Release used to defend third party participants in horseback case applying Missouri’s law, not the main party to the contract.

Illinois resident sues Illinois’s resident for getting kicked by a horse in a riding area in Missouri. Area’s release included coverage for participants and protected horse owner from suit.

Perkinson v. Courson, 2018 IL App (4th) 170364, 97 N.E.3d 574, 2018 Ill. App. LEXIS 120, 420 Ill. Dec. 692

State: Illinois, Appellate Court of Illinois, Fourth District Applying Missouri law

Plaintiff: Deanna L. Perkinson

Defendant: Sarah Courson

Plaintiff Claims: Violation of the Animal Control Act and Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release (neither party brought up the Missouri Equine Liability Act)

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2018

Summary

The term “other participants,” was used in a release signed to access land to ride horses to defend the owner of a horse that kicked another horse owner. The term was sufficient to include the rider in the protection the release afforded. Neither party argued the Equine Liability Act of Missouri where the incident took place.

Facts

Plaintiff testified she engaged in horseback riding on and off since the age of five. She and her husband owned nine horses and were part of a group of friends that rode horses together. Plaintiff estimated that 20 to 25 people were in their group, including defendant. She further estimated that she and defendant went horseback riding together approximately five or six times a year. Within plaintiff’s group of horseback riding friends, there were people that plaintiff was closer to and whom she would talk with about going on horseback riding trips. Plaintiff testified she was not close friends with defendant. She denied that they spent time socially at one another’s homes or that they participated in any activities together other than horseback riding.

In August 2014, individuals from plaintiff’s horseback riding group went on a trip to Cross Country Trail Ride, LLC (Cross Country), in Eminence, Missouri. According to plaintiff, each year, Cross Country organized a trail ride event during Labor Day weekend. She had previously attended the event approximately six times. Plaintiff testified Cross Country provided its paying guests with a campsite, stalls for horses, entertainment, and food.

On August 28, 2014, plaintiff arrived at Cross Country with her husband, daughter, and stepdaughter. The family took four of their own horses and met up with other individuals from plaintiff’s group of friends. Plaintiff stated she had not known whether defendant would be on the trip but saw defendant at Cross Country on the evening of her arrival.

Plaintiff acknowledged signing certain documents upon her arrival at Cross Country on August 28, 2014. She identified her signature on forms that were submitted as exhibits during her deposition and recalled signing similar forms during her previous visits to Cross Country. Plaintiff acknowledged that part of the form she signed was titled “Release of Liability” and instructed her to read before signing; however, plaintiff testified she did not read the form because she had driven a long distance to get to Cross Country and believed it “was just to register.” Plaintiff admitted signing similar forms on behalf of her daughter and stepdaughter.

Plaintiff testified that prior to signing the Cross Country forms, she understood that there was a risk of injury when participating in horseback riding events, including falling off a horse or being kicked. Despite that risk of injury, she participated anyway. Further, plaintiff testified she would have proceeded with the trail ride at Cross Country if she had read the form she signed, which included a warning about the risk of injury when participating in horseback riding events and statements indicating she fully assumed the risks of participation. Plaintiff acknowledged that the form she signed used the phrase “other participants.” She agreed that defendant would have been “another participant” in the activities at Cross Country.

On August 29, 2014, plaintiff, her family, and members of her group intended to take a six-hour trail ride on one of the “identified trails” at Cross Country. Plaintiff was riding a horse named Chester, and defendant was riding a horse named Little Bit. Plaintiff did not recall ever previously being around Little Bit. Further, she acknowledged consuming beer during the trail ride. Plaintiff stated she also observed that defendant was consuming alcohol and believed defendant was intoxicated. During a break on the trail ride, defendant told plaintiff that Little Bit “had kicked [defendant’s] husband while her husband was in the pasture.” She did not remember defendant telling her when the kick occurred or that the horse was in heat at the time. Plaintiff stated she did not notice anything concerning about Little Bit’s behavior while horseback riding on the day of the incident.

At some point during the trail ride, plaintiff and defendant began riding next to one another and were talking. Plaintiff did not recall who approached whom or how long they rode next to each other. As they were riding together down a hill, defendant’s horse kicked out with both of its rear legs and struck plaintiff on her right shin. Plaintiff did not know what caused the horse to kick. Following the kick, plaintiff had to be helped off her horse, and an ambulance was called to the scene. Plaintiff stated she had a broken bone in her shin and, ultimately, underwent two surgeries.

Plaintiff testified that during the trail ride defendant should have put a red ribbon on her horse’s tail to warn others that her horse was known to kick. She asserted, however, that the presence of a red ribbon would not have altered her own behavior. Additionally, plaintiff stated she returned to Cross Country for horseback riding after the August 2014 incident with defendant’s horse. Although she did not plan on attending Cross Country’s Labor Day event in 2016, she did plan to go to another location in Missouri for a Labor Day trail ride.

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

This is a complicated case because it was started in Illinois after the accident happened in Missouri. Consequently, the issues that support the outdoor recreation industry are woven around the other issues such as where the lawsuit should be and what law should be applied to the case.

The court was an Illinois court and the defendant, and the plaintiffs were Illinois’s residents. However, because the accident occurred in Missouri, the court applied Missouri’s law to the case.

The court first looked at Missouri’s law and the requirements to prove negligence.

To obtain relief in a negligence cause of action, “‘the plaintiff must establish that (1) the defendant had a duty to the plaintiff; (2) the defendant failed to perform that duty; and (3) the defendant’s breach was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury.'”

Then the assumption of the risk doctrine was reviewed as applied in Missouri.

Under the “assumption of the risk doctrine” a person who “voluntarily consents to accept the danger of a known and appreciated risk may not sue another for failing to protect him from it.”

A document showing the plaintiff assumed the risks or explicitly accepted the risks is called an express assumption of the risk document in Missouri (and most other states).

An express assumption of risk is the simplest application of the doctrine and “recognizes that, when a plaintiff makes an express statement that he is voluntarily accepting a specified risk, the plaintiff is barred from recovering damages for an injury resulting from that risk.” An express assumption of risk “most often involves a written waiver or release by the would-be plaintiff.” Further, “in an ‘express assumption of the risk’ case, the plaintiff’s consent relieves the defendant of any duty to protect the plaintiff from injury.”

The Missouri law concerning releases was analyzed.

Although exculpatory clauses in contracts releasing an individual from his or her own future negligence are disfavored, they are not prohibited as against public policy.” “[C]ontracts exonerating a party from acts of future negligence are to be ‘strictly construed against the party claiming the benefit of the contract, and clear and explicit language in the contract is required to absolve a person from such liability.'” Missouri law requires “clear, unambiguous, unmistakable, and conspicuous language in order to release a party from his or her own future negligence,” and “[g]eneral language will not suffice.” “‘The words “negligence” or “fault” or their equivalents must be used conspicuously so that a clear and unmistakable waiver and shifting of risk occurs. There must be no doubt that a reasonable person agreeing to an exculpatory clause actually understands what future claims he or she is waiving.’

In this case, the release was not signed because of a legal relationship between the parties, but was signed as part of accessing the land where the accident occurred. Meaning both parties signed the release to ride on the land. Consequently, the argument centered around whether that release was written to protect parties such as the defendant in this case. Whether the release signed by the plaintiff to ride on the land of the landowner provided protection to the owner of the horse that kicked her.

Additionally, [o]nly parties to a contract and any third-party beneficiaries of a contract have standing to enforce that contract.” To be deemed a third-party beneficiary, the terms of the contract must clearly express intent to benefit the third party or an identifiable class of which the third party is a member. When an express declaration of intent is lacking, a strong presumption exists “‘that the third party is not a beneficiary and that the parties contracted to benefit only themselves.'”

As in most other states, to understand a contract you must determine the effect intended by the parties to be given to the contract. Each clause should be read in the context of the entire contract, not as individual issues. The information within the “four corners” of the contract is the only information that can be reviewed by a court in determining the meaning of a contract, unless the contract is ambiguous, then outside information can be brought into to define the ambiguous section.

A contract is ambiguous when “duplicity, indistinctness, or uncertainty in the meaning of the words used in the contract.”

The language of the release referred to “other participants.” The defendant argued that she was the intended beneficiary of this language. If the defendant was found to be the intended beneficiary, then the release would stop the claims of the plaintiff. The term other participants usually follows the name of the party wanting the release to be signed. In this case, the landowner would have their name as the party to be protected and the clause and other participants followed. Did the term have legal meaning and apply to the defendant or was the term just dicta, additional language in the agreement that had no meaning.

 

 

 

The plaintiff argued that she did not know what she was signing and therefore, could not have intended the release to benefit the defendant. The plaintiff also argued the phrase “other participants” was ambiguous.

However, the court disagreed and found it covered the defendant and was not a catch-all phrase. The court found the defendant was a participant within the meaning of the words and the language of the release.

The final failure of the plaintiff’s argument fell when the court brought up that in her own deposition, she characterized the defendant as another participant in the trail ride.

The next argument, is another argument that is surfacing in plaintiff’s arguments across the US. The plaintiff argued the release should not apply because it purports to relieve liability for more than simple negligence. Meaning the release was written to cover intentional torts, gross negligence and other activities of the public interest.

However, the court did not agree with that argument because the release did not refer to any additional legal theories other than negligence. The release only used the term negligence and did not sue any language that extended that term to a greater definition.

The court also quoted a Missouri Supreme Court decision that held that the plaintiff could not get a release thrown out by arguing it covered gross negligence. Missouri does not recognize gross negligence. Since it does not exist under Missouri’s law, it could not be used to void a release.

In DeCormier v. Harley-Davidson Motor Co. Group, Inc., the Missouri Supreme Court stated that it would “enforce exculpatory agreements to protect a party from liability for their own negligence” and a plaintiff could not “avoid this rule by alleging [a defendant was] grossly negligent because Missouri’s courts do not recognize degrees of negligence at common law.” Thus, it rejected the precise argument plaintiff has raised in this case both before the trial court and on appeal.

Nor does Missouri recognize a cause of action for recklessness.

The next argument was the release was not clear because it was mixed in with another form. The top part of the form was labeled a registration form, and the bottom part was a release.

The court recognized this but found the release part of the form was labeled Release of Liability – Read Before Signing and separated by a dotted line from the top of the form. The significant language in the release was also capitalized for emphasis.

The court held with the trial court and found the release signed by the parties to ride on the property protected the defendant in this case.

 

 

 

So Now What?

This is the first case I have found where a release was used to protect a third party from a lawsuit. I have long argued that this should be the case. Even though the release was signed for a land owner, any litigation is going to cost many parties money. The decision does not say, however, in cases like this many times, the landowner and other participants in the ride are deposed, and as such they lose work and possibly incur legal fees for the depositions.

Having the release be part of a registration form was an issue. Eliminate the argument by the plaintiff and make it a separate form. If you need more information than what is normally required on a release collect it a different way or at the end.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Perkinson v. Courson, 2018 IL App (4th) 170364, 97 N.E.3d 574, 2018 Ill. App. LEXIS 120, 420 Ill. Dec. 692

Perkinson v. Courson, 2018 IL App (4th) 170364, 97 N.E.3d 574, 2018 Ill. App. LEXIS 120, 420 Ill. Dec. 692

Appellate Court of Illinois, Fourth District

March 12, 2018, Filed

NO. 4-17-0364

DEANNA L. PERKINSON, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. SARAH COURSON, Defendant-Appellee.

Prior History:  [***1] Appeal from Circuit Court of Jersey County. No. 15L31. Honorable Eric S. Pistorius, Judge Presiding.

Disposition: Affirmed.

Counsel: Timothy J. Chartrand, of Williamson, Webster, Falb & Glisson, of Alton, for appellant.

Amy L. Jackson and Samantha Dudzinski, of Rammelkamp Bradney, P.C., of Jacksonville, for appellee.

Judges: PRESIDING JUSTICE HARRIS delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices Steigmann and Turner concurred in the judgment and opinion.

Opinion by: HARRIS

Opinion

 [****698]  [**580]  PRESIDING JUSTICE HARRIS delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion.

Justices Steigmann and Turner concurred in the judgment and opinion.

OPINION

 [*P1]  In August 2014, plaintiff, Deanna L. Perkinson, was kicked by a horse and injured. In December 2015, she filed a two-count complaint against the horse’s owner, defendant Sarah Courson, alleging a violation of the Illinois Animal Control Act (510 ILCS 5/1 to 35 (West 2014)) (count I) and negligence (count II). Although plaintiff and defendant are Illinois residents, the incident at issue occurred in Missouri and the trial court determined Missouri law controlled the conflict. Following that determination, the court granted defendant’s motion to dismiss count I of plaintiff’s complaint and her motion for summary judgment as to count II. Plaintiff appeals, arguing the court erred in (1) ruling on defendant’s motion to dismiss count I of the complaint because the motion was brought pursuant to the [***2]  wrong statutory section, (2) finding Missouri law applied to the parties’ controversy, and (3) finding defendant was entitled to summary judgment on count II of the complaint. We affirm.

[*P2]  I. BACKGROUND

 [*P3]  In her December 2015 complaint, plaintiff alleged that both she and defendant were Illinois residents. On August 29, 2014, they were horseback riding alongside one another on a public trail when plaintiff was kicked by the horse defendant was riding, which defendant owned. Plaintiff maintained she sustained permanent and disfiguring injuries to her right leg as a result of being kicked. In connection with count I of her complaint, alleging a violation of the Animal Control Act, plaintiff also asserted that at the time and place of her injury, she did not provoke defendant’s horse, had been conducting herself peaceably, and was in a location where she had a legal right to be. Relative to count II, alleging negligence, plaintiff asserted defendant owed her a duty of care but breached that duty by (1) failing to warn plaintiff of the horse’s violent propensity to kick others, (2) failing to properly train the  [**581]   [****699]  horse, (3) riding too close to plaintiff and plaintiff’s horse when knowing that [***3]  her horse had a violent propensity to kick others, and (4) riding her horse contrary to industry and practice norms. Plaintiff further alleged that as a direct and proximate result of defendant’s negligence, she was kicked by defendant’s horse without provocation and injured.

 [*P4]  In January 2016, defendant filed a motion to dismiss plaintiff’s complaint. She first sought dismissal of count I pursuant to section 2-615 of the Code of Civil Procedure (Code) (735 ILCS 5/2-615 (West 2014)). Specifically, defendant argued that the incident at issue occurred while the parties were on a horseback riding trip in Eminence, Missouri, and, as a result, Missouri law governed “the pending litigation.” She further maintained that because count I of plaintiff’s complaint was based entirely on Illinois statutory law, that count necessarily failed to state a claim upon which any relief could be granted and had to be dismissed. Defendant further sought dismissal of both count I and count II under section 2-619(a)(9) of the Code (735 ILCS 5/2-619(a)(9) (West 2014)). She argued plaintiff signed a “‘Release of Liability'” (Release) prior to horseback riding, which, under Missouri law, barred her claims.

 [*P5]  In February 2016, plaintiff responded to defendant’s motion, arguing Illinois [***4]  law applied to both counts of her complaint. Further, she argued the Release referenced by defendant should be disregarded because defendant failed to attach a sworn or certified copy of the Release to her motion to dismiss. Plaintiff alternatively argued the Release was against Illinois public policy, vague, ambiguous, overbroad, and could not be relied upon by defendant who was “a non-party outside of the Release.”

 [*P6]  In March 2016, the trial court conducted a hearing on defendant’s motion to dismiss. At the hearing, defendant withdrew the portion of her motion that sought dismissal pursuant to section 2-619 and proceeded only with the portion of her motion that sought dismissal of count I under section 2-615. Ultimately, the court granted defendant’s motion to dismiss count I, holding as follows:

“[I]n conflict of law cases the courts must determine which forum has the most significant contacts with the litigation. Further, there is a legal presumption that the law of the state where the injury occurred applies in determining the rights and liabilities of the parties unless Illinois has a more significant relation to the conflict. This court finds that *** plaintiff has failed to establish that Illinois has [***5]  a more significant relationship to the conflict. As such, Count I, which is based on the [Illinois] Animal Control Act, is hereby dismissed.”

 [*P7]  In April 2016, plaintiff filed a motion to reconsider the trial court’s ruling as to count I of her complaint. She argued the court erred in its application of existing law as the case authority cited by both parties heavily favored application of Illinois law rather than Missouri law. Additionally, plaintiff maintained the court erred by placing the burden on her to establish that Illinois had a more significant relationship to the matter, rather than on defendant, the moving party.

 [*P8]  In June 2016, a hearing was conducted on plaintiff’s motion to reconsider. In its written order, the trial court stated it had considered both plaintiff’s motion and defendant’s response and “noted, for the first time,” that the question of which state’s law to apply involved factual determinations regarding the nature of the parties’ relationship, the planning of their trip to Missouri, and the training of defendant’s horse while in Illinois. The court  [**582]   [****700]  pointed out that no affidavits or deposition testimony had been presented by the parties and elected to “keep plaintiff’s [***6]  Motion to Reconsider under advisement until the[ ] facts or issues [could] be fleshed out during the discovery process.”

 [*P9]  In September 2016, plaintiff filed a supplemental brief to her motion to reconsider, and defendant filed a supplemental response. Plaintiff attached the depositions of both parties to her filing.

 [*P10]  During her deposition, plaintiff testified she resided in Dow, Illinois, both at the time of the incident at issue and at the time of her deposition. She had known defendant since 2003. They met through mutual friends and were brought together through the activity of horseback riding. Plaintiff and her husband had also purchased defendant’s house.

 [*P11]  Plaintiff testified she engaged in horseback riding on and off since the age of five. She and her husband owned nine horses and were part of a group of friends that rode horses together. Plaintiff estimated that 20 to 25 people were in their group, including defendant. She further estimated that she and defendant went horseback riding together approximately five or six times a year. Within plaintiff’s group of horseback riding friends, there were people that plaintiff was closer to and whom she would talk with about going on horseback [***7]  riding trips. Plaintiff testified she was not close friends with defendant. She denied that they spent time socially at one another’s homes or that they participated in any activities together other than horseback riding.

 [*P12]  On examination by her own counsel, plaintiff testified that prior to August 2014, she considered defendant her friend. They had ridden horses together in Illinois and “hung out” at the home of a mutual friend. Also, they had each other’s telephone numbers and were Facebook friends.

 [*P13]  In August 2014, individuals from plaintiff’s horseback riding group went on a trip to Cross Country Trail Ride, LLC (Cross Country), in Eminence, Missouri. According to plaintiff, each year, Cross Country organized a trail ride event during Labor Day weekend. She had previously attended the event approximately six times. Plaintiff testified Cross Country provided its paying guests with a campsite, stalls for horses, entertainment, and food.

[*P14]  On August 28, 2014, plaintiff arrived at Cross Country with her husband, daughter, and stepdaughter. The family took four of their own horses and met up with other individuals from plaintiff’s group of friends. Plaintiff stated she had not known whether [***8]  defendant would be on the trip but saw defendant at Cross Country on the evening of her arrival.

[*P15]  Plaintiff acknowledged signing certain documents upon her arrival at Cross Country on August 28, 2014. She identified her signature on forms that were submitted as exhibits during her deposition and recalled signing similar forms during her previous visits to Cross Country. Plaintiff acknowledged that part of the form she signed was titled “Release of Liability” and instructed her to read before signing; however, plaintiff testified she did not read the form because she had driven a long distance to get to Cross Country and believed it “was just to register.” Plaintiff admitted signing similar forms on behalf of her daughter and stepdaughter.

[*P16]  Plaintiff testified that prior to signing the Cross Country forms, she understood that there was a risk of injury when participating in horseback riding events, including falling off a horse or being kicked. Despite that risk of injury, she participated anyway. Further, plaintiff testified she would have proceeded with the trail ride at Cross Country if she had read the form she signed, which included a  [**583]   [****701]  warning about the risk of injury when participating [***9]  in horseback riding events and statements indicating she fully assumed the risks of participation. Plaintiff acknowledged that the form she signed used the phrase “other participants.” She agreed that defendant would have been “another participant” in the activities at Cross Country.

[*P17]  On August 29, 2014, plaintiff, her family, and members of her group intended to take a six-hour trail ride on one of the “identified trails” at Cross Country. Plaintiff was riding a horse named Chester, and defendant was riding a horse named Little Bit. Plaintiff did not recall ever previously being around Little Bit. Further, she acknowledged consuming beer during the trail ride. Plaintiff stated she also observed that defendant was consuming alcohol and believed defendant was intoxicated. During a break on the trail ride, defendant told plaintiff that Little Bit “had kicked [defendant’s] husband while her husband was in the pasture.” She did not remember defendant telling her when the kick occurred or that the horse was in heat at the time. Plaintiff stated she did not notice anything concerning about Little Bit’s behavior while horseback riding on the day of the incident.

[*P18]  At some point during the trail [***10]  ride, plaintiff and defendant began riding next to one another and were talking. Plaintiff did not recall who approached whom or how long they rode next to each other. As they were riding together down a hill, defendant’s horse kicked out with both of its rear legs and struck plaintiff on her right shin. Plaintiff did not know what caused the horse to kick. Following the kick, plaintiff had to be helped off her horse, and an ambulance was called to the scene. Plaintiff stated she had a broken bone in her shin and, ultimately, underwent two surgeries.

[*P19]  Plaintiff testified that during the trail ride defendant should have put a red ribbon on her horse’s tail to warn others that her horse was known to kick. She asserted, however, that the presence of a red ribbon would not have altered her own behavior. Additionally, plaintiff stated she returned to Cross Country for horseback riding after the August 2014 incident with defendant’s horse. Although she did not plan on attending Cross Country’s Labor Day event in 2016, she did plan to go to another location in Missouri for a Labor Day trail ride.

 [*P20]  As stated, the record also contains defendant’s deposition. Defendant testified she resided in [***11]  Farina, Illinois, with her husband. She met plaintiff in 2003 through her former sister-in-law who was friends with plaintiff. Also, in 2013, plaintiff purchased defendant’s house in Dow, Illinois. Defendant testified she advertised the sale of her house on Facebook and plaintiff “friended [her] on Facebook” and contacted her by telephone about the house. Defendant noted her phone number was in her advertisement. She was not aware of plaintiff having her phone number prior to the time she advertised the sale of her house. Defendant considered plaintiff to be an acquaintance rather than a friend, noting they only socialized through mutual friends and always went horseback riding in a group setting. She estimated that she went horseback riding with plaintiff twice a year since 2006 but did not recall whether all of those occasions were in Illinois.

 [*P21]  Defendant testified she grew up around horses and regularly went horseback riding. Since 2003, she owned 11 different horses. Defendant stated someone else would train her horses to ride and then she “worked the tweaks out.” Specifically, defendant stated she trained her horses, including Little Bit, to “neck rein,”  [**584]   [****702]  not to ride too close to [***12]  other horses, and in “ground manners.”

 [*P22]  In 2012, defendant purchased Little Bit from one of the members of her horseback riding group of friends. She kept Little Bit at her farm in Farina, Illinois. In 2013, Little Bit was trained for 30 days in Kampsville, Illinois, by an individual named Samuel Kaufman. Thereafter, defendant took over. Defendant testified her training with Little Bit included going on several trail rides with other horses. She estimated Little Bit went on six trail rides before the Cross Country trail ride in August 2014. Defendant stated that, prior to August 2014, Little Bit kicked at another horse in a pasture while she was in heat. During that incident, Little Bit made contact with defendant’s husband who “was in the way.” Defendant denied that any other kicking incidents occurred prior to August 2014.

 [*P23]  Defendant testified she had been to Cross Country eight times prior to August 2014. She always went to Cross Country with a group. Defendant recalled seeing plaintiff at Cross Country prior to 2014 but did not recall if they rode horses together. In August 2014, defendant was at Cross Country with her husband, mother, and father. During the August 29, 2014, trail [***13]  ride, defendant rode Little Bit, who had not previously been on a trail ride at Cross Country.

 [*P24]  Defendant acknowledged drinking alcohol on the trail ride but stated she did not know if she was intoxicated. She estimated she had less than six beers, the amount she typically packed in her cooler. Defendant denied noticing anything peculiar about Little Bit during the trail ride. However, she asserted she told all of the other horseback riders that she would stay toward the back of the group because Little Bit was young, she did not know whether the horse would kick, and defendant did not totally trust the horse. Defendant testified she trusted Little Bit enough to ride her with other people but “didn’t trust that she maybe wouldn’t kick.”

 [*P25]  Defendant described the incident involving plaintiff, stating they were coming down a hill side by side when Little Bit “trotted up ahead.” She then heard plaintiff yell out and observed plaintiff reaching for her leg. Defendant estimated that she and plaintiff had been a little more than arm’s distance apart and were having a conversation before the incident. She stated she did not know why Little Bit kicked. In the fall of 2014, defendant sold Little [***14]  Bit. She testified she was not comfortable with the horse, noting an occasion when Little Bit bucked her off after being “spooked” by cattle.

 [*P26]  In October 2016, the trial court entered a written order finding no reason to reconsider its previous ruling and denying plaintiff’s motion to reconsider. In so holding, the court noted it reviewed its prior decision and the parties’ additional arguments. It stated the additional facts presented to it only further supported its decision to grant defendant’s motion to dismiss.

 [*P27]  In February 2017, defendant filed a motion for summary judgment as to count II of plaintiff’s complaint, alleging negligence, as well as a memorandum of law in support of her motion. She alleged that based on the deposition testimony of plaintiff and defendant, no question of material fact existed and she was entitled to judgment in her favor as a matter of law. Defendant maintained plaintiff was unable to establish that defendant owed her a duty, arguing that plaintiff both implicitly and explicitly assumed the risks associated with horseback riding. Also, she argued that plaintiff’s “testimony undermine[d] any and all proffered allegations of breach of duty.”

 [*P28]  [**585]  [****703]  Defendant [***15]  attached the parties’ depositions to her filing, as well as copies of the Cross Country documents plaintiff acknowledged signing. The documents included forms titled “RELEASE OF LIABILITY—READ BEFORE SIGINING [sic],” which provided as follows:

“In consideration of being allowed to participate in any way, including but not limited to trail riding, competing, officiating, working for, recreating in any fashion while visiting Cross Country Trail Ride, LLC, and its trail ride program, its related events and activities, I *** the undersigned, acknowledge, appreciate, and agree that;

1. The risk of injury from the activities involved in this program is significant, including the potential for permanent paralysis and death, and while particular skills, equipment, and personal discipline may reduce the risk, the risk of serious injury does exist; and,

2. I KNOWINGLY AND FREELY ASSUME ALL SUCH RISKS, both known and unknown, EVEN IF ARISING FROM NEGLIGENCE OF THE RELEASEES or others, and assume full responsibility for my participation; and,

3. I willingly agree to comply with the stated and customary terms of participation. If, however, I observe any unusual significant hazard during my presence [***16]  or participation, I will remove myself from participation and bring such to the attention of the Company immediately; and,

4. I, for myself and on behalf of my heirs, assigns, personal representatives, and next of kin, HEREBY RELEASE, INDEMNIFY, AND HOLD HARMLESS CROSS COUNTRY TRAIL RIDE, LLC, officers, officials, agents and/or employees, other participants, sponsoring agencies, sponsors, advertisers, and, if applicable, owners and lessors of premises used for the activity (‘Releasees’), WITH RESPECT TO ANY AND ALL INJURY, DISABILITY, DEATH, or loss or damage to person or property associated with my presence or participation, WHETHER ARISING FROM THE NEGLIGENCE OF THE RELEASEES OR OTHERWISE, to the fullest extent permitted by law.

5. Releasor expressly agrees that this release, waiver, and indemnity agreement is intended to be as broad and inclusive as permitted by the laws of the State of Missouri and that if any portion thereof is held invalid, it is agreed that the valid portion shall, not withstanding, continue in full legal force and effect.”

 [*P29]  In March 2017, plaintiff filed a response to defendant’s motion, and in April 2017 defendant filed a reply. Both parties relied on Missouri [***17]  substantive law when addressing defendant’s motion for summary judgment. In April 2017, the trial court also conducted a hearing in the matter and entered a written order granting defendant’s motion. Although the court’s written order did not specify the basis for its ruling, the court’s oral comments at the hearing reflect that it relied upon the Release plaintiff signed at Cross Country. Specifically, it stated as follows:

“Based upon the Release and without going to what is otherwise, I think a factual question, I think the Release in and of itself is sufficient to provide a basis for [defendant’s] Motion for Summary Judgment. It identifies itself as a release. It specifically tells the person who’s signing it to sign it and [plaintiff] sign[ed] not only for herself, but for her underage children. It says ‘please read this before you sign it[.’] It specifically addresses other participants. That’s as strong of language as you can get. So based *** on that, and that alone, the  [**586]   [****704]  court’s [going to] grant the Motion for Summary Judgment.”

 [*P30]  This appeal followed.

[*P31]  II. ANALYSIS

[*P32]  A. Statutory Designation for Motion to Dismiss

 [*P33]  On appeal, plaintiff first argues the trial court erred in granting [***18]  defendant’s motion to dismiss count I of her complaint, alleging a violation of the Animal Control Act, because it was brought under the wrong section of the Code. She notes defendant sought dismissal of count I pursuant to section 2-615 of the Code (735 ILCS 5/2-615 (West 2014)) but argues that, because defendant’s motion “raised an affirmative, factual defense,” it should have been brought pursuant to section 2-619 of the Code (735 ILCS 5/2-619 (West 2014)).

 [*P34] 
“A section 2-615 motion to dismiss challenges the legal sufficiency of a complaint based on defects apparent on its face.” Bueker v. Madison County, 2016 IL 120024, ¶ 7, 410 Ill. Dec. 883, 72 N.E.3d 269. “The only matters to be considered in ruling on such a motion are the allegations of the pleadings themselves.” Illinois Graphics Co. v. Nickum, 159 Ill. 2d 469, 485, 639 N.E.2d 1282, 1289, 203 Ill. Dec. 463 (1994). Conversely, “[a] motion to dismiss under section 2-619 [citation] admits the legal sufficiency of the plaintiff’s claim, but asserts certain defects or defenses outside the pleading that defeat the claim.” In re Scarlett Z.-D., 2015 IL 117904, ¶ 20, 390 Ill. Dec. 123, 28 N.E.3d 776. Where grounds for dismissal do not appear on the face of the complaint, the section 2-619 motion must be supported by affidavit. 735 ILCS 5/2-619(a) (West 2014).

 [*P35]  As noted, defendant sought dismissal of count I of plaintiff’s complaint, arguing Missouri law applied to the parties’ conflict and, as a result, plaintiff’s claim asserting liability based solely on an Illinois statute—the Animal Control Act—could [***19]  not stand. Defendant brought her motion under section 2-615 of the Code, and as stated, plaintiff argues defendant should have designated section 2-619.

 [*P36]  Here, it appears defendant labeled her motion to dismiss count I with the wrong statutory section. Section 2-619(a)(9) of the Code provides for dismissal where “the claim asserted against defendant is barred by other affirmative matter avoiding the legal effect of or defeating the claim.” 735 ILCS 5/2-619(a)(9) (West 2014)). “[A]ffirmative matter” has been held to include “the basic issue as to which state’s law is to apply to the action.” Ingersoll v. Klein, 106 Ill. App. 2d 330, 336, 245 N.E.2d 288, 291 (1969), aff’d, 46 Ill. 2d 42, 262 N.E.2d 593 (1970); see also Illinois Graphics, 159 Ill. 2d at 487 (citing Ingersoll, 46 Ill. 2d at 42, for the proposition that a choice-of-law defense had “been considered ‘affirmative matter’ so as to negate completely the asserted claim”).

 [*P37]  Additionally, our supreme court has acknowledged that  the conflict-of-law methodology “may raise factual issues.” Townsend v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 227 Ill. 2d 147, 154, 879 N.E.2d 893, 898, 316 Ill. Dec. 505 (2007). Such factual issues are properly considered and addressed in the context of a section 2-619 motion to dismiss, where a trial court may consider pleadings, depositions, and affidavits when making its ruling (Zedella v. Gibson, 165 Ill. 2d 181, 185, 650 N.E.2d 1000, 1002, 209 Ill. Dec. 27 (1995)), rather than in the context of section 2-615 motion, where only the pleadings may be considered (Illinois Graphics, 159 Ill. 2d at 485).

 [*P38]  Nevertheless, even if defendant improperly labeled her motion to dismiss count I, no reversible error [***20]  occurred. We note plaintiff failed to object to the  [**587]   [****705]  statutory designation in defendant’s motion to dismiss. Thus, she has forfeited her challenge to that designation on appeal. American National Bank & Trust Co. v. City of Chicago, 192 Ill. 2d 274, 280, 735 N.E.2d 551, 554, 248 Ill. Dec. 900 (2000). Moreover, setting plaintiff’s forfeiture aside, we note that  a defendant’s error in labeling a motion to dismiss is not fatal where the nonmoving party has suffered no prejudice. Wallace v. Smyth, 203 Ill. 2d 441, 447, 786 N.E.2d 980, 984, 272 Ill. Dec. 146 (2002). In this instance, plaintiff acknowledges that the trial court allowed the choice-of-law issue to be “fleshed out” through the discovery process. Further, the record shows the issue was given full and thorough consideration by the trial court. Thus, plaintiff had a sufficient opportunity to be heard, and we find no reversible error.

[*P39]  B. Choice-of-Law Determination

 [*P40]  Plaintiff next argues the trial court erred in finding Missouri law applied to the parties’ conflict. She contends that a choice-of-law analysis and the facts applicable to that analysis support the conclusion that Illinois has a more significant relationship to her cause of action.

 [*P41]  Initially, we note that a de novo standard of review applies to this issue. Such a standard is applicable on review of a dismissal under either section 2-615 or 2-619 of the Code. Patrick Eng’g, Inc. v. City of Naperville, 2012 IL 113148, ¶ 31, 976 N.E.2d 318, 364 Ill. Dec. 40. Additionally, we apply a de [***21]  novo standard when reviewing a trial court’s choice-of-law determination. Townsend, 227 Ill. 2d at 154.

 [*P42] 
“A choice-of-law determination is required only when a difference in law will make a difference in the outcome.” Id. at 155. Thus, “a choice-of-law analysis begins by isolating the issue and defining the conflict.” Id. Here, the parties agree that conflicts exist between Missouri and Illinois law. Notably, they identify Missouri’s lack of a statute that is equivalent to the Illinois Animal Control Act. If Illinois law applies, claimant can maintain the cause of action alleged in count I of her complaint, which is based on that Illinois statute; however, if Missouri law applies, count I of her complaint must be dismissed as it would state no cause of action upon which relief could be granted under Missouri law. Thus, we agree that a conflict exists that will result in a difference in outcome.

 [*P43]  Next, when making a choice-of-law determination, “the forum court applies the choice-of-law rules of its own state.” Id.  Illinois has adopted the choice-of-law analysis contained in the Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws (1971) (Second Restatement).Townsend, 227 Ill. 2d . at 163-64. Under the Second Restatement, a presumption exists in favor of applying the [***22]  law of the state where the injury occurred. Id. at 163. The presumption “may be overcome only by showing a more or greater significant relationship to another state.” (Emphases in original.) Id. Specifically, section 146 of the Restatement provides as follows:

“In an action for a personal injury, the local law of the state where the injury occurred determines the rights and liabilities of the parties, unless, with respect to the particular issue, some other state has a more significant relationship under the principles stated in [the Second Restatement] to the occurrence and the parties, in which event the local law of the other state will be applied.” Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 146 (1971).

 [*P44] 
Once a court chooses the presumptively applicable law, it “tests” its  [**588]   [****706]  choice against various “principles” and “contacts” as set forth in sections 6 and 145 of the Second Restatement. Townsend, 227 Ill. 2d at 164. Section 6(2) sets forth the following relevant factors for consideration:

“(a) the needs of the interstate and international systems,

(b) the relevant policies of the forum,

(c) the relevant policies of other interested states and the relative interests of those states in the determination of the particular issue,

(d) the protection of justified expectations,

(e) the basic policies underlying the particular field [***23]  of law,

(f) certainty, predictability and uniformity of result, and

(g) ease in the determination and application of the law to be applied.”

Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 6(2) (1971).

 [*P45]  Additionally, section 145(2) sets forth the following “[c]ontacts to be taken into account in applying the principles of [section] 6“:

“(a) the place where the injury occurred,

(b) the place where the conduct causing the injury occurred,

(c) the domicil, residence, nationality, place of incorporation and place of business of the parties, and

(d) the place where the relationship, if any, between the parties is centered.” Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 145(2) (1971).

The contacts set forth in section 145(2) “are to be evaluated according to their relative importance with respect to the particular issue.” Id.

 [*P46]  Practically, it makes no difference whether a court first considers the section 145(2) contacts or the section 6(2) general principles. Townsend, 227 Ill. 2d at 168. “In either case[,] the Second Restatement’s goal is the same—to ensure that a court is not merely ‘counting contacts,’ and that each contact is meaningful in light of the policies sought to be vindicated by the conflicting laws.” Id.

 [*P47]  Here, plaintiff was kicked by defendant’s horse while on a trail ride in Missouri. Thus, Missouri is “the state where the injury occurred,” and a presumption exists in favor [***24]  of applying Missouri law unless, as plaintiff argues, Illinois has a more significant relationship to the occurrence and the parties. In testing this presumption, we first consider relevant “contacts” as set forth in section 145(2) of the Restatement.

[*P48]  1. Section 145 Contacts

 [*P49]  The first contact for consideration is the place where the injury occurred. Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 145(2)(a) (1971). As discussed, plaintiff was kicked by defendant’s horse in Missouri, and thus, that is where her injury occurred. Plaintiff maintains this factor is of minimal importance because the location of her injury was merely fortuitous in that the incident could just as easily have occurred in Illinois. To support her argument, plaintiff cites cases with fact scenarios that involve interstate travelers and motor vehicle accidents, which courts have determined could just as easily have occurred in another state. Murphy v. Mancari’s Chrysler Plymouth, Inc., 408 Ill. App. 3d 722, 727-28, 948 N.E.2d 233, 238, 350 Ill. Dec. 164 (2011); Miller v. Hayes, 233 Ill. App. 3d 847, 852, 600 N.E.2d 34, 38, 175 Ill. Dec. 411 (1992); Schulze v. Illinois Highway Transportation Co., 97 Ill. App. 3d 508, 510-11, 423 N.E.2d 278, 280, 53 Ill. Dec. 86 (1981).

 [*P50]  [****707]  [**589]  Specifically, in Murphy, 408 Ill. App. 3d at 723, the plaintiffs were Illinois residents who brought suit against an Illinois automobile dealer that sold them a vehicle after one of the plaintiffs was injured in a motor vehicle accident in Michigan. The trial court determined Michigan law applied to the liability and damages issues in the case, and the plaintiffs appealed. Id. at 724.

 [*P51]  On review, the First District [***25]  noted that, in the context of a choice-of-law analysis, “situations may exist where the place of injury is merely fortuitous and, therefore, not an important contact.” Id. at 727. In the case before it, the court found that the injured plaintiff’s presence in Michigan was not fortuitous because “[h]e was purposefully and voluntarily in Michigan, driving to his weekend home with the intention of staying there for several days.” Id. at 727. However, it also determined that a purposeful presence in Michigan did not mean that the accident “could not have happened in Michigan fortuitously.” Id. It pointed out that the cause of the accident had not been determined and “[t]he same type of accident and the same type of injuries could have just as easily happened in Illinois.” Id. at 727-28. Thus, the court concluded the place of injury was not an important consideration in the context of the case before it. Id. at 728.

 [*P52]  Defendant argues Murphy is distinguishable from the present case, and we agree. Notably, this case does not involve a motor vehicle accident that happened by chance in one state versus another. Instead, plaintiff’s injury occurred at the planned destination of both parties. The specific location, Cross Country, focused [***26]  on horseback riding activities in which both parties planned to engage. Additionally, both plaintiff and defendant had previously visited Cross Country on multiple occasions.

 [*P53]  We note comment e of section 145 provides as follows:

“In the case of personal injuries or of injuries to tangible things, the place where the injury occurred is a contact that, as to most issues, plays an important role in the selection of the state of the applicable law [citation]. *** This is so for the reason among others that persons who cause injury in a state should not ordinarily escape liabilities imposed by the local law of that state on account of the injury. ***

Situations do arise, however, where the place of injury will not play an important role in the selection of the state of the applicable law. This will be so, for example, when the place of injury can be said to be fortuitous or when for other reasons it bears little relation to the occurrence and the parties with respect to the particular issue ***.” (Emphasis added.) Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 145 cmt. e (1971).

Under the facts of this case, we cannot say that the place of injury bears little relation to the occurrence or the parties. This is particularly true in light of the underlying issues presented [***27]  in plaintiff’s complaint, which almost exclusively involve the parties’ behavior and conduct while horseback riding at Cross Country in Missouri. Therefore, we find this contact weighs in favor of applying Missouri law.

 [*P54]  The next contact for consideration is the place where the conduct causing the plaintiff’s injury occurred. Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 145(2)(b) (1971). An analysis of injury-causing conduct “includes all conduct from any source contributing to the injury,” including a defendant’s affirmative defenses  [**590]   [****708]  or allegations of contributory negligence. Townsend, 227 Ill. 2d at 169.

 [*P55]  Here, plaintiff acknowledges that, relative to count I, this factor favors application of Missouri law because “the place where the conduct causing the injury occurred would be the place where the animal caused injury without provocation.” She asserts, however, that she alleged injury-causing conduct that occurred in both Illinois and Missouri in connection with count II and thus, this factor must be “deemed a wash.” We disagree.

 [*P56]  In count II, plaintiff asserted defendant was negligent for failing to warn plaintiff of the horse’s violent propensity to kick, failing to properly train her horse, riding the horse too close to plaintiff, and failing to adhere to industry [***28]  and practice norms while riding her horse. All but one of these alleged actions or inactions by defendant occurred exclusively in Missouri. Additionally, defendant has argued that plaintiff expressly assumed the risks associated with horseback riding at Cross Country and points to the Release plaintiff signed in Missouri. Given that the vast majority of relevant conduct occurred in Missouri, we find this factor weighs in favor of applying Missouri law to the parties’ conflict.

 [*P57]  The third contact for consideration is “the domicil, residence, nationality, place of incorporation and place of business of the parties.” Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 145(2)(c) (1971). Here, both parties are Illinois residents and neither disputes that this factor weighs in favor of applying Illinois law.

 [*P58]  The final contact for consideration is “the place where the relationship, if any, between the parties is centered.” Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 145(2)(d) (1971). In this instance, the parties’ relationship primarily arose from having a group of mutual friends in Illinois and engaging in horseback riding activities within that group. Plaintiff and defendant were riding horses together in Missouri at the time of the incident at issue but had previously ridden horses together in Illinois. [***29]  Ultimately, we find this contact favors applying Illinois law, as most of the parties’ interactions occurred within this state.

 [*P59]  Here, the section 145(2) contacts are evenly split, with two favoring application of Missouri law and two favoring Illinois law. However, as noted, the 145(2) contacts “are to be evaluated according to their relative importance with respect to the particular issue.” Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 145(2) (1971). In this case, the fact that the parties interacted with one another more frequently in Illinois has little to do with the issues presented by either count I or count II of plaintiff’s complaint. Thus, we find the fourth factor set forth in section 145(2) is only minimally important to the underlying proceedings. As a result, the section 145(2) contacts, when considered alone, support rather than rebut the presumption in favor of applying Missouri law. This does not end our analysis, however, and we must also consider the principles set forth in section 6 of the Second Restatement.

[*P60] 2. Section 6 Principles

 [*P61]  As noted, section 6(2) of the Second Restatement sets forth the following principles for consideration when conducting a choice-of-law analysis:

“(a) the needs of the interstate and international systems,

(b) the relevant policies of the forum,

(c) the relevant [***30]  policies of other interested states and the relative interests of those states in the determination of the particular issue,

 [****709]  [**591]  (d) the protection of justified expectations,

(e) the basic policies underlying the particular field of law,

(f) certainty, predictability and uniformity of result, and

(g) ease in the determination and application of the law to be applied.”

Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 6(2) (1971).

In this case, a detailed analysis of all seven section 6 principles is unnecessary because the principles set forth in sections 6(2)(a), 6(2)(d), and 6(2)(f) are only minimally implicated in a personal injury action. Townsend, 227 Ill. 2d at 169-70 (citing Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 145 cmt. b, at 415-16 (1971)). Therefore, we confine our analysis to the remaining section 6 principles. Id. at 170.

 [*P62]  As stated, the parties agree that Illinois law conflicts with Missouri law based upon the existence of the Animal Control Act in Illinois and the lack of an equivalent Missouri statute. Initially, we consider this conflict in light of the relevant policies of Illinois (section 6(2)(b)), the relevant policies of Missouri and the relative interest of Missouri in the determination of the issue (section 6(2)(c)), and the basic policies underlying the particular field of law (section 6(2)(e)).

 [*P63]  Under the Animal Control Act, “[i]f a dog or other animal, without provocation, attacks, attempts to attack, [***31]  or injures any person who is peaceably conducting himself or herself in any place where he or she may lawfully be, the owner of such dog or other animal is liable in civil damages to such person for the full amount of the injury proximately caused thereby.” 510 ILCS 5/16 (West 2014). Our supreme court has described the history behind the Animal Control Act and interpreted its provisions as follows:

“The original version of this statute was passed in 1949 and applied only to dogs. [Citation.] The apparent purpose of the legislation was modest: to reduce the burden on dog-bite plaintiffs by eliminating the ‘one-bite rule’—the common law requirement that a plaintiff must plead and prove that a dog owner either knew or was negligent not to know that his dog had a propensity to injure people. [Citation.]

Enacting the Animal Control Act in 1973, the legislature amended this ‘dog-bite statute’ to cover ‘other animals.’ ***

*** [W]e believe that the legislature intended only to provide coverage under the statute for plaintiffs who, by virtue of their relationship to the owner of the dog or other animal or the lack of any such relationship, may not have any way of knowing or avoiding the risk that the animal [***32]  poses to them. This interpretation is consistent with the emphasis the statute places on lack of provocation and plaintiff’s peaceable conduct in a place in which he is legally entitled to be.” Harris v. Walker, 119 Ill. 2d 542, 546-47, 519 N.E.2d 917, 918-19, 116 Ill. Dec. 702 (1988).

In Harris, the supreme court held the Animal Control Act was inapplicable to circumstances “where a person rents a horse and understands and expressly accepts the risks of using the horse.” Id. at 547-48; Johnson v. Johnson, 386 Ill. App. 3d 522, 535, 898 N.E.2d 145, 159, 325 Ill. Dec. 412 (2008) (“[T]he common law defense of assumption of the risk has been recognized as a valid affirmative defense to an action brought pursuant to the Animal Control Act.”).

 [*P64]  As indicated by the parties, Missouri does not have a comparable statute. See Mo. Ann. Stat. § 273.036 (West  [**592]   [****710]  2014) (providing for strict liability in the event of dog bites but not applying to other animals). However, it has enacted the Equine Liability Act, for the purpose of codifying “the common law assumption of risk principle in the context of a specific recreational activity.” Frank v. Mathews, 136 S.W.3d 196, 202 (Mo. Ct. App. 2004). That Act limits liability for injuries resulting from the inherent risks associated with equine activities, providing as follows:

“[A]n equine activity sponsor, an equine professional, *** any employee thereof, or any other person or corporation shall not be liable for an injury to or [***33]  the death of a participant resulting from the inherent risks of equine *** activities and, *** no participant or a participant’s representative shall make any claim against, maintain an action against, or recover from an equine activity sponsor, an equine professional, *** any employee thereof, or any other person from injury, loss, damage or death of the participant resulting from any of the inherent risks of equine or livestock activities.” (Emphases added.) Mo. Ann. Stat. § 537.325(2) (West 2014).

Under the Equine Liability Act, an “equine activity” includes “[r]ides *** sponsored by an equine activity sponsor.” Id. § 537.325(3)(e). Further, an “equine activity sponsor” includes a group or corporation that “sponsors, organizes[,] or provides the facilities for, an equine activity.” Id. § 537.325(4). The Equine Liability Act does not relieve covered individuals “from any duty that common law negligence principles impose upon them.” Frank, 136 S.W.3d at 203.

 [*P65]  Finally, we note that, although not significantly addressed by either party, Illinois has also adopted an Equine Activity Liability Act (Illinois Equine Act) (745 ILCS 47/1 et seq. (West 2014)). The legislature has set forth the purpose of the Illinois Equine Act as follows:

“The General Assembly recognizes that persons who participate [***34]  in equine activities may incur injuries as a result of the risks involved in those activities. The General Assembly also finds that the State and its citizens derive numerous economic and personal benefits from equine activities. Therefore, it is the intent of the General Assembly to encourage equine activities by delineating the responsibilities of those involved in equine activities.” 745 ILCS 47/5 (West 2014).

The Fifth District of this court has noted that equine activity liability acts “have been enacted in more than 40 states since the mid-1980s” and are intended “to promote equine activities and the horse industry in general by limiting liability for some horse-related activities.” Smith v. Lane, 358 Ill. App. 3d 1126, 1128-29, 832 N.E.2d 947, 950, 295 Ill. Dec. 497 (2005).

 [*P66]  Here, plaintiff argues the policy behind the Animal Control Act “is more significant within the context of injuries by animals than the purpose of the Missouri Equine Liability Act.” We cannot agree. Clearly, Illinois has a policy, by way of the Animal Control Act, of protecting individuals who come into contact with an animal and are unable to appreciate or avoid the risks posed by the animal. However, both Missouri and Illinois have acknowledged that special circumstances exist with respect to horses and equine-related [***35]  activities. Like Missouri law, Illinois law also contemplates that certain inherent risks are associated with equine activities like the sort of activity engaged in by the parties in this case. Both states have a policy of promoting equine activities and limiting liability associated with those activities. Both states also take into account assumption of risk principles with respect to horse-related injuries, even in the context of the Animal Control Act. Given these circumstances, we fail to see how  [**593]   [****711]  Illinois policies are any “more significant” than those behind relevant Missouri law. Rather, both states appear to have similar policies and interests relative to injuries caused by horse-related activities.

 [*P67]  In addressing the relevant policies and interests of both Illinois and Missouri, plaintiff also argues that Illinois has a significant interest in providing tort remedies to its injured citizens. She cites Esser v. McIntyre, 169 Ill. 2d 292, 300, 661 N.E.2d 1138, 1142, 214 Ill. Dec. 693 (1996), wherein the supreme court held that “[h]aving provided a legal means for a plaintiff to recover for injuries caused by a defendant’s culpable conduct, Illinois has a strong interest in providing that remedy in disputes between Illinois residents.” In so holding, the court noted [***36]  that under the law of the place of injury in that case—Mexico—Illinois’s interest would be circumvented because the plaintiff had no remedy against the defendant. Id. In fact, the parties had agreed that the plaintiff had no cause of action against the defendant under Mexican law. Id. at 297. The same cannot be said in this case, as plaintiff has a potential remedy under Missouri law in the form of a negligence cause of action. Further, we note that Missouri has a competing interest in having its laws apply to equine-related activities that occur within its borders.

 [*P68]  Ultimately, we disagree with plaintiff that the policies and interests relevant to this matter weigh in favor of applying Illinois law. Therefore, plaintiff does not overcome the presumption in favor of applying Missouri law.

 [*P69]  On review, plaintiff also addresses the principle relating to the “ease in the determination and application of the law to be applied.” Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 6(2)(g) (1971). She maintains that because Illinois law is more advantageous to her claim, this principle weighs in favor of applying Illinois law. However, we agree with defendant that the purpose of section 6(2)(g) is to consider whether the competing laws are “simple and easy to apply” rather [***37]  than which law is most beneficial to plaintiff. See Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 6 cmt. j (1971).

 [*P70]  Relative to this principle, we note that the Illinois Equine Act may be applied to preempt the Animal Control Act in certain situations. See Carl v. Resnick, 306 Ill. App. 3d 453, 458-59, 714 N.E.2d 1, 5, 239 Ill. Dec. 443 (1999) (stating the Illinois Equine Act would bar actions in which the plaintiff was engaged in an “‘equine activity'” that would have previously been permitted under the Animal Control Act); Smith, 358 Ill. App. 3d at 1134 (stating that “had the [Illinois] Equine Act applied to the facts of the case, preemption would have barred an action for the same alleged injuries under the Animal Control Act”). However, the Illinois Equine Act has also been found to be “unclear as to whether it was meant to limit the liability of persons other than equine activity sponsors and equine professionals,” i.e., persons like defendant in this case. Kush v. Wentworth, 339 Ill. App. 3d 157, 165, 790 N.E.2d 912, 918, 274 Ill. Dec. 139 (2003). In Kush, the Second District of this court criticized the Illinois Equine Act for containing inconsistencies and “obvious drafting error,” as well as provisions that could lead to absurd results. Id. at 162-63. Given the lack of clarity of this state’s equine activity liability act, we must find that consideration of whether the competing laws are “simple and easy to apply” also weighs in favor of applying [***38]  Missouri law.

 [*P71]  As discussed, a presumption exists in this case in favor of applying the Missouri law to the parties’ conflict. We find  [**594]   [****712]  nothing in either the parties’ arguments or our review of the Second Restatement’s relevant contacts and principles for consideration that overrides that presumption. Thus, we find no error in the trial court’s finding that Missouri law applies to the underlying controversy.

 [*P72]  In so holding, we note that plaintiff suggests it is unclear from the underlying proceedings whether the trial court’s choice-of-law ruling was as to both counts of her complaint. We disagree. The court’s order referred generally to “the litigation” or “the conflict” when holding Missouri law was applicable, and nothing in its orders indicates that its ruling was limited to only count I. Further, as plaintiff acknowledges, both parties proceeded as if Missouri law applied to count II by citing substantive law from that state in connection with filings related to defendant’s motion for summary judgment. Therefore, we find plaintiff’s assertion that the record is somehow unclear is without merit.

[*P73]  C. Motion for Summary Judgment

 [*P74]  On appeal, plaintiff next argues the trial court erred [***39]  in granting defendant’s motion for summary judgment as to count II of her complaint. “Summary judgment is properly granted when the pleadings, depositions, admissions, and affidavits on file, viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, show that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Village of Bartonville v. Lopez, 2017 IL 120643, ¶ 34, 413 Ill. Dec. 34, 77 N.E.3d 639. “If the plaintiff fails to establish any element of the cause of action, summary judgment for the defendant is proper.” Williams v. Manchester, 228 Ill. 2d 404, 417, 888 N.E.2d 1, 9, 320 Ill. Dec. 784 (2008). The trial court’s summary judgment ruling is subject to de novo review. Schweihs v. Chase Home Finance, LLC, 2016 IL 120041, ¶ 48, 412 Ill. Dec. 882, 77 N.E.3d 50.

 [*P75] 
To obtain relief in a negligence cause of action, “‘the plaintiff must establish that (1) the defendant had a duty to the plaintiff; (2) the defendant failed to perform that duty; and (3) the defendant’s breach was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury.'” Peters v. Wady Industries, Inc., 489 S.W.3d 784, 793 (Mo. 2016) (quoting Martin v. City of Washington, 848 S.W.2d 487, 493 (Mo. 1993)). In this case, both before the trial court and on appeal, defendant has argued that plaintiff cannot establish that defendant owed her a duty based on the Release plaintiff signed at Cross Country. The trial court’s oral ruling reflects that it agreed with this argument and granted summary judgment in defendant’s favor. For the reasons that follow, we [***40]  also agree that plaintiff signed a valid and enforceable release of liability and expressly assumed the risks associated with the underlying horseback riding activities.

 [*P76] 
Under the “assumption of the risk doctrine” a person who “voluntarily consents to accept the danger of a known and appreciated risk[ ] *** may not sue another for failing to protect him from it.” Coomer v. Kansas City Royals Baseball Corp., 437 S.W.3d 184, 191 (Mo. 2014). An express assumption of risk is the simplest application of the doctrine and “recognizes that, when a plaintiff makes an express statement that he is voluntarily accepting a specified risk, the plaintiff is barred from recovering damages for an injury resulting from that risk.” Id. An express assumption of risk “most often involves a written waiver or release by the would-be plaintiff.” Id. Further, “in an ‘express assumption of the risk’ case, the plaintiff’s consent relieves the defendant of any duty to protect the plaintiff from injury.” Id. at 193.

 [*P77] 
“Although exculpatory clauses in contracts releasing an individual  [**595]   [****713]  from his or her own future negligence are disfavored, they are not prohibited as against public policy.” Alack v. Vic Tanny International of Missouri, Inc., 923 S.W.2d 330, 334 (Mo. 1996). “[C]ontracts exonerating a party from acts of future negligence are to be ‘strictly construed against the party [***41]  claiming the benefit of the contract, and clear and explicit language in the contract is required to absolve a person from such liability.'” Id. (quoting Hornbeck v. All American Indoor Sports, Inc., 898 S.W.2d 717, 721 (Mo. Ct. App. 1995)). Missouri law requires “clear, unambiguous, unmistakable, and conspicuous language in order to release a party from his or her own future negligence,” and “[g]eneral language will not suffice.” Id. at 337. “‘The words “negligence” or “fault” or their equivalents must be used conspicuously so that a clear and unmistakable waiver and shifting of risk occurs. There must be no doubt that a reasonable person agreeing to an exculpatory clause actually understands what future claims he or she is waiving.'” Holmes v. Multimedia KSDK, Inc., 395 S.W.3d 557, 560-61 (Mo. Ct. App. 2013) (quoting Alack, 923 S.W.2d at 337-38).

 [*P78]  Additionally, “[o]nly parties to a contract and any third-party beneficiaries of a contract have standing to enforce that contract.” Verni v. Cleveland Chiropractic College, 212 S.W.3d 150, 153 (Mo. 2007). To be deemed a third-party beneficiary, the terms of the contract must clearly express intent to benefit the third party or an identifiable class of which the third party is a member. Id. When an express declaration of intent is lacking, a strong presumption exists “‘that the third party is not a beneficiary and that the parties contracted to benefit only themselves.'” Id. (quoting Nitro Distributing, Inc. v. Dunn, 194 S.W.3d 339, 345 (Mo. 2006)).

 [*P79] 
In Missouri, the [***42]  primary rule of contract interpretation is to determine and give effect to the intent of the parties. State ex rel. Pinkerton v. Fahnestock, 531 S.W.3d 36, 44 (Mo. 2017). Intent is determined by considering the plain and ordinary meaning of the contract language. Id. Each clause in a contract should be read in the context of the contract as a whole, and any interpretation that would render a provision meaningless should be avoided. Id. Additionally, the parties’ intentions should be “gleaned from the four corners of the contract” unless the contract is ambiguous, in which case a court may resort to considering extrinsic evidence. Kansas City N.O. Nelson Co. v. Mid-Western. Construction Co. of Missouri, Inc., 782 S.W.2d 672, 677 (Mo. App. 1989).

 [*P80]  Additionally, whether a contract is ambiguous presents a question of law. Alack, 923 S.W.2d at 334. “‘An ambiguity arises when there is duplicity, indistinctness, or uncertainty in the meaning of the words used in the contract.'” Id. at 337 (quoting Rodriguez v. General Accident Insurance Co. of America, 808 S.W.2d 379, 382 (Mo. 1991)).

 [*P81]  Here, plaintiff acknowledged signing the Release at issue upon her arrival at Cross Country. In fact, she signed three such Releases—one for herself and one for each of the two minors who accompanied her. The operative language of the Release is as follows:

“4. I, for myself and on behalf of my heirs, assigns, personal representatives, and next of kin, HEREBY RELEASE, INDEMNIFY, AND HOLD HARMLESS CROSS COUNTRY [***43]  TRAIL RIDE, LLC, officers, officials, agents and/or employees, other participants, sponsoring agencies, sponsors, advertisers, and, if applicable, owners and lessors of premises used for the activity (‘Releasees’), WITH RESPECT TO  [**596]   [****714]  ANY AND ALL INJURY, DISABILITY, DEATH, or loss or damage to person or property associated with my presence or participation, WHETHER ARISING FROM THE NEGLIGENCE OF THE RELEASEES OR OTHERWISE, to the fullest extent permitted by law.” (Emphasis added.)

Defendant maintains she was an intended third-party beneficiary of the Release in that she falls within the category of “other participants” and, as a result, plaintiff agreed to release her from liability for injuries plaintiff sustained while horseback riding at Cross Country, including those that occurred due to defendant’s negligence.

 [*P82]  Initially, plaintiff argues the Release fails to clearly express the intent to benefit defendant as a third party. To support this contention, she points to her own testimony that she “did not even know what she [was] signing” and the lack of testimony from anyone associated with Cross Country regarding their intent in entering the contract. Additionally, plaintiff maintains [***44]  the phrase “other participants” is ambiguous and could be reasonably interpreted as a “catch-all term” that means “’employees, agents, servants, and/or independent contractors of [Cross Country] who perform services which further [its] business'” and not, as defendant suggests, other paying customers who are similarly situated to plaintiff and defendant. We disagree and find the Release is unambiguous and clearly expresses an intent to benefit an identifiable class, i.e., “other participants,” of which defendant is a member.

 [*P83]  Looking as we must at the four corners of the parties’ agreement, it is clear that “other participants” were included within the list of individuals or entities to whom the parties to the agreement intended the release of liability to apply. In other words, there was an express intent to benefit “other participants” in the Release. Additionally, when looking at the agreement as a whole, it is clear that the phrase “other participants” refers to those individuals at Cross Country who were similarly situated to plaintiff and defendant, i.e., paying customers or guests who were engaging in the activities provided or offered by Cross Country. Although the term “participants” [***45]  is not defined in the Release, as defendant notes, the terms “participate,” “participation,” and “participants” are used throughout the document. Their use clearly reflects that these words were intended to refer to individuals visiting Cross Country for the purpose of engaging in its recreational activities, including horseback riding. The Release provides as follows:

“In consideration of being allowed to participate in any way, including but not limited to trail riding, competing, officiating, working for, recreating in any fashion while visiting Cross Country Trail Ride, LLC, and its trail ride program, its related events and activities, I *** the undersigned, acknowledge, appreciate, and agree that;

1. The risk of injury from the activities involved in this program is significant, including the potential for permanent paralysis and death, and while particular skills, equipment, and personal discipline may reduce the risk, the risk of serious injury does exist; and,

2. I KNOWINGLY AND FREELY ASSUME ALL SUCH RISKS, both known and unknown, EVEN IF ARISING FROM NEGLIGENCE OF THE RELEASEES or others, and assume full responsibility for my participation; and,

3. I willingly agree to comply [***46]  with the stated and customary terms of participation. If, however, I observe any unusual significant hazard during my  [**597]   [****715]  presence or participation, I will remove myself from participation and bring such to the attention of the Company immediately; and,

4. I, for myself and on behalf of my heirs, assigns, personal representatives, and next of kin, HEREBY RELEASE, INDEMNIFY, AND HOLD HARMLESS CROSS COUNTRY TRAIL RIDE, LLC, officers, officials, agents and/or employees, other participants, sponsoring agencies, sponsors, advertisers, and, if applicable, owners and lessors of premises used for the activity (‘Releasees’), WITH RESPECT TO ANY AND ALL INJURY, DISABILITY, DEATH, or loss or damage to person or property associated with my presence or participation, WHETHER ARISING FROM THE NEGLIGENCE OF THE RELEASEES OR OTHERWISE, to the fullest extent permitted by law.” (Emphases added.)

Additionally, signature lines on the Release required the “PARTICIPANT[‘]S SIGNATURE” or the signature of a parent or guardian for “PARTICIPANTS OF MINORITY AGE.”

 [*P84]  During her own deposition, plaintiff acknowledged that the Release used the phrase “other participants” and that she would characterize defendant as “another [***47]  participant” in the activities at Cross Country. We agree and find the language used in the Release is clear and that it unambiguously refers to an identifiable class of individuals that includes defendant.

 [*P85]  Plaintiff next argues the Release is deficient because it purported to relieve liability for nonreleasable claims, including “intentional torts, gross negligence, and/or activities involving the public interest.” She notes language in the Release stated it applied to “THE NEGLIGENCE OF THE RELEASEES OR OTHERWISE.” Plaintiff maintains the word “otherwise” encompasses those nonreleasable claims and, thus, renders the Release duplicitous, indistinct, uncertain, and ambiguous.

 [*P86]  To support her argument, plaintiff relies on Lewis v. Snow Creek, Inc., 6 S.W.3d 388, 394 (Mo. Ct. App. 1999), involving an exculpatory clause that purported “to shield [a party] from ‘any claim based on negligence and *** any claim based upon *** other legal theory.'” There, the reviewing court noted “‘there is no question that one may never exonerate oneself from future liability for intentional torts or for gross negligence, or for activities involving the public interest.'” Id. (quoting Alack, 923 S.W.2d at 337). It found that the exculpatory clause before it used general language by referencing [***48]  claims based on “‘any *** other legal theory,'” stating such language included “intentional torts, gross negligence or any other cause of action not expressly listed.” Id. Thus, because the contract at issue purported to relieve the respondent in the case of all liability but did not actually do so, it was duplicitous, indistinct, uncertain and, ultimately, ambiguous. Id.

 [*P87]  We find Lewis distinguishable from the present case. The language there was much broader than the language of the Release that plaintiff signed. Unlike in this case, the exculpatory clause in Lewis expressly referred to legal theories other than negligence. Additionally, we note other courts applying Missouri law have suggested that the same language that is at issue in this case was sufficiently clear and unambiguous. See Haines v. St. Charles Speedway, Inc., 689 F. Supp. 964, 969 (E.D. Mo. 1988) (finding a release was clear and unambiguous under Missouri law where it relieved liability for the “negligence of the Releasees or otherwise” (internal quotation marks omitted)); Hornbeck v. All American Indoor Sports, Inc., 898 S.W.2d 717, 721  [****716]  [**598]  (Mo. Ct. App. 1995) (stating language that released claims “‘whether caused by the negligence of the releasees or otherwise'” would “clearly and unambiguously encompass[ ] the negligence of the party seeking to enforce the release” (quoting [***49]  Haines, 689 F. Supp. at 969)). In this instance, the Release plaintiff signed used the term “negligence” and did not expressly include references to any “other legal theory.” We find the Release was sufficient to notify plaintiff that she was releasing “other participants” in trail riding activities at Cross Country from claims arising from the “other participant’s” own negligence. See Alack, 923 S.W.2d at 337 (“The exculpatory language must effectively notify a party that he or she is releasing the other party from claims arising from the other party’s own negligence.”).

 [*P88]  Finally, plaintiff also challenges the format of the Cross Country Release. Again, she relies on Lewis, wherein the court additionally found the exculpatory clause before it was not conspicuous and, thus, insufficient to provide notice of a release of liability for negligence claims. Lewis, 6 S.W.3d at 394-95. Specifically, the reviewing court noted the form at issue was titled as a “Rental Form” rather than a release, the form’s exculpatory clause was in approximately five-point font at the bottom of the form, and the plaintiffs “had to sign the Rental Form to receive ski equipment and had to do so while in a line.” Id.

 [*P89]  Again, the present case is distinguishable. Here, the Release documents [***50]  submitted by the parties consisted of two pages. As argued by defendant, the first page was separated into two equal parts. The top portion was labeled “Registration Form” and included several blank spaces for basic guest information. The bottom portion of the form was labeled “RELEASE OF LIABILITY—READ BEFORE SIGINING [sic]” and was separated from the top portion of the form by a dotted line. The titles of both documents appear to be in the same font size with the title of the Release being entirely capitalized. The release information is not relegated to only the bottom portion of the form but, instead, consists of several paragraphs and occupies half of the first page. Significant language in the Release is also capitalized for emphasis. The second page of the Release documents was similarly divided into two equal parts. However, both parts of the second page pertained to Cross Country’s Release. Plaintiff signed the Cross Country Release three times, once for herself and once for each of the minors accompanying her. Further, we note that although plaintiff claims she did not read the release, she did acknowledge that she was required to sign similar documents during previous visits [***51]  to Cross Country.

 [*P90]  Here, we find the Release at issue was unambiguous and conspicuous such that it sufficiently informed plaintiff that she was releasing other individuals participating in Cross Country’s trail riding activities—including defendant—from claims arising out of their own negligence. Plaintiff expressly assumed the risks associated with her horseback riding activities at Cross Country and, through the Cross Country Release she signed, relieved defendant of any duty to protect her from injury. Given the circumstances presented, the trial court committed no error in granting defendant’s motion for summary judgment.

 [*P91]  We note plaintiff has additionally argued on appeal that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment in defendant’s favor under Missouri law because defendant’s conduct was grossly negligent. She points out that, under Missouri law, “one may never exonerate oneself from future liability for intentional  [**599]   [****717]  torts or for gross negligence, or for activities involving the public interest.” Alack, 923 S.W.2d at 337. Further, plaintiff notes that in response to defendant’s motion for summary judgment, she made the following argument: “There is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether [***52]  Defendant acted grossly negligent in participating in a group trail ride with a sizeable group, including children, on a horse she did not trust, that had kicked one person prior, while intoxicated and riding too closely to Plaintiff.”

 [*P92]  In DeCormier v. Harley-Davidson Motor Co. Group, Inc., 446 S.W.3d 668, 671 (Mo. 2014), the Missouri Supreme Court stated that it would “enforce exculpatory agreements to protect a party from liability for their own negligence” and a plaintiff could not “avoid this rule by alleging [a defendant was] grossly negligent because Missouri courts do not recognize degrees of negligence at common law.” Thus, it rejected the precise argument plaintiff has raised in this case both before the trial court and on appeal.

 [*P93]  As plaintiff notes, Missouri does recognize a separate cause of action for recklessness. Id. at 671-72.

“Conduct is in reckless disregard of another if the actor:

‘[A]ct[s] or fails to do an act which it is [the actor’s] duty to the other to do, knowing or having reason to know of facts which would lead a reasonable man to realize that the actor’s conduct not only creates an unreasonable risk of *** harm to the other but also involves a high degree of probability that substantial harm will result to [the other.]’ [Citations.]” Id. at 672.

“[R]ecklessness [***53]  is a distinct cause of action from negligence.” Throneberry v. Missouri State Highway Patrol, 526 S.W.3d 198, 208 (Mo. Ct. App. 2017). “Recklessness looks to the tortfeasor’s state of mind” and “is an aggravated form of negligence which differs in quality, rather than in degree, from ordinary lack of care.” Hatch v. V.P. Fair Foundation, Inc., 990 S.W.2d 126, 139 (Mo. Ct. App. 1999).

 [*P94]  Under the circumstances presented here, plaintiff cannot rely on a claim of recklessness to avoid enforceability of the Release, as she did not raise the claim before the trial court. SI Securities v. Bank of Edwardsville, 362 Ill. App. 3d 925, 933, 841 N.E.2d 995, 1002, 299 Ill. Dec. 263 (2005) (“Issues not raised in a complaint and points not argued in the trial court are waived on appeal.”).

 [*P95]  Additionally, the record reflects defendant raised plaintiff’s signing of the release and its express assumption of risk argument as an affirmative defense. In Missouri, “[t]o avoid an affirmative defense alleged in an answer, a plaintiff must plead specifically matters of affirmative avoidance.” Angoff v. Mersman, 917 S.W.2d 207, 211 (Mo. Ct. App. 1996); see also Warren v. Paragon Technologies Group, Inc., 950 S.W.2d 844, 845 (Mo. 1997) (stating that “[r]elease is an affirmative defense that must be pled in an answer” and once done requires a plaintiff to file a reply if he or she intends to assert an affirmative avoidance). “The plaintiff’s reply should distinctly allege the grounds of avoidance,” and “[m]atters of avoidance are not available to a party who does not plead them specifically.” Angoff, 917 S.W.2d at 211. “An affirmative [***54]  avoidance is waived if the party raising it has neglected to plead it.” Id.

 [*P96]  Here, plaintiff did not plead a cause of action based on “recklessness” either in her complaint or in responding to defendant’s answer and motion for summary judgment. As defendant points out, she also did not seek to amend her original pleading to include a claim of recklessness. Accordingly, we find plaintiff’s arguments  [**600]   [****718]  are forfeited and do not preclude summary judgment in defendant’s favor.

[*P97]  III. CONCLUSION

 [*P98]  For the reasons stated, we affirm the trial court’s judgment.

 [*P99]  Affirmed.

End of Document


Release stops lawsuit by plaintiff thrown from ATV in Pennsylvania.

Release signed 8 months earlier saved defendant.

Scott-Moncrieff v. Lost Trails, LLC, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 146936 *; 2018 WL 4110742

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

Plaintiff: Patrice Scott-Moncrieff

Defendant: The Lost Trails, LLC, d/b/a Lost Trails ATV Adventures

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: for the Defendant

Year: 2018

Summary

Year old release still valid to stop claims. Plaintiff rented ATV and signed a release. Eight months later she rented an ATV from the same defendant again but did not sign another release. The original release was enough to stop her lawsuit.

Facts

On October 20, 2013, Plaintiff visited Defendant’s ATV facility for the first time and, prior to using the facility, executed a waiver of liability. Plaintiff did not read the waiver in its entirety prior to signing it, and claims she was rushed during the process. On June 22, 2014, Plaintiff returned to the facility, at which time she alleged suffered injuries when she was thrown from the ATV she was riding.

The release the plaintiff signed had several places to initial the release which she did.

The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment and this is the response to that motion.

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

The release in this case also had an assumption of the risk clause, which the court found as valid proof the plaintiff assumed of the risk, “…within the waiver, Plaintiff specifically acknowledged that she was assuming all of the risks associated with these activities.”

The plaintiff argued the release was void because:

Plaintiff argues that Plaintiff did not sign a waiver on the date of the accident, and therefore did not waive any liability or assume any risk; that she was rushed and unable to read the original waiver in its entirety; that the waiver is unenforceable as not properly conspicuous; and finally, that because the earlier waiver signed by Plaintiff was “for all time thereafter” it should not be enforced.

The court then reviewed the requirements for a release, an exculpatory clause in a contract in Pennsylvania.

An exculpatory clause is valid if the following conditions are met: 1) the clause does not contravene public policy; 2) the contract is between parties relating entirely to their own private affairs; and 3) the contract is not one of adhesion.

A valid exculpatory clause is only enforceable if “the language of the parties is clear that a person is being relieved of liability for his own acts of negligence.”

A waiver of liability violates public policy only if it involves “a matter of interest to the public or the state. Such matters of interest to the public or the state include the employer-employee relationship, public service, public utilities, common carriers, and hospitals

Under Pennsylvania law, the release did not contravene public policy because it did not affect a matter of interest to the public or the state. Recreation is not a public interest in most states. Also, the release was between private parties and only affecting the rights to the parties to the agreement.

Pennsylvania has a three-prong test to determine if a release violates public policy, the Topp Copy standard.

The exculpatory clause at issue in this case does not contravene public policy because it does not affect a matter of interest to the public or the state. See Kotovsky, 603 A.2d at 665-66 (holding that releases did not violate public policy because “[t]hey were [in] contracts between private parties and pertained only to the parties’ private rights. They did not in any way affect the rights of the public.”). Thus, the exculpatory clause meets the first two prongs of the Topp Copy standard for validity.

The contract meets the third prong of the Topp Copy validity standard because it is not a contract of adhesion. Agreements to participate in “voluntary sporting or recreational activities” are not contracts of adhesion because “[t]he signer is a free agent who can simply walk away without signing the release and participating in the activity, and thus the contract signed under such circumstances is not unconscionable.”

The court went on to define a contract of adhesion is a contract where the signor has no other choice but to sign the agreement.

“The signer is under no compulsion, economic or otherwise, to participate, much less to sign the exculpatory agreement, because it does not relate to essential services, but merely governs a voluntary recreational activity.” The Agreement at issue here is not a contract of adhesion because it is a contract to participate in voluntary recreational activities. The Agreement does not relate to an essential service, and Plaintiff was free to engage in the activity, or not, as she wished. She was under no compulsion to do so.

The court then went on to determine if the release was enforceable under Pennsylvania law, meaning that was the language sufficient to give notice to the parties of what they were doing. The agreement must relieve a party for the liability of their own negligence. To determine if the release was enforceable the court must determine if:

1) the contract language must be construed strictly, since exculpatory language is not favored by the law; 2) the contract must state the intention of the parties with the greatest particularity, beyond doubt by express stipulation, and no inference from words of general import can establish the intent of the parties; 3) the language of the contract must be construed, in cases of ambiguity, against the party seeking immunity from liability; and 4) the burden of establishing the immunity is upon the party invoking protection under the clause.

Here the court found the language was sufficient and the agreement was valid.

The plaintiff then argued that the release should not be held against her because she did not sign the release on the day she was injured. She found the defendant had a policy that all persons must sign the release each time they came to the defendant. This policy was discovered by questioning a maintenance man that had been terminated.

Plaintiff submits that the waiver she executed in October 2013 did not apply to her visit to Defendant on June 22, 2014, because “it is uncontroverted that the Defendant has a policy that dictates all riders must sign a waiver every time they ride an ATV at their park” and Plaintiff did not sign a waiver when she visited the park in June 2014.

The court found the testimony of the maintenance man had no bearing on the case. He was not working for the defendant at the time of the accident, he was not involved in getting releases signed when he did work for the defendant and he did not represent nor was he acting on behalf of the defendant.

The release signed by the plaintiff on her first trip to the defendant’s business was still valid. The release stated it was to remain binding “for all time thereafter.”

The court did not seem to care that even if the policy had been in place it did not matter because the plaintiff signed a release that was still in force.

Here, the language of the waiver form is unequivocal in stating the intent that it is binding for all time thereafter. As the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has stated,

The word “all” needs no definition; it includes everything, and excludes nothing. There is no more comprehensive word in the language, and as used here it is obviously broad enough to cover liability for negligence. If it had been the intention of the parties to exclude negligent acts they would have so written in the agreement. This paragraph of the lease is clear and unambiguous. No rules of construction are required to ascertain the intention of the parties.

The court found the release executive by the plaintiff on her first trip was valid to prevent the lawsuit when she was injured on her second trip.

Then the plaintiff argued she was rushed and unable to read the first release she signed. The court quickly shot that argument down.

One who is about to sign a contract has a duty to read that contract. In the absence of fraud, the failure to read a contract before signing it is “an unavailing excuse or defense and cannot justify an avoidance, modification or nullification of the contract.”

Finally, the plaintiff argued the release not “properly conspicuous.” This was based on language a Pennsylvania court used to void a “release” on the back of a lift ticket because it was not conspicuous. Since this release was found within a contract, signed by the plaintiff that argument also failed.

Even if those conspicuity requirements applied, however the exculpatory clauses in the Waiver Form would still be enforceable. The document is titled, in larger font, bold, underlined, and all capital letters “LOST TRAILS ATV ADVENTURES WAIVER FORM.” The language specifically indicating release and discharge, assumption of the risk, an agreement not to sue, and indemnification, are set of in all capitals in the numbered paragraphs, and were acknowledged by Plaintiff initialing each paragraph.

The release was upheld and the case was dismissed.

So Now What?

This seems like the same old person gets hurt recreating and tries stupid ways to get out of the consequences of signing a release. And to a major extent it is. However, there are a few interesting issues.

Courts are less likely to enforce a release for activities involving motors, unless NASCAR is big in your state. Add an engine to recreation and some courts think differently.

The second is the use of a release signed by the plaintiff prior to the date of her injury. Your release should always be written so there is no date for the agreement to terminate. Having the person sign a release each time they use your facilities is good. Handing the court a dozen releases signed on different dates proves the plaintiff had plenty of time to read and understand the release and assumed the risk of the activity.

But making sure your release is valid for more than that date and time is critical. First a release good for a specific time frame may be out of date when it is needed to stop a lawsuit in court. Second, you never know when someone will slip through the system and not sign the release and get hurt. Finally, you could lose the release you need. Granted there are ways to get lost documents admitted into court, however, it is much easier to present the court with a signed release that covers the incident no matter when the release was signed or the incident occurred.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Scott-Moncrieff v. Lost Trails, LLC, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 146936; 2018 WL 4110742

 

Scott-Moncrieff v. Lost Trails, LLC

 

, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 146936 *; 2018 WL 4110742

United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania

August 29, 2018, Decided; August 29, 2018, Filed

CIVIL ACTION NO. 3:16-CV-1105

Reporter

2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 146936 *; 2018 WL 4110742

PATRICE SCOTT-MONCRIEFF, Plaintiff v. THE LOST TRAILS, LLC, et al, Defendants

Subsequent History: Appeal filed, 09/13/2018

Counsel:  [*1] For Patrice Scott-Moncrieff, Plaintiff: James W. Sutton, III, LEAD ATTORNEY, LAW OFFICES OF VIASAC & SHMARUK, FEASTERVILLE, PA.

For The Lost Trails, LLC, d/b/a Lost Trails ATV Adventures, Defendant, Cross Claimant, Cross Defendant: John T. McGrath, Jr., Marshall, Dennehey, Warner, Coleman & Goggin, Scranton, PA; Michael J. Connolly, Moosic, PA.

Judges: KAROLINE MEHALCHICK, United States Magistrate Judge.

Opinion by: KAROLINE MEHALCHICK

Opinion

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Before the Court is a motion for summary judgment filed by Defendant, The Lost Trails, LLC (“Lost Trails”) in this matter. The motion (Doc. 50) was filed on November 14, 2017, together with a brief in support (Doc. 52), and Statement of Facts (Doc. 53). Plaintiff, Patrice Scott-Moncrieff, filed a brief in opposition (Doc. 54) on November 28, 2017, a reply brief (Doc. 55) was filed on December 6, 2017, and a sur reply brief (Doc. 62) was filed on January 17, 2018. This motion is ripe for disposition. For the following reasons, the Court will grant the motion for summary judgment.

I. Factual Background and Procedural History

The factual background is taken from Defendant’s Statements of Undisputed Material Facts (Doc. 53). Where the parties dispute certain facts, [*2]  those disputes are noted. In addition, the facts have been taken in the light most favorable to the plaintiff as the non-moving party, with all reasonable inferences drawn in her favor. This is in accordance with the Local Rules of this Court, which state, in pertinent part, as follows:

LR 56.1 Motions for Summary Judgment.

A motion for summary judgment filed pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P.56, shall be accompanied by a separate, short and concise statement of the material facts, in numbered paragraphs, as to which the moving party contends there is no genuine issue to be tried.

The papers opposing a motion for summary judgment shall include a separate, short and concise statement of the material facts, responding to the numbered paragraphs set forth in the statement required in the foregoing paragraph, as to which it is contended that there exists a genuine issue to be tried.

Statements of material facts in support of, or in opposition to, a motion shall include references to the parts of the record that support the statements.

All material facts set forth in the statement required to be served by the moving party will be deemed to be admitted unless controverted by the statement required to be served by the opposing [*3]  party.

Local Rule 56.1 (emphasis added).

To comply with Local Rule 56.1, Plaintiff should (1) clearly and unequivocally admit or deny whether each fact contained in Defendant’s statement of facts is undisputed and/or material, (2) set forth the basis for any denial if any fact is not admitted in its entirety, and (3) provide a citation to the record that supports any such denial. Occhipinti v. Bauer, No. 3:13-CV-1875, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 136082, 2016 WL 5844327, at *3 (M.D. Pa. Sept. 30, 2016); Park v. Veasie, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 50682, 2011 WL 1831708, *4 (M.D. Pa. 2011). As such, where Plaintiff disputes a fact set forth by Defendant, but fails to provide a citation to the record supporting their denial, that fact will be deemed to be admitted. “Unsupported assertions, conclusory allegations, or mere suspicions” are insufficient to overcome a motion for summary judgment. Schaar v. Lehigh Valley Health Servs., Inc., 732 F.Supp.2d 490, 493 (E.D.Pa. 2010). In this matter, Plaintiff, though including a statement of fact in her brief in opposition to Defendant’s motion for summary judgment (Doc. 54), does not comply with the local rules and submit a separate statement of material facts in opposition to Defendant’s statement of material facts. Notably, despite being given the opportunity to file a sur-reply brief in this matter, after Defendant raises the issue of Plaintiff’s failure to file a statement of facts in its Reply Brief (Doc. 55), Plaintiff still [*4]  did not file a separate statement of fact. As such, the facts set forth in Defendant’s statement of material facts will be deemed admitted.

On October 20, 2013, Plaintiff visited Defendant’s ATV facility for the first time and, prior to using the facility, executed a waiver of liability. (Doc. 50-2, at 4-5; DOC. 53, AT ¶¶ 5, 9). Plaintiff did not read the waiver in its entirety prior to signing it, and claims she was rushed during the process. (Doc. 53, at ¶ 7; Doc. 50-2, at 71). On June 22, 2014, Plaintiff returned to the facility, at which time she alleged suffered injuries when she was thrown from the ATV she was riding. (Doc. 1).

The release from liability signed by Plaintiff on October 20, 2013 reads, in pertinent part, as follows:

In consideration for the opportunity for event participation and utilization of general admission, all facilities, equipment and premises of Lost Trails, LLC (LT), North American Warhorse Inc, (NAW) Theta Land Corp. (TLC), 1000 Dunham Drive LLC (DD), and their respective affiliates, members, agents, employees, heirs and assigns and other associates in furtherance of the sport of Off-Road Riding, racing and any other activities, scheduled or unscheduled, [*5]  (hereinafter collectively called “Off-Roading.”) This Waiver shall commence on the date first signed and shall remain binding for all time thereafter.

By signing this document, I hereby understand and agree for me and/or my minor child to this Release of Liability, Wavier of Legal rights and Assumption of Risk and to the terms hereof as follows:


2. I hereby RELEASE AND DISCHARGE LT, NAW, TLC, DD and all related parties, event volunteers, company officers, directors, elected officials, agents, employees, and owners of equipment, the land used for Off-Roading activities and any owners of adjourning lands to the premises (hereinafter collectively referred to as “Released parties”) from any and all liability claims, demands or causes of action that I, my minor child or my representatives and my heirs may hereafter have for injuries, loss of life, and all other forms of damages arising out of my voluntary participation in Off-Roading activities.

3. I understand and acknowledge that Off-Road riding and racing activities have inherent dangers that no amount of care, caution, instruction or expertise can eliminate and I EXPRESSLY AND VOLUNTARILY ASSUME ALL RISK OF DEATH OR PERSONAL INJURY [*6]  OR OTHER FORMS OF DAMAGES SUSTAINED WHILE PARTICIPATING IN OFF-ROADING ACTIVITIES WHETHER OR NOT CAUSED BY THE NEGLIGENCE OF THE RELEASE PARTIES.

4. I further agree that I WILL NOT SUE OR OTHERWISE MAKE A CLAIM on behalf of me and/or on behalf of my minor child, against the Released Parties for damages or other losses sustained as a result of my participation in Off-Roading activities.

5. I also agree to INDEMNIFY AND HOLD THE RELEASED PARTIES HARMLESS from all claims, judgments and costs, including attorneys’ fees, incurred in the connection with any action brought against them, jointly or severally, as a result of my or my minor child’s participation in “Off-Roading” activities.

6. I take full responsibility for, and hold harmless Released Parties for any injury, property damage, or death that I or my minor child may suffer or inflict upon others .or their property as a result of my engaging in Off-Roading activities.

7. I further represent that I am at least 18 years of age, or that as the parent or (adult) legal guardian, I waive and release any and all legal rights that may accrue to me, to my minor child or to the minor child for whom I am (adult) legal guardian, as the result of [*7]  any injury or damage that my minor child, the minor child for whom I am (adult) legal guardian, or I may suffer while engaging in Off-Roading activities.

8. I hereby expressly recognize that this Release of Liability, Waiver of Legal Rights and Assumption of Risks is a contract pursuant to which I have released any and all claims against the Released Parties resulting from participation in Off-Roading activities including any claims related to the negligence of the Released Parties by any of the undersigned.

9. I further expressly agree that the foregoing Release of Liability, Waiver of Legal Rights and Assumption of Risks is intended to be as broad and inclusive as is permitted by law of the province or state in which services, materials and/or equipment are provided and the course of business is conducted, and that if any portion thereof is held invalid, it is agreed that the balance shall, notwithstanding, continue in full legal force and effect. I agree that, should any claim or action arise from my participation as described herein, including any issue as to the applicability of this Release or any provision contained within it, proper Jurisdiction and Venue will lie only in Monroe [*8]  County, Pennsylvania and I waive Jurisdiction and Venue anywhere else.

(Doc. 54-1, at 20-21).

Plaintiff initialed all of the above provisions. She did not initial paragraph 10 on the next page, however, which states as follows:

l0. Having had ample time and opportunity to raise any concerns or questions that I may have, and having read and understood the information, I certify my acceptance of the aforementioned provisions by signing below.

I am in good health and physical condition. I am voluntarily participating with knowledge that dangers are involved and agree to assume all risks. I also understand that if I am injured or become ill, I agree that Lost Trails LLC, or any of its employees, volunteers or guests will not be held liable should they render medical assistance to me or my minor child.

(Doc. 54-1, at 21).

Despite not specifically initialing paragraph 10, Plaintiff did sign the agreement, indicating her acceptance and understanding of the exculpatory clauses. (Doc. 54-1).

II. Legal Standard

Under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment should be granted only if “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). A fact is “material” only [*9]  if it might affect the outcome of the case. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986). A dispute of material fact is “genuine” if the evidence “is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. In deciding a summary judgment motion, all inferences “should be drawn in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, and where the non-moving party’s evidence contradicts the movant’s, then the non-movant’s must be taken as true.” Pastore v. Bell Tel. Co. of Pa., 24 F.3d 508, 512 (3d Cir. 1994).

A federal court should grant summary judgment “if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Farrell v. Planters Lifesavers Co., 206 F.3d 271, 278 (3d Cir. 2000). In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the court’s function is not to make credibility determinations, weigh evidence, or draw inferences from the facts. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. Rather, the court must simply “determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249.

The party seeking summary judgment “bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion,” and demonstrating the absence of a genuine dispute of any material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). If the movant makes [*10]  such a showing, the non-movant must go beyond the pleadings with affidavits or declarations, answers to interrogatories or the like in order to demonstrate specific material facts which give rise to a genuine issue. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324. The non-movant must produce evidence to show the existence of every element essential to its case, which it bears the burden of proving at trial, because “a complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the nonmoving party’s case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. Furthermore, mere conclusory allegations and self-serving testimony, whether made in the complaint or a sworn statement, cannot be used to obtain or avoid summary judgment when uncorroborated and contradicted by other evidence of record. See Lujan v. Nat’l Wildlife Fed’n, 497 U.S. 871, 888, 110 S. Ct. 3177, 111 L. Ed. 2d 695 (1990); see also Thomas v. Delaware State Univ., 626 F. App’x 384, 389 n.6 (3d Cir. 2015) (not precedential) (“[U]nsupported deposition testimony, which is contradicted by the record, is insufficient to defeat summary judgment.”); NLRB v. FES, 301 F.3d 83, 95 (3d Cir. 2002) (“[The plaintiff’s] testimony . . . amounts to an unsupported, conclusory assertion, which we have held is inadequate to satisfy the movant’s burden of proof on summary judgment.”).

As this jurisdiction of this Court is sounded in the diversity of the parties pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a), Pennsylvania substantive [*11]  law will apply. Erie R. Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 58 S.Ct. 817, 82 L.Ed. 1188 (1938).

III. Discussion

Defendant submits that it is entitled to judgment in its favor because Plaintiff executed a valid waiver of all liability prior to ever engaging in any recreational activities on Defendant’s property; because such releases and waivers are recognized under Pennsylvania law; and because within the waiver, Plaintiff specifically acknowledged that she was assuming all of the risks associated with these activities. (Doc. 52, at 2). In response, Plaintiff argues that Plaintiff did not sign a waiver on the date of the accident, and therefore did not waive any liability or assume any risk; that she was rushed and unable to read the original waiver in its entirety; that the waiver is unenforceable as not properly conspicuous; and finally, that because the earlier waiver signed by Plaintiff was “for all time thereafter” it should not be enforced. (Doc. 54).

A. The Exculpatory Clause is Valid

An exculpatory clause is valid if the following conditions are met: 1) the clause does not contravene public policy; 2) the contract is between parties relating entirely to their own private affairs; and 3) the contract is not one of adhesion. Evans v. Fitness & Sports Clubs, LLC, No. CV 15-4095, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133490, 2016 WL 5404464, at *3 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 28, 2016); [*12] 
Topp Copy Prods., Inc. v. Singletary, 533 Pa. 468, 626 A.2d 98, 99 (Pa. 1993). A valid exculpatory clause is only enforceable if “the language of the parties is clear that a person is being relieved of liability for his own acts of negligence.” Id. A waiver of liability violates public policy only if it involves “a matter of interest to the public or the state. Such matters of interest to the public or the state include the employer-employee relationship, public service, public utilities, common carriers, and hospitals.” Seaton v. E. Windsor Speedway, Inc., 400 Pa. Super. 134, 582 A.2d 1380, 1382 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1990); see also Kotovsky v. Ski Liberty Operating Corp., 412 Pa. Super. 442, 603 A.2d 663, 665 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1992). The exculpatory clause at issue in this case does not contravene public policy because it does not affect a matter of interest to the public or the state. See Kotovsky, 603 A.2d at 665-66 (holding that releases did not violate public policy because “[t]hey were [in] contracts between private parties and pertained only to the parties’ private rights. They did not in any way affect the rights of the public.”). Thus, the exculpatory clause meets the first two prongs of the Topp Copy standard for validity.

The contract meets the third prong of the Topp Copy validity standard because it is not a contract of adhesion. Agreements to participate in “voluntary sporting or recreational activities” are not contracts of adhesion because “[t]he signer is a free agent [*13]  who can simply walk away without signing the release and participating in the activity, and thus the contract signed under such circumstances is not unconscionable.” Chepkevich v. Hidden Valley Resort, L.P., 607 Pa. 1, 2 A.3d 1174, 1190-91 (Pa. 2010). “The signer is under no compulsion, economic or otherwise, to participate, much less to sign the exculpatory agreement, because it does not relate to essential services, but merely governs a voluntary recreational activity.” Id. The Agreement at issue here is not a contract of adhesion because it is a contract to participate in voluntary recreational activities. The Agreement does not relate to an essential service, and Plaintiff was free to engage in the activity, or not, as she wished. She was under no compulsion to do so. See Chepkevich, supra; see also Hinkal v. Pardoe, 2016 PA Super 11, 133 A.3d 738, 741-2 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2016) (en banc), appeal denied, 636 Pa. 650, 141 A.3d 481 (Pa. 2016) (citing the “thorough and well-reasoned opinion” of the trial court, which held that the plaintiff’s gym membership agreement was not a contract of adhesion because exercising at a gym is a voluntary recreational activity and the plaintiff was under no compulsion to join the gym). The Agreement meets all three prongs of the Topp Copy standard for validity, and thus the exculpatory clause is facially valid.

B. The Exculpatory Clause is Enforceable

Even if an exculpatory clause is [*14]  facially valid, it is enforceable only if it clearly relieves a party of liability for its own negligence. Evans v. Fitness & Sports Clubs, LLC, No. CV 15-4095, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133490, 2016 WL 5404464, at *5 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 28, 2016). The following standards guide a court’s determination of the enforceability of an exculpatory clause:

1) the contract language must be construed strictly, since exculpatory language is not favored by the law; 2) the contract must state the intention of the parties with the greatest particularity, beyond doubt by express stipulation, and no inference from words of general import can establish the intent of the parties; 3) the language of the contract must be construed, in cases of ambiguity, against the party seeking immunity from liability; and 4) the burden of establishing the immunity is upon the party invoking protection under the clause.

Topp Copy, 626 A.2d at 99.

The Court now turns to Plaintiff’s arguments against the enforceability of the exculpatory clause.

1. Plaintiff’s first waiver is enforceable, including the clause “for all time thereafter.”

Plaintiff submits that the waiver she executed in October 2013 did not apply to her visit to Defendant on June 22, 2014, because “it is uncontroverted that the Defendant has a policy that dictates all [*15]  riders must sign a waiver every time they ride an ATV at their park” (Doc. 54, at 4), and Plaintiff did not sign a waiver when she visited the park in June 2014. Defendant counters that Plaintiff is misconstruing the record in making this assertion. (Doc. 55, at 2). Specifically, Defendant submits that the testimony cited by Plaintiff is that of a former maintenance man who has nothing to do with policy or procedure at Defendant’s property, and further, that he neither testifying as a representative of, nor acting on behalf of, Lost Trails, LLC. (Doc. 55-1, at 4). The testimony offered by the Plaintiff on this issue is that of Matthew Anneman, who testified as follows:

Q: Everybody that goes there is supposed sign the waiver before they go out on the trails, is that fair to say?

A: Yes.

Q: Do you know if Miss Moncrieff signed a waiver before she went on the trail that day?

A: Yes. It is imperative that everybody who comes to ride on that mountain is to fill out a waiver.


Q: So every single time somebody comes to the facility, before they go out there, they go in and sign a waiver.

A: Yes.

Q: And you’re not involved in that part of it, the sign in, and the waiver.

A: No, no. Leslie or one [*16]  of her employees would work the front desk.

(Doc. 54-1, at 12; Anneman Dep. at 36).

The Court finds this testimony to have little to no bearing on the validity and applicability of the October 2013 waiver. Even construing the evidence in the record in Plaintiff’s favor, Mr. Anneman’s testimony does not change the fact Plaintiff did sign a waiver in October 2013, one which indicated that it “shall remain binding for all time thereafter.” (Doc. 54-1, at 20) (emphasis added). Nothing in the record before the Court indicates that Mr. Anneman was responsible for either policy at Defendant’s facility, or in any way even involved with the waiver process. Further, the language of the waiver is clear. In interpreting the language of a contract, courts attempt to ascertain the intent of the parties and give it effect. Sycamore Rest. Grp., LLC v. Stampfi Hartke Assocs., LLC, 2017 Pa. Super. 221, 174 A.3d 651, 656 (2017); LJL Transp., Inc. v. Pilot Air Freight Corp., 599 Pa. 546, 962 A.2d 639, 648 (2009). When a writing is clear and unequivocal, its meaning must be determined by its contents alone. Synthes USA Sales, LLC v. Harrison, 2013 Pa. Super. 324, 83 A.3d 242, 250-51 (2013); Murphy v. Duquesne Univ. of the Holy Ghost, 565 Pa. 571, 591, 777 A.2d 418, 429 (2001) (citations and quotation marks omitted). “[I]t is not the function of this Court to re-write it, or to give it a construction in conflict with … the accepted and plain meaning of the language used.” Id.; citing Robert F. Felte, Inc. v. White, 451 Pa. 137, 144, 302 A.2d 347, 351 (1973) (citation omitted). Here, the language of the waiver form (Doc. 54-1, [*17]  at 20) is unequivocal in stating the intent that it is binding for all time thereafter. As the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has stated,

The word “all” needs no definition; it includes everything, and excludes nothing. There is no more comprehensive word in the language, and as used here it is obviously broad enough to cover liability for negligence. If it had been the intention of the parties to exclude negligent acts they would have so written in the agreement. This paragraph of the lease is clear and unambiguous. No rules of construction are required to ascertain the intention of the parties.

Topp Copy Prods. v. Singletary, 533 Pa. 468, 472, 626 A.2d 98, 100 (1993); citing Cannon v. Bresch, 307 Pa. 31, 34, 160 A. 595, 596 (1932).

As such, the Court finds that the October 2013 waiver executed by Plaintiff was in effect during her June 2014 visit to Defendant’s property.1

2. Plaintiff’s argument that she was rushed and unable to read the original waiver in its entirety is without merit.

Plaintiff next argues that, should the Court find that the 2013 waiver was in effect in June 2014, she was rushed and therefore did not have time to read the waiver before signing it. “The law of Pennsylvania is clear. One who is about to sign a contract has a duty to read that contract [*18]  first.” Hinkal v. Pardoe, 2016 Pa. Super. 11, 133 A.3d 738, 743, appeal denied, 636 Pa. 650, 141 A.3d 481 (2016); In re Estate of Boardman, 2013 PA Super 300, 80 A.3d 820, 823 (Pa.Super.2013); citing Schillachi v. Flying Dutchman Motorcycle Club, 751 F.Supp. 1169, 1174 (E.D.Pa.1990) (citations omitted). In the absence of fraud, the failure to read a contract before signing it is “an unavailing excuse or defense and cannot justify an avoidance, modification or nullification of the contract.” Germantown Sav. Bank v. Talacki, 441 Pa.Super. 513, 657 A.2d 1285, 1289 (1995) (citing Standard Venetian Blind Co. v. American Emp. Ins. Co., 503 Pa. 300, 469 A.2d 563, 566 note (1983)); see also Wroblewski v. Ohiopyle Trading Post, Inc., No. CIV.A. 12-0780, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 119206, 2013 WL 4504448, at *7 (W.D. Pa. Aug. 22, 2013) (Under Pennsylvania law, the failure to read a contract does not nullify the contract’s validity.); Arce v. U-Pull-It Auto Parts, Inc., No. 06-5593, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10202, 2008 WL 375159, at *5-9 (E.D.Pa. Feb.11, 2008) (written release found to be enforceable even when the agreement was in English but the plaintiff only read and spoke Spanish, noting that the “[p]laintiff cannot argue that the release language was inconspicuous or somehow hidden from his attention…. Nor did Defendant have an obligation to verify that [p]laintiff had read and fully understood the terms of the document before he signed his name to it.”). In this case, there is no allegation or evidence of fraud, and as such, Plaintiff’s argument is without merit.

3. The waiver is properly conspicuous.

Finally, Plaintiff avers that summary judgment should be denied because the waiver was not properly conspicuous, and relies on the Pennsylvania Superior Court’s decision in Beck-Hummel in making [*19]  this assertion. The Beck-Hummel court addressed the enforceability of a waiver of liability printed on the back of a tubing ticket. The exculpatory language appeared in a font that was “just barely readable,” and smaller than the font used for some other portions of the ticket. Id. at 1274-75. The Beck-Hummel court looked to the conspicuousness of the waiver of liability as a means of establishing whether or not a contract existed, setting forth three factors to consider in determining conspicuousness: 1) the waiver’s placement in the document; 2) the size of the waiver’s font; and 3) whether the waiver was highlighted by being printed in all capital letters or a different font or color from the remainder of the text. Beck-Hummel, 902 A.2d at 1274. After considering these factors, the Beck-Hummel court could not conclude as a matter of law that the exculpatory clause was enforceable because the language of the ticket was not sufficiently conspicuous as to put the purchaser/user on notice of the waiver. Id.at 1275.

However, in a more recent Pennsylvania Superior Court case, the court held that, as in the case presently before this Court, where the exculpatory clause was part of a signed contract between the parties, the requirements of [*20]  conspicuity set forth in Beck-Hummel would not necessarily apply. In Hinkal v. Pardoe, the en banc Superior Court of Pennsylvania examined whether the Beck-Hummel conspicuity requirements for the enforcement of exculpatory clauses applies to signed valid written contracts. Hinkal v. Pardoe, 2016 Pa. Super. 11, 133 A.3d 738, 743-745, appeal denied, 636 Pa. 650, 141 A.3d 481 (2016). In Hinkal, the plaintiff had signed a membership agreement with Gold’s Gym that contained a waiver of liability for negligence claims on the back page. Id. at 741. The Hinkal court found the plaintiff’s comparison of her case to Beck-Hummel “inapposite” because, unlike a waiver printed on the back of a tubing ticket that did not require a signature; the gym waiver was part of a signed agreement. Id. at 744-45. Further, the court noted that conspicuity is generally not required to establish the formation of a contract, but “has been resorted to as a means of proving the existence or lack of a contract,” where it is unclear whether a meeting of the minds occurred, and imposing such a requirement would allow a properly executed contract to be set aside through one party’s failure to do what the law requires – reading a contract. Id. at 745. The Hinkal court concluded that the waiver of liability was valid and enforceable because [*21]  the plaintiff had signed the agreement. Similarly, in Evans v. Fitness & Sports Clubs, LLC, the District Court determined that the exculpatory clauses contained in a fitness club’s membership agreements were valid and enforceable where the plaintiff had signed both a membership and personal training agreement, including an acknowledgement that the plaintiff had read and understood the entire agreement, including the release and waiver of liability, appears directly above the plaintiff’s signature on the first page of each agreement. Evans v. Fitness & Sports Clubs, LLC, No. CV 15-4095, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133490, 2016 WL 5404464, at *6 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 28, 2016).

The Court finds the agreement at issue in this case to be far more in line with the waivers discussed by the Pennsylvania Superior and Eastern District of Pennsylvania courts in Hinkal and Evans. The waiver form in this case was two pages in length, and initialed and signed by Plaintiff. It was not, like the waiver in Beck-Hummel, printed in small font on the back of a tubing ticket. This was a waiver that was reviewed, initialed and signed by Plaintiff. As such, the requirements of conspicuity set forth in Beck-Hummel would not necessarily apply. Hinkal v. Pardoe, 133 A.3d at 743-745.

Even if those conspicuity requirements applied, however [*22]  the exculpatory clauses in the Waiver Form would still be enforceable. The document is titled, in larger font, bold, underlined, and all capital letters “LOST TRAILS ATV ADVENTURES WAIVER FORM.” The language specifically indicating release and discharge, assumption of the risk, an agreement not to sue, and indemnification, are set of in all capitals in the numbered paragraphs, and were acknowledged by Plaintiff initialing each paragraph. (Doc. 54-1, at 20). Immediately above the signature line, in all capital bold letters, the release reads:

I HAVE READ THIS RELEASE OF LIABILITY, WAIVER OF LEGAL RIGHTS AND ASSUMPTIONS OF RISK AND FULLY UNDERSTAND ITS CONTENTS. I SIGN IT WILLINGLY, VOLUNTARILY AND HAVING HAD AMPLE OPPORTUNITY TO RAISE ANY QUESTIONS OR CONCERNS THAT I MAY HAVE, I ACKNOWLEDGE THAT I AM PARTICIPATING VOLUNTARILY WITH KNOWLEDGE THAT DANGERS ARE INVOLVED AND I AGREE TO ASSUME ALL THE RISKS.

(Doc. 54-1, at 21).

These clauses are conspicuously set apart, appearing in capital letters, and in the case of the final paragraph, fully set apart, in all bold and all capitals. Further, the agreement itself is titled “Waiver Form” which notifies the reader of the purpose of the form. [*23]  Plaintiff initialed the paragraphs setting forth the exculpatory clauses,2 and signed the agreement directly underneath the final, most prominent waiver clause. As such, the Court finds that the exculpatory clauses are valid and enforceable. See Evans, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133490, 2016 WL 5404464, at n. 6.

IV. Conclusion

For the reasons set forth above, the undisputed material facts in the record establish that Defendant is entitled to summary judgment. Viewing the record in light most favorable to the Plaintiff, the Court finds that the exculpatory clauses at issue are valid and enforceable. As such, Defendant’s motion will be granted, and judgment will be entered in favor of Defendant.

An appropriate Order follows.

Dated: August 29, 2018

/s/ Karoline Mehalchick

KAROLINE MEHALCHICK

United States Magistrate Judge

ORDER

AND NOW, this 29th day of August, 2018, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that for the reasons set forth in the memorandum filed concurrently with this Order, Defendant’s motion for summary judgment (Doc. 50) is GRANTED, and judgment is entered in favor of Defendant. The Clerk of Court is directed to CLOSE this matter.

BY THE COURT:

Dated: August 29, 2018

/s/ Karoline Mehalchick

KAROLINE MEHALCHICK

United States Magistrate Judge

End of Document


New Jersey holds that if you signed the release, you are held to its terms even if you cannot read English.

There was a ton of issues that in many states might have voided the release, 8 pt font, missing initial and the plaintiff not understanding English were just a few of them.

Citation: Kang v. LA Fitness, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 179934, 2016 WL 7476354

State: New Jersey, United States District Court, D. New Jersey

Plaintiff: Soon Ja Kang

Defendant: LA Fitness, LA Fitness of South Plainfield, John Does 1-5, et al.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: for the Defendant

Year: 2016

Summary

If you sign the membership agreement containing a release in New Jersey, you are held to the terms of the release, even if you can’t speak or read English. Plaintiff could not read or speak English, signed LA Fitness membership agreement and could not sue after she was injured on a piece of equipment.

Facts

Fitness International, LLC d/b/a LA Fitness (incorrectly designated as LA Fitness of South Plainfield) (“LA Fitness”) operates a fitness facility located in Piscataway, NJ. See Final Pretrial Order Stipulation of Facts. On December 30, 2013, plaintiff Soon Ja Kang went to LA Fitness with her husband to sign up for membership.

On December 31, 2013, Kang was injured while working out on a chin/dip assist pull up machine at LA Fitness’s Piscataway location. She filed the instant action on September 29, 2014 in state court, and LA Fitness filed a notice of removal in this Court on November 14, 2014 on the basis of diversity jurisdiction. The complaint alleges that Kang was injured as a result of negligence on the part of LA Fitness. Id. Prior to completion of expert discovery, LA Fitness moved for summary judgment on the issue of whether the waiver and liability provision bars the instant action.

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

The court started its analysis by looking at the release and the injury the plaintiff suffered. The court found the injury fell within the confines of the release.

As her negligence claim for an injury allegedly sustained while using a piece of workout equipment at an LA Fitness facility clearly falls within the ambit of the liability waiver, the issue becomes whether the waiver itself is enforceable against Kang on the facts of this case.

The issue then became whether or not the release applied to someone who did not speak or read English. Releases in New Jersey are enforceable if:

…(1) it does not adversely affect the public interest; (2) the exculpated party is not under a legal duty to perform; (3) it does not involve a public utility or common carrier; or (4) the contract does not grow out of unequal bargaining power or is otherwise unconscionable.

The court throughout the third factor because the defendant was not a public utility or common carrier. The court then reviewed whether the exculpatory clause affected the public interest. The court found it did not.

[W]e are satisfied that, at least with respect to equipment being used at the club in the course of an exercise class or other athletic activity, the exculpatory agreement’s disclaimer of liability for ordinary negligence is reasonable and not offensive to public policy.

There seemed to be somewhat of a limit to the release based on the courts next comment about the reach of the release.

The Court agrees with the analysis in Stelluti and finds that the exculpatory clause here does not adversely affect the public interest, at least to the extent that it purports to exculpate LA Fitness with respect to acts or omissions amounting to ordinary negligence.

The plaintiff then argued the release violates the New Jersey Plain Language Act. N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:12-2. The act requires a consumer contract to be “written in a simple, clear, understandable and easily readable way.”

The plaintiff then argued the act was violated because the print size (font) was 8 points, and the margins of the paper were .5″ “reflecting the intentions of the drafter to squeeze in additional words.”

Reviewing examples of bad language found in the act, the court determined the release did not violate the Plain Language Act.

Reviewing Kang’s membership agreement in light of the above guidelines, the Court finds that the waiver provision does not violate the New Jersey Plain Language Act. The waiver provision does not contain any cross references, nor does it contain any double negatives or exceptions to exceptions. It does not contain words with obsolete meanings, nor is it clouded by the use of Old English, Middle English, Latin or French phrases. And Kang does not argue-nor does the Court find-that the sentences of the waiver provision are set forth in a confusing or illogical order.

The next issue was there any legal duty to perform on the part of the defendant part 2 of the four requirements.

There were no state statutes or regulation’s setting standards for fitness facilities. The plaintiff argued that National Associations had created standards that applied to fitness facilities. However, the court could not find that to be valid. “However, there is no indication that these national standards apply with the force of law in New Jersey so as to constitute public policy of the state.”

The final argument was the release was unconscionable because of unequal bargaining power between the plaintiff and defendant.

Kang argues that the waiver was invalid for lack of mutual assent, based upon the following assertions: (1) Neither Kang nor her husband speaks English; (2) LA Fitness knew as much, as the Kangs’ daughter was present to translate; (3) an LA Fitness employee explained the contract duration and payment terms to the Kangs’ daughter, but did not explain the liability waiver to her; (4) only Kang’s husband was asked to initial next to the waiver provision in his membership agreement, but no one explained to him what he was initialing; and (5) no employee went over the waiver provision with Kang or her daughter.

The court did not agree with any of the plaintiffs’ arguments. And stated in clear language that the plaintiff’s inability to speak English did not stop her from becoming bound to the terms of the release.

As an initial matter, Kang’s inability to speak English does not bar her from becoming contractually bound. Notwithstanding the fact that her daughter was present to translate, New Jersey courts have unequivocally held that in the absence of fraud, one who signs an agreement is conclusively presumed to understand and assent to its terms and legal effect:

The court went on to explain that if you sign the agreement, you are bound to the terms of the agreement, whether or not you understood the agreement.

In the absence of fraud or imposition, when one fails to read a contract before signing it, the provisions are nevertheless binding, and the party is conclusively presumed to understand and assent to its terms and legal effect . . . . Even illiterate individuals have been held bound by a signed contract in the absence of misrepresentation. One who signs a document in those circumstances should know its contents or have it read (or otherwise have the contents made known) to him or her.

The final issue was the missing initial in the document. Because she had signed the agreement, the signature at the bottom of the agreement was all that was needed for the release to be valid.

Finally, the Court is not aware of, nor has Kang cited, any requirement that she must have initialed the waiver provision for that clause to be enforceable against her. While she did not initial the waiver provision, she did sign the membership agreement containing it. In the absence of fraud, that is enough to bind her to its terms.

The plaintiff then argued the release and fitness contract containing the release were unconscionable. The court summed up the plaintiffs’ unconscionable argument as an amalgamation of all of her other arguments. The court found the exculpatory clause did not offend public policy, and the other arguments for unconscionability did not change the release validity.

Kang was a layperson without any specialized knowledge of exculpatory contracts, and the Court gives her the benefit of the inference that LA Fitness did not explain the legal effect of the waiver provision to her. However, also like the defendant in Stelluti, Kang was not under any undue pressure to execute the agreement and she could have sought advice before signing. Indeed, her daughter was present to translate. As noted above, the fact that Kang does not speak English does have any legal effect on the contract’s enforceability. Thus, in accordance with Stelluti, the Court finds that although the LA Fitness membership agreement may have been offered on a “take-it-or-leave-it” basis, it is not void on the basis of unconscionability.

The motion for summary judgment of the defendant was granted the plaintiff’s claims dismissed.

So Now What?

New Jersey is another state that upholds the idea that if you sign a release, you are bound to the terms of the release no matter if you could understand the release, the type was too small; you did not read or speak English, or you just want out of the release.

At the same time, this list from my studies has only two states on it, California being the other state. See Balloon ride in California is not a common carrier, and the release signed by the plaintiff bars the plaintiff’s claims even though she did not read or speak English.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Kang v. LA Fitness, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 179934, 2016 WL 7476354

Kang v. LA Fitness, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 179934, 2016 WL 7476354

Soon Ja Kang Plaintiff,

LA Fitness, LA Fitness of South Plainfield, John Does 1-5, et al., Defendants.

Civil No. 2:14-cv-07147 (KSH) (CLW)

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

December 29, 2016

NOT FOR PUBLICATION

OPINION

Katharine S. Hayden, U.S.D.J.

Before the Court is defendants’ motion for summary judgment as to the validity and enforceability of an exculpatory clause in a fitness center membership agreement with plaintiff. For the reasons set forth below, the Court finds the liability waiver to be valid and enforceable and defendants’ motion is granted.

I. Background

Fitness International, LLC d/b/a LA Fitness (incorrectly designated as LA Fitness of South Plainfield) (“LA Fitness”) operates a fitness facility located in Piscataway, NJ. See Final Pretrial Order Stipulation of Facts (“SOF”) (D.E. 19), at ¶ 1. On December 30, 2013, plaintiff Soon Ja Kang went to LA Fitness with her husband to sign up for membership. Id. at ¶ 2. The membership agreement she signed states in relevant part:

IMPORTANT: RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABILITY AND INDEMNITY. You hereby acknowledge and agree that use by Member and/or Member’s minor children of LA Fitness’ facilities, services, equipment or premises, involves risks of injury to persons and property, including those described below, and Member assumes full responsibility for such risks. In consideration of Member and Member’s minor children being permitted to enter any facility of LA Fitness (a “Club”) for any purpose including, but not limited to, observation, use of facilities, services or equipment, or participation in any way, Member agrees to the following: Member hereby releases and holds LA Fitness, its directors, officers, employees, and agents harmless from all liability to Member, Member’s children and Member’s personal representatives, assigns, heirs, and next of kin for any loss or damage, and forever gives up any claim or demands therefore, on account of injury to Member’s person or property, including injury leading to the death of Member, whether caused by the active or passive negligence of LA Fitness or otherwise, to the fullest extent permitted by law, while Member or Member’s minor children are in, upon, or about LA Fitness’ premises or using any LA Fitness facilities, services or equipment. Member also hereby agrees to indemnify LA Fitness from any loss, liability, damage or cost LA Fitness may incur due to the presence of Member or Member’s children in, upon or about the LA Fitness premises or in any way observing or using any facilities or equipment of LA Fitness whether caused by the negligence of Member(s) or otherwise. You represent (a) that Member and Member’s minor children are in good physical condition and have no disability, illness, or other condition that could prevent Member(s) from exercising without injury or impairment of health, and (b) that Member has consulted a physician concerning an exercise program that will not risk injury to Member or impairment of Member’s health. Such risk of injury includes (but is not limited to): injuries arising from use by Member or others of exercise equipment and machines; injuries arising from participation by Member or others in supervised or unsupervised activities or programs at a Club; injuries and medical disorders arising from exercising at a Club such as heart attacks, strokes, heat stress, sprains, broken bones, and torn muscles and ligaments, among others; and accidental injuries occurring anywhere in Club dressing rooms, showers and other facilities. Member further expressly agrees that the foregoing release, waiver and indemnity agreement is intended to be as broad and inclusive as is permitted by the law of the State of New Jersey and that if any portion thereof is held invalid, it is agreed that the balance shall, notwithstanding, continue in full force and effect. Member has read this release and waiver of liability and indemnity clause, and agrees that no oral representations, statements or inducement apart from this Agreement has been made.

LA Fitness Moving Br., Exh. E (D.E. 22-7).

Kang and her husband do not read or understand English, but their daughter was present to translate for them when they signed up. See SOF, at ¶¶ 4-5. Kang signed a membership agreement. She did not initial next to the waiver and liability provision in her membership agreement; however, her husband was asked to initial next to the same provision in his membership agreement, and he did so. Id. at ¶ 6.

On December 31, 2013, Kang was injured while working out on a chin/dip assist pull up machine at LA Fitness’s Piscataway location. See SOF, at ¶¶ 2, 7. She filed the instant action on September 29, 2014 in state court, and LA Fitness filed a notice of removal in this Court on November 14, 2014 on the basis of diversity jurisdiction (D.E. 1). The complaint alleges that Kang was injured as a result of negligence on the part of LA Fitness. Id. Prior to completion of expert discovery, LA Fitness moved for summary judgment on the issue of whether the waiver and liability provision bars the instant action. The motion was fully briefed. (D.E. 22, 25, 26).

The Court makes its decision on the paper.

II. Discussion

A. Standard

Summary judgment is warranted where the moving party demonstrates that “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a), (c). The parties have conducted discovery on the circumstances surrounding the formation of Kang’s membership agreement and, as set forth in the analysis below, all facts relevant to the enforceability of the waiver provision are essentially undisputed as set forth in the Final Pretrial Order Stipulation of Facts (D.E. 19). In determining whether the waiver provision is enforceable as a matter of law, the Court “view[s] the evidence in the light most favorable to [Kang] and draw[s] all justifiable, reasonable inferences in [her] favor.” Sgro v. Bloomberg L.P., 331 F.Appx. 932, 937 (3d Cir. 2009).

B. Analysis

Pursuant to the release and waiver of liability provision in her membership agreement, Kang released and held LA Fitness harmless for all injuries she might suffer “whether caused by the active or passive negligence of LA Fitness or otherwise, ” while she was “in, upon, or about LA Fitness’ premises or using any LA Fitness facilities, services or equipment.” LA Fitness Moving Br., Exh. E (D.E. 22-7). As her negligence claim for an injury allegedly sustained while using a piece of workout equipment at an LA Fitness facility clearly falls within the ambit of the liability waiver, the issue becomes whether the waiver itself is enforceable against Kang on the facts of this case.

In Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 408 N.J.Super. 435, 454 (App. Div. 2009), aff’d, 203 N.J. 286 (2010), the New Jersey Appellate Division addressed the enforceability of exculpatory releases in fitness center membership agreements:

Such a release is enforceable only if: (1) it does not adversely affect the public interest; (2) the exculpated party is not under a legal duty to perform; (3) it does not involve a public utility or common carrier; or (4) the contract does not grow out of unequal bargaining power or is otherwise unconscionable.

Id. The third factor is inapplicable here, because LA Fitness is not a public utility or common carrier. See Kang Opp. Br., at p. 6. The Court analyzes the remaining Stelluti factors in turn.

1. Does the Exculpatory Clause Adversely Affect the Public Interest?

LA Fitness argues that the exculpatory clause in this case does not adversely affect the public interest because it is “a facility that encourages New Jersey’s public policy promoting physical fitness.” LA Fitness Moving Br., at p. 6. Noting the important policy objective of promoting public health, the Stelutti court held:

[W]e are satisfied that, at least with respect to equipment being used at the club in the course of an exercise class or other athletic activity, the exculpatory agreement’s disclaimer of liability for ordinary negligence is reasonable and not offensive to public policy.

Stelluti, 408 N.J.Super. at 459. The Court agrees with the analysis in Stelluti and finds that the exculpatory clause here does not adversely affect the public interest, at least to the extent that it purports to exculpate LA Fitness with respect to acts or omissions amounting to ordinary negligence.

Kang argues that public policy promoting physical fitness “cannot counteract the other public policy reasons that are in place to protect against improper liability waivers.” Kang Opp. Br., at p. 7. To that end, she argues that the release in this case violates the New Jersey Plain Language Act, which states that “[a] consumer contract entered into on or after the effective date of this amendatory and supplementary act shall be written in a simple, clear, understandable and easily readable way.” N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:12-2. Specifically, Kang argues that the small font size and margins in the contract are such that “[s]omeone who can read and understand English would be substantially confused by this agreement[.]” Kang Opp. Br., at p. 8.

To determine whether the waiver provision violates the Plain Language Act, the Court turns to the plain language of the act itself. Section 56:12-10 provides:

To insure that a consumer contract shall be simple, clear, understandable and easily readable, the following are examples of guidelines that a court . . . may consider in determining whether a consumer contract as a whole complies with this act:

(1) Cross references that are confusing;

(2) Sentences that are of greater length than necessary;

(3) Sentences that contain double negatives and exceptions to exceptions;

(4) Sentences and sections that are in a confusing or illogical order;

(5) The use of words with obsolete meanings or words that differ in their legal meaning from their common ordinary meaning;

(6) Frequent use of Old English and Middle English words and Latin and French phrases.

N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:12-10. Section 56:12-10 further provides:

The following are examples of guidelines that a court . . . may consider in determining whether the consumer contract as a whole complies with this act:

(1) Sections shall be logically divided and captioned;

(2) A table of contents or alphabetical index shall be used for all contracts with more than 3, 000 words;

(3) Conditions and exceptions to the main promise of the agreement shall be given equal prominence with the main promise, and shall be in at least 10 point type.

Id. A Court has discretion as to how much consideration should be given to the above-listed statutory guidelines in finding a violation of the act. See Boddy v. Cigna Prop. & Cas. Companies, 334 N.J.Super. 649, 655 (App. Div. 2000).

Reviewing Kang’s membership agreement in light of the above guidelines, the Court finds that the waiver provision does not violate the New Jersey Plain Language Act. The waiver provision does not contain any cross references, nor does it contain any double negatives or exceptions to exceptions. It does not contain words with obsolete meanings, nor is it clouded by the use of Old English, Middle English, Latin or French phrases. And Kang does not argue-nor does the Court find-that the sentences of the waiver provision are set forth in a confusing or illogical order.

Instead, Kang argues that the waiver provision violates the Plain Language Act because “[t]he size of the font (print) is about size 8, whereas the standard size used in everyday documents is size 12[, ]” and because “[t]he margins on the sides of the pages are about 0.5 inch . . . reflecting the intentions of the drafter to squeeze in additional words.” Kang Opp. Br., at p. 8. However, applying the above guidelines, the Court does not find that the waiver provision in this case is any less prominent that the remainder of the agreement. See N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:12-10b(3). To the contrary, the waiver and liability provision is the only clause in the membership agreement preceded by a title in all caps (“IMPORTANT: RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABILITY AND INDEMNITY”), and it is the only clause that is fully enclosed by a border, creating a visual separation between the waiver and the rest of the agreement.

The Court finds that the waiver provision in this case does not offend public policy under Stelluti and does not otherwise violate the New Jersey Plain Language Act.

2. Is LA Fitness Under a Legal Duty To Perform?

LA Fitness argues that its relationship with Kang does not create any duties prescribed by statute or regulation. See LA Fitness Moving Br., at pp. 6-8. New Jersey courts have found liability waivers to be invalid as against public policy where they conflict with legislatively imposed duties. For example, in Hy-Grade Oil Co. v. New Jersey Bank, 138 N.J.Super. 112, 118 (App. Div. 1975), the court found it against public policy for a bank to exculpate itself from liability or responsibility for negligence in the performance of its function as a night depository service, in part due to the “extensive statutory regulations covering every phase of the banking business[.]” Id. at 118. Similarly, in McCarthy v. Nat’l Ass’n for Stock Car Auto Racing, Inc., 48 N.J. 539, 543 (1967), the New Jersey Supreme Court held a liability waiver invalid as against public policy because it purported to contract away safety requirements prescribed by statute dealing with motor vehicle racing. See id. at 543 (“[t]he prescribed safety requirements may not be contracted away, for if they could be the salient protective purposes of the legislation would largely be nullified”).

Kang argues that “although there are no statutes specific to fitness centers, there are several national associations that have established standards that apply to the fitness industry[.]” Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 8-9. However, there is no indication that these national standards apply with the force of law in New Jersey so as to constitute public policy of the state. Kang further argues that the Stelluti court acknowledged the well-established duties of care that New Jersey business owners owe to patrons that enter their premises. See Kang Opp. Br., at p. 8. However, as noted above in Part B.1. supra, Stelluti expressly held that fitness center liability waivers such as the one at issue here do not violate public policy at least to the extent that they exculpate for ordinary negligence. Stelluti, 408 N.J.Super. at 459. The Court finds that LA Fitness is not under any legal duty that precludes its reliance on the liability waiver in this case.

3. Does the Contract Grow Out of Unequal Bargaining Power or is it Otherwise Unconscionable?

With respect to the final Stelluti factor, Kang argues that the waiver: (1) was not the product of mutual assent; and (2) is unconscionable as a term in a contract of adhesion. See Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 10-14. The Court addresses both arguments in turn.

a. Mutual Assent

Kang argues that the waiver was invalid for lack of mutual assent, based upon the following assertions: (1) Neither Kang nor her husband speaks English; (2) LA Fitness knew as much, as the Kangs’ daughter was present to translate; (3) an LA Fitness employee explained the contract duration and payment terms to the Kangs’ daughter, but did not explain the liability waiver to her; (4) only Kang’s husband was asked to initial next to the waiver provision in his membership agreement, but no one explained to him what he was initialing; and (5) no employee went over the waiver provision with Kang or her daughter. See Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 10-11. Accordingly, Kang argues that she did not “clearly, unequivocally, and decisively surrender[ ] her rights” as is required for a valid waiver. Id. at p. 11.

The Court finds these arguments unavailing. As an initial matter, Kang’s inability to speak English does not bar her from becoming contractually bound. Notwithstanding the fact that her daughter was present to translate, New Jersey courts have unequivocally held that in the absence of fraud, one who signs an agreement is conclusively presumed to understand and assent to its terms and legal effect:

In the absence of fraud or imposition, when one fails to read a contract before signing it, the provisions are nevertheless binding, and the party is conclusively presumed to understand and assent to its terms and legal effect . . . . Even illiterate individuals have been held bound by a signed contract in the absence of misrepresentation. One who signs a document in those circumstances should know its contents or have it read (or otherwise have the contents made known) to him or her.

Statewide Realty Co. v. Fid. Mgmt. & Research Co., 259 N.J.Super. 59, 73 (Law. Div. 1992) (internal citations and quotations omitted); see also Herrera v. Twp. of S. Orange Vill., 270 N.J.Super. 417, 423, 637 (App. Div. 1993) (enforcing release agreement in the absence of fraud, notwithstanding testimony by plaintiff that she did not understand the release because she could not read English).

Under the New Jersey case law cited above, absent allegations of fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation which Kang does not make here, she is conclusively presumed to have understood and assented to the membership agreement’s terms-including the waiver-and legal effect. See Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 203 N.J. 286, 305 (2010) (“Although Stelluti argues that she did not know what she was signing, she does not claim that she signed the waiver form as the result of fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation. Therefore, the trial court was well within reason to presume that she understood the terms of the agreement . . . and the finding to that effect is unassailable.”)

Nor does the fact that LA Fitness may not have explained the waiver to her or her daughter preclude enforcement. See Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 203 N.J. 286, 301- 02 (2010) (enforcing exculpatory clause while giving plaintiff benefit of inference that “Powerhouse may not have explained to Stelluti the legal effect of the contract that released Powerhouse from liability”).

Finally, the Court is not aware of, nor has Kang cited, any requirement that she must have initialed the waiver provision for that clause to be enforceable against her. While she did not initial the waiver provision, she did sign the membership agreement containing it. In the absence of fraud, that is enough to bind her to its terms. See Statewide, 259 N.J.Super. at 73.

b. Unconscionability

Kang also argues that even if the waiver is found to be enforceable, the Court should invalidate it as a contract of adhesion. “[T]he essential nature of a contract of adhesion is that it is presented on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, commonly in a standardized printed form, without the opportunity for the ‘adhering’ party to negotiate except perhaps on a few particulars.” Rudbart v. N. Jersey Dist. Water Supply Comm’n, 127 N.J. 344, 353, 605 A.2d 681, 685 (1992). Kang’s unconscionability argument is essentially an amalgamation of all of her arguments summarized above: that as someone who does not speak English she lacked the sophistication to understand the terms to which she was agreeing, LA Fitness knew that she was in no position to understand those terms, she did not initial next to the waiver provision, the waiver is one-sided and printed on a standard form agreement, and she was not in a position to negotiate the terms of the agreement. Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 12-14.

Notably, not all contracts of adhesion are unenforceable. In Stelluti, the New Jersey Supreme Court held:

Here, Powerhouse’s agreement was a standard pre-printed form presented to Stelluti and other prospective members on a typical ‘take-it-or-leave-it basis.’ No doubt, this agreement was one of adhesion. As for the relative bargaining positions of the parties, . . . we assume that Stelluti was a layperson without any specialized knowledge about contracts generally or exculpatory ones specifically. Giving her the benefit of all inferences from the record, including that Powerhouse may not have explained to Stelluti the legal effect of the contract that released Powerhouse from liability, we nevertheless do not regard her in a classic ‘position of unequal bargaining power’ such that the contract must be voided. As the Appellate Division decision noted, Stelluti could have taken her business to another fitness club, could have found another means of exercise aside from joining a private gym, or could have thought about it and even sought advice before signing up and using the facility’s equipment. No time limitation was imposed on her ability to review and consider whether to sign the agreement. In sum, although the terms of the agreement were presented ‘as is’ to Stelluti, rendering this a fairly typical adhesion contract in its procedural aspects, we hold that the agreement was not void based on any notion of procedural unconscionability.

Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 203 N.J. 286, 301-02 (2010).

Like the defendant in Stelluti, Kang was a layperson without any specialized knowledge of exculpatory contracts, and the Court gives her the benefit of the inference that LA Fitness did not explain the legal effect of the waiver provision to her. However, also like the defendant in Stelluti, Kang was not under any undue pressure to execute the agreement and she could have sought advice before signing. Indeed, her daughter was present to translate. As noted above, the fact that Kang does not speak English does have any legal effect on the contract’s enforceability. Thus, in accordance with Stelluti, the Court finds that although the LA Fitness membership agreement may have been offered on a “take-it-or-leave-it” basis, it is not void on the basis of unconscionability.

Because the exculpatory clause does not offend public policy, the Court finds it to be valid and enforceable. Accordingly, LA Fitness’s motion for summary judgment is granted.

III. Conclusion

For the foregoing reasons, defendants’ motion for summary judgment is granted, and the clerk of the court is direct to close this case. An accompanying Order will be filed.


Kang v. LA Fitness, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 179934, 2016 WL 7476354

Kang v. LA Fitness, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 179934, 2016 WL 7476354

Soon Ja Kang Plaintiff,

LA Fitness, LA Fitness of South Plainfield, John Does 1-5, et al., Defendants.

Civil No. 2:14-cv-07147 (KSH) (CLW)

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

December 29, 2016

NOT FOR PUBLICATION

OPINION

Katharine S. Hayden, U.S.D.J.

Before the Court is defendants’ motion for summary judgment as to the validity and enforceability of an exculpatory clause in a fitness center membership agreement with plaintiff. For the reasons set forth below, the Court finds the liability waiver to be valid and enforceable and defendants’ motion is granted.

I. Background

Fitness International, LLC d/b/a LA Fitness (incorrectly designated as LA Fitness of South Plainfield) (“LA Fitness”) operates a fitness facility located in Piscataway, NJ. See Final Pretrial Order Stipulation of Facts (“SOF”) (D.E. 19), at ¶ 1. On December 30, 2013, plaintiff Soon Ja Kang went to LA Fitness with her husband to sign up for membership. Id. at ¶ 2. The membership agreement she signed states in relevant part:

IMPORTANT: RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABILITY AND INDEMNITY. You hereby acknowledge and agree that use by Member and/or Member’s minor children of LA Fitness’ facilities, services, equipment or premises, involves risks of injury to persons and property, including those described below, and Member assumes full responsibility for such risks. In consideration of Member and Member’s minor children being permitted to enter any facility of LA Fitness (a “Club”) for any purpose including, but not limited to, observation, use of facilities, services or equipment, or participation in any way, Member agrees to the following: Member hereby releases and holds LA Fitness, its directors, officers, employees, and agents harmless from all liability to Member, Member’s children and Member’s personal representatives, assigns, heirs, and next of kin for any loss or damage, and forever gives up any claim or demands therefore, on account of injury to Member’s person or property, including injury leading to the death of Member, whether caused by the active or passive negligence of LA Fitness or otherwise, to the fullest extent permitted by law, while Member or Member’s minor children are in, upon, or about LA Fitness’ premises or using any LA Fitness facilities, services or equipment. Member also hereby agrees to indemnify LA Fitness from any loss, liability, damage or cost LA Fitness may incur due to the presence of Member or Member’s children in, upon or about the LA Fitness premises or in any way observing or using any facilities or equipment of LA Fitness whether caused by the negligence of Member(s) or otherwise. You represent (a) that Member and Member’s minor children are in good physical condition and have no disability, illness, or other condition that could prevent Member(s) from exercising without injury or impairment of health, and (b) that Member has consulted a physician concerning an exercise program that will not risk injury to Member or impairment of Member’s health. Such risk of injury includes (but is not limited to): injuries arising from use by Member or others of exercise equipment and machines; injuries arising from participation by Member or others in supervised or unsupervised activities or programs at a Club; injuries and medical disorders arising from exercising at a Club such as heart attacks, strokes, heat stress, sprains, broken bones, and torn muscles and ligaments, among others; and accidental injuries occurring anywhere in Club dressing rooms, showers and other facilities. Member further expressly agrees that the foregoing release, waiver and indemnity agreement is intended to be as broad and inclusive as is permitted by the law of the State of New Jersey and that if any portion thereof is held invalid, it is agreed that the balance shall, notwithstanding, continue in full force and effect. Member has read this release and waiver of liability and indemnity clause, and agrees that no oral representations, statements or inducement apart from this Agreement has been made.

LA Fitness Moving Br., Exh. E (D.E. 22-7).

Kang and her husband do not read or understand English, but their daughter was present to translate for them when they signed up. See SOF, at ¶¶ 4-5. Kang signed a membership agreement. She did not initial next to the waiver and liability provision in her membership agreement; however, her husband was asked to initial next to the same provision in his membership agreement, and he did so. Id. at ¶ 6.

On December 31, 2013, Kang was injured while working out on a chin/dip assist pull up machine at LA Fitness’s Piscataway location. See SOF, at ¶¶ 2, 7. She filed the instant action on September 29, 2014 in state court, and LA Fitness filed a notice of removal in this Court on November 14, 2014 on the basis of diversity jurisdiction (D.E. 1). The complaint alleges that Kang was injured as a result of negligence on the part of LA Fitness. Id. Prior to completion of expert discovery, LA Fitness moved for summary judgment on the issue of whether the waiver and liability provision bars the instant action. The motion was fully briefed. (D.E. 22, 25, 26).

The Court makes its decision on the paper.

II. Discussion

A. Standard

Summary judgment is warranted where the moving party demonstrates that “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a), (c). The parties have conducted discovery on the circumstances surrounding the formation of Kang’s membership agreement and, as set forth in the analysis below, all facts relevant to the enforceability of the waiver provision are essentially undisputed as set forth in the Final Pretrial Order Stipulation of Facts (D.E. 19). In determining whether the waiver provision is enforceable as a matter of law, the Court “view[s] the evidence in the light most favorable to [Kang] and draw[s] all justifiable, reasonable inferences in [her] favor.” Sgro v. Bloomberg L.P., 331 F.Appx. 932, 937 (3d Cir. 2009).

B. Analysis

Pursuant to the release and waiver of liability provision in her membership agreement, Kang released and held LA Fitness harmless for all injuries she might suffer “whether caused by the active or passive negligence of LA Fitness or otherwise, ” while she was “in, upon, or about LA Fitness’ premises or using any LA Fitness facilities, services or equipment.” LA Fitness Moving Br., Exh. E (D.E. 22-7). As her negligence claim for an injury allegedly sustained while using a piece of workout equipment at an LA Fitness facility clearly falls within the ambit of the liability waiver, the issue becomes whether the waiver itself is enforceable against Kang on the facts of this case.

In Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 408 N.J.Super. 435, 454 (App. Div. 2009), aff’d, 203 N.J. 286 (2010), the New Jersey Appellate Division addressed the enforceability of exculpatory releases in fitness center membership agreements:

Such a release is enforceable only if: (1) it does not adversely affect the public interest; (2) the exculpated party is not under a legal duty to perform; (3) it does not involve a public utility or common carrier; or (4) the contract does not grow out of unequal bargaining power or is otherwise unconscionable.

Id. The third factor is inapplicable here, because LA Fitness is not a public utility or common carrier. See Kang Opp. Br., at p. 6. The Court analyzes the remaining Stelluti factors in turn.

1. Does the Exculpatory Clause Adversely Affect the Public Interest?

LA Fitness argues that the exculpatory clause in this case does not adversely affect the public interest because it is “a facility that encourages New Jersey’s public policy promoting physical fitness.” LA Fitness Moving Br., at p. 6. Noting the important policy objective of promoting public health, the Stelutti court held:

[W]e are satisfied that, at least with respect to equipment being used at the club in the course of an exercise class or other athletic activity, the exculpatory agreement’s disclaimer of liability for ordinary negligence is reasonable and not offensive to public policy.

Stelluti, 408 N.J.Super. at 459. The Court agrees with the analysis in Stelluti and finds that the exculpatory clause here does not adversely affect the public interest, at least to the extent that it purports to exculpate LA Fitness with respect to acts or omissions amounting to ordinary negligence.

Kang argues that public policy promoting physical fitness “cannot counteract the other public policy reasons that are in place to protect against improper liability waivers.” Kang Opp. Br., at p. 7. To that end, she argues that the release in this case violates the New Jersey Plain Language Act, which states that “[a] consumer contract entered into on or after the effective date of this amendatory and supplementary act shall be written in a simple, clear, understandable and easily readable way.” N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:12-2. Specifically, Kang argues that the small font size and margins in the contract are such that “[s]omeone who can read and understand English would be substantially confused by this agreement[.]” Kang Opp. Br., at p. 8.

To determine whether the waiver provision violates the Plain Language Act, the Court turns to the plain language of the act itself. Section 56:12-10 provides:

To insure that a consumer contract shall be simple, clear, understandable and easily readable, the following are examples of guidelines that a court . . . may consider in determining whether a consumer contract as a whole complies with this act:

(1) Cross references that are confusing;

(2) Sentences that are of greater length than necessary;

(3) Sentences that contain double negatives and exceptions to exceptions;

(4) Sentences and sections that are in a confusing or illogical order;

(5) The use of words with obsolete meanings or words that differ in their legal meaning from their common ordinary meaning;

(6) Frequent use of Old English and Middle English words and Latin and French phrases.

N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:12-10. Section 56:12-10 further provides:

The following are examples of guidelines that a court . . . may consider in determining whether the consumer contract as a whole complies with this act:

(1) Sections shall be logically divided and captioned;

(2) A table of contents or alphabetical index shall be used for all contracts with more than 3, 000 words;

(3) Conditions and exceptions to the main promise of the agreement shall be given equal prominence with the main promise, and shall be in at least 10 point type.

Id. A Court has discretion as to how much consideration should be given to the above-listed statutory guidelines in finding a violation of the act. See Boddy v. Cigna Prop. & Cas. Companies, 334 N.J.Super. 649, 655 (App. Div. 2000).

Reviewing Kang’s membership agreement in light of the above guidelines, the Court finds that the waiver provision does not violate the New Jersey Plain Language Act. The waiver provision does not contain any cross references, nor does it contain any double negatives or exceptions to exceptions. It does not contain words with obsolete meanings, nor is it clouded by the use of Old English, Middle English, Latin or French phrases. And Kang does not argue-nor does the Court find-that the sentences of the waiver provision are set forth in a confusing or illogical order.

Instead, Kang argues that the waiver provision violates the Plain Language Act because “[t]he size of the font (print) is about size 8, whereas the standard size used in everyday documents is size 12[, ]” and because “[t]he margins on the sides of the pages are about 0.5 inch . . . reflecting the intentions of the drafter to squeeze in additional words.” Kang Opp. Br., at p. 8. However, applying the above guidelines, the Court does not find that the waiver provision in this case is any less prominent that the remainder of the agreement. See N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:12-10b(3). To the contrary, the waiver and liability provision is the only clause in the membership agreement preceded by a title in all caps (“IMPORTANT: RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABILITY AND INDEMNITY”), and it is the only clause that is fully enclosed by a border, creating a visual separation between the waiver and the rest of the agreement.

The Court finds that the waiver provision in this case does not offend public policy under Stelluti and does not otherwise violate the New Jersey Plain Language Act.

2. Is LA Fitness Under a Legal Duty To Perform?

LA Fitness argues that its relationship with Kang does not create any duties prescribed by statute or regulation. See LA Fitness Moving Br., at pp. 6-8. New Jersey courts have found liability waivers to be invalid as against public policy where they conflict with legislatively imposed duties. For example, in Hy-Grade Oil Co. v. New Jersey Bank, 138 N.J.Super. 112, 118 (App. Div. 1975), the court found it against public policy for a bank to exculpate itself from liability or responsibility for negligence in the performance of its function as a night depository service, in part due to the “extensive statutory regulations covering every phase of the banking business[.]” Id. at 118. Similarly, in McCarthy v. Nat’l Ass’n for Stock Car Auto Racing, Inc., 48 N.J. 539, 543 (1967), the New Jersey Supreme Court held a liability waiver invalid as against public policy because it purported to contract away safety requirements prescribed by statute dealing with motor vehicle racing. See id. at 543 (“[t]he prescribed safety requirements may not be contracted away, for if they could be the salient protective purposes of the legislation would largely be nullified”).

Kang argues that “although there are no statutes specific to fitness centers, there are several national associations that have established standards that apply to the fitness industry[.]” Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 8-9. However, there is no indication that these national standards apply with the force of law in New Jersey so as to constitute public policy of the state. Kang further argues that the Stelluti court acknowledged the well-established duties of care that New Jersey business owners owe to patrons that enter their premises. See Kang Opp. Br., at p. 8. However, as noted above in Part B.1. supra, Stelluti expressly held that fitness center liability waivers such as the one at issue here do not violate public policy at least to the extent that they exculpate for ordinary negligence. Stelluti, 408 N.J.Super. at 459. The Court finds that LA Fitness is not under any legal duty that precludes its reliance on the liability waiver in this case.

3. Does the Contract Grow Out of Unequal Bargaining Power or is it Otherwise Unconscionable?

With respect to the final Stelluti factor, Kang argues that the waiver: (1) was not the product of mutual assent; and (2) is unconscionable as a term in a contract of adhesion. See Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 10-14. The Court addresses both arguments in turn.

a. Mutual Assent

Kang argues that the waiver was invalid for lack of mutual assent, based upon the following assertions: (1) Neither Kang nor her husband speaks English; (2) LA Fitness knew as much, as the Kangs’ daughter was present to translate; (3) an LA Fitness employee explained the contract duration and payment terms to the Kangs’ daughter, but did not explain the liability waiver to her; (4) only Kang’s husband was asked to initial next to the waiver provision in his membership agreement, but no one explained to him what he was initialing; and (5) no employee went over the waiver provision with Kang or her daughter. See Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 10-11. Accordingly, Kang argues that she did not “clearly, unequivocally, and decisively surrender[ ] her rights” as is required for a valid waiver. Id. at p. 11.

The Court finds these arguments unavailing. As an initial matter, Kang’s inability to speak English does not bar her from becoming contractually bound. Notwithstanding the fact that her daughter was present to translate, New Jersey courts have unequivocally held that in the absence of fraud, one who signs an agreement is conclusively presumed to understand and assent to its terms and legal effect:

In the absence of fraud or imposition, when one fails to read a contract before signing it, the provisions are nevertheless binding, and the party is conclusively presumed to understand and assent to its terms and legal effect . . . . Even illiterate individuals have been held bound by a signed contract in the absence of misrepresentation. One who signs a document in those circumstances should know its contents or have it read (or otherwise have the contents made known) to him or her.

Statewide Realty Co. v. Fid. Mgmt. & Research Co., 259 N.J.Super. 59, 73 (Law. Div. 1992) (internal citations and quotations omitted); see also Herrera v. Twp. of S. Orange Vill., 270 N.J.Super. 417, 423, 637 (App. Div. 1993) (enforcing release agreement in the absence of fraud, notwithstanding testimony by plaintiff that she did not understand the release because she could not read English).

Under the New Jersey case law cited above, absent allegations of fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation which Kang does not make here, she is conclusively presumed to have understood and assented to the membership agreement’s terms-including the waiver-and legal effect. See Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 203 N.J. 286, 305 (2010) (“Although Stelluti argues that she did not know what she was signing, she does not claim that she signed the waiver form as the result of fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation. Therefore, the trial court was well within reason to presume that she understood the terms of the agreement . . . and the finding to that effect is unassailable.”)

Nor does the fact that LA Fitness may not have explained the waiver to her or her daughter preclude enforcement. See Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 203 N.J. 286, 301- 02 (2010) (enforcing exculpatory clause while giving plaintiff benefit of inference that “Powerhouse may not have explained to Stelluti the legal effect of the contract that released Powerhouse from liability”).

Finally, the Court is not aware of, nor has Kang cited, any requirement that she must have initialed the waiver provision for that clause to be enforceable against her. While she did not initial the waiver provision, she did sign the membership agreement containing it. In the absence of fraud, that is enough to bind her to its terms. See Statewide, 259 N.J.Super. at 73.

b. Unconscionability

Kang also argues that even if the waiver is found to be enforceable, the Court should invalidate it as a contract of adhesion. “[T]he essential nature of a contract of adhesion is that it is presented on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, commonly in a standardized printed form, without the opportunity for the ‘adhering’ party to negotiate except perhaps on a few particulars.” Rudbart v. N. Jersey Dist. Water Supply Comm’n, 127 N.J. 344, 353, 605 A.2d 681, 685 (1992). Kang’s unconscionability argument is essentially an amalgamation of all of her arguments summarized above: that as someone who does not speak English she lacked the sophistication to understand the terms to which she was agreeing, LA Fitness knew that she was in no position to understand those terms, she did not initial next to the waiver provision, the waiver is one-sided and printed on a standard form agreement, and she was not in a position to negotiate the terms of the agreement. Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 12-14.

Notably, not all contracts of adhesion are unenforceable. In Stelluti, the New Jersey Supreme Court held:

Here, Powerhouse’s agreement was a standard pre-printed form presented to Stelluti and other prospective members on a typical ‘take-it-or-leave-it basis.’ No doubt, this agreement was one of adhesion. As for the relative bargaining positions of the parties, . . . we assume that Stelluti was a layperson without any specialized knowledge about contracts generally or exculpatory ones specifically. Giving her the benefit of all inferences from the record, including that Powerhouse may not have explained to Stelluti the legal effect of the contract that released Powerhouse from liability, we nevertheless do not regard her in a classic ‘position of unequal bargaining power’ such that the contract must be voided. As the Appellate Division decision noted, Stelluti could have taken her business to another fitness club, could have found another means of exercise aside from joining a private gym, or could have thought about it and even sought advice before signing up and using the facility’s equipment. No time limitation was imposed on her ability to review and consider whether to sign the agreement. In sum, although the terms of the agreement were presented ‘as is’ to Stelluti, rendering this a fairly typical adhesion contract in its procedural aspects, we hold that the agreement was not void based on any notion of procedural unconscionability.

Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 203 N.J. 286, 301-02 (2010).

Like the defendant in Stelluti, Kang was a layperson without any specialized knowledge of exculpatory contracts, and the Court gives her the benefit of the inference that LA Fitness did not explain the legal effect of the waiver provision to her. However, also like the defendant in Stelluti, Kang was not under any undue pressure to execute the agreement and she could have sought advice before signing. Indeed, her daughter was present to translate. As noted above, the fact that Kang does not speak English does have any legal effect on the contract’s enforceability. Thus, in accordance with Stelluti, the Court finds that although the LA Fitness membership agreement may have been offered on a “take-it-or-leave-it” basis, it is not void on the basis of unconscionability.

Because the exculpatory clause does not offend public policy, the Court finds it to be valid and enforceable. Accordingly, LA Fitness’s motion for summary judgment is granted.

III. Conclusion

For the foregoing reasons, defendants’ motion for summary judgment is granted, and the clerk of the court is direct to close this case. An accompanying Order will be filed.