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Neither a release nor the Pennsylvania Equine Liability Act protects a stable for injuries when the stirrup broke.

Between a poorly written release, an Equine statute that requires proof the rider assumed the risk and the “cavalier” attitude of the defendant; the plaintiff will proceed to trial.

Melendez v. Happy Trails and Riding Center, Inc., 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 131576

State: Pennsylvania, United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania

Plaintiff: Wilberto Melendez

Defendant: Happy Trails and Riding Center, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence and Recklessness

Defendant Defenses: Release and Pennsylvania Equine Liability Protection Act

Holding: For the plaintiff

Year: 2016

The plaintiff was part of a group ride. Upon arrival he was told, he had to sign a release which he did. At the office where the plaintiff signed, the release signs were posed as required by the Pennsylvania Equine Activities Immunity Act. During the ride, the plaintiff asked the guides if he could gallop the horse and was told no several times. Eventually at the end of the ride, the plaintiff was allowed to gallop his horse.

Plaintiff then mounted the horse and participated in a guided group horseback ride for the next forty-five minutes without incident. On several occasions during the ride, Plaintiff requested permission from the guide to gallop the horse. Plaintiff was told it was too dangerous to do on the trail. At the end of the ride, one of the guides brought Plaintiff away from the group so that Plaintiff could canter the horse. Plaintiff then put the horse into a gallop and, while rounding a turn, a stirrup broke and Plaintiff fell from the animal.

While galloping the horse, the stirrup broke causing the plaintiff to fall incurring injuries.

The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment based on the release signed by the plaintiff and the Pennsylvania Equine Activities Immunity Act. The court denied the motion because the issue of the stirrup breaking could be considered reckless under Pennsylvania law.

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

The decision first looks at releases or exculpatory agreements under Pennsylvania law.

An exculpatory clause is valid if (1) the clause does “not contravene public policy”; (2) the contract is “between persons relating entirely to their own private affairs”; and (3) each party is “a free bargaining agent to the agreement so that the contract is not one of adhesion.

Under Pennsylvania, the language of the release must be clear in relieving notifying the possible plaintiff, he or she is releasing the defendant of negligence. “However, a valid exculpatory clause will nevertheless, be unenforceable “unless the language of the parties is clear that a person is being relieved of liability for his own acts of negligence.”

As in most states, releases are not favored and must conform to contract law. However, the term “not favored” is a term of art rather than a term used to determine if the release will be valid.

Contracts immunizing a party against liability for negligence are not favored by law and therefore established standards must be “met before an exculpatory provision will be interpreted and construed to relieve a person of liability for his own or his servants’ acts of negligence.”

In that regard Pennsylvania, courts have set up standards on how releases will be governed.

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 ex-press 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 immunity is upon the party invoking protection under the clause.

As in most other states, Pennsylvania does not allow a release to relieve a defendant for intentional or reckless acts. “Further, exculpatory clauses may not immunize a party for intentional or reckless behavior.

The plaintiff did not argue that the release was not valid. The court reviewed the release on its own and find it valid.

First, the agreement does not violate any public policy of Pennsylvania. In light of the Equine Activities Immunity Act–discussed in the next section–and similar statutes addressing other recreational activities, it is the policy of the state to encourage participation in those activities, despite their inherent danger, and assign the risk of loss to those who choose to participate in them.

Second, the agreement was between two private parties, Happy Trails and Mr. Melendez, concerning the purely private matter of renting a horse for recreational purposes. Finally, this is not a contract of adhesion. (“The signer I 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.”). Thus, the agreement is facially valid.

The court also found Pennsylvania law allowed the use of releases for inherently dangerous activities. Horseback riding in Pennsylvania is an inherently dangerous activity.

The plaintiff’s argument centered on the inherent risks of horseback riding. Inherent, a limiting word, defines the risks that are part of horseback riding no matter what. Inherent risks are part of horseback riding and can rarely be reduced or modified by someone because of the horse. However, there are more than just inherent risks in any activity and the plaintiff argued that a stirrup breaking was not an inherent risk and not covered by the release or the statute.

How the bridle or saddle is attached to the horse is under the control of the stable, thus not an inherent risk of horseback riding in must states. How the horse responds; maneuvers or acts is an inherent risk of riding a horse.

Plaintiff contends that Defendant has failed to meet its burden to show either that defective equipment is an inherent risk of horseback riding, or that the language of the agreement shows that Plaintiff expressly assumed the risk of defective equipment.

Plaintiff points out that the agreement does not enumerate defective equipment as a risk. (Id.). Further, Plaintiff argues that a broken stirrup is not an inherent risk of horseback riding as demonstrated by the testimony of both Happy Trails’ owner and a Happy Trails’ employee who both stated they had never seen a stirrup break before. Thus, Plaintiff argues, because the risk was not foreseeable and was not expressly in the agreement, Plaintiff could not appreciate the risk and could therefore not assume it.

(For other articles on the use of “inherent” in a release see: Here is another reason to write releases carefully. Release used the term inherent to describe the risks which the court concluded made the risk inherently dangerous and voids the release and 2015 SLRA – Inherent Risk: Should the Phrase be in your Release?)

The court looked at the issue and rephrased it to a contract analogy. A contract must state the intention of the parties. A release is a contract.

…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”–is not met in this case because the agreement did not specifically enumerate the risk of defective equipment. Pennsylvania courts, however, have rejected this argument before.

The court then looked at the issue and found that defective equipment was not an inherent risk of horseback riding. This means if you use the term “inherent risk” in your release to describe all of the risks, claims based defective equipment would not be covered by your release in Pennsylvania. However, the release in this case was written broadly so it was not an issue.

Concerning the case at hand, while this Court agrees with Plaintiff that the provision of defective equipment is not an inherent risk in the sport of horseback riding, this point is not dispositive. As one Pennsylvania court explained, “the assumption of the risk doctrine bars a plaintiff from recovering in tort for risks inherent to a certain activity. In contrast, the explicit, broad, and valid language of the exculpatory clause bars all claims, regardless of whether they arise from an inherent risk.”

Pennsylvania courts have held that a release protects against claims for inherent as well as non-inherent risks if written to include those risks, and this release was written broadly.

The plaintiff argued the release should be read narrowly because the release did not identify defective equipment as a risk to be covered. However, the court found that every risk needs not be reviewed or identified in a release.

Plaintiff advances a more narrow reading of the agreement and argues that because the agreement does not enumerate defective equipment as a risk, he did not expressly assume it. The Chepkevich Court, however, was clear that no illustrations or examples are required to give common terms effect in an exculpatory agreement. “All claims” and “negligence” are commonly used terms and Pennsylvania law does not require drafters of exculpatory clauses to enumerate every possible contingency that is included in broader language they choose to use.

The next point the plaintiff argued was the actions of the defendant amounted to recklessness and as such voided the release. The court defined recklessness under Pennsylvania law as:

Recklessness is distinguishable from negligence on the basis that recklessness requires conscious action or inaction which creates a substantial risk of harm to others, whereas negligence suggests unconscious inadvertence.”

Pennsylvania uses the term recklessness to define acts of the defendant that exceed the scope of a release. The majority but not all states use the term gross negligence.

This argument the court did accept. The court found that it was the defendant’s responsibility to inspect the equipment, and the defendant could not provide any evidence of any inspection.

Defendant’s bare assertion that its actions do not rise to the level of recklessness does not satisfy its burden to show that there is no genuine dispute as to a material fact. The record shows that Happy Trails provided a saddle for Plaintiffs ride, that a stirrup on that saddle broke during the ride, and that Plaintiff fell from a horse when the stirrup broke. It was the responsibility of Happy Trails, not the customer, to inspect the equipment, but no records of inspections or repairs were kept, nor was the Happy Trails’ owner able to say if any inspection of the specific stirrup occurred on the day of the accident.

The court on this same topic went on looking at the facts to determine other reckless acts of the defendant. In that review, the court added a comment about the attitude of the defendant/owner of Happy Trails and described his attitude as “cavalier.”

He was unable to say where he procured the saddle in question, how long he had had it, or how old it was. Additionally, Happy Trails’ owner displayed a somewhat cavalier attitude towards safety, asserting that customers assume all risks associated with the activity, including equipment breaking, staff failing to put equipment on the horses correctly, and even staff failing to provide basic equipment like stirrups or a bridal. Viewing the record in a light most favorable to Plaintiff, a question of fact therefore remains as to whether Defendant’s action rose to the level of recklessness

Finding a lack of knowledge about the age or condition of the defendant’s equipment, no record of inspecting or maintaining the equipment and the attitude of the defendant allowed the court to reach a conclusion that the actions of the defendant would be found by a jury to be reckless. As such, a motion for summary judgment could not be granted if there were “genuine dispute as to any material fact.”

The next issue was the application of the Pennsylvania Equine Activities Immunity Act to the case. The court could find no other case law in Pennsylvania that looked at the application of the Pennsylvania Equine Activities Immunity Act to defective equipment. Consequently, the court had to interpret the statute to see if the language of the statute covered defective equipment.

The Pennsylvania Equine Activities Immunity Act like most equine liability protection acts provides immunity to horse owners, stables, etc., for the actions of the animals. (Since Equine Acts have been created, they have been 100% effective. No horses have been sued. Lawsuits against horse owners have increased.) However, the Pennsylvania statute places a burden on the stable or horse owner to prove knowledge of the risk for the immunity to apply.

Most equine protection acts are written to say that when on a horse, or at places where horses, llamas, mules, etc., are, you assume the risk of the actions of the animal. By assuming the risk, the defendant owner is immune from liability for the plaintiff’s injuries. The Pennsylvania statute is different. The Pennsylvania statute states “liability for negligence shall only be barred where the doctrine of knowing voluntary assumption of risk is proven.”

This requirement puts a burden upon the horse owner to provide additional education to the rider.

The court looked at the definition of assumption of risk as defined in the Restatement of Torts, which found four different definitions or as the Restatement defines them doctrines of assumption of the risk.

The Restatement outlines four varieties of the doctrine, the first two of which are of interest in this case. The first, express assumption of risk occurs when lithe plaintiff has given his express consent to relieve the defendant of an obligation to exercise care for his protection, and agrees to take his chances as to injury from a known or possible risk.” Id. (emphasis added). This is the type of assumption of risk examined above in respect to the agreement signed by Plaintiff. The second, implied assumption of risk, occurs when lithe plaintiff has entered voluntarily into some relation with the defendant which he knows to involve the risk, and so is regarded as tacitly or impliedly agreeing to relieve the defendant of responsibility, and to take his own chances.”

The first type of assumption of risk the court found that applied here was express assumption of risk. Express assumption of risk occurs when the plaintiff has consented to the risk. Usually, this consent is given by writing, if written property as part of a release.

The second type applicable in this case was implied assumption of the risk. Implied assumption of the risk has no exactness to the risk assumed. The plaintiff knows there is risk, and the defendant hopes the plaintiff knows of the explicit risk that may injure the plaintiff or that caused the plaintiff’s injuries. If the plaintiff had no knowledge of the risk, then the plaintiff cannot assume the risk.

It is self-evident that a person “cannot be found to have implicitly assumed a risk of which he had no knowledge.” (plurality opinion). As such, lithe defense of assumption of the risk requires that the defendant show that the plaintiff was subjectively aware of the facts which created the danger and…must have appreciated the danger itself and the nature, character and extent which made it unreasonable.”

In this case, there was no evidence that the plaintiff knew of the risk. That risk was of equipment failure that the stirrup would break. Consequently, the plaintiff could not assume the risk.

Thus, for a defendant to prevail on a summary judgment motion based on the assumption of risk defense, it must be “beyond question that the plaintiff voluntarily and knowingly proceeded in the face of an obvious and dangerous condition.”

In short, to preclude Plaintiffs negligence action under the EAIA, Defendant must show that Plaintiff knew that the equipment he was provided with might break and voluntarily continued with the horseback ride in spite of that knowledge.

Because the risk that injured the plaintiff was outside of the risks assumed by the plaintiff, the defense of assumption of the risk did not apply. As such, the Pennsylvania Equine Activities Immunity Act did not provide the defendant with any protection.

With the release not valid and the Pennsylvania Equine Activities Immunity Act not providing any protection both defenses of the defendant failed. The defendant’s motion for summary judgment was denied.

So Now What?

This case would not have meant anything if the plaintiff had simply fallen off the horse. Both the release and the Pennsylvania Equine Activities Immunity Act would have prevented recovery if a claim had even been made.

But broken equipment always creates a different issue. Here it created an issue of whether the actions of the defendant were reckless and proved the plaintiff did not assume the risk.

Another important issue is courts put into their decision the facts they find persuasive or at least interesting.  There were several facts in the decision that did not alter or affect the decision on its face, but important enough for the court to identify them anyway. I always find these facts as instructional and a good indication of something that was not enough for the judge to argue but important anyway.

I also believe that they may not have any legal value, but if written into the decision by the judge, they had to have an impact on the judge’s thinking, and consequently, those issues did affect the outcome of the case.

In this decision those facts included:

After his group arrived, Plaintiff went into the stable’s office to register. Plaintiff was presented with a form (the “agreement”), which stated, in pertinent part….

Combined with the next sentence:

An employee of Happy Trails informed Plaintiff that Plaintiff must sign the agreement in order to go horseback riding. Plaintiff signed the agreement.

Meaning, the plaintiff was not told in advance he was going to be required to sign a release.

Another one was the plaintiff being told galloping was too dangerous yet he was eventually allowed to gallop his horse.

On several occasions during the ride, Plaintiff requested permission from the guide to gallop the horse. Plaintiff was told it was too dangerous to do on the trail.

Plaintiff then put the horse into a gallop and, while rounding a turn, a stirrup broke and Plaintiff fell from the animal.

If galloping the horse was too dangerous earlier, what changed? More importantly, galloping the horse led to the broken stirrup which led to the injury.

And then there are the straight out in your face statements a court rarely makes.

Additionally, Happy Trails’ owner displayed a somewhat cavalier attitude towards safety, asserting that customers assume all risks associated with the activity, including equipment breaking, staff failing to put equipment on the horses correctly, and even staff failing to provide basic equipment like stirrups or a bridal.

If this statement or something like it has been at the beginning, you would have known immediately that the defendant was going to lose. Never walk into a courtroom looking like the bad guy and never give the court proof, such as this, that you are.

For other Equine Liability Act articles see:

$1.2 M award in horseback riding fatality in Wyoming                                     http://rec-law.us/1fE4ncB

$2.36 M awarded to boy kicked by horse during inner-city youth program   http://rec-law.us/1lk7cTP

A specific statute, a badly written release and an equine liability statute sink instructors and business in horse riding accident.                                                                                             http://rec-law.us/SJZCkU

Decisive Supreme Court Decision on the Validity of Releases in Oklahoma                      http://rec-law.us/19gxvkT

Equine laws stop suit against horse, outfitter still sued                                    http://rec-law.us/XjgJvw

Good News ASI was dismissed from the lawsuit                                               http://rec-law.us/131HKWH

Hawaii attempts to limit liability increases the amount of money every injured party will recover. Legislation to limit liability lost recreation business the opportunity to use a release         http://rec-law.us/1nvfCV5

Hawaii’s deceptive trade practices act sends this case and release back to the trial court                                                                                                                                                http://rec-law.us/Z3HdQj

Indiana Equine Liability Statute used to stop litigation                                     http://rec-law.us/12UFp1N

Lying in a release can get your release thrown out by the court.                   http://rec-law.us/11ysy4w

Michigan Equine helped the plaintiff more than the stable and helped prove there may be gross negligence on the part of the defendant                                                             http://rec-law.us/1ZicaQs

Parental control: should you, are you accepting responsibility for kids and when you should or can you not.                                                                                                                             http://rec-law.us/1fteMth

Release saves riding school, even after defendant tried to show plaintiff how to win the case.  http://rec-law.us/14DC7Ad

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law

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Melendez v. Happy Trails and Riding Center, Inc., 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 131576

Melendez v. Happy Trails and Riding Center, Inc., 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 131576

Wilberto Melendez, Plaintiff, v. Happy Trails and Riding Center, Inc., Defendant.

3:14-CV-1894

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA

2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 131576

September 26, 2016, Decided

September 26, 2016, Filed

CORE TERMS: trail, summary judgment, exculpatory, recklessness, equine, stirrup, stable, immunity, genuine, horse, horseback riding, recreational, animal, material fact, skiing, ride, assumption of risk, faulty, broken, ski, rider, inherent risk, exculpatory clause, riding, sport, skier, enumerate, counter, rental, entity

COUNSEL:  [*1] For Wilberto Melendez, Plaintiff, Counterclaim Defendant: Robin A. Feeney, LEAD ATTORNEY, FINE & STAUD LLP, PHILADELPHIA, PA.

For Happy Trails and Riding Center, Incorporated, Defendant, Counterclaim Plaintiff: Dennis M. Marconi, Barnaba & Marconi, LLP, Trenton, NJ.

JUDGES: Robert D. Mariani, United States District Judge.

OPINION BY: Robert D. Mariani

OPINION

MEMORANDUM OPINION

I. Introduction and Procedural History

On September 30, 2014, Plaintiff, Wilberto Melendez, filled a one count Complaint with this Court against Defendant, Happy Trails and Riding Center, lnc.1 (Doc. 1). The Complaint alleges that Plaintiff suffered injury as a result of Defendant’s negligence in its operation of a business which rented horses and equipment to the public for recreational horseback riding. After the conclusion of fact discovery, Defendant filed a Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 19) and supporting brief (Doc. 20) on October 29, 2015. Plaintiff filed a Brief in Opposition (Doc. 22) and Defendant filed a Reply. (Doc. 23). Oral argument on the matter was held on April 4, 2016.

1 Defendant points out that the business is owned and operated by Randolph Bennett, d/b/a Happy Trails Stables, and was incorrectly pleaded as Happy Trails Riding [*2]  Center, Inc. For the purposes of this motion, the error, if any, is immaterial and the opinion will refer to Defendant as “Defendant” or “Happy Trails.”

The motion is now ripe for decision. For the reasons set forth below the Court will deny Defendant’s motion in its entirety.

II. Statement of Undisputed Facts

In accordance with Local Rule 56.1, Defendant submitted a Statement of Material Facts in Support of its Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. 20), as to which it contends that there is no genuine dispute for trial. Plaintiff submitted a response, a Counter Statement of Facts, (Doc. 22), with the result being that the following facts have been admitted, except as specifically noted:

Plaintiff, Wilberto Melendez, went to Defendant’s stable on May 31, 2014, for the purpose of going horseback riding. (Doc. 20, ¶¶ 1, 2). After his group arrived, Plaintiff went into the stable’s office to register. (Id. at ¶ 5). Plaintiff was presented with a form (the “agreement”), which stated, in pertinent part:

AGREEMENT FOR PARTICIPATION AND\OR VOLUNTEERS [sic] I RELEASE AND DISCHARGE, ACCEPTANCE OF RESPONSIBILITY AND ACKNOWLEDGE [sic] OF RISK:

IN CONDERATION [sic] FOR BEING PERMITTED TO UTILIZE THE FACILITIES AND EQUIPMENT [*3]  OF HAPPY TRAILS RIDING STABLES AND TO ENGAGE IN HORSEBACK RIDING, AND ALL RELATED ACTIVITIES.

….

1. I understand and acknowledge that the activity I am voluntarily engage [sic] in as a participant and/or [sic] bears certain know [sic] risk [sic] and unanticipated risks which could result in jury, [sic] death, illness, or disease, physical or mental, or damage to myself, to my property, or to spectators or other third parties. I understand and acknowledge those risk [sic] may result in personal claims against “HAPPY TRAILS STABLES” or claims against me by spectators or other third parties.

1. [sic] The nature of the activity itself, including the possible risks to you the rider.

A. The animal may be startled by unforeseen or unexpected noises from other animals, people, vehicles, activities and as a result you the rider may be hurt or injured should the animal react to said noises or activity, by running, bucking, rolling, or kicking, etc.

B. That you as the rider realizes [sic] that the animal is reacting to your physical instructions, conduct, and verbal instructions and commands, and therefore, the animal will respond in accordance with your reactions or commands. However, there are [*4]  times when the animal may be confused or distracted during course [sic] of your instructions and/or commands.

C. You the rider understands [sic] that an animal may kick or bite you the rider, or you the pedestrian, and that other animals which may be on tour, could kick or bite you the rider and/or pedestrian.

D. You the rider are aware that physical conditions of the trails may cause injury or risk to you, should these physical conditions such as low tree limbs, bushes, or other type of natural growth come in contact with animal [sic] or yourself.

2. I hereby release and discharge Happy Trails Stables, instructors, trail guides, stable managers, employees, owners of the horses and related equipment and land utilized for Happy Trails Stables activities, hereinafter referred to as the “Released Parties,” from any and all claims, demands, or cause of action that I, or any of my heirs, successors or assigns, [sic] may hereafter have for injuries and/or damages arising out of my participation in Happy Trails activities, including but not limited to, loses caused by negligence of the released parties.

3. I further agree that I, my heirs, successors, or assigns, [sic] will not sue or make claim [*5]  against the Released Parties for damage or other loses sustained as a result of my participation in Happy Trails activities.

….

4. I understand and acknowledge that Happy Trails activities have inherent dangers that no amount of cares, [sic] caution, instruction, or expertise can eliminate and I expressly and voluntarily assume all risk of personal injury or death sustained while participating in “Happy Trails Stables” activities weather [sic] or not caused by negligence of the Released Parties ….

….

6. I hereby expressly recognize that this Agreement and Release of Liability is a contract pursuant to which I have released any and all claims against the Released Parties resulting from my participation in Happy Trails activities including any claims caused by negligence of the Released Parties. I also assume the risk of the equine activities pursuant to the [sic] Pennsylvania law.

(Id. at ¶¶ 5, 11; Doc. 20-7) (emphasis original). An employee of Happy Trails informed Plaintiff that Plaintiff must sign the agreement in order to go horseback riding. (Doc. 20, 5). Plaintiff signed the agreement. (Id. at ¶ 8). In addition to the agreement, there were signs posted inside the office, outside [*6]  the office, and by the stable which read “You assume the risk of equine activities pursuant to Pennsylvania Law.” (See id. at ¶¶ 12-15; Doc. 20-8).

After completing the agreement, Plaintiff waited while a Happy Trails employee saddled up a horse. (Doc. 20, ¶ 17). Plaintiff then mounted the horse and participated in a guided group horseback ride for the next forty-five minutes without incident. (Id. at ¶¶ 19, 21). On several occasions during the ride, Plaintiff requested permission from the guide to gallop the horse. (Id. at ¶¶ 22, 23). Plaintiff was told it was too dangerous to do on the trail. (Id.). At the end of the ride, one of the guides brought Plaintiff away from the group so that Plaintiff could canter the horse. (Id. at ¶ 26). Plaintiff then put the horse into a gallop and, while rounding a turn, a stirrup broke and Plaintiff fell from the animal. (id. at ¶¶ 27-29).

Plaintiff maintains that the stirrup Defendant provided him was faulty or defective and that this was the cause of his fall. (Doc. 22 at 1). Plaintiff further maintains that this fall resulted in fractured ribs and pneumothorax. (Id. at 3).

III. Standard of Review

Through summary adjudication, the court may dispose of those [*7]  claims that do not present a “genuine dispute as to any material fact.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). “As to materiality, ….[o]nly disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986).

The party moving for summary judgment bears the burden of showing the absence of a genuine issue as to any material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). Once such a showing has been made, the non-moving party must offer specific facts contradicting those averred by the movant to establish a genuine issue of material fact. Lujan v. Nat’l Wildlife Fed’n, 497 U.S. 871, 888, 110 S. Ct. 3177, 111 L. Ed. 2d 695 (1990). Therefore, the non-moving party may not oppose summary judgment simply on the basis of the pleadings, or on conclusory statements that a factual issue exists. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. “A party asserting that a fact cannot be or is genuinely disputed must support the assertion by citing to particular parts of materials in the record…or showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, or that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1)(A)-(B). In evaluating whether summary judgment should be granted, “[t]he court need consider only the cited materials, but it may consider other materials in the record.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(3). “Inferences [*8]  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.” Big Apple BMW, Inc. v. BMW of N. Am., Inc., 974 F.2d 1358, 1363 (3d Cir. 1992), cert. denied 507 U.S. 912, 113 S. Ct. 1262, 122 L. Ed. 2d 659 (1993).

However, “facts must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party only if there is a ‘genuine’ dispute as to those facts.” Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380, 127 S. Ct. 1769, 167 L. Ed. 2d 686 (2007). If a party has carried its burden under the summary judgment rule,

its opponent must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts. Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party, there is no genuine issue for trial. The mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact. When opposing parties tell two different stories, one of which is blatantly contradicted by the record, so that no reasonable jury could believe it, a court should not adopt that version of the facts for purposes of ruling on a motion for summary judgment.

Id. (internal quotations, citations, and alterations omitted).

IV. Analysis [*9]

Plaintiffs complaint alleges that Defendant was negligent in providing broken or defective equipment–the stirrup–to Plaintiff, which directly resulted in his injury. (Doc. 1, ¶ 20). Defendant puts forth two arguments that it maintains are separate and independent grounds for summary judgment. First, Defendant argues that the agreement that Plaintiff signed prior to the horseback ride insulates Defendant from liability under these facts. (Doc. 20 at 9). Second, Defendant argues that, pursuant to 4 P.S. §§ 601-606 (hereinafter “Equine Activities Immunity Act,” “EAIA,” or “the Act”), Happy Trails is immune from liability as a provider of equine activities. (Id.).

A. Exculpatory Agreement

An exculpatory clause is valid if (1) the clause does “not contravene public policy”; (2) the contract is “between persons relating entirely to their own private affairs”; and (3) each party is “a free bargaining agent to the agreement so that the contract is not one of adhesion.” Chepkevich v. Hidden Valley Resort, L.P., 607 Pa. 1, 2 A.3d 1174, 1189 (Pa. 2010) (quoting Topp Copy Prods., Inc. v. Singletary, 533 Pa. 468, 626 A.2d 98, 99 (Pa. 1993)). However, a valid exculpatory clause will nevertheless be unenforceable “unless the language of the parties is clear that a person is being relieved of liability for his own acts of negligence.” Id. (quoting Topp Copy Prods., 626 A.2d at 99). Contracts immunizing a [*10]  party against liability for negligence are not favored by law and therefore established standards must be “met before an exculpatory provision will be interpreted and construed to relieve a person of liability for his own or his servants’ acts of negligence.” Dilks v. Flohr Chevrolet, Inc., 411 Pa. 425, 192 A.2d 682, 687 (Pa. 1963). Thus, Pennsylvania courts have established several standards governing the enforceability of exculpatory clauses:

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 immunity is upon the party invoking protection under the clause.

Tayar v. Camelback Ski Corp., 616 Pa. 385, 47 A.3d 1190, 1196 (Pa. 2012) (quoting Topp Copy Prods., 626 A.2d at 99). Further, exculpatory clauses may not immunize a party for intentional or reckless behavior. Id. at 1202-03.

Defendant contends that the agreement Plaintiff signed is valid, enforceable, and encompasses broken equipment. (Doc. 20 at 13-16). Therefore, Defendant argues, Plaintiffs negligence [*11]  claim is barred and Happy Trails is entitled to summary judgment. (Id. at 16).

Plaintiff does not appear to argue that the agreement is not valid on its face. Nor should he, considering that the agreement easily satisfies the validity requirements under Chepkevich. First, the agreement does not violate any public policy of Pennsylvania. In light of the Equine Activities Immunity Act–discussed in the next section–and similar statutes addressing other recreational activities, it is the policy of the state to encourage participation in those activities, despite their inherent danger, and assign the risk of loss to those who choose to participate in them. Cf. Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1191 (finding that, in light of a statute that preserves the assumption of risk defense in the context of downhill skiing, it is “the clear policy of this Commonwealth . . .to encourage the sport and to place the risks of skiing squarely on the skier.”). Further, Pennsylvania courts have held as valid similar exculpatory agreements in the context of a variety of other inherently dangerous recreational activities. See, e.g., id. (downhill skiing); Wang v. Whitetail Mountain Resort, 2007 PA Super 283, 933 A.2d 110, 113-14 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2007) (snow tubing); Valeo v. Pocono Int’l Raceway, Inc., 347 Pa. Super. 230, 500 A.2d 492, 492-93 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1985) (auto racing); Nissley v. Candytown Motorcycle Club, Inc., 2006 PA Super 349, 913 A.2d 887, 889-91(Pa. Super. Ct. 2006) (motorcycle riding).

Second, the agreement was between two private [*12]  parties, Happy Trails and Mr. Melendez, concerning the purely private matter of renting a horse for recreational purposes. Finally, this is not a contract of adhesion. See Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1190-91 (“The signer I 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.”). Thus, the agreement is facially valid.

Turning to enforceability, Plaintiff contends that Defendant has failed to meet its burden to show either that defective equipment is an inherent risk of horseback riding, or that the language of the agreement shows that Plaintiff expressly assumed the risk of defective equipment. (Doc. 22 at 11). Plaintiff points out that the agreement does not enumerate defective equipment as a risk. (Id.). Further, Plaintiff argues that a broken stirrup is not an inherent risk of horseback riding as demonstrated by the testimony of both Happy Trails’ owner and a Happy Trails’ employee who both stated they had never seen a stirrup break before. (Id. at 12-13). Thus, Plaintiff argues, because the risk was not foreseeable and was not expressly in the agreement, Plaintiff could [*13]  not appreciate the risk and could therefore not assume it. (Id. at 13).

Plaintiffs argument essentially states that the second element from Tayar –that “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”–is not met in this case because the agreement did not specifically enumerate the risk of defective equipment. Pennsylvania courts, however, have rejected this argument before. See Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1193-94.

In Chepkevich, a skier, Lori Chepkevich, sued a ski resort after she fell from a ski lift and was injured. Id. at 1175-76. She claimed her injury occurred because an employee promised to stop the ski lift briefly to allow Chepkevich to help a child board the lift and then the employee failed to do so. Id. Prior to the accident, Chepkevich had signed a document titled “RELEASE FROM LIABILITY” which stated, in pertinent part,

Skiing, Snowboarding, and Snowblading, including the use of lifts, is a dangerous sport with inherent and other risks which include but are not limited to [certain enumerated risks]…. I agree to accept all these risks and agree not to sue Hidden Valley [*14]  Resort or their employees if injured while using their facilities regardless of any negligence on their part.

Id. at 1176. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court first rejected Chepkevich’s argument that she did not assume the specific risk that caused her injury and instead found that a fall from a ski lift was an inherent risk in the sport of skiing. Id. at 1188. Therefore, the Court found that the suit was barred by the Skier’s Responsibility Act, 42 PA. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 7102(c), which preserves the common law assumption of the risk defense in the context of downhill skiing. Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1187-88.

Turning to an alternative ground for summary judgment–the release–the Chepkevich Court held that the term “negligence” did not require any definition or illustration to be given effect. Id. at 1193. Indeed, reversing the court below on that point, the Court found “no reason to require the drafters of exculpatory releases to provide definitions and context for commonly used terms such as ‘negligence.”‘ Id. The Court then found that the plain language of the release encompassed Chepkevich’s claim for negligence and therefore barred the claim. Id. at 1194-95. Because the Court had already found that the risk involved was inherent, the Court found it unnecessary to address the merits of Chepkevich’s [*15]  final argument “that the Release exempted Hidden Valley from liability only when its negligence gave rise to a risk otherwise inherent to the sport of skiing.” Id. at 1193-94.

Concerning the case at hand, while this Court agrees with Plaintiff that the provision of defective equipment is not an inherent risk in the sport of horseback riding, this point is not dispositive. As one Pennsylvania court explained, “the assumption of the risk doctrine bars a plaintiff from recovering in tort for risks inherent to a certain activity. In contrast, the explicit, broad, and valid language of the exculpatory clause bars all claims, regardless of whether they arise from an inherent risk.” Nissley, 913 A.2d at 892 (footnote and internal citations omitted). Thus, as long as the language of the exculpatory agreement applies, any inherent risk analysis is superfluous. The fact that the court in Chepkevich found it unnecessary to its holding to address the plaintiffs argument that non-inherent risks cannot be released in exculpatory agreements does not affect this analysis. As that court saw no need to overturn the language in Nissley, this Court sees no reason not to follow it.

As for enforceability of the agreement, in the realm of recreational [*16]  activities, Pennsylvania has upheld expansive language in exculpatory agreements. See, e.g., Nissley, 913 A.2d at 890-91 (upholding motor cycle club’s exculpatory agreement in a negligence action when the release stated that plaintiff “hereby give[s] up all my rights to sue or make claim”); Zimmer v. Mitchell & Ness, 385 A.2d 437, 440 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1978), aff’d per curiam, 416 A.2d 1010 (1980) (upholding ski rental shop’s exculpatory agreement in a negligence action when the release stated that skier released defendant from “any liability”); Valeo, 500 A.2d at 492-93 (upholding race track’s exculpatory agreement in a negligence action where race car driver signed an agreement releasing “defendants ‘from all liability …for all loss or damage'”).

Here, Plaintiff signed an agreement that he knew to be a waiver. (Doc. 20-2 at 51-53; Doc. 20-7). Paragraph two of the agreement stated that Plaintiff released Happy Trails “from any and all claims, demands, or cause of action that I…may hereafter have for injuries and/or damages arising out of my participation in Happy Trails activities, including but not limited to, loses caused by negligence.” Further, paragraph six states that Plaintiff “hereby expressly recognize[s] that this Agreement and Release of Liability is a contract pursuant to which I have released any and all claims against the [*17]  Released Parties resulting from my participation in Happy Trails activities including any claims caused by negligence.” Plaintiff has alleged that Defendant was negligent in providing him defective equipment during his trail ride. The plain language of the agreement signed by Plaintiff releases Defendant from “all claims” including those “caused by negligence.” Thus, Plaintiffs claim, in as much as it is alleging that Defendant acted negligently, is encompassed by the exculpatory language of the agreement and therefore barred.2

2 This Court notes that there is some language in Chepkevich that seems to support Plaintiffs argument. As an aside, the Chepkevich Court states that “the risk [in this case] was not so unexpected, or brought about in so strange a manner, as to justify placing this injury beyond the reach of the plain language of the Release.” Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1194. Plaintiff has pointed out that a broken stirrup is a very uncommon, and therefore unexpected, occurrence. (Doc. 22 at 12-13). Nevertheless, because Chepkevich does not give any standards for what type of risks fall beyond the realm of the plain language of an exculpatory agreement, this Court must turn to other cases. This Court finds  [*18]  Zimmer v. Mitchell and Ness  instructive.

In Zimmer, a skier, Joseph Zimmer, sued a ski rental company after the bindings on the skis he rented failed to release as they were supposed to during a fall, causing him substantial injury. Zimmer, 385 A.2d at 438. Zimmer argued that the rental company was negligent in renting him skis without testing and fitting the bindings. Id. at 440. The court granted the ski rental company’s motion for summary judgment based on an exculpatory agreement that Zimmer signed when he rented the skis that released the rental company “from any liability for damage and injury to myself or to any person or property resulting from the use of this equipment.” Id.

Thus, while the specific issue of a broken stirrup may be very uncommon, Pennsylvania courts have enforced exculpatory agreements in the case of a released party negligently providing the releasing party with defective or broken equipment.

Plaintiff advances a more narrow reading of the agreement and argues that because the agreement does not enumerate defective equipment as a risk, he did not expressly assume it. The Chepkevich Court, however, was clear that no illustrations or examples are required to give common terms effect in an exculpatory [*19]  agreement. See Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1193. “All claims” and “negligence” are commonly used terms and Pennsylvania law does not require drafters of exculpatory clauses to enumerate every possible contingency that is included in broader language they choose to use. Plaintiff agreed to release Defendant from “all claims” including those that arose from Defendant’s negligence. Plaintiff cannot now protest that he did not know what “all claims” included.3

3 At oral argument, Plaintiff advanced a slightly different argument. Plaintiff argued, in effect, that because paragraph one of the agreement enumerates risks associated with horseback riding, the rest of the agreement is limited to those enumerated lists. This argument was also advanced in Chepkevich. See Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1194. There, the court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that “by enumerating risks inherent to downhill skiing and then requiring the skier to accept those risks, the Release only bars suits that arise out of the listed risks.” Id. The court found that the release, which stated that skiing “is a dangerous sport with inherent and other risks,” was not limited to the enumerated the risks, but clearly included “other risks.” Here, as in Chepkevich, Plaintiff’s argument [*20]  fails on textual grounds. It is true that the agreement, in paragraph one, lists some risks inherent to horseback riding. However, in paragraph two and six, the agreement states that Plaintiff relinquishes “any and all claims.” There is no limiting language in paragraph two or six that would indicate that Plaintiff was only relinquishing claims arising out of the enumerated risks in paragraph one.

Plaintiff finally argues that Defendant’s conduct amounts to recklessness and exculpatory agreements cannot immunize reckless conduct. (Doc. 22 at 14); see Tayar, 47 A.3d at 1202-03. Defendant concedes that the agreement only releases it from suits for negligence, not recklessness, and counters that its “conduct at most amounts to ordinary negligence.” (Doc. 23 at 10). “Recklessness is distinguishable from negligence on the basis that recklessness requires conscious action or inaction which creates a substantial risk of harm to others, whereas negligence suggests unconscious inadvertence.” Tayar, 47 A.3d at 1200.

The actor’s conduct is in reckless disregard of the safety of another if he does an act or intentionally fails to do an act which it is his duty to the other to do, knowing or having reason to know of facts which would lead a reasonable [*21]  man to realize, not only that his conduct creates an unreasonable risk of physical harm to another, but also that such risk is substantially greater than that which is necessary to make his conduct negligent.

Id. at 1200-01 (quoting Restatement (Second) of Torts § 500).

Defendant’s bare assertion that its actions do not rise to the level of recklessness does not satisfy its burden to show that there is no genuine dispute as to a material fact. The record shows that Happy Trails provided a saddle for Plaintiffs ride, that a stirrup on that saddle broke during the ride, and that Plaintiff fell from a horse when the stirrup broke. (Doc. 22-5 at 35-36, 39-40). It was the responsibility of Happy Trails, not the customer, to inspect the equipment, but no records of inspections or repairs were kept, nor was the Happy Trails’ owner able to say if any inspection of the specific stirrup occurred on the day of the accident. (Id. at 13, 53-55, 58, 60). Happy Trails’ owner testified that he bought used saddles on the internet and also from individuals who walk into his business. (Id. at 18). He was unable to say where he procured the saddle in question, how long he had had it, or how old it was. (Id. at 18-19, 58, 60). Additionally, Happy Trails’ owner displayed a somewhat cavalier attitude towards [*22]  safety, asserting that customers assume all risks associated with the activity, including equipment breaking, staff failing to put equipment on the horses correctly, and even staff failing to provide basic equipment like stirrups or a bridal. (Id. at 32-33). Viewing the record in a light most favorable to Plaintiff, a question of fact therefore remains as to whether Defendant’s action rose to the level of recklessness.

Defendant goes on to argue that Plaintiff failed to plead recklessness and that if “recklessness is the standard to apply in this case, plaintiffs compliant must be dismissed with prejudice.” (Doc. 23 at 10). This argument, however, runs counter to the holding in Archibald v. Kemble, 2009 PA Super 79, 971 A.2d 513 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2009).

Archibald involved a lawsuit stemming from Robert Archibald’s participation in a “no-check” adult hockey league. Id. at 515. In his complaint, Archibald alleged that another player, Cody Kemble, checked him into the boards of the ice hockey rink. Id. The complaint went on to say that

Cody Kemble’s negligence consisted of the following:

a. failing to assure that Robert Archibald was aware and/or warned that the check was going to be attempted before checking him into the boards;

b. failing to assure that Robert Archibald was willing [*23]  to be checked;

c. checking Robert Archibald when not safe to do so;

d. failing to understand and learn the rules, prohibition and limitation on any checking prior to participating in the non-checking league and game.

Id. at 516. First determining that Archibald would only be able to recover if he showed that Kemble acted recklessly, the Court went on to hold that recklessness “may be averred generally.” Id. at 517, 519. Thus, “merely determining the degree of care is recklessness does not give rise to a separate tort that must have been pled within the applicable statute of limitations.” Id. at 519. Instead, “Archibalds’ cause of action was…subsumed within the negligence count pled in their Complaint.” Id.; see also M.U. v. Downingtown High Sch. E., 103 F. Supp. 3d 612, 629 (E.D. Pa. 2015) (construing a separately pleaded recklessness claim “simply as a mechanism to recover punitive damages under [the] negligence claim” because “[t]here is no cause of action for recklessness under Pennsylvania law” and “recklessness is a heightened standard of care required to potentially recover punitive damages”).

Consequently, under Archibald, the fact that Plaintiff did not specifically plead recklessness in his Complaint is not fatal to his claim. In his Complaint, Plaintiff alleged that, among other things, [*24]  Defendant “provid[ed] equipment or tack that defendant knew or should have known was faulty.” This statement encompasses the allegation that Defendant recklessly provided Plaintiff with defective or faulty equipment. The fact that Plaintiffs Complaint does not contain the word “reckless” is immaterial.

In sum, because the agreement that Plaintiff signed is only enforceable to immunize Defendant for its negligence, and not for its recklessness, and because there is a genuine dispute as to the material fact of whether Defendant acted recklessly in this case, the Court finds that the agreement is not a sufficient basis for summary judgment.

B. Equine Activities Immunity Act

Defendant next points to the Equine Activities Immunity Act, 4 P.S. §§ 601-606, as an alternative, independent basis for summary judgment. The EAIA limits the liability of certain providers of equine activities if specific requirements are met. Defendant argues that, as a provider of a qualifying equine activity who has complied with the EAIA’s statutory requirements, it is entitled to immunity from suit. (Doc. 20 at 10-11). Plaintiff counters that Defendant’s negligent provision of defective or faulty equipment puts the suit outside of the EAIA’s [*25]  protections. (Doc. 22 at 4).

The issue of whether a covered entity is immunized from liability under the EAIA for providing defective or faulty equipment is a question of first impression. As such, this Court must engage in statutory interpretation. For this Court to interpret state law, it “must determine how the highest court of the State would decide an issue.” Baker ex rel. Thomas v. Gen. Motors Corp., 522 U.S. 222, 249, 118 S. Ct. 657, 139 L. Ed. 2d 580 (1998). Pennsylvania interprets statutes according to the Statutory Construction Act of 1972, 1 Pa.Cons. Stat. Ann. §§ 1501-1991. “When interpreting statutory language, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is guided by the ‘plain meaning’ rule of construction.” Hofkin v. Provident Life & Accident Ins. Co., 81 F.3d 365, 371 (3d Cir. 1996) (citing Commonwealth v. Stanley, 498 Pa. 326, 446 A.2d 583, 587 (Pa. 1982)). “The object of all interpretation and construction of statutes is to ascertain and effectuate the intention of the General Assembly. Every statute shall be construed, if possible, to give effect to all its provisions.” 1 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 1921(a). “When the words of a statute are clear and free from all ambiguity, the letter of it is not to be disregarded under the pretext of pursuing its spirit.” Id. at § 1921(b).

The EAIA provides immunity for “an individual, group, club or business entity that sponsors, organizes, conducts or provides the facilities for an equine activity” including “[r]ecreational rides or drives which involve riding or other activity [*26]  involving the use of an equine.” 4 P.S. §§ 601, 602(b)(6). The EAIA, however, only provides immunity where signs of at least a certain size are “conspicuously posted on the premises…in two or more locations, which states the following: You assume the risk of equine activities pursuant to Pennsylvania law.” Id. at § 603. For covered entities in compliance with the signs requirement, “liability for negligence shall only be barred where the doctrine of knowing voluntary assumption of risk is proven with respect to damages due to injuries or death to an adult participant resulting from equine activities.” Id. at § 602(a). Finally, the Act is clear that “[t]he immunity provided for by this act shall be narrowly construed.” Id. at § 606.

Plaintiff does not argue that Defendant, as a provider of recreational horseback riding activities, is not a covered entity under the statute. Additionally, Plaintiff does not argue that Defendant did not have the appropriate signs as prescribed under the EAIA. Plaintiffs sole argument is that the Act does not bar actions for the negligent provision of faulty or defective equipment. (Doc. 22 at 6). Stated otherwise, Plaintiff argues that because he did not know he might be given defective or faulty [*27]  equipment, he could not knowingly assume the risk of such. Defendant counters that “[o]nce plaintiff entered the stables property and took part in recreational horse riding, he assumed the risk of harm associated with such activities.” (Doc. 20 at 11).

The EAIA states that “liability for negligence shall only be barred where the doctrine of knowing voluntary assumption of risk is proven.” 4 P.S. § 602(a). The Act, therefore, appears to preserve the common law assumption of risk doctrine in the context of equine activities. In delineating the contours of this doctrine, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has looked to the Restatement Second of Torts. See Hughes v. Seven Springs Farm, Inc., 563 Pa. 501, 762 A.2d 339, 341-42 (Pa. 2000). The Restatement outlines four varieties of the doctrine, the first two of which are of interest in this case. See Restatement (second) of Torts § 496A cmt. c. The first, express assumption of risk occurs when lithe plaintiff has given his express consent to relieve the defendant of an obligation to exercise care for his protection, and agrees to take his chances as to injury from a known or possible risk.” Id. (emphasis added). This is the type of assumption of risk examined above in respect to the agreement signed by Plaintiff. The second, implied assumption of risk, occurs when lithe plaintiff has [*28]  entered voluntarily into some relation with the defendant which he knows to involve the risk, and so is regarded as tacitly or impliedly agreeing to relieve the defendant of responsibility, and to take his own chances.” Id. (emphasis added).

It is self-evident that a person “cannot be found to have implicitly assumed a risk of which he had no knowledge.” Rutter v. Ne. Beaver Cty. Sch. Dist., 496 Pa. 590, 437 A.2d 1198, 1204 (Pa. 1981) (plurality opinion). As such, lithe defense of assumption of the risk requires that the defendant show that the plaintiff was subjectively aware of the facts which created the danger and…must have appreciated the danger itself and the nature, character and extent which made it unreasonable.”‘ Berman v. Radnor Rolls, Inc., 374 Pa. Super. 118, 542 A.2d 525, 532 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1988) (alteration in original) (quoting Crance v. Sohanic, 344 Pa. Super. 526, 496 A.2d 1230, 1232 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1985)); See also Restatement (second) of Torts § 496D.4 Thus, for a defendant to prevail on a summary judgment motion based on the assumption of risk defense, it must be “beyond question that the plaintiff voluntarily and knowingly proceeded in the face of an obvious and dangerous condition.” Barrett v. Fredavid Builders, Inc., 454 Pa. Super. 162, 685 A.2d 129, 131 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1996) (citing Struble v. Valley Forge Military Acad., 445 Pa. Super. 224, 665 A.2d 4 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1995)). Finally, “[t]he mere fact one engages in activity that has some inherent danger does not mean that one cannot recover from a negligent party when injury is subsequently sustained.” Bullman v. Giuntoli, 2000 PA Super 284, 761 A.2d 566, 572 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2000).

4 Of course, a plaintiff’s own assertion about whether he knew of and understood [*29]  the risk is not conclusive.

There are some risks as to which no adult will be believed if he says that he did not know or understand them. Thus an adult who knowingly comes in contact with a fire will not be believed if he says that he was unaware of the risk that he might be burned by it; and the same is true of such risks as those of drowning in water or falling from a height, in the absence of any special circumstances which may conceal or appear to minimize the danger.

Restatement (Second) of Torts §496D cmt. d.

In short, to preclude Plaintiffs negligence action under the EAIA, Defendant must show that Plaintiff knew that the equipment he was provided with might break and voluntarily continued with the horseback ride in spite of that knowledge. Only then can Plaintiff be said to knowingly assume the risk. Defendant, however, has made no such showing. Defendant has failed to point to anything in the record to show that Plaintiff decided to use the equipment with the knowledge that the stirrup or any other equipment Plaintiff was provided with might break. Nor is this a case where the risk is so obvious that the knowledge could be inferred. The owner of Happy Trails testified that, in the approximately ten years he operated [*30]  the stable, he never remembered a single stirrup breaking. (Doc. 20-3 at 20-21). Given that it is not a common occurrence, it strains credibility to argue that a recreational participant would know that being provided broken equipment was likely.

Therefore, because there has been no showing that Plaintiff knew of the risk and voluntarily disregarded it, the EAIA provides no relief for Defendant.5

5 At oral argument, counsel for the Defendant conceded that, even under the broad interpretation of the Act that Defendant argued for, the Act would not immunize a covered entity for acts of recklessness or gross negligence. As this Court has already found that there is a genuine dispute as to the material fact of whether the Defendant acted recklessly, this provides an alternative ground for the finding that the Act does not provide immunity under these facts.

V. Conclusion

For the reasons stated above, the Court will deny Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 19). A separate Order follows.

/s/ Robert D. Mariani

Robert D. Mariani

United States District Judge

ORDER

AND NOW, THIS 26th DAY OF SEPTEMBER, 2016, upon consideration of Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 19), IT IS HEREBY ORDERED [*31]  THAT:

1. Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 19) is DENIED.

2. A telephone scheduling conference will be held on Wednesday, October 5, 2016, at 4:00 p.m. Counsel for Plaintiff is responsible for arranging the call to (570) 207-5750, and all parties should be ready to proceed before the undersigned is contacted.

/s/ Robert D. Mariani

Robert D. Mariani

United States District Judge

 


185 Mile Running Race release was clear and under Washington, law was sufficient to beat a Public Policy & ambiguous argument by plaintiff

Decision clearly sets forth the requirements for the plaintiff to prove her claims which she failed to do.

Johnson et al., v. Spokane to Sandpoint, LLC, et al., 176 Wn. App. 453; 309 P.3d 528; 2013 Wash. App. LEXIS 1696

State: Washington, Court of Appeals of Washington, Division Three

Plaintiff: Robin Johnson and Craig Johnson

Defendant: Spokane to Sandpoint, LLC, et al.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence & Gross Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: for the defendant

Year: 2013

The plaintiff, an attorney signed up for the Spokane to Sandpoint race. The race is a team race run over two days and nights. The race is 185 miles long and an open course, meaning there is traffic on the course.

Spokane to Sandpoint promotes a long-distance relay race from the Spokane area to Sandpoint, Idaho, involving teams running a 185-mile course over two days, day and night. The course is open, meaning it is not closed to public traffic.

The racers sign up online and sign an electronic release. The racers also receive a race handbook. The handbook explains the race and includes sections on crossing roads, highways and train tracks.

The plaintiff was crossing a highway, and she was hit by a car. The driver of the car stated the plaintiff walked out in front of her without looking. The plaintiff settled with the driver before this appeal.

As Ms. Johnson was crossing U.S. Route 2, Madilyn Young was driving about 63 miles per hour southbound in the outside lane on U.S. Route 2, approaching the Colbert Road intersection. Ac-cording to Ms. Young’s statement to the police, she saw Ms. Johnson crossing the northbound lanes of U.S. Route 2 and saw her continue into the southbound lanes without looking for cars. Ms. Young was unable to stop in time to avoid a collision. Ms. Johnson suffered severe injuries.

The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, which was granted and this appeal followed.

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

The appellate court first looked at the requirements for the plaintiff to survive and proceed to trial.

To prevail on a negligence claim against Spokane to Sandpoint, the Johnsons must establish Spokane to Sandpoint owed them a duty. Whether such a duty exists is a question of law. Id. The parties may, subject to certain exceptions, expressly agree in advance that one party is under no obligation of care to the other, and shall not be held liable for ordinary negligence.

The court then looked at the requirements for releases to be valid under Washington’s law. (Of note, the court calls the exculpatory clause a waiver clause. However, the court refers to the agreement as a release.)

The function of a waiver provision is “to deny an injured party the right to recover damages from the person negligently causing the injury.” The general rule in Washington is that a waiver provision is enforceable unless (1) it violates public policy, (2) the negligent act falls greatly below the legal standard for protection of others, or (3) it is inconspicuous.

Under Washington’s law, releases are valid, unless they violate public policy. There are six different factors identified as attributable to public policy in Washington.

Six factors are considered in determining whether exculpatory agreements violate public policy. The court considers whether (1) the agreement concerns an endeavor of a type generally thought suitable for public regulation; (2) the party seeking exculpation is engaged in performing a service of great importance to the public, which is often a matter of practical necessity for some members of the public; (3) such party holds itself out as willing to perform this service for any member of the public who seeks it, or at least for any member coming within certain established standards; (4) because of the essential nature of the service, in the economic setting of the transaction, the party invoking exculpation possesses a decisive advantage of bargaining strength against any member of the public who seeks the services; (5) in exercising a superior bargaining power, the party confronts the public with a standardized adhesion contract of exculpation, and makes no provision whereby a purchaser may pay additional reasonable fees and obtain protection against negligence; and (6) the person or property of members of the public seeking such services must be placed under the control of the furnisher of the services, subject to the risk of carelessness on the part of the furnisher, its employees, or agents.

The court then went through all six factors and eliminated them all in one paragraph.

First, 185-mile relay races are not regulated; second, Spokane to Sandpoint is not performing an important public service such as a school; third, not all members of the public participate in relay races, unlike schools; fourth, Spokane to Sandpoint had no control over how Ms. Johnson ran or when she decided to cross U.S. Route 2; fifth, there was no inequality of bargaining since Ms. Johnson could have easily chosen not to participate and could have selected a different event; and sixth, while Spokane to Sandpoint set up the course, it did not control in what manner Ms. Johnson ran the race.

Generally, Washington law looks at whether the issues that identify a public policy issue are those that affect the majority of the public in Washington. The court also found that other Washington decisions have found that recreational activities were not a public interest.

The second issue was the plaintiff’s claim the defendant was grossly negligent. Like most states, a release in Washington will not stop a claim for gross negligence. Gross negligence is greater than ordinary negligence and is care appreciably less than care required in an ordinary negligence claim.

“Gross negligence” is “negligence substantially and appreciably greater than ordinary negligence,” i.e., “care substantially or appreciably less than the quantum of care inhering in ordinary negligence.” (“gross negligence” is “the failure to exercise slight care”). A plaintiff seeking to overcome an exculpatory clause by proving gross negligence must supply “substantial evidence” that the defendant’s act or omission represented care appreciably less than the care inherent in ordinary negligence. To meet this burden of proof on summary judgment, the plaintiff must offer something more substantial than mere argument that the defendant’s breach of care rises to the level of gross negligence.

The court then went through the facts and found that nothing required the defendant to do more than what the defendant did. Consequently, since there was no duty to do more, there was no breach of a duty, let alone acts, which were substantially below the duty.

The final argument the plaintiff argued was the release was ambiguous and not conspicuous. Here again, Washington’s law set forth the requirements for ambiguous and conspicuous quite clearly.

Factors in deciding whether a waiver and release provision is conspicuous include whether the waiver is set apart or hidden within other provisions, whether the heading is clear, whether the waiver is set off in capital letters or in bold type, whether there is a signature line below the waiver provision, what the language says above the signature line, and whether it is clear that the signature is related to the waiver.

The requirements basically require the release to be seen by the signor and not hidden. The exculpatory provisions must be evident, conspicuous and not hidden. The language must stand out so it is easily recognized with capital letters and/or bold type and there must be a signature line below the exculpatory provisions so that you can see your signature is related to the exculpatory provisions.

In this case, the release provisions were found not to be ambiguous. Additionally, the plaintiff admitted in her deposition that she understood from a legal perspective that the release would release her from claiming damages for any injuries.

The appellate court agreed with the trial court and affirmed the decision.

So Now What?

This decision is refreshing because it clearly sets out the requirements needed to prove a release valid and invalid. The definition of gross negligence also easily defined to that you can understand your duties and a substantial breach of your duties leading to a gross negligence claim.

Also of note, which the court pointed out was the information provided to the plaintiff and other racers in the racer handbook. Although not an express assumption of risk agreement, the handbook was still proof, the plaintiff assumed the risk, even though that issue was not argued. The risks of the race were set forth as well as the steps taken by the defendant to protect the runners in the handbook.

Again, the more information you provide to your clients, the more information you give them the better your chances of winning if your release fails.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Johnson et al., v. Spokane to Sandpoint, LLC, et al., 176 Wn. App. 453; 309 P.3d 528; 2013 Wash. App. LEXIS 1696

Johnson et al., v. Spokane to Sandpoint, LLC, et al., 176 Wn. App. 453; 309 P.3d 528; 2013 Wash. App. LEXIS 1696

Robin Johnson et al., Appellants, v. Spokane to Sandpoint, LLC, et al., Respondents.

No. 31042-6-III

COURT OF APPEALS OF WASHINGTON, DIVISION THREE

July 23, 2013, Filed

NOTICE: Order Granting Motion to Publish September 10, 2013.

SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Reported at Johnson v. Spokane to Sandpoint, LLC, 175 Wn. App. 1054, 2013 Wash. App. LEXIS 1835 (2013)

Ordered published by Johnson v. Spokane to Sandpoint, LLC, 2013 Wash. App. LEXIS 2129 (Wash. Ct. App., Sept. 10, 2013)

PRIOR HISTORY: [***1]

Appeal from Spokane Superior Court. Docket No: 10-2-05387-0. Date filed: 07/09/2012. Judge signing: Honorable Gregory D Sypolt.

SUMMARY:

WASHINGTON OFFICIAL REPORTS SUMMARY Nature of Action: A participant in a long-distance relay race who was struck by a moving vehicle sought damages for personal injury from the race promoter.

Nature of Action: A participant in a long-distance relay race who was struck by a moving vehicle sought damages for personal injury from the race promoter.

Superior Court: The Superior Court for Spokane County, No. 10-2-05387-0, Gregory D. Sypolt, J., on July 9, 2012, entered a summary judgment in favor of the race promoter.

Court of Appeals: Holding that a preinjury release and waiver signed by the runner precluded her recovering for ordinary negligence, the court affirms the judgment.

HEADNOTES WASHINGTON OFFICIAL REPORTS HEADNOTES

[1] Negligence — Duty — Necessity. The threshold question in a negligence action is whether the defendant owed a duty of care to the plaintiff.

[2] Negligence — Duty — Question of Law or Fact — In General. For purposes of a negligence cause of action, the existence of a duty of care is a question of law.

[3] Torts — Limitation of Liability — Validity — In General. Subject to certain exceptions, parties may expressly agree in advance that one is under no obligation of care to the other and shall not be liable for ordinary negligence.

[4] Torts — Limitation of Liability — Purpose. The function of a contractual waiver of negligence liability is to deny an injured party the right to recover damages from the person negligently causing the injury.

[5] Torts — Limitation of Liability — Validity — Test. A contractual waiver of negligence liability is enforceable unless (1) it violates public policy, (2) the negligent act falls greatly below the legal standard for the protection of others, or (3) it is inconspicuous.

[6] Torts — Limitation of Liability — Validity — Public Policy — Factors. In determining whether an agreement exculpating a party from liability for its future conduct violates public policy, a court will consider whether (1) the agreement concerns an endeavor of a type generally thought suitable for public regulation; (2) the party seeking exculpation is engaged in performing a service of great importance to the public, which is often a matter of practical necessity for some members of the public; (3) such party holds itself out as willing to perform this service for any member of the public who seeks it, or at least for any member coming within certain established standards; (4) because of the essential nature of the service, in the economic setting of the transaction, the party invoking exculpation possesses a decisive advantage of bargaining strength against any member of the public who seeks the services; (5) in exercising a superior bargaining power, the party confronts the public with a standardized adhesion contract of exculpation, and makes no provision whereby a purchaser may pay additional reasonable fees and obtain protection against negligence; and (6) the person or property of members of the public seeking such services must be placed under the control of the furnisher of the services, subject to the risk of carelessness on the part of the furnisher, its employees, or its agents.

[7] Torts — Limitation of Liability — Validity — Public Policy — Public Interest — Recreational Activities. For purposes of determining the validity of a liability release clause under a public policy analysis, Washington courts do not favor finding a public interest in adult recreational activities.

[8] Torts — Limitation of Liability — Applicability — Gross Negligence. A preinjury waiver and release will not exculpate a defendant from liability for damages resulting from gross negligence. “Gross negligence” is negligence substantially and appreciably greater than ordinary negligence, i.e., care substantially or appreciably less than the quantum of care inhering in ordinary negligence, or a failure to exercise slight care. A plaintiff seeking to overcome an exculpatory clause by proving gross negligence must supply substantial evidence that the defendant’s act or omission represented care appreciably less than the care inherent in ordinary negligence. To meet this burden of proof on summary judgment, a plaintiff must offer something more substantial than mere argument that the defendant’s breach of care rises to the level of gross negligence.

[9] Negligence — Proof — Higher Standard — Summary Judgment — Prima Facie Case — Necessity. When the standard of proof in a negligence action is higher than ordinary negligence, in order to avoid an adverse summary judgment, a plaintiff must show that it can support its claim with prima facie proof supporting the higher level of proof.

[10] Torts — Limitation of Liability — Validity — Conspicuous Nature — Factors. The conspicuousness of a contractual liability waiver or release provision is determined by considering such factors as whether the provision is set apart or hidden within other provisions, whether the provision heading is clear, whether the waiver is set off in capital letters or in bold type, whether there is a signature line below the waiver provision, what the language says above the signature line, and whether it is clear that the signature is related to the waiver. Brown, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous court.

COUNSEL: Martin A. Peltram, for appellants.

Thomas C. Stratton (of Rockey Stratton PS), for respondents.

JUDGES: Authored by Stephen M. Brown. Concurring: Laurel H. Siddoway, Kevin M. Korsmo.

OPINION BY: Stephen M. Brown

OPINION

[*455] [**530] ¶1 Brown, J. — Robin Johnson and Craig Johnson appeal the dismissal of their personal injury suit against Spokane to Sandpoint LLC after the trial court ruled the preinjury release and waiver Ms. Johnson signed precluded recovery. The Johnsons contend the release is unenforceable because it is ambiguous, offends public policy, and because Spokane to Sandpoint was grossly negligent. We disagree and affirm.

FACTS

¶2 Spokane to Sandpoint promotes a long-distance relay race from the Spokane area to Sandpoint, Idaho, involving teams running a 185-mile course over two days, day and [**531] night. The course is open, meaning it is not closed to public traffic.

¶3 When registering on line, the runners must electronically acknowledge a release of liability and waiver, which states:

I understand that by registering I have accepted and agreed to the waiver [***2] and release agreement(s) presented to me during registration and that these documents include a release of liability and waiver of legal rights and deprive me of the right to sue certain parties. By agreeing electronically, I have acknowledged that I have both read and understood any waiver and release agreement(s) presented to me as part of the registration process and accept the inherent dangers and risks which may or may not be readily foreseeable, including without limitation personal injury, property damage or death that arise from participation in the event.

[*456] Clerk’s Papers (CP) at 246. Ms. Johnson, an attorney, registered on line for the 2010 Spokane to Sandpoint race and acknowledged the above waiver, plus she agreed to “waive and release Spokane to Sandpointfrom any and all claims or liability of any kind arising out of my participation in this event, even though that liability may arise out negligence or carelessness on the part of persons on this waiver.” CP at 246. Ms. Johnson agreed she read the agreement carefully and understood the terms and she signed the agreement, “FREELY AND VOLUNTARILY, WITHOUT ANY INDUCEMENT, ASSURANCE OR GUARANTEE” and that her signature was [***3] “TO SERVE AS CONFIRMATION OF MY COMPLETE AND UNCONDITIONAL ACCEPTANCE OF THE TERMS, CONDITIONS, AND PROVISIONS OF THIS AGREEMENT.” CP at 248.

¶4 Spokane to Sandpoint provided a race handbook to Ms. Johnson, explaining all facets of the race, including crossing public highways and train tracks. The fourth leg of the race crossed U.S. Route 2 at its intersection with Colbert Road. At that location, U.S. Route 2 is a divided highway that runs north and south. It has two lanes in each direction, separated by a median strip. A sign was posted on Colbert Road telling the runners “caution crossing highway.” CP at 128. Signs were posted along the race route informing drivers that runners were running along the race route roads.

¶5 As Ms. Johnson was crossing U.S. Route 2, Madilyn Young was driving about 63 miles per hour southbound in the outside lane on U.S. Route 2, approaching the Colbert Road intersection. According to Ms. Young’s statement to the police, she saw Ms. Johnson crossing the northbound lanes of U.S. Route 2 and saw her continue into the southbound lanes without looking for cars. Ms. Young was unable to stop in time to avoid a collision. Ms. Johnson suffered severe injuries.

¶6 The Johnsons sued Spokane [***4] to Sandpoint, Ms. Young, and Ms. Young’s parents. The Johnsons dismissed their [*457] claims against Ms. Young and her parents following a settlement.

¶7 During Ms. Johnson’s deposition, counsel for Spokane to Sandpoint asked her if she understood that the release she signed “would … release the entities for any personal injury that might occur to you during the activity?” CP at 138. Ms. Johnson replied, “Yes, I understand that from a legal perspective completely.” CP at 139. When questioned about the on line registration process, counsel asked:

Q. Do you recall whether you clicked yes to the waiver language at all on the registration process?

A. On the registration process I assume I must have clicked because all that information is there and I did it. Nobody else did it for me.

CP at 156.

¶8 Spokane to Sandpoint requested summary judgment dismissal, arguing the preinjury waiver and release agreed to by Ms. Johnson was conspicuous and not against public policy and the Johnsons lacked the evidence of gross negligence necessary to overcome the release. The trial court agreed and dismissed the Johnsons’ complaint.

ANALYSIS

¶9 The issue is whether the trial court erred in summarily dismissing the [**532] Johnsons’ [***5] negligence complaint. The Johnsons contend the release and waiver signed by Ms. Johnson prior to her injury was invalid and unenforceable because it was ambiguous and against public policy, and because Spokane to Sandpoint was grossly negligent.

¶10 [HN1] We review summary judgment de novo and engage in the same inquiry as the trial court. Heath v. Uraga, 106 Wn. App. 506, 512, 24 P.3d 413 (2001). [HN2] Summary judgment is appropriate if, in view of all the evidence, reasonable persons could reach only one conclusion. Hansen v. Friend, 118 Wn.2d 476, 485, 824 P.2d 483 (1992). Where different [*458] competing inferences may be drawn from the evidence, the issue must be resolved by the trier of fact. Kuyper v. Dep’t of Wildlife, 79 Wn. App. 732, 739, 904 P.2d 793 (1995).

[1-3] ¶11 [HN3] To prevail on a negligence claim against Spokane to Sandpoint, the Johnsons must establish Spokane to Sandpoint owed them a duty. Chauvlier v. Booth Creek Ski Holdings, Inc., 109 Wn. App. 334, 339, 35 P.3d 383 (2001) (citing Tincani v. Inland Empire Zoological Soc’y, 124 Wn.2d 121, 128, 875 P.2d 621 (1994)). Whether such a duty exists is a question of law. Id. The parties may, subject to certain exceptions, expressly agree in advance that one [***6] party is under no obligation of care to the other, and shall not be held liable for ordinary negligence. Chauvlier, 109 Wn. App. at 339.

[4, 5] ¶12 [HN4] The function of a waiver provision is “to deny an injured party the right to recover damages from the person negligently causing the injury.” Scott v. Pac. W. Mountain Resort, 119 Wn.2d 484, 491, 834 P.2d 6 (1992). The general rule in Washington is that a waiver provision is enforceable unless (1) it violates public policy, (2) the negligent act falls greatly below the legal standard for protection of others, or (3) it is inconspicuous. Stokes v. Bally’s Pacwest, Inc., 113 Wn. App. 442, 445, 54 P.3d 161 (2002).

[6] ¶13 [HN5] In Washington, contracts releasing liability for negligence are valid unless a public interest is involved. Hewitt v. Miller, 11 Wn. App. 72, 521 P.2d 244 (1974). [HN6] Six factors are considered in determining whether exculpatory agreements violate public policy. The court considers whether (1) the agreement concerns an endeavor of a type generally thought suitable for public regulation; (2) the party seeking exculpation is engaged in performing a service of great importance to the public, which is often a matter of practical necessity for some members [***7] of the public; (3) such party holds itself out as willing to perform this service for any member of the public who seeks it, or at least for any member coming within certain established [*459] standards; (4) because of the essential nature of the service, in the economic setting of the transaction, the party invoking exculpation possesses a decisive advantage of bargaining strength against any member of the public who seeks the services; (5) in exercising a superior bargaining power, the party confronts the public with a standardized adhesion contract of exculpation, and makes no provision whereby a purchaser may pay additional reasonable fees and obtain protection against negligence; and (6) the person or property of members of the public seeking such services must be placed under the control of the furnisher of the services, subject to the risk of carelessness on the part of the furnisher, its employees, or agents. Wagenblast v. Odessa Sch. Dist. 105-157-166J, 110 Wn.2d 845, 851-55, 758 P.2d 968 (1988) (citing Tunkl v. Regents of Univ. of Cal., 60 Cal. 2d 92, 98-101, 383 P.2d 441, 32 Cal. Rptr. 33 (1963)). The Johnsons fail to establish all six factors.

¶14 First, 185-mile relay races are not regulated; [***8] second, Spokane to Sandpoint is not performing an important public service such as a school; third, not all members of the public participate in relay races, unlike schools; fourth, Spokane to Sandpoint had no control over how Ms. Johnson ran or when she decided to cross U.S. Route 2; fifth, there was no inequality of bargaining since Ms. Johnson could have easily chosen not to participate and could have selected a different event; and sixth, while Spokane to Sandpoint set up the course, it did not control in what manner Ms. Johnson ran the race.

[7] ¶15 [HN7] Washington courts have not favored finding a public interest in adult recreational activities. As noted in Hewitt, 11 Wn. App. [**533] at 74, “[e]xtended discussion is not required to conclude that instruction in scuba diving does not involve a public duty.” Similarly, “[a]lthough a popular sport in Washington, mountaineering, like scuba diving, does not involve public interest.” Blide v. Rainier Mountaineering, Inc., 30 Wn. App. 571, 574, 636 P.2d 492 (1981). Washington courts have come to the same conclusion regarding [*460] tobogganing and demolition car racing. Broderson v. Rainer Nat’l Park Co., 187 Wash. 399, 406, 60 P.2d 234 (1936), overruled in part by [***9] Baker v. City of Seattle, 79 Wn.2d 198, 484 P.2d 405 (1971); Conradt v. Four Star Promotions, Inc., 45 Wn. App. 847, 853, 728 P.2d 617 (1986).

[8] ¶16 [HN8] A preinjury waiver and release will not exculpate a defendant from liability for damages resulting from gross negligence. Vodopest v. MacGregor, 128 Wn.2d 840, 853, 913 P.2d 779 (1996). “Gross negligence” is “negligence substantially and appreciably greater than ordinary negligence,” i.e., “care substantially or appreciably less than the quantum of care inhering in ordinary negligence.” Nist v. Tudor, 67 Wn.2d 322, 331, 407 P.2d 798 (1965); see 6 Washington Practice: Washington Pattern Jury Instructions: Civil 10.07 (6th ed. 2012) (“gross negligence” is “the failure to exercise slight care”). A plaintiff seeking to overcome an exculpatory clause by proving gross negligence must supply “substantial evidence” that the defendant’s act or omission represented care appreciably less than the care inherent in ordinary negligence. Boyce v. West, 71 Wn. App. 657, 665, 862 P.2d 592 (1993). To meet this burden of proof on summary judgment, the plaintiff must offer something more substantial than mere argument that the defendant’s breach of care rises [***10] to the level of gross negligence. CR 56(e); Boyce, 71 Wn. App. at 666.

¶17 Spokane to Sandpoint marked the roadways to warn both drivers and runners of danger and provided a handbook to each runner advising about crossing busy roadways and highways. Nothing in this record establishes any duty to do more.

¶18 Our case is somewhat like Conradt, where Mr. Conradt was hurt in an auto race. 45 Wn. App. at 848. He signed a release before being told of a change in the race direction. Id. Mr. Conradt argued the risk had been materially altered by that change after he signed the release. Id. at 850. He explained he could not corner as well and he had not understood the additional risk. Id. The race promoter [*461] requested summary judgment based on the release. Id. at 848. The trial court dismissed Mr. Conradt’s complaint, finding the release was valid and the promoter’s action did not amount to gross negligence. Id. at 852. The Conradt court affirmed, holding the promoter’s “conduct was not so substantially and appreciably substandard that it rendered the release invalid.” Id.

[9] ¶19 Similarly, the Johnsons fail to show Spokane to Sandpoint committed gross negligence by failing to exercise slight care. See Woody v. Stapp, 146 Wn. App. 16, 22, 189 P.3d 807 (2008) [***11] (When a standard of proof is higher than ordinary negligence, the nonmoving parties must show that they can support their claim with prima facie proof supporting the higher level of proof.). Spokane to Sandpoint’s conduct does not reach gross negligence under the circumstances presented here.

[10] ¶20 Finally, the Johnsons argue the release was ambiguous and not conspicuous. Several Washington courts have analyzed waiver provisions to determine whether the language was conspicuous. [HN9] Factors in deciding whether a waiver and release provision is conspicuous include whether the waiver is set apart or hidden within other provisions, whether the heading is clear, whether the waiver is set off in capital letters or in bold type, whether there is a signature line below the waiver provision, what the language says above the signature line, and whether it is clear that the signature is related to the waiver. See Baker, 79 Wn.2d at 202; McCorkle v. Hall, 56 Wn. App. 80, 83, 782 P.2d 574 (1989); Chauvlier, 109 Wn. App. at 342; Stokes, 113 Wn. App. at 448.

[**534] ¶21 The release executed by Ms. Johnson on line clearly sets apart the release language in either italicized letters or in all capital letters or both. The [***12] document was conspicuous with a header stating, “WAIVER AND RELEASE OF LIABILITY, ASSUMPTION OF RISK AND INDEMNITY AGREEMENT.” CP at 246. The waiver repeatedly warned Ms. Johnson that she was giving up her legal rights by [*462] signing the waiver, with this clearly indicated above the signature line. Although the Johnsons argue the waiver was ambiguous and, therefore, inconspicuous, Ms. Johnson (an attorney) acknowledged in her deposition that from a “legal perspective” she understood the release she signed “would … release the entities for any personal injury that might occur … during the activity.” CP at 138-39. Thus, no genuine issues of material fact remain regarding ambiguity or conspicuousness.

¶22 Given our analysis, we hold reasonable minds can reach but one conclusion; the preinjury release and waiver signed by Ms. Johnson precludes her from claiming an ordinary negligence duty by Spokane to Sandpoint, thus preventing her from seeking liability damages for her injuries. The trial court correctly concluded likewise in summarily dismissing the Johnsons’ complaint.

¶23 Affirmed. [***13]

Korsmo, C.J., and Siddoway, J., concur.


Wethington v. Swainson, d/b/a/ Pegasus Airsport Center, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 169145

Wethington v. Swainson, d/b/a/ Pegasus Airsport Center, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 169145

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

OPINION

ORDER

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.

BACKGROUND

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.

(Emphasis added).

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).

DISCUSSION

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.

CONCLUSION

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


Zip line accused of being common carrier which makes releases unenforceable. Issue still not decided, however, in all states common carriers cannot use a release as a defense.

Many ropes courses have determined that agreeing to be supervised by the state is the way to go. In Illinois, that supervision would have voided all defenses for a challenge course because they would have been classified as a common carrier. Common carriers’ have extremely limited defenses to claims.

Dodge v. Grafton Zipline Adventures, LLC, 2015 IL App (5th) 140124-U; 2015 Ill. App. Unpub. LEXIS 1584

State: Illinois, Appellate Court of Illinois, Fifth District

Plaintiff: April Dodge

Defendant: Grafton Zipline Adventures, LLC, and Michael Quinn

Plaintiff Claims: negligently designing and operating its course, intentionally or recklessly violated the safety regulations promulgated by the Illinois Department of Labor, and thereby engaged in willful and wanton misconduct. In count II, the plaintiff claimed that Quinn, a tour guide for Grafton Zipline, was negligent in instructing the plaintiff, in inspecting and maintaining the braking system, and in failing to prevent the plaintiff from colliding with the tree. The plaintiff also alleged willful and wanton misconduct against Quinn

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: Sent back to the trial court to determine if a zip line under Illinois law is a common carrier

Year: 2015

The facts are pretty normal for zip line lawsuits. The plaintiff while riding was unable to slow down or stop and hit the tree holding the platform. In this case it was the eighth line of multiple zip lines down the mountain.

The defendant filed a motion to dismiss based on a release signed by the plaintiff. The plaintiff argued that the release was barred because the zip line was a common carrier under Illinois law and as such “they cannot exempt themselves from liability for their own negligence.”

The trial court agreed with the plaintiff that a zip line was a common carrier. That analysis was based on the theory that:

…in that zip lines fell within the definition of amusement rides pursuant to the Illinois Carnival and Amusement Rides Safety Act (430 ILCS 85/2-2 (West 2012)) and were akin to merry-go-rounds or other amusement rides that had been held to be common carriers.

The defendants filed a motion for permissive interlocutory appeal which was denied by the appellate court. However the Illinois Supreme Court directed the appellate court to vacate (reverse) its order denying the appeal.

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

The court first looked at Illinois law on releases, calling them exculpatory clauses.

An exculpatory clause is a contractual provision that excuses the defaulting party’s liability. “Courts disfavor such agreements and construe them strictly against the benefitting party, particularly one who drafted the release.” “Nevertheless, contracting parties are free to ‘allocate the risk of negligence as they see fit, and exculpatory agreements do not violate public policy as a matter of law.'”

The analysis under Illinois law concerning releases is pretty standard. Although “disfavored” they are upheld.

Accordingly, if a valid exculpatory clause clearly applies, and in the absence of fraud or willful and wanton negligence, courts will enforce it unless “‘(1) it would be against a settled public policy of the State to do so, or (2) there is something in the social relationship of the parties militating against upholding the agreement.

Releases under Illinois law however are unenforceable when applied to common carriers as releases for common carriers create a violation of public policy.

Exculpatory agreements between the public and those charged with a duty of public service, such as those involving a common carrier, an innkeeper, a public warehouseman, or a public utility, have been held to be unenforceable as contrary to public policy.

The unenforceability of a release between a passenger and a common carrier is due to the relationship between the two.

Courts have alternatively recognized that exculpatory agreements between common carriers and passengers are unenforceable because of the special social relationship of a semipublic nature that permeates the transaction between the parties.

Arguments given for this are based on the fact the passenger pays for transportation from one location to another and during that transportation the passenger is totally at the control of the common carrier. The passenger cannot drive, inspect the track, road or path of travel, work on the engines or anything of that manner. The only thing the passenger can do is sit back and ride. The passenger has no control over their safety.

In this case, slowing or braking was under the control of the plaintiff.

A common carrier is held to the highest duty of care when transporting passengers.

Common carriers are charged with the highest duty of care when transporting passengers because passengers must wholly rely upon a common carrier’s proper maintenance and safe operation of its equipment during passage.

In Illinois common carriers have been identified as: “owners of buildings with elevators; a scenic railway at an amusement resort, where “steep inclines, sharp curves, and great speed necessarily are sources of peril”; a merry-go-round; a taxicab; and a Ferris wheel.” Here, as in most states, the safety of the passenger is totally under the control of the owner of the ride. What is different is normally a common carrier is taking people from once location to another, not around in circle or down a mountain you just ascended.

The court also examined and compared common carriers with private carriers.

Further, courts have distinguished between a common and a private carrier. “A common carrier, generally, is a carrier hired to carry any person who applies for passage as long as there is room available and there is no legal excuse for refusing.” “Ordinarily, a common carrier must accept as a passenger any person offering himself or herself for passage at the proper time and in the proper manner and who is able and willing to pay the fare.”

Here again, a common carrier is easily identified as a train, bus service or airline.

A common carrier holds himself out as such by advertising or by actually engaging in the business and pursuing the occupation as an employment. The test to distinguish a common carrier from a private carrier is whether the carrier serves all of the public alike.

The distinction between private carrier and a common carrier is gray in Illinois and the court spent time reviewing the issues. If the passenger actively can participate in the transportation and contributed to his or her own safety, the carrier is not a common carrier. In Illinois not being a common carrier does not necessarily mean a private person is a Private Carrier.

Private carriers as ordinarily defined are those who, without being engaged in such business as a public employment, undertake to deliver goods or passengers in a particular case for hire or reward.” A private carrier makes no public profession to carry all who apply for transport, transports only by special agreement, and is not bound to serve every person who may apply.

Normally the distinction is made by the courts based on whether or not the carrier is a business, in the business of moving people from one place to another for a fee. Trains, busses, airlines are common carriers. Here the definition is confused because of the existence in Illinois of a broad definition of private carrier that is to say the least confusing.

Whether a particular transportation service is undertaken in the capacity of a private or of a common carrier must be determined by reference to the character of the business actually carried on by the carrier, and also by the nature of the service to be performed in the particular instance.”

It is this distinction that the court found to be at issue in this case, whether a zip line is a common carrier or a private carrier.

The appellate court sent the case back to the trial court to determine if a zip line under Illinois law is a private carrier or a common carrier. If the trial court, which has ruled once already that a zip line, is a common carrier, rules the zip line is a common carrier, the sole issue at trial will be damages. How large will the check be that the zip line writes the plaintiff?

So Now What?

Readily accepting government regulation may provide a degree of relief in that you pass the safety inspection you are good for the season. However, once you are under that regulatory umbrella, you may also be classified by the regulations, statutes or the courts in a way you did not anticipate. You may lose defenses available to you prior to regulation.

This is similar to having a statute passed which provides liability protection for you. However this can be a two edge sword. Many state supreme courts have held that once a statute is enacted to provide protection, the only protection available is from the statute.

Many states create special categories for regulated industries. Here, falling under the regulation of the state classified the zip line as a common carrier.

The good news is the appellate court did not see the zip line as immediately qualifying as being controlled by the statute. Statutes usually define what they cover and the court did not even investigate the definition in this case.

However the court did look into whether or not a zip line was a common carrier. If the trial court finds that it is, there will be no end to the claims against zip lines in Illinois. Looked at another way, if the trial court determines a zip line is a common carrier, there will be an end to zip lines.

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Dodge v. Grafton Zipline Adventures, LLC, 2015 IL App (5th) 140124-U; 2015 Ill. App. Unpub. LEXIS 1584

Dodge v. Grafton Zipline Adventures, LLC, 2015 IL App (5th) 140124-U; 2015 Ill. App. Unpub. LEXIS 1584

April Dodge, Plaintiff-Respondent, v. Grafton Zipline Adventures, LLC, and Michael Quinn, Defendants-Petitioners.

NO. 5-14-0124

APPELLATE COURT OF ILLINOIS, FIFTH DISTRICT

2015 IL App (5th) 140124-U; 2015 Ill. App. Unpub. LEXIS 1584

July 14, 2015, Decision Filed

NOTICE: THIS ORDER WAS FILED UNDER SUPREME COURT RULE 23 AND MAY NOT BE CITED AS PRECEDENT BY ANY PARTY EXCEPT IN THE LIMITED CIRCUMSTANCES ALLOWED UNDER RULE 23(E)(1).

PRIOR HISTORY: [**1] Appeal from the Circuit Court of Madison County. No. 13-L-238. Honorable Barbara L. Crowder, Judge, Presiding.

Dodge v. Grafton Zipline Adventures, LLC, 2014 Ill. LEXIS 1270, 387 Ill. Dec. 513, 22 N.E.3d 1166 (Ill., 2014)

JUDGES: JUSTICE SCHWARM delivered the judgment of the court. Justices Welch and Moore concurred in the judgment.

OPINION BY: SCHWARM

OPINION

ORDER

[*P1] Held: Appellate court declines to answer the certified question and remands to the trial court to hear evidence to determine whether exculpatory agreement is between the public and one charged with a duty of public service, i.e., a common carrier, and therefore unenforceable.

[*P2] The plaintiff, April Dodge, filed the instant suit seeking recovery for injuries she sustained while riding on an aerial zip line course designed and operated by defendant Grafton Zipline Adventures, LLC (Grafton Zipline), by which defendant Michael Quinn is employed. The circuit court certified a question after denying the defendants’ motion to dismiss.

[*P3] BACKGROUND

[*P4] In her first amended complaint filed on May 3, 2013, the plaintiff alleged that Grafton Zipline operated an aerial zip line course in which paying guests, riding from one elevated platform to another, were guided over a series of suspended wire cable runs. The plaintiff alleged that [**2] “guests [we]re outfitted with a harness and pulley system which attache[d] to the suspended cables and which in theory allow[ed] them to control their speed by braking on descents.” The plaintiff alleged that on the eighth run of the zip line course, the plaintiff’s braking system failed to slow her descent, she approached the landing platform at a high rate of speed, and she violently struck the trunk of the tree on which the landing platform was mounted, fracturing her right heel bone.

[*P5] In count I, the plaintiff alleged that Grafton Zipline was a common carrier that breached its duty of care by negligently designing and operating its course, intentionally or recklessly violated the safety regulations promulgated by the Illinois Department of Labor (56 Ill. Adm. Code 6000.350 (2013)), and thereby engaged in willful and wanton misconduct. In count II, the plaintiff claimed that Quinn, a tour guide for Grafton Zipline, was negligent in instructing the plaintiff, in inspecting and maintaining the braking system, and in failing to prevent the plaintiff from colliding with the tree. The plaintiff also alleged willful and wanton misconduct against Quinn.

[*P6] On June 7, 2013, pursuant to section 2-619 of the Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILCS 5/2-619 (West 2012)), the defendants [**3] filed a motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s first amended complaint on the basis that the plaintiff’s claims were barred by an exculpatory agreement signed by the plaintiff prior to her participation in the zip line activity. In the agreement, the plaintiff agreed to release the defendants from liability for injury, disability, death, or loss or damage to persons or property, whether caused by negligence or otherwise.

[*P7] In the plaintiff’s memorandum of law in opposition to the defendants’ motion to dismiss, the plaintiff asserted that the defendants’ exculpatory agreement was unenforceable. The plaintiff asserted that zip line courses are common carriers under Illinois law, and as such, they cannot exempt themselves from liability for their own negligence.

[*P8] On November 1, 2013, the circuit court held that exculpatory clauses were unenforceable against plaintiffs injured by the ordinary negligence of a common carrier. The circuit court noted that when parties disagree as to whether a defendant is a common carrier, the question becomes a controverted question of fact to be determined after considering evidence. However, the circuit court found that the pleadings before it alleged sufficient [**4] facts to establish that the defendants were common carriers, in that zip lines fell within the definition of amusement rides pursuant to the Illinois Carnival and Amusement Rides Safety Act (430 ILCS 85/2-2 (West 2012)) and were akin to merry-gorounds or other amusement rides that had been held to be common carriers. The circuit court thereby denied the defendants’ section 2-619 motion to dismiss based on the exculpatory clause but also stated that “questions of fact remain as to whether [d]efendants *** are within the definition of common carriers.”

[*P9] On March 6, 2014, the circuit court, pursuant to Illinois Supreme Court Rule 308 (eff. Feb. 26, 2010), entered its order certifying the following question for appeal:

“Is an exculpatory agreement signed by a participant on a zip[ ]line course, that released the zip[ ]line operator and its employees from their own negligence, enforceable to bar the participant’s suit for negligence, or is the zip[ ]line course a common carrier such that the exculpatory agreement is unenforceable?”

[*P10] On March 20, 2014, the defendants filed an application for permissive interlocutory appeal, which we denied on April 21, 2014. On September 24, 2014, however, the Illinois Supreme Court directed this court to vacate its judgment denying [**5] the defendants’ application for leave to appeal and directed us to grant such application. Dodge v. Grafton Zipline Adventures, LLC, 387 Ill. Dec. 513, 22 N.E.3d 1166 (Ill. 2014). On November 5, 2014, per the supreme court’s supervisory order and pursuant to Illinois Supreme Court Rule 308, we thereafter allowed the defendants’ permissive interlocutory appeal.

[*P11] ANALYSIS

[*P12] On appeal, the defendants argue that the exculpatory agreement signed by the plaintiff bars her negligence claims and that the exculpatory agreement is enforceable because Grafton Zipline is not a common carrier. The plaintiff counters that the circuit court’s certified question is not ripe for determination because there are unresolved questions of fact regarding whether Grafton Zipline is a common carrier. We agree with the plaintiff.

[*P13] “The scope of review in an interlocutory appeal brought under [Illinois Supreme Court] Rule 308 is limited to the certified question.” Spears v. Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives, 2013 IL App (4th) 120289, ¶ 15, 986 N.E.2d 216, 369 Ill. Dec. 267. “A reviewing court should only answer a certified question if it asks a question of law and [should] decline to answer where the ultimate disposition ‘will depend on the resolution of a host of factual predicates.’ [Citations.]” Id. “A certified question pursuant to Rule 308 is reviewed de novo.” Id.

[*P14] An exculpatory [**6] clause is a contractual provision that excuses the defaulting party’s liability. See Black’s Law Dictionary 648 (9th ed. 2009) (defining an exculpatory clause as “a contractual provision relieving a party from liability resulting from a negligent or wrongful act”); McKinney v. Castleman, 2012 IL App (4th) 110098, ¶ 14, 968 N.E.2d 185, 360 Ill. Dec. 106 (exculpatory agreement involves express assumption of risk wherein one party consents to relieve another of a particular obligation). “Courts disfavor such agreements and construe them strictly against the benefitting party, particularly one who drafted the release.” McKinney, 2012 IL App (4th) 110098, ¶ 14. “Nevertheless, contracting parties are free to ‘allocate the risk of negligence as they see fit, and exculpatory agreements do not violate public policy as a matter of law.'” Id. (quoting Evans v. Lima Lima Flight Team, Inc., 373 Ill. App. 3d 407, 412, 869 N.E.2d 195, 311 Ill. Dec. 521 (2007)).

[*P15] Accordingly, if a valid exculpatory clause clearly applies, and in the absence of fraud or willful and wanton negligence, courts will enforce it unless “‘(1) it would be against a settled public policy of the State to do so, or (2) there is something in the social relationship of the parties militating against upholding the agreement.'” McKinney, 2012 IL App (4th) 110098, ¶ 14 (quoting Harris v. Walker, 119 Ill. 2d 542, 548, 519 N.E.2d 917, 116 Ill. Dec. 702 (1988)). Exculpatory agreements between the public and those charged with a duty of public service, such as those involving a common [**7] carrier, an innkeeper, a public warehouseman, or a public utility, have been held to be unenforceable as contrary to public policy. McKinney, 2012 IL App (4th) 110098, ¶ 14; Johnson v. Salvation Army, 2011 IL App (1st) 103323, ¶ 19, 957 N.E.2d 485, 354 Ill. Dec. 169; White v. Village of Homewood, 256 Ill. App. 3d 354, 358-59, 628 N.E.2d 616, 195 Ill. Dec. 152 (1993). Courts have alternatively recognized that exculpatory agreements between common carriers and passengers are unenforceable because of the special social relationship of a semipublic nature that permeates the transaction between the parties. See McClure Engineering Associates, Inc. v. Reuben Donnelley Corp., 101 Ill. App. 3d 1109, 1111, 428 N.E.2d 1151, 57 Ill. Dec. 471 (1981); First Financial Insurance Co. v. Purolator Security, Inc., 69 Ill. App. 3d 413, 419, 388 N.E.2d 17, 26 Ill. Dec. 393 (1979) (“when an exculpatory provision is found invalid because of a special relationship between the parties, it is the semipublic nature of the party seeking to exculpate itself from liability that allows the court to invalidate the provision”).

[*P16] Thus, any contract by which a common carrier of goods or passengers undertakes to relieve itself from liability for loss or damage arising from its negligence or the negligence of its servants is void. Checkley v. Illinois Central R.R. Co., 257 Ill. 491, 494, 100 N.E. 942 (1913); Simmons v. Columbus Venetian Stevens Buildings, Inc., 20 Ill. App. 2d 1, 17, 155 N.E.2d 372 (1958); Restatement (Second) of Torts § 496B cmt. g (1965) (“Where the defendant is a common carrier ***, or is otherwise charged with a duty of public service, and the agreement to assume the risk relates to the defendant’s performance of any part of that duty, it is well settled that it will not be given effect.”). “Having undertaken the duty to the public, which includes the obligation of reasonable care, [**8] [common carriers] are not free to rid themselves of their public obligation by contract, or by any other agreement.” Restatement (Second) of Torts § 496B cmt. g (1965).

[*P17] An exculpatory contract, wherein a common carrier of goods or passengers undertakes to exempt itself from liability for negligence “if sustained, would relieve the carrier from its essential and important duties to the public growing out of the character of its employment, and tend to defeat the foundation principle on which the law of common carriers is based; that is, the securing of the highest care and diligence in the performance of the important duties due to the public.” Checkley, 257 Ill. at 494; see also Simmons, 20 Ill. App. 2d at 17. “The heightened status afforded to common carrier[ ] *** relationships is based on the protection of the public ***.” Zerjal v. Daech & Bauer Construction, Inc., 405 Ill. App. 3d 907, 912, 939 N.E.2d 1067, 345 Ill. Dec. 887 (2010); see also Simmons, 20 Ill. App. 2d at 17 (“It has been said if there is any general reason for the rule to be deduced from the passenger cases, it is that the public service consideration alone prevents contractual limitation of liability for negligence.”).

[*P18] In holding that a common carrier has a duty to exercise the highest degree of care consistent with the practical operation of its conveyances to protect its passengers (Rotheli v. Chicago Transit Authority, 7 Ill. 2d 172, 177-78, 130 N.E.2d 172 (1955); Browne v. Chicago Transit Authority, 19 Ill. App. 3d 914, 917, 312 N.E.2d 287 (1974)), courts have considered the “‘unique control [a common [**9] carrier] possesses over its passengers’ safety.'” Krywin v. Chicago Transit Authority, 391 Ill. App. 3d 663, 666, 909 N.E.2d 887, 330 Ill. Dec. 865 (2009) (quoting Sheffer v. Springfield Airport Authority, 261 Ill. App. 3d 151, 154, 632 N.E.2d 1069, 198 Ill. Dec. 458 (1994)); see also O’Callaghan v. Dellwood Park Co., 242 Ill. 336, 345, 89 N.E. 1005 (1909) (“If the injury of a passenger is caused by apparatus wholly under the control of a carrier and furnished and managed by it, and the accident is of such a character that it would not ordinarily occur if due care is used, the law raises a presumption of negligence.”). “Common carriers are charged with the highest duty of care when transporting passengers because passengers must wholly rely upon a common carrier’s proper maintenance and safe operation of its equipment during passage.” Sheffer, 261 Ill. App. 3d at 156. “[C]ommon carriers are responsible for their patrons’ physical safety for which there is no second chance if a mistake should occur.” Zerjal, 405 Ill. App. 3d at 912.

[*P19] In determining whether a defendant is a common carrier that owes the highest degree of care in transporting its passengers, the courts have characterized the following as common carriers: owners of buildings with elevators (Rotheli, 7 Ill. 2d at 177); a scenic railway at an amusement resort, where “steep inclines, sharp curves, and great speed necessarily are sources of peril” (O’Callaghan, 242 Ill. at 344); a merry-go-round (Arndt v. Riverview Park Co., 259 Ill. App. 210, 216-17 (1930)); a taxicab (Metz v. Yellow Cab Co., 248 Ill. App. 609, 612 (1928)); and a Ferris wheel (Pajak v. Mamsch, 338 Ill. App. 337, 341, 87 N.E.2d 147 (1949)).

[*P20] In finding that an escalator was not a common carrier, the Illinois Supreme Court in Tolman found [**10] it significant that a person on an escalator may actively participate in the transportation in a manner similar to the use of a stairway and may contribute to his own safety. Tolman v. Wieboldt Stores, Inc., 38 Ill. 2d 519, 526, 233 N.E.2d 33 (1967). The court noted that the role of a passenger on a train, bus, or elevator is a passive one, and ordinarily such a passenger cannot exercise any control over his own safety. Id. at 525. The court further held that the rule as to the higher duty one owning and operating an elevator owes to a passenger riding in same, who is injured through some defect in its operating mechanism, is predicated upon the fact that a person riding in an elevator cannot possibly know or show, if such elevator gets out of control, what caused it to do so. Id. at 524-25. The court noted that because the elevator owner was in sole control of the elevator and the machinery used in its operation, an inference of negligence on the part of said owner arose out of the circumstances. Id.; see also Lombardo v. Reliance Elevator Co., 315 Ill. App. 3d 111, 125, 733 N.E.2d 874, 248 Ill. Dec. 199 (2000) (because bank had full control of premises, it had the duties of common carrier owed to the plaintiff who suffered injuries when the lift he was riding suddenly fell); Carson v. Weston Hotel Corp., 351 Ill. App. 523, 532, 115 N.E.2d 800 (1953) (lessee in full control of the premises had the duties of a common carrier of elevator [**11] passengers).

[*P21] While proper solicitude for human safety requires a carrier of passengers not to diminish its liability to them, the relative bargaining power of the parties is also a factor. Simmons, 20 Ill. App. 2d at 17. In Hamer v. City Segway Tours of Chicago, LLC, 402 Ill. App. 3d 42, 43-44, 930 N.E.2d 578, 341 Ill. Dec. 368 (2010), the plaintiff sought to recover for injuries she suffered on a tour run where she rode a segway onto a small grassy hill, and it threw her off. The plaintiff signed a release before participating in the tour. Id. The plaintiff argued, however, that her social relationship with the defendant and its tour guide rendered the release unenforceable. Id. at 46. The court concluded, without analysis, that the defendant was not a common carrier. Id. Finding also that that there was no disparity of bargaining power because the plaintiff simply could have refused to join the tour if she had disagreed with the exculpatory clause, the court held that the exculpatory language of the release was enforceable. Id.

[*P22] Further, courts have distinguished between a common and a private carrier. “A common carrier, generally, is a carrier hired to carry any person who applies for passage as long as there is room available and there is no legal excuse for refusing.” Long v. Illinois Power Co., 187 Ill. App. 3d 614, 628, 543 N.E.2d 525, 135 Ill. Dec. 142 (1989). “Ordinarily, a common carrier must accept as a passenger [**12] any person offering himself or herself for passage at the proper time and in the proper manner and who is able and willing to pay the fare.” Id. “[A] common carrier may be liable for an unexcused refusal to carry all who apply.” Doe v. Rockdale School District No. 84, 287 Ill. App. 3d 791, 794, 679 N.E.2d 771, 223 Ill. Dec. 320 (1997). A common carrier is “obligated by law to undertake the charge of transportation, which none but a common carrier, without a special agreement, is.” Rathbun v. Ocean Accident & Guarantee Corp., 299 Ill. 562, 566, 132 N.E. 754 (1921).

[*P23] A common carrier holds himself out as such by advertising or by actually engaging in the business and pursuing the occupation as an employment. Id. at 567. The test to distinguish a common carrier from a private carrier is whether the carrier serves all of the public alike. Green v. Carlinville Community Unit School District No. 1, 381 Ill. App. 3d 207, 211, 887 N.E.2d 451, 320 Ill. Dec. 307 (2008); Illinois Highway Transportation Co. v. Hantel, 323 Ill. App. 364, 375, 55 N.E.2d 710 (1944). Again, common carriers necessarily have control and regulation of the passengers’ conduct and of the operation of the carriage before they can be held to the extraordinary liability of common carriers to such passengers. Rathbun, 299 Ill. at 567 (evidence that deceased contracted car by private contract and had control of car and driver revealed defendant was not common carrier but was liable only as private carrier for ordinary negligence).

[*P24] “Private carriers as ordinarily defined are those who, without being engaged in such business as a public employment, undertake [**13] to deliver goods or passengers in a particular case for hire or reward.” Rathbun, 299 Ill. at 566. A private carrier makes no public profession to carry all who apply for transport, transports only by special agreement, and is not bound to serve every person who may apply. Green, 381 Ill. App. 3d at 211; Rockdale School District No. 84, 287 Ill. App. 3d at 795.

[*P25] “Whether a particular transportation service is undertaken in the capacity of a private or of a common carrier must be determined by reference to the character of the business actually carried on by the carrier, and also by the nature of the service to be performed in the particular instance.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Long, 187 Ill. App. 3d at 630. When a plaintiff affirms and the defendant denies that the defendant is operating as a common carrier, the question becomes a controverted question of fact to be determined by a consideration of the evidence by the trial court. Rathbun, 299 Ill. at 566; Bare v. American Forwarding Co., 242 Ill. 298, 299, 89 N.E. 1021 (1909); Hantel, 323 Ill. App. at 374; Beatrice Creamery Co. v. Fisher, 291 Ill. App. 495, 497, 10 N.E.2d 220 (1937).

[*P26] Accordingly, we find that whether Grafton Zipline is a common carrier is a question of fact, “dependent upon the nature of the business in which [it is] engaged, and [is] to be determined from a consideration of all of the evidence.” Beatrice Creamery Co., 291 Ill. App. at 497. In its order, the circuit court noted that questions of fact remained regarding whether Grafton Zipline is a common carrier. [**14] We agree and find this so with regard to the certified question. To determine whether the exculpatory clause is unenforceable on the basis that Grafton Zipline is a common carrier “charged with a duty of public service” the court must necessarily determine disputed factual issues. The court must determine whether Grafton Zipline had control and regulation of the passengers’ conduct and of the operation of the carriage (see Rathbun, 299 Ill. at 567 (evidence that deceased contracted car by private contract and had control of car and driver revealed defendant was not common carrier but was liable only as private carrier for ordinary negligence)); whether the plaintiff actively participated in the transportation and contributed to her own safety (Tolman, 38 Ill. 2d at 525-26 (because escalator allowed the plaintiff to actively participate in the transportation and allowed control over safety, escalator not common carrier); whether there was a disparity of bargaining power between the parties (see Hamer, 402 Ill. App. 3d at 43-44 (exculpatory clause enforceable where plaintiff could simply have refused to join the segway tour)); and whether Grafton Zipline made a profession to carry all who applied for carriage (see Browne v. SCR Medical Transportation Services, Inc., 356 Ill. App. 3d 642, 647, 826 N.E.2d 1030, 292 Ill. Dec. 594 (2005) (because medical transport van served only those individuals [**15] who met its eligibility requirements, could decline to serve anyone based on numerous factors such as location and availability of medical transport vans, made no profession to carry all who apply for carriage, and was not bound to serve every person who may apply, medical transport van was not a common carrier)). To answer the certified question before the circuit court has heard evidence on these matters would be premature. Thus, we decline to answer the certified question, and we remand the cause for further proceedings consistent with this order. See Dowd & Dowd, Ltd. v. Gleason, 181 Ill. 2d 460, 477, 693 N.E.2d 358, 230 Ill. Dec. 229 (1998).

[*P27] CONCLUSION

[*P28] For the reasons stated, we decline to answer the certified question as its ultimate disposition depends on the resolution of multiple factual predicates. We remand the cause to the Madison County circuit court for further proceedings.

[*P29] Certified question not answered; cause remanded.