pa. Super. 324, 83 A.3d 242, 250-51 (2013); Murphy v. Duquesne Univ. of the Holy Ghost, 565 Pa. 571, 591, 777 A.2d 418, 429 (2001) (citations and quotation marks omitted). “[I]t is not the function of this Court to re-write it, or to give it a construction in conflict with … the accepted and plain meaning of the language used.” Id.; citing Robert F. Felte, Inc. v. White, 451 Pa. 137, 144, 302 A.2d 347, 351 (1973) (citation omitted). Here, the language of the waiver form (Doc. 54-1, [*17] at 20) is unequivocal in stating the intent that it is binding for all time thereafter. As the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has stated,
The word “all” needs no definition; it includes everything, and excludes nothing. There is no more comprehensive word in the language, and as used here it is obviously broad enough to cover liability for negligence. If it had been the intention of the parties to exclude negligent acts they would have so written in the agreement. This paragraph of the lease is clear and unambiguous. No rules of construction are required to ascertain the intention of the parties.
2. Plaintiff’s argument that she was rushed and unable to read the original waiver in its entirety is without merit.
Plaintiff next argues that, should the Court find that the 2013 waiver was in effect in June 2014, she was rushed and therefore did not have time to read the waiver before signing it. “The law of Pennsylvania is clear. One who is about to sign a contract has a duty to read that contract [*18] first.” Hinkal v. Pardoe, 2016 Pa. Super. 11, 133 A.3d 738, 743, appeal denied, 636 Pa. 650, 141 A.3d 481 (2016); In re Estate of Boardman, 2013 PA Super 300, 80 A.3d 820, 823 (Pa.Super.2013); citing Schillachi v. Flying Dutchman Motorcycle Club, 751 F.Supp. 1169, 1174 (E.D.Pa.1990) (citations omitted). In the absence of fraud, the failure to read a contract before signing it is “an unavailing excuse or defense and cannot justify an avoidance, modification or nullification of the contract.” Germantown Sav. Bank v. Talacki, 441 Pa.Super. 513, 657 A.2d 1285, 1289 (1995) (citing Standard Venetian Blind Co. v. American Emp. Ins. Co., 503 Pa. 300, 469 A.2d 563, 566 note (1983)); see also Wroblewski v. Ohiopyle Trading Post, Inc., No. CIV.A. 12-0780, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 119206, 2013 WL 4504448, at *7 (W.D. Pa. Aug. 22, 2013) (Under Pennsylvania law, the failure to read a contract does not nullify the contract’s validity.); Arce v. U-Pull-It Auto Parts, Inc., No. 06-5593, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10202, 2008 WL 375159, at *5-9 (E.D.Pa. Feb.11, 2008) (written release found to be enforceable even when the agreement was in English but the plaintiff only read and spoke Spanish, noting that the “[p]laintiff cannot argue that the release language was inconspicuous or somehow hidden from his attention…. Nor did Defendant have an obligation to verify that [p]laintiff had read and fully understood the terms of the document before he signed his name to it.”). In this case, there is no allegation or evidence of fraud, and as such, Plaintiff’s argument is without merit.
3. The waiver is properly conspicuous.
Finally, Plaintiff avers that summary judgment should be denied because the waiver was not properly conspicuous, and relies on the Pennsylvania Superior Court’s decision in Beck-Hummel in making [*19] this assertion. The Beck-Hummel court addressed the enforceability of a waiver of liability printed on the back of a tubing ticket. The exculpatory language appeared in a font that was “just barely readable,” and smaller than the font used for some other portions of the ticket. Id. at 1274-75. The Beck-Hummel court looked to the conspicuousness of the waiver of liability as a means of establishing whether or not a contract existed, setting forth three factors to consider in determining conspicuousness: 1) the waiver’s placement in the document; 2) the size of the waiver’s font; and 3) whether the waiver was highlighted by being printed in all capital letters or a different font or color from the remainder of the text. Beck-Hummel, 902 A.2d at 1274. After considering these factors, the Beck-Hummel court could not conclude as a matter of law that the exculpatory clause was enforceable because the language of the ticket was not sufficiently conspicuous as to put the purchaser/user on notice of the waiver. Id.at 1275.
However, in a more recent Pennsylvania Superior Court case, the court held that, as in the case presently before this Court, where the exculpatory clause was part of a signed contract between the parties, the requirements of [*20] conspicuity set forth in Beck-Hummel would not necessarily apply. In Hinkal v. Pardoe, the en banc Superior Court of Pennsylvania examined whether the Beck-Hummel conspicuity requirements for the enforcement of exculpatory clauses applies to signed valid written contracts. Hinkal v. Pardoe, 2016 Pa. Super. 11, 133 A.3d 738, 743-745, appeal denied, 636 Pa. 650, 141 A.3d 481 (2016). In Hinkal, the plaintiff had signed a membership agreement with Gold’s Gym that contained a waiver of liability for negligence claims on the back page. Id. at 741. The Hinkal court found the plaintiff’s comparison of her case to Beck-Hummel “inapposite” because, unlike a waiver printed on the back of a tubing ticket that did not require a signature; the gym waiver was part of a signed agreement. Id. at 744-45. Further, the court noted that conspicuity is generally not required to establish the formation of a contract, but “has been resorted to as a means of proving the existence or lack of a contract,” where it is unclear whether a meeting of the minds occurred, and imposing such a requirement would allow a properly executed contract to be set aside through one party’s failure to do what the law requires – reading a contract. Id. at 745. The Hinkal court concluded that the waiver of liability was valid and enforceable because [*21] the plaintiff had signed the agreement. Similarly, in Evans v. Fitness & Sports Clubs, LLC, the District Court determined that the exculpatory clauses contained in a fitness club’s membership agreements were valid and enforceable where the plaintiff had signed both a membership and personal training agreement, including an acknowledgement that the plaintiff had read and understood the entire agreement, including the release and waiver of liability, appears directly above the plaintiff’s signature on the first page of each agreement. Evans v. Fitness & Sports Clubs, LLC, No. CV 15-4095, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133490, 2016 WL 5404464, at *6 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 28, 2016).
The Court finds the agreement at issue in this case to be far more in line with the waivers discussed by the Pennsylvania Superior and Eastern District of Pennsylvania courts in Hinkal and Evans. The waiver form in this case was two pages in length, and initialed and signed by Plaintiff. It was not, like the waiver in Beck-Hummel, printed in small font on the back of a tubing ticket. This was a waiver that was reviewed, initialed and signed by Plaintiff. As such, the requirements of conspicuity set forth in Beck-Hummel would not necessarily apply. Hinkal v. Pardoe, 133 A.3d at 743-745.
Even if those conspicuity requirements applied, however [*22] the exculpatory clauses in the Waiver Form would still be enforceable. The document is titled, in larger font, bold, underlined, and all capital letters “LOST TRAILS ATV ADVENTURES WAIVER FORM.” The language specifically indicating release and discharge, assumption of the risk, an agreement not to sue, and indemnification, are set of in all capitals in the numbered paragraphs, and were acknowledged by Plaintiff initialing each paragraph. (Doc. 54-1, at 20). Immediately above the signature line, in all capital bold letters, the release reads:
I HAVE READ THIS RELEASE OF LIABILITY, WAIVER OF LEGAL RIGHTS AND ASSUMPTIONS OF RISK AND FULLY UNDERSTAND ITS CONTENTS. I SIGN IT WILLINGLY, VOLUNTARILY AND HAVING HAD AMPLE OPPORTUNITY TO RAISE ANY QUESTIONS OR CONCERNS THAT I MAY HAVE, I ACKNOWLEDGE THAT I AM PARTICIPATING VOLUNTARILY WITH KNOWLEDGE THAT DANGERS ARE INVOLVED AND I AGREE TO ASSUME ALL THE RISKS.
These clauses are conspicuously set apart, appearing in capital letters, and in the case of the final paragraph, fully set apart, in all bold and all capitals. Further, the agreement itself is titled “Waiver Form” which notifies the reader of the purpose of the form. [*23] Plaintiff initialed the paragraphs setting forth the exculpatory clauses,2 and signed the agreement directly underneath the final, most prominent waiver clause. As such, the Court finds that the exculpatory clauses are valid and enforceable. See Evans, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133490, 2016 WL 5404464, at n. 6.
For the reasons set forth above, the undisputed material facts in the record establish that Defendant is entitled to summary judgment. Viewing the record in light most favorable to the Plaintiff, the Court finds that the exculpatory clauses at issue are valid and enforceable. As such, Defendant’s motion will be granted, and judgment will be entered in favor of Defendant.
AND NOW, this 29th day of August, 2018, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that for the reasons set forth in the memorandum filed concurrently with this Order, Defendant’s motion for summary judgment (Doc. 50) is GRANTED, and judgment is entered in favor of Defendant. The Clerk of Court is directed to CLOSE this matter.
End of Document
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)).)