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Release for a health club which had a foam pit included language specific to the injury the plaintiff suffered, which the court used to deny the plaintiff’s claim.

Argument made that the word inherent limited the risks the release covered and as such did not cover the injury the plaintiff received.

Macias, v. Naperville Gymnastics Club, 2015 IL App (2d) 140402-U; 2015 Ill. App. Unpub. LEXIS 448

State: Illinois, Appellate Court of Illinois, Second District

Plaintiff: Kamil Macias

Defendant: Naperville Gymnastics Club

Plaintiff Claims: negligent in its failure to properly supervise the open gym, train participants, and warn participants of hazards and dangers accompanied with activities and use of equipment in the open gym

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2015

Summary

Plaintiff was injured jumping headfirst into a foam pit at the defendant’s gym. The plaintiff had signed a release relieving the defendant of liability, which was upheld by the trial court and the appellate court.

For the first time, the plaintiff argued the release was limited by the language in the release because it used the term inherent in describing the risks. Inherent limits the risks, to those that are part and parcel of the activity and the injury that befell the plaintiff was a freak accident.

Facts

The plaintiff went to the defendant club during open hours when the public could attend with a friend. He paid an admission fee and signed a release. The club had a foam pit. The plaintiff watched other people jump into the pit then tried it himself. He jumped off the springboard and instead of landing feet first he landed head first in the pit.

The plaintiff broke his neck requiring extensive surgery and rehabilitation.

The defendant club filed a motion to dismiss based upon the release signed by the plaintiff. The trial court denied the motion to dismiss because the release was ambiguous.

During discovery, the plaintiff admitted he did not see the rules of the gym but did understand the risks of landing in the pit head first.

Walk around all pits and trampolines,” and he stated that he understood what this meant. The rules also stated: “Do not play on any equipment without proper supervision,” and “Do not do any gymnastics without proper supervision,” and plaintiff stated that he understood what these meant. Plaintiff also stated that he did not see a sign painted on the wall in the gym titled, “Loose foam pit rules.” That sign stated: “Look before you leap,” “No diving or belly flops,” and “Land on feet, bottom or back only.” Plaintiff acknowledged that he understood what these meant

After discovery, the defendant club filed a motion for summary judgment based on the additional information collected during discovery. The trial court granted that motion, and this appeal was dismissed.

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

The appellate court looked at contract law in Illinois.

The primary objective in construing a contract is to give effect to the parties’ intent, and to discover this intent the various contract provisions must be viewed as a whole. Words derive meaning from their context, and contracts must be viewed as a whole by examining each part in light of the other parts. Id. Contract language must not be rejected as meaningless or surplusage; it is presumed that the terms and provisions of a contract are purposely inserted and that the language was not employed idly.

A release is a contract. For the release to be valid and enforceable, it should:

…contain clear, explicit, and unequivocal language referencing the types of activities, circumstances, or situations that it encompasses and for which the plaintiff agrees to relieve the defendant from a duty of care. In this way, the plaintiff will be put on notice of the range of dangers for which he assumes the risk of injury, enabling him to minimize the risks by exercising a greater degree of caution.

The court found the injury suffered by the plaintiff fell within the scope of the possible injuries of the release and contemplated by the plaintiff upon signing the release.

Two clauses in the release stated the plaintiff was in good physical health and had proper physical condition to participate. The plaintiff argued these clauses made the release ambiguous; however, the appellate court did not find that to be true.

Here is the interesting argument in the case.

I have repeatedly stated that releases that limit releases to the inherent risk are limited in their scope. The plaintiff made that argument here.

Plaintiff argues that the use of “inherent risk” language throughout the release creates an ambiguity as to whether the language covers only dangers inherent in gymnastics and not freak accidents. We also reject this argument. As previously stated, the release specifically lists landing on landing surfaces as an inherent risk. Thus, there is no ambiguity as to whether plaintiff’s injury was covered by the release.

The plaintiff also argued his injury was not foreseeable because:

… (1) he lacked specialized knowledge of gymnastics and, in particular, foam pits, to appreciate the danger and foresee the possibility of injury, and (2) his injury was not the type that would ordinarily accompany jumping into a foam pit.

The argument on whether the injury was foreseeable is not whether the plaintiff knew of the risk but:

The relevant inquiry is not whether [the] plaintiff foresaw [the] defendants’ exact act of negligence,” but “whether [the] plaintiff knew or should have known” the accident “was a risk encompassed by his [or her] release.

The court found the injury the plaintiff received was on that was contemplated by the release.

Thus, the issue here is whether plaintiff knew or should have known that the accident was a risk encompassed by the release which he signed. As previously determined, the language of the release in this case was specific enough to put plaintiff on notice. In discussing inherent risks in the sport of gymnastics and use of the accompanying equipment, the release lists injuries resulting from landing on the landing surfaces, which includes injuries to bones, joints, tendons, or death.

The plaintiff also argued the release violated public policy because the release was presented to “opened its gym to the unskilled and inexperienced public” when it opened its gym to the public.

The court struck down this argument because the freedom to contract was greater than the limitation on damages issues.

The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s granting of the summary judgment for the defendant based on the release.

So Now What?

The inherent risk argument here was made but either not effectively argued by the plaintiff or ignored by the court. However, for the first time, the argument that the word inherent is a limiting word, not a word that expands the release was made in an argument.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Macias, v. Naperville Gymnastics Club, 2015 IL App (2d) 140402-U; 2015 Ill. App. Unpub. LEXIS 448

Macias, v. Naperville Gymnastics Club, 2015 IL App (2d) 140402-U; 2015 Ill. App. Unpub. LEXIS 448

Kamil Macias, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Naperville Gymnastics Club, Defendant-Appellee.

No. 2-14-0402

APPELLATE COURT OF ILLINOIS, SECOND DISTRICT

2015 IL App (2d) 140402-U; 2015 Ill. App. Unpub. LEXIS 448

March 10, 2015, Order Filed

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

PRIOR HISTORY: [**1] Appeal from the Circuit Court of Du Page County. No. 11-L-1418. Honorable Judges Hollis L. Webster and John T. Elsner, Judges, Presiding.

DISPOSITION: Affirmed.

CORE TERMS: gym, pit, landing, summary judgment, foam, exculpatory clause, gymnastics, release agreement, surface, inherent risk, jumping, discovery, ambiguity, exculpatory, deposition, injury resulting, public policy, risk of injury, physical condition, releasing, ambiguous, sport, bones, supervision, de novo, springboard, encompassed, notice, undersigned, climbing

JUDGES: JUSTICE BURKE delivered the judgment of the court. Presiding Justice Schostok and Justice Zenoff concurred in the judgment.

OPINION BY: BURKE

OPINION

ORDER


Held: Release agreement for the gym was sufficiently clear, explicit, and unequivocal to show intent to protect facility from liability arising from use of its “foam pit”; it was proper for the gym to raise the issue it had raised in the section 2-619 motion in a summary judgment motion as it alleged new facts which were developed during discovery that affected the validity of the release; affirmed.

[*P2] Plaintiff, Kamil Macias, filed a complaint against defendant, Naperville Gymnastics Club (the Club), for injuries he received after jumping off a springboard and landing head first into a “foam pit.” The trial court denied the Club’s motion to dismiss, pursuant to section 2-619 of the Code of Civil Procedure (Code) (735 ILCS 5/2-619 (West 2010)), but it later granted the Club’s motion for summary judgment based on a liability release agreement signed by plaintiff. Plaintiff raises several issues on appeal concerning the release and the effect of the earlier [**2] section 2-619 motion to dismiss. We affirm.

[*P3] I. BACKGROUND

[*P4] On January 15, 2011, plaintiff came to the Club with his friend. The Club offers “open gym” hours where members of the Club and the general public can attend. Plaintiff, who was not a member of the Club, paid a $10 admission fee and he signed a liability release agreement.

[*P5] A foam pit was located in the gym. After seeing participants jumping into the pit, plaintiff jogged up to a springboard in front of the pit, jumped onto the board and into the pit. While attempting to jump feet first, plaintiff’s body moved in the air, causing him to land head first, striking the bottom of the pit. Plaintiff immediately lost all feeling in his body below the neck. He remained in the pit covered by pieces of foam until he was extracted by the Naperville Fire Department. At the time, plaintiff was 20 years old, about 6 feet tall, and weighed 310 pounds. As a result of the accident, plaintiff suffered a broken neck, requiring extensive surgery and rehabilitation. Plaintiff filed a complaint alleging the Club was negligent in its failure to properly supervise the open gym, train participants, and warn participants of hazards and dangers accompanied with activities [**3] and use of equipment in the open gym.

[*P6] The Club filed a section 2-619(a)(9) motion to dismiss (735 ILCS 5/2-619(a)(9) (West 2010)), alleging that plaintiff signed a two-page liability release agreement that contained an exculpatory clause releasing the Club from liability for any acts of negligence.

[*P7] The trial court found the release ambiguous and denied the section 2-619(a)(9) motion without prejudice. In denying the motion, the judge stated that she felt it was inappropriate to dismiss the suit at that point, that there was case law on both sides of “these exculpatory clauses,” and the judge agreed that it was something that could be developed through discovery. She further stated, “But I think it’s something that is better suited for a summary judgment motion if the facts do bear that out from the defense’s perspective.”

[*P8] During discovery, plaintiff was questioned by defense counsel and testified to the following:

“Q. Okay. That first part of the form it says, ‘To gain admission to the activity areas of [the Club], all parts of this form must be read, understood, and signed.’ Do you see that?

A. Yes.

Q. And did you understand what that means?

A. Yes.

* * *

Q. Did you understand this to be an agreement on January 15th, 2011[,] between you and [the [**4] Club]?

A. Had I read this agreement I would have understood.

* * *

Q. And you understand that [the release] means that when you sign it that you’re agreeing to not bring any lawsuit against [the Club]?

A. Correct.

Q. And if you had read it on January 15th of 2011, that’s what you would have understood it to mean?

A. Correct.

* * *

Q. And you agree that the sport of gymnastics is a risky sport?

A. Correct.

Q: And you would have felt the same on January 15th, 2011[,] before your accident?

A. Yes.”

[*P9] At the entrance to the gym was a closed door with a window pane in it. Plaintiff did not recall seeing a sign on the door entitled, “Rules of the Gym.” Plaintiff reviewed the rules at his deposition and admitted that it said to “Walk around all pits and trampolines,” and he stated that he understood what this meant. The rules also stated: “Do not play on any equipment without proper supervision,” and “Do not do any gymnastics without proper supervision,” and plaintiff stated that he understood what these meant. Plaintiff also stated that he did not see a sign painted on the wall in the gym titled, “Loose foam pit rules.” That sign stated: “Look before you leap,” “No diving or belly flops,” and “Land on [**5] feet, bottom or back only.” Plaintiff acknowledged that he understood what these meant.

[*P10] After discovery, the Club filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that plaintiff’s claim was barred by the exculpatory clause of the release signed by plaintiff. The motion included the deposition testimony and that (1) plaintiff denied being given any verbal instructions and denied seeing the warning signs or rules posted in the gym before he was injured, and (2) plaintiff admitted that he would have understood the terms of the liability release, had he read it. Following argument, the trial court granted the Club’s motion for summary judgment. This timely appeal follows.

[*P11] II. ANALYSIS

[*P12] A. Standard of Review

[*P13] Summary judgment is appropriate “if the pleadings, depositions, 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.” 735 ILCS 5/2-1005(c) (West 2010). The motion should be denied if there are disputed facts, but also if reasonable people could draw different inferences from the undisputed facts. Wood v. National Liability & Fire Insurance Co., 324 Ill. App. 3d 583, 585, 755 N.E.2d 1044, 258 Ill. Dec. 225 (2001). We review an order granting summary judgment de novo. Pielet v. Pielet, 2012 IL 112064, ¶ 30, 978 N.E.2d 1000, 365 Ill. Dec. 497.

[*P14] We review the parties’ [**6] liability release agreement in accordance with well-established contract principles. Joyce v. Mastri, 371 Ill. App. 3d 64, 74, 861 N.E.2d 1102, 308 Ill. Dec. 537 (2007). The primary objective in construing a contract is to give effect to the parties’ intent, and to discover this intent the various contract provisions must be viewed as a whole. Kerton v. Lutheran Church Extension Fund, 262 Ill. App. 3d 74, 77, 634 N.E.2d 16, 199 Ill. Dec. 416 (1994). Words derive meaning from their context, and contracts must be viewed as a whole by examining each part in light of the other parts. Id. Contract language must not be rejected as meaningless or surplusage; it is presumed that the terms and provisions of a contract are purposely inserted and that the language was not employed idly. Id.

[*P15] In order for an exculpatory clause to be valid and enforceable, it should contain clear, explicit, and unequivocal language referencing the types of activities, circumstances, or situations that it encompasses and for which the plaintiff agrees to relieve the defendant from a duty of care. Calarco v. YMCA, 149 Ill. App. 3d 1037, 1040, 501 N.E.2d 268, 103 Ill. Dec. 247 (1986). In this way, the plaintiff will be put on notice of the range of dangers for which he assumes the risk of injury, enabling him to minimize the risks by exercising a greater degree of caution. Neumann v. Gloria Marshall Figure Salon, 149 Ill. App. 3d 824, 827, 500 N.E.2d 1011, 102 Ill. Dec. 910 (1986). The precise occurrence which results in injury need not have been contemplated by the parties at the time the contract [**7] was entered into. Schlessman v. Henson, 83 Ill. 2d 82, 86, 413 N.E.2d 1252, 46 Ill. Dec. 139 (1980). It should only appear that the injury falls within the scope of possible dangers ordinarily accompanying the activity and, thus, reasonably contemplated by the plaintiff. Garrison v. Combined Fitness Centre, Ltd., 201 Ill. App. 3d 581, 585, 559 N.E.2d 187, 147 Ill. Dec. 187 (1990). Further, when interpreting a contract containing an exculpatory clause, the court must interpret the scope of the exculpatory provision in the “context of the entire agreement.” Shorr Paper Products, Inc. v. Aurora Elevator, Inc., 198 Ill. App. 3d 9, 13, 555 N.E.2d 735, 144 Ill. Dec. 376 (1990). We review the interpretation of an exculpatory agreement or release of liability authorization de novo. Stratman v. Brent, 291 Ill. App. 3d 123, 137, 683 N.E.2d 951, 225 Ill. Dec. 448 (1997).

[*P16] In Garrison, a member of a health club who was injured when lifting weights on a bench press brought suit against the club and the manufacturer of the press. The trial court entered summary judgment in favor of the club, and the plaintiff appealed. The First District Appellate Court held that the exculpatory clause could not have been more clear or explicit, as it stated that each member bore the “sole risk” of injury that might result from the use of weights, equipment, or other apparatus provided and that the selection of the type of equipment to be used would be the “entire responsibility” of the member. The court found that the injury the plaintiff sustained clearly fell within the scope of possible dangers [**8] ordinarily accompanying the activity of weightlifting. Id. at 585. The court observed that the injury was of a type that would normally be contemplated by the parties at the time the contract was made and, therefore, the court held that it clearly fell within the parameters of the exculpatory clause. Id. See also Hussein v. L.A. Fitness International, LLC, 2013 IL App (1st) 121426, 987 N.E.2d 460, 369 Ill. Dec. 833; Neumann v. Gloria Marshall Figure Salon, 149 Ill. App. 3d 824, 500 N.E.2d 1011, 102 Ill. Dec. 910 (1986).

[*P17] Similar to Garrison and the cases cited above, the release agreement in the present case is clear and specific regarding the risks it covers and the release of the Club’s negligence. It specifically references the inherent risk of injury resulting from landing on landing surfaces, and plaintiff acknowledged in his deposition that this phrase includes the foam pit in which he was injured. The agreement also releases the Club from any and all claims, including those caused by its negligence. Furthermore, plaintiff’s signature certified that he recognized the dangers inherent with climbing and jumping activities and that he voluntarily assumed the risks.

[*P18] Nevertheless, plaintiff raises several arguments regarding the validity of the release and the effect of the earlier section 2-619 motion.

[*P19] B. Ambiguity of the Release

[*P20] 1. First Clause

[*P21] The first clause of the release, which is typed in capital letters, states: [**9]

“BY SIGNING THIS DOCUMENT YOU ACKNOWLEDGE THAT UNSUPERVISED USE OF ANY AREA OF FACILITY IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED AND COMPLETELY AT THE RISK OF THE PARTICIPANT AND THAT THE RULES [OF] EACH AREA BEING UTILIZED ARE UNDERSTOOD PRIOR TO PARTICIPATION!”

Plaintiff asserts that this clause is ambiguous as to whether supervision and a full understanding of the rules of the Club is a condition precedent to releasing defendant from liability. We agree that the first clause, standing alone, might be construed as stating that supervision and a full understanding of the rules of the Club is a condition preceding releasing the Club from liability. However, case law teaches that we must review the language of the release in its entirety in order to interpret the parties’ intent.

[*P22] The release contains a “Covenant Not to Sue for Injury or Damages,” which provides, in relevant part:

“Notice: This is a legally binding agreement. By signing this agreement, you waive your right to bring a court action to recover compensation or to obtain any other remedy for any injury to yourself *** however caused arising out of use of the facilities of [the Club].

I hereby acknowledge and agree that the sport of gymnastics [**10] and the use of the accompanying equipment has INHERENT RISKS. I have full knowledge of the nature and extent of all of the risks inherent in gymnastics and the use of the facilities of the gym, including but not limited to:

***

5. Injuries resulting from landing on the landing surfaces; and

6. Injuries to bones, joints, tendons, or death.

[*P23] The section of the release agreement entitled “Release Indemnification Liquidation Damages and Agreement to Arbitrate” states, in relevant part:

“In consideration of my use of the GYM, I the undersigned user, agree to release on behalf of myself *** [the Club] *** including but not limited to a claim of NEGLIGENCE.”

[*P24] The clause of the release immediately preceding plaintiff’s signature provides that “the undersigned recognize[s] the dangers inherent with climbing and jumping activities,” and the undersigned is “assuming the hazard of this risk upon myself because I wish to participate. I realize that I am subject to injury from this activity and that no form of pre-planning can remove all of the danger to which I am exposing myself.”

[*P25] In reading the release in its entirety, it is clear that the first clause of the release cannot be construed as plaintiff argues. The [**11] release contains no such limitations as it covers a number of activities, including “[i]njuries resulting from landing on the landing surfaces” (i.e. the “foam pit”), releasing the Club from negligence, and “the dangers inherent with climbing and jumping activities.”

[*P26] 2. Physical Condition Clause

[*P27] Two clauses of the release request the participant to agree that he or she is in good physical health and proper physical condition to participate. Plaintiff cites Calarco v. YMCA of Greater Metropolitan Chicago, 149 Ill. App. 3d 1037, 501 N.E.2d 268, 103 Ill. Dec. 247 (1986), and Macek v. Schooner’s Inc., 224 Ill. App. 3d 103, 586 N.E.2d 442, 166 Ill. Dec. 484 (1991), for the proposition that these types of clauses render the release ambiguous, as it is unclear whether the release only applies to injuries resulting from a participant’s physical ailments. In other words, the release does not apply to participants without physical ailments.

[*P28] We fail to follow the logic of plaintiff’s argument. However, the cases relied on by plaintiff are readily distinguishable. In Calarco, the plaintiff had been injured when metal weights from an exercise machine fell on her hand, breaking her bones. The plaintiff had agreed “to hold free from any and all liability the [defendant] *** for damages which [the plaintiff] may have or which may hereafter accrue to [the plaintiff] arising out of or connected with [the plaintiff’s] participation [**12] in any of the activities of the [defendant].” We held that the exculpatory clause in the membership application for the defendant’s facility was insufficient to protect the defendant from liability as a matter of law because the clause did not adequately describe the covered activities to clearly indicate that defendant’s negligence would be covered by the release. Calarco, 149 Ill. App. 3d at 1043-44. We further noted that the statement immediately following the alleged exculpatory language contained a declaration of physical health by the signer, and that the combination of the two provisions further complicated the interpretation of the release. Id.

[*P29] In Macek, the plaintiff participated in an arm wrestling contest with a machine that broke his arm. The court held that summary judgment was inappropriate because the release did not specify the covered activities but rather merely indicated that damages for “all injuries suffered” are waived. The court found further that the line immediately following the exculpatory language regarding the signer’s physical condition provided additional ambiguity. Id. at 106.

[*P30] In both Calarco and Marek, the releases did not specify the covered activities and did not specifically cover the defendants’ [**13] negligence. Both courts held that the physical condition clause simply added to the ambiguity of the release. However, contrary to Calarco and Marek, the release in this case clearly covers the activities in question and specifically releases defendant from liability for its negligence.

[*P31] 3. Inherent Risk Language

[*P32] Plaintiff argues that the use of “inherent risk” language throughout the release creates an ambiguity as to whether the language covers only dangers inherent in gymnastics and not freak accidents. We also reject this argument. As previously stated, the release specifically lists landing on landing surfaces as an inherent risk. Thus, there is no ambiguity as to whether plaintiff’s injury was covered by the release.

[*P33] C. Forseeability

[*P34] Plaintiff argues that his injury was not foreseeable because (1) he lacked specialized knowledge of gymnastics and, in particular, foam pits, to appreciate the danger and foresee the possibility of injury, and (2) his injury was not the type that would ordinarily accompany jumping into a foam pit.

[*P35] A plaintiff who expressly consents to relieve a defendant of an obligation of conduct toward the plaintiff assumes the risk of injury as a result of the [**14] defendant’s failure to adhere to the obligation. Larsen v. Vic Tanny International, 130 Ill. App. 3d 574, 576, 474 N.E.2d 729, 85 Ill. Dec. 769 (1984). The doctrine of assumption of risk presupposes, however, that the danger which causes the injury is such that it ordinarily accompanies the activities of the plaintiff, and that the plaintiff knows or should know both the danger and the possibility of injury prior to its occurrence. Id. at 576. The standard is a subjective one geared to a particular plaintiff, and the determination ordinarily will be made by a jury. Id. at 576-77.

[*P36] “The foreseeability of a specific danger defines the scope.” Cox v. U.S. Fitness, LLC, 2013 IL App (1st) 122442, ¶ 14, 377 Ill. Dec. 930, 2 N.E.3d 1211. “The relevant inquiry *** is not whether [the] plaintiff foresaw [the] defendants’ exact act of negligence,” but “whether [the] plaintiff knew or should have known” the accident “was a risk encompassed by his [or her] release.” Hellweg v. Special Events Management, 2011 IL App (1st) 103604, ¶ 7, 956 N.E.2d 954, 353 Ill. Dec. 826.

[*P37] Thus, the issue here is whether plaintiff knew or should have known that the accident was a risk encompassed by the release which he signed. As previously determined, the language of the release in this case was specific enough to put plaintiff on notice. In discussing inherent risks in the sport of gymnastics and use of the accompanying equipment, the release lists injuries resulting from landing on the landing surfaces, which includes [**15] injuries to bones, joints, tendons, or death. Plaintiff agreed that the foam pit was a landing surface and that some of the possible injuries that he could sustain at the gym from gymnastics activities included injuries to his bones, and he admitted at deposition that he had not read the release and that, had he read the release, he would have understood it to mean that he could not sue the gym for any injuries he sustained. Based on these facts, plaintiff should have known the risks of injury associated with the activity of jumping into the foam pit. Plaintiff participated in open gym, which reasonably contemplates participating in the use of the accompanying equipment. Plaintiff could have reasonably presumed that, should he jump from a springboard into the foam pit, he might land on his head. It is entirely foreseeable that, if plaintiff accidently fell on his head, he would be hurt by “landing on the landing surfaces,” a risk encompassed by the release agreement. See Oelze v. Score Sports Venture, 401 Ill. App. 3d 110, 121, 927 N.E.2d 137, 339 Ill. Dec. 596 (2010). Although plaintiff suffered a serious injury, we are bound by the release agreement. Accordingly, we find the trial court properly granted summary judgment on the basis that the release barred plaintiff’s negligence [**16] claim.

[*P38] D. Public Policy

[*P39] Plaintiff next argues that it would be against public policy to enforce the release in this case because the Club opened its gym to the unskilled and inexperienced public. Plaintiff does not cite any cases in support of this argument. In fact, the only case he cites, Hamer v. City Segway Tours of Chicago, LLC, 402 Ill. App. 3d 42, 930 N.E.2d 578, 341 Ill. Dec. 368 (2010), is inapposite to his position.

[*P40] Several cases have rejected plaintiff’s argument in the fitness club setting. See, e.g., Kubisen v. Chicago Health Clubs, 69 Ill. App. 3d 463, 388 N.E.2d 44, 26 Ill. Dec. 420 (1979); Owen v. Vic Tanny’s Enterprises, 48 Ill. App. 2d 344, 199 N.E.2d 280 (1964). Had plaintiff, an adult, read the release and disagreed with it, he could have simply refused to participate in open gym. “While exculpatory or limitation of damages clauses are not favored and must be strictly construed against a benefitting party [citation] the basis for their enforcement is the strong public policy favoring freedom of contract.” Rayner Covering Systems, Inc. v. Danvers Farmers Elevator Co., 226 Ill. App. 3d 507, 512, 589 N.E.2d 1034, 168 Ill. Dec. 634 (1992). There does not seem to be any reason in this case to depart from the strong public policy of allowing parties to freely enter into contracts.

[*P41] E. Section 2-619 Motion to Dismiss

[*P42] The Club filed a section 2-619 motion, alleging that plaintiff signed a two-page liability release that contained an exculpatory clause, which released the Club from liability for any acts of negligence. The trial court found the release was ambiguous and denied the motion. However, [**17] the court recognized that disputed facts might affect the validity of the release and indicated that the Club was free to raise the issue again in a summary judgment motion after facts surrounding the execution of the release were developed in discovery.

[*P43] Citing Makowski v. City of Naperville, 249 Ill. App. 3d 110, 117-18, 617 N.E.2d 1251, 187 Ill. Dec. 530 (1993), plaintiff acknowledges that a trial court may allow a party to reassert a defense after previously ruling on the merits only when new evidence is presented. Plaintiff claims that the summary judgment motion did not allege new facts but simply relied on the language of the release as it did in the Club’s section 2-619 motion. We disagree.

[*P44] The Club did allege additional facts in its summary judgment motion that were developed during discovery that affected the validity of the release. Those facts included plaintiff’s acknowledgment that he understood the meaning of the terms of the release, that he understood the inherent risks, and that he understood that the risk of “landing on landing surfaces” would include the foam pit where he was injured. He also testified that had he read the release he would have understood its language to mean that he could not sue the gym for any injuries he sustained. Since we review a summary judgment motion [**18] de novo (Pielet, 2012 IL 112064, ¶ 30), this evidence tends to defeat plaintiff’s ambiguity arguments.

[*P45] III. CONCLUSION

[*P46] For the reasons stated, we affirm the judgment of the Circuit Court of Du Page County granting the Club’s motion for summary judgment.

[*P47] Affirmed.


A Waiver is giving up a right and is revocable agreement. A release is a contractual agreement not to sue and can be made irrevocable. If you run a recreational or sporting activity, you want a release, not something where the people can change their minds.

Here the defendant used a release. The plaintiff argued it was a waiver and assumption of the risk document and should be barred because they had been outlawed in Connecticut as a defense. The court agreed.

Rodriguez v. Brownstone Exploration & Discover Park, LLC, 2017 Conn. Super. LEXIS 844

State: CONNECTICUT, SUPERIOR COURT OF CONNECTICUT, JUDICIAL DISTRICT OF FAIRFIELD AT BRIDGEPORT

Plaintiff: Yulissa Rodriguez

Defendant: Brownstone Exploration & Discover Park, LLC

Plaintiff Claims:

Defendant Defenses:

Holding: for the defendant

Year: 2017

Summary

The plaintiff was injured using a rope swing at the defendant’s park.

Many states abolished the defense of Assumption of the risk. In this case, the plaintiff argued that the release she signed was just an assumption of the risk document and was void because that defense was abolished.

The plaintiff also argued the document was titled a waiver and therefore, was not a release. Both arguments of the defendant were struck down. The first because a waiver is not a release and the second because the document was no different from an assumption of the risk document, which was no longer a defense in Connecticut.

Facts

Plaintiff filed a motion to strike the first two affirmative defenses, or here; the court referred to them as special defenses, the defendant pleaded. When a defendant answers a complaint, the defendant can plead the defenses to the specific facts and legal claims, and the defendant can plead affirmative defenses. Affirmative defenses are a list of approved defenses, that if they are not pled, are lost to the defendant.

Release is an affirmative defense in most states and was pled in this case.

To get rid of the special defenses, the plaintiff filed a motion to strike.

“‘A party wanting to contest the legal sufficiency of a special defense may do so by filing a motion to strike.’ A motion to strike admits all facts well pleaded; it does not admit legal conclusions or the truth or accuracy of opinions stated in the pleadings.’ . . ‘In ruling on a motion to strike, the court must accept as true the facts alleged in the special defenses and construe them in the manner most favorable to sustaining their legal sufficiency.’ . . . ‘On the other hand, the total absence of any factual allegations specific to the dispute renders [a special defense] legally insufficient.

The court’s response to the motion to strike is here.

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

The plaintiff’s argument was because the courts had abolished the defense f assumption of the risk, the releases were not valid because they were only proof of assumption of the risk. The plaintiff argued:

“Waiver” and “Release” are, in actuality, based on assumption of risk because they purport to relieve defendant of liability for risks inherent in the activity, which by statute is not a valid defense in this negligence action.

The first affirmative defense was waiver. In vast majority of states, a waiver is different from a release. Waiver’s can be revoked. When you waive a right, a lot of states allow you to revoke that waiver. A release is a contract and can only be terminated by the terms of the agreement.

The court reviewed the prior defense of assumption of the risk.

‘Traditionally, the doctrine provided a defendant with a complete defense to a claim of negligence that centered on the conduct of the plaintiff . . . [T]he assumption of risk variants fall generally into two separate categories: (1) a negligence defense that the plaintiff’s conduct operated so as to relieve the defendant of a duty of care with regard to the plaintiff; and (2) a negligence defense that, while conceding that the defendant owed a duty of care and breached that duty, precludes recovery by the plaintiff because the plaintiff was aware of the defendant’s negligence and the risk thereby created, but nevertheless chose to confront such risk.

However, the courts and or legislatures had abolished the defense because they felt it had not kept up with the times. Instead, the concept of assumption of the risk was part of the facts the jury undertook to determine the damages to be awarded to the plaintiff. If the plaintiff assumed the risk, then the jury could reduce the damages the plaintiff would receive.

Since then, many courts have reinstated the defense of assumption of the risk as a defense in sport and recreational activities. Many legislatures have also brought back the defense in statutes covering sports and recreational activities, such as Skier Safety Statutes. However, Connecticut has not done that. In Connecticut, assumption of the risk is not a defense; it has been merged into comparative negligence.

In this case, the release signed by the plaintiff was titled “Assumption of Risk, Release of Liability, Waiver of Claims & Arbitration Agreement.” The plaintiff argued that the document was a written assumption of risk document and should be void.

Under Connecticut law a Waiver is “the voluntary relinquishment or abandonment of a known right or privilege.” This is quite different from a release, which is contractually giving a right to sue over an injury prior to the injury. Waiver’s can be oral or in writing. The common waiver you hear about all the time is a criminal suspect on TV being told their rights. At any time, the criminal defendant can change their mind and not give up their rights because they waived their rights, which are reversible.

Connecticut courts have recognized that pre-injury waiver as a defense to a claim based on inherent risks from an activity is not the same as a waiver of a claim of defendant’s own negligence.

The court continued its analysis of Connecticut law by reviewing Connecticut Supreme Court decisions on the issue. Here the court differentiated between inherent risks, which are still assumed and assumption of risk as a defense.

…the Supreme Court differentiated between pre-injury release from inherent risks of an activity, defined by reference to a dictionary definition of “inherent” as “structural or involved in the constitution or essential character of something,” from release of negligence that involves the exercise of some control over the activity and/or conditions by defendant.

The court then found that the language of the waiver was only a defense to the inherent risks of the activity. A waiver under Connecticut law is not a release.

The language of the waiver provision here is limited to “the inherent risks of this activity” and is not broad enough to exculpate defendant for its own negligence.

The defendant was unable to prove that there was a difference between their documents and the loss of the assumption of risk defense. Meaning the defendant lost their motion because the waiver was the same in this case as assumption of the risk, which had been abolished.

Defendant has failed to show that the waiver special defense is the same as the assumption of risk defense abolished by C.G.S. §52-572h(l). Stated otherwise, defendant has failed to show the statutory prohibition extended to waiver by contract. The motion to strike the First Special Defense is denied.

The second motion based on release was also denied for the same reason.

A contractual release of liability for inherent risks from an activity is not conceptually the same thing as assumption of risk from participation in a risky activity. Defendant has failed to show that the release special defense is the same as the assumption of risk defense abolished by C.G.S. §52-572h(l). Stated otherwise, defendant has failed to show the statutory prohibition extended to releases by contract. The motion to strike the Second Special Defense is denied.

So Now What?

This decision picked through, carefully, the differences between a defense that had been merged into a way to determine damages, assumption of the risk, and a contractual document to release the defendant from liability.

The decision is also confusing as hell!

The result is you must carefully write your release in Connecticut. You must define the risks and have the signor agree those risks are inherent in the activity.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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A season pass release for a Pennsylvania ski are was limited to the inherent risks of skiing. Consequently, the plaintiff was able to argue his injury was not due to an inherent risk.

The defendant one because the court was able to interpret the risk as one that was inherent in skiing. The defendant also, laid out the risks of skiing quite broadly in its information to the plaintiff.

Cahill v. Ski Liberty Operating Corp., 2006 Pa. Dist. & Cnty. Dec. LEXIS 444; 81 Pa. D. & C.4th 344

State: Pennsylvania, Common Pleas Court of Adams County, Pennsylvania

Plaintiff: Timothy Joseph Cahill and Anne Leslie Cahill

Defendant: Ski Liberty Operating Corp. t/d/b/a Ski Liberty and t/d/b/a Liberty Mountain Resort and Snow Time, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: negligent for failing to properly maintain its ski slopes in a safe manner and/or failing to adequately warn concerning an icy area

Defendant Defenses: Assumption of the Risk and Release

Holding:

Year: 2006

Summary

Plaintiff was injured when he skied over an icy spot and fell at the defendant’s ski area. However, this case was quickly dismissed because he had signed a release and the risk of ice at a ski area was an inherent risk of the Pennsylvania Skier Safety Act.

Facts

The plaintiff purchased a season pass to ski at the defendant’s ski area. He purchased his season pass on-line and signed a release at that time, online. When he went to pick up his season pass, he signed another written release. (See Too many contracts can void each other out; two releases signed at different times can render both release’s void.)

While skiing one day the plaintiff fell on an icy section. He claimed he was unaware of the ice. He severely injured is face, back, ribs and left hand. He sued the defendants for his injuries.

The defendant filed a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings. A Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings is an argument that the pleadings do not make a legal case to continue the litigation.

A motion for judgment on the pleadings is in the nature of a demurrer as it provides the means to test the legal sufficiency of the pleadings. All of the [P]laintiffs’ allegations must be taken as true for the purposes of judgment on the pleadings. Unlike a motion for summary judgment, the power of the court to enter a judgment on the pleadings is limited by the requirement that the court consider only the pleadings themselves and any documents properly attached thereto. A motion for judgment on the pleadings should be granted only where the pleadings demonstrate that no genuine issue of fact exists and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

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

The court looked at Pennsylvania law. Like most states in Pennsylvania “exculpatory agreements, or releases, are valid provided, they comply with the safeguards enunciated by our Superior Court.”

Under Pennsylvania law, a release to be valid must:

The contract must not contravene any policy of the law. It must be a contract between individuals relating to their private affairs. Each party must be a free bargaining agent, not simply one drawn into an adhesion contract, with no recourse but to reject the entire transaction…[T]o be enforceable, several additional standards must be met. First, we must construe the agreement strictly and against the party asserting it. Finally, the agreement must spell out the intent of the parties with the utmost particularity.

The court then went through the facts in this case to see if the requirements under the law were met.

The plaintiff was not forced to sign the release but did so freely. The release was signed based on a personal choice of the plaintiff to ski at the defendant’s facilities. “Clearly, this activity is not essential to Cahill’s personal or economic well-being but, rather, was a purely recreational activity.”

The release does not violate public policy because the agreement was private in nature and “in no way affect the rights of the public.”

The court found the release was unambiguous. The release spelled out the intent of the parties and gave notice to the plaintiff of what he was signing.

The releases executed by Cahill are unambiguous in both their language and intent. The language spells out with particularity the intent of the parties. The captions clearly advise patrons of the contents and purpose of the document as both a notice of risk and a release of liability. The waiver uses plain language informing the skier that downhill skiing is a dangerous sport with inherent risks including ice and icy conditions as well as other forms of natural or man-made obstacles, the condition of which vary constantly due to weather changes and use. Importantly, after advising a patron of these dangers, the documents unequivocally, in both bold and capital letters, releases Ski Liberty from liability for any injuries suffered while using the ski facilities regardless of any negligence on the part of Ski Liberty, its employees, or agents. The application of the releases to use of Ski Liberty facilities is not only spelled out specifically in the document but is reinforced by other references to the releases throughout the body of the document.

The plaintiff had ample opportunity to read and review the release before paying for it. The court found the release was clear and spelled out in detail in plain language the intent of the parties.

The plaintiff argued the icy condition was a hazardous condition created by the defendant and is not an inherent risk of the sport of skiing. Because the condition was hazardous, the plaintiff argued you could not assume the risk of the icy area, and the release should be void.

The court found that icy conditions were an inherent risk of skiing in Pennsylvania.

Cahill is an experienced skier who obviously has personal knowledge of the inherent dangers involved in the sport. His experience undoubtedly has taught him that the sport of skiing is not conducted in the pristine and controlled atmosphere of a laboratory but rather occurs in the often hostile and fickle atmosphere of a south central Pennsylvania winter. Those familiar with skiing, such as Cahill, are aware that nature’s snow is regularly supplemented with a man made variety utilizing water and a complex system of sprayers, hydrants, and pipes. Human experience also teaches us that water equipment frequently leaves puddles which, in freezing temperatures, will rapidly turn to ice. The risks caused by this variety of ever-changing factors are not only inherent in downhill skiing but, perhaps, are the very nature of the sport. The self-apparent risks were accepted by Cahill when he voluntarily entered into a business relationship with Ski Liberty. He chose to purchase a ski ticket in exchange for the opportunity to experience the thrill of downhill skiing. In doing so, he voluntarily assumed the risks that not only accompany the sport but may very well add to its attractiveness.

The court upheld the release and granted the defendants motion for judgment on the pleadings. This effectively ended the lawsuit.

So Now What?

It is rare that a Judgment on the Pleadings works, normally; the plaintiff can make an argument that the court finds requires more investigation, so the case can continue.

Here though, the release was well-written and the plaintiff’s argument was thrown out as a risk covered in the Pennsylvania Skier Safety Act.

In this case, the plaintiff was dealt a double blow, with only one being necessary for the defendant to win. He signed a valid release and the risk he undertook was an inherent risk of skiing in Pennsylvania.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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

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

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

State: New Hampshire, Supreme Court of New Hampshire

Plaintiff: Brenda Wright

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

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: for the Plaintiff

Year: 1995

Summary

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

Facts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So Now What?

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

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

But!

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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

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

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

No. 94-266

SUPREME COURT OF NEW HAMPSHIRE

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

August 22, 1995, Decided

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

PRIOR HISTORY: Merrimack County.

DISPOSITION: Reversed and remanded.

CASE SUMMARY:

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

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

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

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

LexisNexis(R) Headnotes

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

Civil Procedure > Summary Judgment > Opposition > General Overview

Civil Procedure > Summary Judgment > Standards > Genuine Disputes

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

Contracts Law > Contract Conditions & Provisions > Exculpatory Clauses

Torts > Negligence > Defenses > Exculpatory Clauses > Interpretation

Torts > Procedure > Settlements > Releases > Construction & Interpretation

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

Contracts Law > Contract Conditions & Provisions > Indemnity

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

Contracts Law > Contract Conditions & Provisions > Exculpatory Clauses

Contracts Law > Types of Contracts > Releases

Torts > Procedure > Settlements > Releases > General Overview

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

HEADNOTES

1. Contracts–Liability for Negligence–Public Policy

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

2. Contracts–Construction–Ambiguity

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

3. Contracts–Liability for Negligence–Exculpatory Provision

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

4. Contracts–Liability for Negligence–Exculpatory Provision

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

5. Contracts–Liability for Negligence–Exculpatory Provision

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

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

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

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

OPINION BY: JOHNSON

OPINION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Audley, we concluded:

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


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

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

Reversed and remanded.

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

DISSENT BY: THAYER

DISSENT

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

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

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

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


This decision is either normal, or ground breaking. The release info is nothing new. However, the court found the language on the back of the lift ticket created a release which barred the plaintiff’s claims.

11th Circuit Court of Appeals upholds lower decision dismissing claims of a plaintiff who broke her femur unloading a lift during a ski lesson.

Lower Court decision was based on Colorado Premises Liability Act. This decision was based on the release the plaintiff signed to take the ski lesson.

For an analysis of the lower court decision see: Question answered; Colorado Premises Liability Act supersedes Colorado Ski Area Safety act. Standard of care owed skiers on chairlift’s reasonable man standard?

Brigance, v. Vail Summit Resorts, Inc., 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 397

State: Colorado: United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit

Plaintiff: Teresa Brigance

Defendant: Vail Summit Resorts, Inc. (Keystone Ski Area)

Plaintiff Claims: (1) negligence, (2) negligence per se, (3) negligent supervision and training, (4) negligence (respondeat superior), (5) negligent hiring, and (6) violation of the Colorado Premises Liability Act (the “PLA”), Colo. Rev. Stat. § 13-21-115

Defendant Defenses: Release and the lift ticket

Holding: For the Defendant Ski Area, Vail

Year: 2018

This case looks at the law concerning releases in Colorado. Writing a release requires three skills. The first is an understanding of the law that will be applied to the release in question. The second is an understanding of the activity, and the risks associated with the activity the release must cover. The third is what do judges want to see in the release and what they don’t want to see.

The first and third items are what I specialize in. The second item is what we have to specialize in. Writing a release is not handing a contract job to an attorney. It is understanding how you want to run your business, the guests you want to serve and the types of problems you want to prevent from turning into litigation.

If you need a release for your business, activity or program consider working with me to design one. You also have the option of purchasing a pre-written release based upon the needs of your business, type of activity and the state where you are located.

To help you understand release law, here is an article about how a release was written correctly and then used to stop a claim.

Summary

This decision does not stand out among decisions concerning release law in Colorado. However, it is an extreme change from Colorado law and the law of most other states when it states the backside of a lift ticket is a release. The lower court decision was analyzed in Question answered; Colorado Premises Liability Act supersedes Colorado Ski Area Safety act. Standard of care owed skiers on chairlift’s reasonable man standard?

The plaintiff was taking a ski lesson when she fell getting off the lift. She sued for the normal negligent issues. The court throughout her claims based upon the release she signed to take the ski lesson.

Facts

The plaintiff signed up to take a ski lesson with Keystone Resorts, a ski area owned by the defendant Vail Summit Resorts, Inc. and ultimately by Vail Resorts Management Company. (There may be some more corporations or LLC’s in the middle.) When she signed up for the lesson, she signed a release which is a common practice at ski areas.

When she was unloading a lift, the edge of the chair caught the top of her ski boot, and she fell eventually breaking her femur.

She sued. Her case was thrown out by the trial court. See Brigance v. Vail Summit Resorts, Inc., 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 31662 analyzed in Question answered; Colorado Premises Liability Act supersedes Colorado Ski Area Safety act. Standard of care owed skiers on chairlift’s reasonable man standard?

On a side note. One of her claims was the lift did not stop immediately. One defense I never see to this claim; lifts don’t stop immediately. If the lift stopped immediately, everyone riding the lift would be thrown off. Lift’s decelerate at a speed that allows the lift to stop as quickly as possible without ejecting everyone riding on the lift. If nothing else it is a save everyone else on the lift and sacrifice the person who can’t unload.

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

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals is a federal court. The plaintiff filed this case in federal court because she was from Florida. Vail and the locations of the accident are in Colorado. That allowed her to have federal jurisdiction in the case because the plaintiff and the defendant were from two different states.

When a federal court has a case like this, it applies the law of the state that has jurisdiction as if the case were not in federal court. In this case, the decision looks at Colorado law as it applies to ski areas and releases. There is no Federal law concerning ski areas, other than general laws on leasing Forest Service land for a ski area.

The court started its analysis by reviewing the release and Colorado law on releases.

Colorado has a tag it applies to releases; like a few other states, that releases are disfavored under Colorado law. However, disfavored a release may be; that statement seems to be something to provide the plaintiff with an idea of fairness rather than the reality that if you write your release correctly, it will be upheld in Colorado.

For a decision that was lost because the defendant did not write the release correctly see Colorado Appellate Court rules that fine print and confusing language found on most health clubs (and some climbing wall) releases is void because of the Colorado Premises Liability Act.

There are four tests a release must pass to be valid in Colorado.

(1) the existence of a duty to the public; (2) the nature of the service performed; (3) whether the contract was fairly entered into; and (4) whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language.

The court found plenty of Colorado law stating that a recreation service or activity does not owe a duty to the public and is not a service that should be questioned, which covers the first two requirements. The release was well-written, and the plaintiff did not argue that the release was not entered into fairly. Consequently, the court was able to state the release was valid the plaintiff’s claims were barred by the release.

One argument of the plaintiff’s the court did spend some time on was the Ski Area Safety Statute and the Passenger Tramway Safety Act created a public duty. Thus, the nature of the relationship between the ski area and a guest was one not of recreation but of a public duty, therefore, the release was not valid. This argument was an attempt to void the release based on the first two requirements set out above.

However, the court found that the creation of both statutes was done so that releases were not voided for skiing in Colorado. Looking at Colorado law the court found:

Our conclusion that the SSA and PTSA do not bar exculpatory agreements is supported by the Colorado Supreme Court’s regular enforcement of exculpatory agreements involving recreational activities, particularly in the context of equine activities, as well as the General Assembly’s relatively recent pronouncements regarding the public policy considerations involved in a parent’s ability to execute exculpatory agreements on behalf of its child with respect to prospective negligence claims.

The court found all four requirements for a release to be valid in Colorado were met.

What was exciting about this case wad the Court found the lift ticket was a release.

What is of note about this case is the Appellate Court like the lower court, looked at the language on the back side of the lift ticket as a release. The court starts by calling the language a “Lift Ticket Waiver.”

The Lift Ticket Waiver–approximately two paragraphs in length–is not as detailed as the Ski School Waiver, but contains somewhat similar language regarding the ticket holder’s assumption of risk and waiver of claims. After detailing some of the inherent dangers and risks of skiing that the holder of the ticket assumes, as well as identifying other risks and responsibilities, the Lift Ticket Waiver provides that the “Holder agrees to ASSUME ALL RISKS, inherent or otherwise” and “to hold the ski area harmless for claims to person and property.”

Emphasize added

No other court in Colorado has ever looked at the language on the back of the lift ticket as being a release. That language is there because it is required by statute. Colorado Ski Safety Act C.R.S. §§ 33-44-107. Duties of ski area operators – signs and notices required for skiers’ information. (8) states:

(8) (a) Each ski area operator shall post and maintain signs which contain the warning notice specified in paragraph (c) of this subsection (8). Such signs shall be placed in a clearly visible location at the ski area where the lift tickets and ski school lessons are sold and in such a position to be recognizable as a sign to skiers proceeding to the uphill loading point of each base area lift. Each sign shall be no smaller than three feet by three feet. Each sign shall be white with black and red letters as specified in this paragraph (a). The words “WARNING” shall appear on the sign in red letters. The warning notice specified in paragraph (c) of this subsection (8) shall appear on the sign in black letters, with each letter to be a minimum of one inch in height.

(b) Every ski lift ticket sold or made available for sale to skiers by any ski area operator shall contain in clearly readable print the warning notice specified in paragraph (c) of this subsection (8).

(c) The signs described in paragraph (a) of this subsection (8) and the lift tickets described in paragraph (b) of this subsection (8) shall contain the following warning notice:

WARNING

Under Colorado law, a skier assumes the risk of any injury to person or property resulting from any of the inherent dangers and risks of skiing and may not recover from any ski area operator for any injury resulting from any of the inherent dangers and risks of skiing, including: Changing weather conditions; existing and changing snow conditions; bare spots; rocks; stumps; trees; collisions with natural objects, man-made objects, or other skiers; variations in terrain; and the failure of skiers to ski within their own abilities.

    Emphasize added

The court specifically stated the language highlighted above in yellow contains “waiver of claims.” Based on the statute and the language, this is solely a list of the risks a skier assumes by statute when skiing inbounds in Colorado. However, now this court has found more in the text.

For more on lift tickets baring claims see Lift tickets are not contracts and rarely work as a release in most states. The reason most courts find that the language on the back of a lift ticket is not a release is there is no meeting of the minds, no one points out to the purchaser of a lift ticket there is a contract they are agreeing to.

In this case that would be impossible because the case states the husband purchased the lift ticket so the plaintiff could not have agreed to the contract.

In addition, Dr. Brigance’s husband purchased a lift ticket enabling her to ride the ski lifts at Key-stone. Dr. Brigance received the ticket from her husband and used it to ride the Discovery Lift. The lift ticket contained a warning and liability waiver (the “Lift Ticket Waiver”) on its back side, which provides in pertinent part:

Emphasize added

As stated above, the court notes that the husband and not the plaintiff purchased the lift tickets. No contract could be created in this case, yet somehow; the court found the lift ticket was a contract and as such was a release of liability. There was no meeting of the minds and there was no consideration passing between the plaintiff and the ski area.

However, this has monstrous meaning to all other ski areas in Colorado. If the language required by statute to be placed on the back of lift tickets is also a release of liability, then a new defense is available to all injuries of any skier, boarder, tuber or other person on the ski area who purchases a lift ticket.

More importantly you could require everyone coming on to the ski area to purchase a lift ticket no matter the reason. The cost could only be one dollar, but the savings to the ski area would be immense. If you are skiing you lift ticket is $200. If you are just going to dinner or watching your kids ski the lift ticket is $1.00 and gives you a $1.00 discount on your first drink.

Everyone who has a lift ticket at a ski area has effectively signed a release now.

However, remember, this is a federal court interpreting state law, the law of Colorado. Until the Colorado Courts weight in on the subject and the Colorado Supreme Court decides the issue, its value may be suspect. It is reliable in Federal Court as this condition is precedent setting, however, I would lean hard on the decision, not stand on it.

The court concluded, and in doing so provided a better idea about how Colorado looks are releases, that:

In summary, Colorado’s “relatively permissive public policy toward recreational releases” is one “that, no doubt, means some losses go uncompensated.” And the Colorado Supreme Court and General Assembly may someday “prefer a policy that shifts the burden of loss to the service provider, ensuring compensation in cases like this.” Id. But “that decision is their decision to make, not ours, and their current policy is clear.” Id. As a result, for the reasons stated above, we conclude the Ski School Waiver and Lift Ticket Waiver are enforceable and accordingly bar Dr. Brigance’s claims.

So Now What?

Overall, the case has nothing new on release law and is another affirmation that releases in Colorado, if written correctly, will stop claims for negligence.

However, if the Colorado courts follow the reasoning contained in this decision about the validity of the language on the back of a lift ticket as a bar to claims, then this is the first step in making almost impossible to sue a ski area in Colorado for any reason.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2017 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

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