Twenty Years ago, releases were void in New York, here; a release stopped a claim for an injury from a plaintiff playing flag football

New York has a statute that voids releases if used by places of amusement where you pay to enter. Issue in this case was, did the plaintiff pay to enter the field or pay the league.

By paying the league, he did not pay a place of amusement, and the release stopped his claims.

Marcf v. Middle Country Center School District, Long Island Flag Football League, Inc. et. Al. 57 Misc. 3d 1225(A); 2017 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 4717; 2017 NY Slip Op 51678(U)

State: New York: Supreme Court of New York, Suffolk County

Plaintiff: Murat Marcf

Defendant: Middle Country Center School District, Long Island Flag Foot-Ball League, Inc. and Long Island Flag Football, Inc.,

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: for the Defendant

Year: December 2017

This case is one of many showing how release law has changed over the years. New York was a state that once barred releases and now easily enforces them. If you use releases, you must stay current on the law affecting your release. You probably also need to have your release updated. Contact me if you need your release checked.

Summary

New York GOL § 5-326 states that in New York places of amusement, where the patrons pay to enter or play are void. Here the place of amusement was a football field owned by the defendant. However, the plaintiff did not pay the defendant to play on the field; he paid the flag football league so the release he signed was valid and stopped his claims.

Facts

The plaintiff was injured playing flag football. His flag football game was part of a league. The plaintiff paid the league to play, and the league organized games and places to play.

The plaintiff jumped to receive a pass and landed on a concealed sprinkler head inuring is foot. He sued to recover for his injuries. The field he was playing on was owned by the defendant school district.

Before playing the plaintiff signed a release. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss the plaintiff claims based upon the release. The following is the court’s analysis and dismissal of the plaintiff’s complaint.

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

The court thoroughly went through release law in New York. The court referred to the release as documentary evidence that must resolve all factual issues if the motion was to be granted.

For the release to be valid, the terms of the release must be clear, unambiguous and conclusively dispose of the matter. A release is a contract and will be governed by contract law. If the release is not void by statute or public policy a release absolving a party of negligence will be enforced.

The court found the language of the release was clear and unambiguous and thus enforceable and binding upon the parties. The release is valid and enforceable unless the plaintiff claims duress, illegality, fraud or mutual mistake. Here the plaintiff did not plead any of those.

Plaintiff in this matter makes no claim of duress, illegality, fraud, or mutual mistake in the signing of the subject Release. Instead, plaintiff alleges in opposition to the motion that the Release is void as against public policy pursuant to GOL § 5-326, and that defendant is, therefore, barred from relying on the Release in seeking dismissal of the plaintiff’s complaint. GOL § 5-326 renders void and unenforceable agreements that exempt certain places of public amusement, recreation and similar establishments from liability.

General Obligations Law § 5-326 was enacted to stop gyms from using a release. The courts have not looked at the statute from stopping places of amusement from using a release.

In general, when a participant pays a fee to use recreational facilities, or pays league fees and the league pays for use of those facilities, a waiver and release of liability signed by the participant is void pursuant to GOL § 5-326 To void a release of liability executed by a user of a recreational facility pursuant to GOL § 5-326, there must be an evidentiary showing that the individual paid a fee for use of the facility…

Here the plaintiff did not pay to use the field, the place of amusement. The plaintiff paid to join the league. The field was used for free by the league.

A plaintiff’s complaint will be properly dismissed pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(5) where the plaintiff claims that the Release is void pursuant to GOL §5-326, but fails to establish that he or she paid a fee directly to the owner or operator of the recreational facility for use of the facility where the alleged injury occurred…

Because the plaintiff did not pay the “place of amusement” the owner of the field, GOL §5-326 did not apply.

So Now What?

Release law evolves, constantly. The evolution of releases in New York went from they were void because of GOL §5-326, to unless the plaintiff can prove an exact relationship to the defendant and the statute the release will be valid.

If you use a release, you must stay current on release law. Read these articles and if your release has not been updated in a while contact me.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2017 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

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Marcf v. Middle Country Center School District, LONG ISLAND FLAG FOOTBALL LEAGUE, INC. et. Al. 57 Misc. 3d 1225(A); 2017 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 4717; 2017 NY Slip Op 51678(U)

Marcf v. Middle Country Center School District, LONG ISLAND FLAG FOOTBALL LEAGUE, INC. et. Al. 57 Misc. 3d 1225(A); 2017 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 4717; 2017 NY Slip Op 51678(U)

Murat Marcf, Plaintiff(s), against Middle Country Center School District, LONG ISLAND FLAG FOOTBALL LEAGUE, INC. and LONG ISLAND FLAG FOOTBALL, INC., Defendant(s).

3015-2016

SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, SUFFOLK COUNTY

57 Misc. 3d 1225(A); 2017 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 4717; 2017 NY Slip Op 51678(U)

December 11, 2017, Decided

NOTICE: THIS OPINION IS UNCORRECTED AND WILL NOT BE PUBLISHED IN THE PRINTED OFFICIAL REPORTS.

CORE TERMS: league, football, flag, void, documentary evidence, signing, public policy, establishment, unambiguous, supporting papers, recreational facilities, unenforceable, participating, conclusively, recreation, amusement, playing, binding, matter of law, causes of action, entitlement, enforceable, illegality, gymnasium, producing, dispose, duress, mutual, exempt, facie

HEADNOTES

Release–Scope of Release–General Obligations Law § 5-326 did not void unambiguous waiver and release of liability where plaintiff paid fee to league to play flag football on field on which he was injured since no part of fee went to field owner. General Obligations Law § 5-326 (Agreements exempting pools, gymnasiums, places of public amusement or recreation and similar establishments from liability for negligence void and unenforceable).

COUNSEL: [*1] For Plaintiff: Siben & Siben, LLP, Bay Shore, New York.

For Defendants: Havkins Rosenfeld Ritzert & Varriale, New York, New York.

JUDGES: PETER H. MAYER, J.S.C.

OPINION BY: PETER H. MAYER

OPINION

Peter H. Mayer, J.

Upon the reading and filing of the following papers in this matter: (1) Notice of Motion by the defendants, dated June 15, 2016, and supporting papers; (2) Affirmation in Opposition by the plaintiff, dated August 22, 2016, and supporting papers; (3) Reply Affirmation by the defendants, dated September 15, 2016, and supporting papers; (4) Sur Reply by the plaintiff, dated September 21, 2016, and supporting papers; and now

UPON DUE DELIBERATION AND CONSIDERATION BY THE COURT of the foregoing papers, the motion is decided as follows: it is

ORDERED that the motion (seq. # 001) by defendants, Middle Country Central School District (“School District”) and Long Island Flag Football, Inc., s/h/a Long Island Flag Football League, Inc. and Long Island Flag Football, Inc. (“the League”), which seeks an Order dismissing the plaintiff’s complaint pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(1) and (5), is hereby granted; and it is further

ORDERED that counsel for defendants shall promptly serve a copy of this Order upon counsel for all parties by First Class [*2] Mail, and shall promptly thereafter file the affidavit(s) of such service with the Suffolk County Clerk.

In this action, plaintiff alleges that on October 4, 2015 he injured his left foot while playing in a League flag football game, when he jumped to catch a pass and landed on a concealed sprinkler head. The game was being played on a field located on the grounds of Newfield High School, which is operated by the defendant School District. Prior to playing in the football game, plaintiff and his teammates signed a Waiver and Release of Liability (“Release”), which states:

In return for my being allowed to participate in any way in the LONG ISLAND FLAG FOOTBALL LEAGUE, INC., I release and agree not to sue the LONG ISLAND FLAG FOOTBALL LEAGUE, INC., its employees directors and non-employees such as referees, coaches, agents, sponsors, and owners of fields used, from all present and future claims made by me or my family, estate, heirs or assigns for property damage, personal injury, or wrongful death arising as a result of my participation in the LONG ISLAND FLAG FOOTBALL LEAGUE, INC. and caused by the ordinary negligence of the parties above, wherever, whenever, or however the same may [*3] occur. I understand and agree that those listed above are not responsible for any injury or property damage arising out of my participation out of my participation (sic) in the LONG ISLAND FLAG FOOTBALL LEAGUE, INC., even if caused by their ordinary negligence. I understand that participation in the LONG ISLAND FLAG FOOTBALL LEAGUE, INC. involves certain risks including, but not limited to, serious injury, severe economic losses, permanent disability, and even death. I am voluntarily participating in the LONG ISLAND FLAG FOOTBALL LEAGUE, INC. with knowledge of the danger involved and agree to accept all risks of such participation. I certify that I am in excellent physical health, and may participate [**2] in strenuous and hazardous physical activities, including the flag football to be played in the LONG ISLAND FLAG FOOTBALL LEAGUE, INC. I agree that prior to participating, I will inspect the facilities and equipment to be used, and if I believe anything unsafe, I will immediately advise my coach of said condition(s) and refuse to participate. Permission is granted for me to receive medical treatment, if needed. I also agree to indemnify and hold harmless those listed above for all claims [*4] arising out of my participation in the LONG ISLAND FLAG FOOTBALL LEAGUE, INC. and all related activities. I understand that this document is intended to be as broad and inclusive as permitted by the State of New York and agree that if any portion of this agreement is invalid, the remainder will continue in full legal force and effect. I further agree that any legal proceedings related to this waiver will take place in Suffolk County, New York. I am of legal age and am freely signing this agreement.

We have read this agreement and understand that by signing this form, we are giving up legal rights and remedies and that the terms of this release are binding on each one of us.

The defendants contend in their dismissal motion that the plaintiff assumed the risk of injury while playing in the game, and that by signing the Release, the plaintiff effectively released the defendants from liability for any injuries plaintiff allegedly sustained during the game. Defendants conclude, therefore, that they are entitled to dismissal of plaintiff’s complaint pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(1) and (5).

Generally, on a CPLR 3211 motion to dismiss, the court will accept the facts alleged in the complaint as true, accord plaintiffs the [*5] benefit of every possible favorable inference, and determine only whether the facts as alleged fit within any cognizable legal theory (see Walton v New York State Dept. of Corr. Services, 13 NY3d 475, 484, 921 N.E.2d 145, 893 NYS2d 453 [2009], quoting Nonnon v City of New York, 9 NY3d 825, 827, 874 N.E.2d 720, 842 NYS2d 756 [2007]). Pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(1), a party may move for dismissal of one or more causes of action on the ground that “a defense is founded upon documentary evidence.” Likewise, a party may move for dismissal pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(5) on the ground that “the cause of action may not be maintained because of … [a] release” of liability.

A motion to dismiss pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(1) on the ground that the action is barred by documentary evidence may be appropriately granted where the documentary evidence utterly refutes the plaintiff’s factual allegations, conclusively establishing a defense as a matter of law (see AG Capital Funding Partners, L.P. v State Street Bank and Trust Co., 5 NY3d 582, 842 N.E.2d 471, 808 NYS2d 573 [2005]; Goshen v Mutual Life Ins. Co. of New York, 98 NY2d 314, 774 N.E.2d 1190, 746 NYS2d 858 [2002]; Leon v Martinez, 84 NY2d 83, 638 N.E.2d 511, 614 NYS2d 972 [1994]; Thompsen v Baier, 84 AD3d 1062, 923 NYS2d 607 [2d Dept 2011]; Rietschel v Maimonides Medical Center, 83 AD3d 810, 921 NYS2d 290 [2d Dept 2011]). In other words, the documentary evidence must resolve all factual issues as a matter of law and conclusively dispose of the plaintiff’s claim (see Palmetto Partners, L.P. v AJW Qualified Partners, LLC, 83 AD3d 804, 921 NYS2d 260 [2d Dept 2011]; Paramount Transp. Sys., Inc. v Lasertone Corp., 76 AD3d 519, 520, 907 NYS2d 498 [2d Dept 2010]).

When a defendant moves for CPLR 3211(a)(1) dismissal based on documentary evidence that the plaintiff signed a release of liability in favor of the defendant, dismissal may be granted where the terms of the release are clear, unambiguous and conclusively dispose of the matter (see Burgos v New York Presbyterian Hosp., 155 AD3d 598, 2017 NY Slip Op 07585 [2d Dept 2017]; Rudovic v Rudovic, 131 AD3d 1225, 16 NYS3d 856 [2d Dept 2015]). In effect, a release is a contract and its construction [*6] is governed by contract law (see Outdoors Clothing Corp. v Schneider, 153 AD3d 717, 60 NYS3d 302 [2d Dept 2017]; Kaminsky v Gamache, 298 AD2d 361, 751 NYS2d 254 [2d Dept 2002]). Absent a statute or public policy to the contrary, a contractual provision absolving a party from its own negligence will be enforced (see Sommer v Federal Signal Corp., 79 NY2d 540, 593 N.E.2d 1365, 583 NYS2d 957 [1992]; Deutsch v Woodridge Segway, LLC, 117 AD3d 776, 985 NYS2d 716 [2d Dept 2014]; Princetel, LLC v Buckley, 95 AD3d 855, 944 NYS2d 191 [2d Dept 2012]). A defendant establishes its prima facie entitlement to dismissal by producing the waiver and release signed by the plaintiff (see Brookner v New York Roadrunners Club, Inc., 51 AD3d 841, 858 NYS2d 348 [2d Dept 2008]; Bufano v National Inline Roller Hockey Ass’n, 272 A.D.2d 359, 707 N.Y.S.2d 223 [2d Dept 2000]).

If the language of a release is clear and unambiguous, the signing of a release is a “jural act” binding on the parties (see Booth v 3669 Delaware, Inc., 92 NY2d 934, 703 N.E.2d 757, 680 NYS2d 899 [2d Dept 1998]; Mangini v McClurg, 24 NY2d 556, 249 N.E.2d 386, 301 NYS2d 508 [1969]). The Court finds that the language of the subject Release is clear and unambiguous and is, therefore, valid, enforceable and binding on the parties (see Lago v Krollage, 78 NY2d 95, 575 N.E.2d 107, 571 NYS2d 689 [1991]; Booth v 3669 Delaware, Inc., 92 NY2d 934, 703 N.E.2d 757, 680 NYS2d 899 [2d Dept 1998]). A release will not be treated lightly, and will not be set aside by a court without a showing of duress, illegality, fraud, or mutual mistake (see Liotti v Galasso, Langione and Botter, 128 AD3d 912, 8 NYS3d 578 [2d Dept 2015]; Seff v Meltzer, Lippe, Goldstein & Schlissel, P.C., 55 AD3d 592, 865 NYS2d 323 [2d Dept 2008]; Shklovskiy v Khan, 273 AD2d 371, 709 NYS2d 208 [2d Dept 2000]; Delaney v County of Westchester, 90 AD2d 819, 455 NYS2d 839 [2d Dept 1982], appeal dismissed 59 NY2d 763 [1983]; Thives v Holmes Ambulance Service Corp., 78 AD2d 651, 432 NYS2d 235 [2d Dept 1980]). Plaintiff in this matter makes no claim of duress, illegality, fraud, or mutual mistake in the signing of the subject Release. Instead, plaintiff alleges in opposition to the motion that the Release is void as against pubic policy pursuant to GOL § 5-326, and that defendant is, therefore, barred from relying on the Release in seeking dismissal of plaintiff’s complaint. GOL § 5-326 renders void and unenforceable agreements that exempt certain [*7] places of public amusement, recreation and similar establishments from liability. In this regard GOL § 5-326 states:

Every covenant, agreement or understanding in or in connection with, or collateral to, any contract, membership application, ticket of admission or similar writing, entered into between the owner or operator of any pool, gymnasium, place of amusement or recreation, or similar establishment and the user of such facilities, pursuant to which such owner or operator receives a fee or other compensation for the use of such facilities, which exempts the said owner or operator from liability for damages caused by or resulting from the negligence of the owner, operator or person in charge of such establishment, or their agents, servants or employees, shall be deemed to [**3] be void as against public policy and wholly unenforceable.

In general, when a participant pays a fee to use recreational facilities, or pays league fees and the league pays for use of those facilities, a waiver and release of liability signed by the participant is void pursuant to GOL § 5-326 (see Falzone v City of New York, 128 AD3d 889, 9 NYS3d 165 [2d Dept 2015]). To void a release of liability executed by a user of a recreational facility pursuant to GOL § 5-326, there must be an evidentiary showing that the [*8] individual paid a fee for use of the facility (see Lago v Krollage, 78 NY2d 95, 575 N.E.2d 107, 571 NYS2d 689 [1991]; Stuhlweissenburg v Town of Orangetown, 223 AD2d 633, 636 NYS2d 853 [2d Dept 1996]; Stone v Bridgehampton Race Circuit, 217 AD2d 541, 629 NYS2d 80 [2d Dept 1995]; Miranda v Hampton Auto Raceway, 130 AD2d 558, 515 NYS2d 291 [2d Dept 1987]).

A plaintiff’s complaint will be properly dismissed pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(5) where the plaintiff claims that the Release is void pursuant to GOL §5-326, but fails to establish that he or she paid a fee directly to the owner or operator of the recreational facility for use of the facility where the alleged injury occurred (see Brookner v New York Roadrunners Club, Inc., 51 AD3d 841, 858 NYS2d 348 [2d Dept 2008]; Bufano v National Inline Roller Hockey Ass’n, 272 AD2d 359, 707 NYS2d 223 [2d Dept 2000]). When a plaintiff fails to produce any evidence that he or she paid a fee for admission to, or use of, a municipality’s field, GOL § 5-326 will not void a release of liability executed by the plaintiff prior to participating in a sporting event (see Stuhlweissenburg v Town of Orangetown, 223 AD2d 633, 636 NYS2d 853 [2d Dept 1996]). Under such circumstances, the plaintiff’s waiver of liability is enforceable and not void as against public policy in violation of GOL § 5-326 (see Lago v Krollage, 78 NY2d 95, 575 N.E.2d 107, 571 NYS2d 689 [1991]; Lee v Boro Realty, LLC, 39 AD3d 715, 832 NYS2d 453 [2d Dept 2007]; Castellanos v Nassau/Suffolk Dek Hockey, 232 AD2d 354, 648 NYS2d 143 [2d Dept 1996]; Stuhlweissenburg v Town of Orangetown, 223 AD2d 633, 636 NYS2d 853 [2d Dept 1996]; Stone v Bridgehampton Race Circuit, 217 AD2d 541, 629 NYS2d 80 [2d Dept 1995]; Koster v Ketchum Communications, 204 AD2d 280, 611 NYS2d 298 [2d Dept 1994]).

Here, by producing the Waiver and Release signed by the plaintiff, the defendants established prima facie entitlement to dismissal of the plaintiff’s complaint (see Brookner v New York Roadrunners Club, Inc., 51 AD3d 841, 858 NYS2d 348 [2d Dept 2008]; Bufano v National Inline Roller Hockey Ass’n, 272 A.D.2d 359, 707 N.Y.S.2d 223 [2d Dept 2000]). In opposition, plaintiff has failed to show he paid to use the field where he was allegedly injured, or that any portion of his League fee was paid to the School District for the use of the field. In fact, the affidavit of the defendant League’s President, George Hignell, shows [*9] that the School District “did not require a fee for the use of its fields” and that “[n]either the plaintiff nor the [L]eague paid a fee for use of Newfield High School athletic field” where the plaintiff is alleged to have been injured. Therefore, the Release is not void as against public policy pursuant to GOL § 5-326.

Based upon the foregoing, the plaintiff’s complaint is dismissed pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(1) and (a)(5) (see CPLR 3211[a][1]; CPLR 3211[a][5]; Burgos v New York Presbyterian Hosp., 155 AD3d 598, 2017 NY Slip Op 07585 [2d Dept 2017]; Rudovic v Rudovic, 131 A.D.3d 1225, 16 NYS3d 856 [2d Dept 2015] [**4] ; Brookner v New York Roadrunners Club, Inc., 51 AD3d 841, 858 NYS2d 348 [2d Dept 2008]; Bufano v National Inline Roller Hockey Ass’n, 272 AD2d 359, 707 NYS2d 223 [2d Dept 2000]).

This constitutes the Decision and Order of the Court.

Dated: December 11, 2017

PETER H. MAYER, J.S.C.


Rarely do you see recreation or release cases from the District of Columbia; in this case, the appellate court upheld the release for an injury in a gym

Plaintiff’s arguments about the release and attempt to invalidate the release by claiming gross negligence all failed.

Moore v. Waller, et al., 930 A.2d 176; 2007 D.C. App. LEXIS 476

State: District of Columbia, District of Columbia Court of Appeals

Plaintiff: Richard J. Moore

Defendant: Terrell Waller and Square 345 Limited Partnership T/A Grand Hyatt Hotel

Plaintiff Claims: negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: for the defendant health club

Year: 2007

The plaintiff was a member of the exercise facility and had signed a release when he joined. One day while at the facility to exercise, he was asked by a kick boxing instructor to hold an Everlast body bag so the instructor could demonstrate kicks to the class. The plaintiff reluctantly did so.

The kick boxing instructor showed the plaintiff how to hold the bag. The instructor then kicked the bag five times in rapid succession. The plaintiff was out of breath after the demonstration and stated with irony that it was not hard to do.

A month after the class the plaintiff determined he had been injured from holding the bag and sued.

The defendants motioned for summary judgment with the trial court which was granted, and the plaintiff appealed.

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

The court stated that it did not often look at releases in this context. The court looked at Maryland and other states for their laws concerning releases as well as the release law in DC, which was mostly in other types of business contracts.

DC like most other states will not allow a release to stop claims for “intentional harms or for the more extreme forms of negligence, i.e., reckless, wanton, or gross [negligence].” The plaintiff did not argue the acts of the defendant were grossly negligent, but did argue the acts were reckless.

However, the court could find nothing in the pleadings that indicated the defendant’s actions were reckless. In fact, the pleadings found the instructors efforts to show the plaintiff how to hold the bag was for safety purposes and as such; safety is inconsistent with recklessness or gross negligence.

The appellate court also looked at the release itself and found it was clear and unambiguous.

…”exculpation must be spelled out with such clarity that the intent to negate the usual consequences of tortious conduct is made plain”; also recognizing that in most circumstances modern law “permit[s] a person to exculpate himself by contract from the legal consequences of his negligence”

The plaintiff also argued the release was written so broadly that it was written to cover reckless or gross negligence and as such should be thrown out. However, the court looked at the issue in a different way. Any clause in a release that attempts to limit the liability for gross negligence is not valid; however, that does not invalidate the entire release.

We disagree. “‘A better interpretation of the law is that any “term” in a contract which at-tempts to exempt a party from liability for gross negligence or wanton conduct is unenforceable, not the entire [contract].

This is the acceptable way under contract law to deal with clauses or sections that are invalid. However, many contracts have clauses that say if any clause is invalid only that clause can be thrown out; the entire contract is still valid.

DC recognizes that some releases can be void if they reach too far.

We, of course, would not enforce such a release if doing so would be against public policy. “An exculpatory clause [in a will] that excuses self-dealing [by the personal representative] or attempts to limit liability for breaches of duty committed in bad faith, intentionally, or with reckless indifference to the interest of the beneficiary, is generally considered to be against public policy.”)

However, releases found within health club agreements do not violate public policy.

However, we agree with the Maryland Court of Special Appeals and with numerous other courts which have held that it does not violate public policy to enforce exculpatory clauses contained in membership contracts of health clubs and fitness centers.

The appellate court upheld the decision of the trial court.

So Now What?

This decision does not leap with new information or ideas about releases. What is reassuring are two points. The first is releases are valid in DC. The second is when in doubt the court looked to Maryland, which has held that a release signed by a parent can stop a minor’s right to sue. See States that allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue.

If you are interested in having me write your release, fill out this Information Form and Contract and send it to me.

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Moore v. Waller, et al., 930 A.2d 176; 2007 D.C. App. LEXIS 476

Moore v. Waller, et al., 930 A.2d 176; 2007 D.C. App. LEXIS 476

Richard J. Moore, Appellant, v. Terrell Waller and Square 345 Limited Partnership T/A Grand Hyatt Hotel, Appellees.

No. 05-CV-695

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA COURT OF APPEALS

930 A.2d 176; 2007 D.C. App. LEXIS 476

June 20, 2006, Argued

August 2, 2007, Decided

PRIOR HISTORY:  [**1]

Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. (CA-1522-04). (Hon. Michael L. Rankin, Trial Judge).

COUNSEL: John P. Fatherree for appellant.

Terrell Waller, Pro se.

Rocco P. Porreco for appellee, Square 345 Limited Partnership.

JUDGES: Before GLICKMAN, KRAMER, and FISHER, Associate Judges.

OPINION BY: FISHER

OPINION

[*177]  FISHER, Associate Judge: Appellant Richard Moore claims that he was injured on February 26, 2001, while participating in a demonstration of kick boxing at Club Fitness, which is operated by the appellee, Square 345 Limited Partnership (hereinafter Grand Hyatt). Relying on a waiver and release of liability Moore signed when he joined the fitness center, the Superior Court granted summary judgment, first for Grand Hyatt and then for Terrell Waller, the instructor who allegedly injured Moore. We affirm.

I.

Plaintiff Moore alleged that he had gone to the fitness center on February 26, 2001, to exercise. Although “he was not participating in the kick boxing classes, the instructor [*178]  , defendant Waller, asked [Moore] to hold . . . a detached Everlast body bag, so [Mr.] Waller could demonstrate a kick to his class.” According to Mr. Moore, he “reluctantly agreed, saying to [Mr. Waller], ‘Not hard.’ Defendant  [**2] Waller showed [Mr. Moore] how to hold the bag, braced against his body, and then kicked the bag five times, in rapid succession, with great force.” He claims that when Waller finished, “he was out of breath from the strenuous effort, and commented with obvious sarcasm and irony, ‘That wasn’t hard, was it.'” Moore states that he “immediately felt trauma to his body,” felt “stiff and achy” the next day, and consulted a physician about one month later. Mr. Moore asserts that “[h]e has been diagnosed as having torn ligaments and tendons from the trauma of the injury, and may have neurological damage, as well.” The resulting limitations on his physical activity allegedly have diminished the quality of his life in specified ways.

Mr. Moore had joined the fitness center on January 16, 2001, signing a membership agreement and initialing that portion of the agreement that purports to be a waiver and release of liability.

Article V – WAIVER AND LIABILITY

Section 1. The Member hereby acknowledges that attendance at or use of the Club or participation in any of the Club’s activities or programs by such Member, including without limitation, the use of the Club’s equipment and facilities, . . . exercises  [**3] (including the use of the weights, cardiovascular equipment, and apparatus designed for exercising), [and] selection of exercise programs, methods, and types of equipment, . . . could cause injury to the Member or damage to the Member’s personal property. As a material consideration for the Club to enter into this Agreement, to grant membership privileges hereunder and to permit the Member and the Member’s guests to use the Club and its facilities, the Member, on its own behalf and on behalf of the Member’s guests, agrees to assume any and all liabilities associated with the personal injury, death, property loss or other damages which may result from or arise out of attendance at or use of the Club or participation in any of the Club’s programs or activities, notwithstanding any consultation on any exercise programs which may be provided by employees of the Club.

By signing this Agreement, the Member understands that the foregoing waiver of liability on its behalf and on the behalf of the Member’s guests will apply to any and all claims against the Club and/or its owners, shareholders, officers, directors, employees, agents or affiliates . . . for any such claims, demands, personal  [**4] injuries, costs, property loss or other damages resulting from or arising out of any of foregoing risks at the Club, the condominium or the associated premises.

The Member hereby, on behalf of itself and the Member’s heirs, executors, administrators, guests and assigns, fully and forever releases and discharges the Club and the Club affiliates, and each of them, from any and all claims, damages, demands, rights of action or causes of action, present or future, known or unknown, anticipated or unanticipated resulting from or arising out of the attendance at or use of the Club or their participation in any of the Club’s activities or programs by such Member, including those which arise out of the negligence of the Club and/or the Club and the Club affiliates from any and all liability for any loss, or theft of, or damage to personal property, including, without limitation, automobiles and the contents of lockers.

 [*179]  THE MEMBER, BY INITIALING BELOW, ACKNOWLEDGES THAT HE/SHE HAS CAREFULLY READ THIS WAIVER AND RELEASE AND FULLY UNDERSTANDS THAT IT IS A WAIVER AND RELEASE OF LIABILITY, AND ASSUMES THE RESPONSIBILITY TO INFORM HIS/HER GUESTS OF THE PROVISIONS OF THIS AGREEMENT.

If effective,  [**5] this provision waives and releases not only claims against the Club but also claims against its “employees [and] agents.” 1

1 We assume for purposes of analysis that the Grand Hyatt is responsible for the conduct of Mr. Waller at issue here, but we need not determine whether he was an employee or an independent contractor.

Ruling on Grand Hyatt’s motion for summary judgment, the trial court concluded:

The Waiver and Liability section of the contract . . . expresses a full and complete release of all liability for personal injury occurring in the fitness center. Moore signed an acknowledgment indicating that [he] had read and understood that he was releasing Grand Hyatt from all liability for personal injuries that he might sustain. Furthermore, there is no allegation of fraud or overreaching in the amended complaint. In the circumstances, the court finds that the waiver and release is valid and enforceable and is a complete defense for Grand Hyatt in this action.

The court later held “that the terms of the waiver . . . apply equally to defendant Terrell Waller….”

II.

This court has not often addressed the validity of exculpatory clauses in contracts. We have enforced them, however. For  [**6] example, “[i]t is well settled in this jurisdiction that a provision in a bailment contract limiting the bailee’s liability will be upheld in the absence of gross negligence, willful act, or fraud.” Houston v. Security Storage Co., 474 A.2d 143, 144 (D.C. 1984). Accord, Julius Garfinckel & Co. v. Firemen’s Insurance Co., 288 A.2d 662, 665 (D.C. 1972) (“gross negligence or willful misconduct”); Manhattan Co. v. Goldberg, 38 A.2d 172, 174 (D.C. 1944) (“a bailee may limit his liability except for gross negligence”). We recently considered such a clause contained in a home inspection contract and concluded that it would be sufficient to waive or limit liability for negligence. Carleton v. Winter, 901 A.2d 174, 181-82 (D.C. 2006). However, after surveying “leading authorities” and cases from other jurisdictions, we recognized that “courts have not generally enforced exculpatory clauses to the extent that they limited a party’s liability for gross negligence, recklessness or intentional torts.” Id. at 181. See also Wolf v. Ford, 335 Md. 525, 644 A.2d 522, 525 (Md. 1994) ( [HN1] “a party will not be permitted to excuse its liability for intentional harms or for the more extreme forms of negligence, i.e., reckless,  [**7] wanton, or gross”); Seigneur v. National Fitness Institute, Inc., 132 Md. App. 271, 752 A.2d 631, 638 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. 2000) (exculpatory clause will not be enforced “when the party protected by the clause intentionally causes harm or engages in acts of reckless, wanton, or gross negligence”). In Carleton, the court remanded for further proceedings to determine whether the conduct of the defendants “was not just simple negligence, but rather gross negligence.” 901 A.2d at 182.

As Moore’s counsel conceded at oral argument, he does not claim that Waller intentionally or purposefully injured  [*180]  him. The complaint does allege reckless conduct, however, 2 and he argued to the trial court, as he does to us, that the fitness center could not exempt itself from liability for reckless or wanton behavior or gross negligence. Nevertheless, the defendants had moved for summary judgment, and  [HN2] “[m]ere conclusory allegations on the part of the non-moving party are insufficient to stave off the entry of summary judgment.” Musa v. Continental Insurance Co., 644 A.2d 999, 1002 (D.C. 1994); see also Super. Ct. Civ. R. 56 (e) (“the . . . response, by affidavits or as otherwise provided in this Rule, must set forth specific  [**8] facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial”). “‘[T]here is no issue for trial unless there is sufficient evidence favoring the nonmoving party for a jury to return a verdict for that party.'” Brown v. George Washington Univ., 802 A.2d 382, 385 (D.C. 2002) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249-50, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986)). “‘The mere existence of a scintilla of evidence . . . will be insufficient; there must be evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the [non-moving party].'” LaPrade v. Rosinsky, 882 A.2d 192, 196 (D.C. 2005) (quoting Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 252).

2 In his second amended complaint, Moore alleged that “defendant Waller recklessly disregarded [his] duty of due care [and] acted with deliberate indifference to the likelihood that his action would injure the plaintiff. Defendant Waller’s reckless action was the direct and proximate cause of plaintiff’s injuries.” He also alleged that the Grand Hyatt was responsible for Waller’s actions.

Nothing Moore presented in opposition to summary judgment would be sufficient to prove gross negligence or reckless conduct. Indeed, in one of his affidavits Mr. Moore stated that “as I was shown by defendant  [**9] Waller exactly how to hold the body bag while he demonstrated his kick(s), the purpose of his directions as communicated to me as to how to hold the bag were plainly for safety.” Such concern for safety is inconsistent with recklessness or gross negligence. See generally In re Romansky, 825 A.2d 311, 316 (D.C. 2003) (defining “recklessness”); District of Columbia v. Walker, 689 A.2d 40, 44 (D.C. 1997) (defining “gross negligence” for purposes of D.C. Code § 2-412 (2001) (formerly D.C.Code § 1-1212 (1981)). Moreover, Moore did not allege that defendant Waller kicked an unprotected portion of his body. Nor did he proffer expert testimony suggesting that the demonstration was so hazardous that it was reckless to undertake it, even with the protection of the Everlast body bag.

Because there is no viable claim for gross negligence, recklessness, or an intentional tort, we turn to the question of whether this particular contractual provision is sufficient to bar claims for negligence. 3 Although this is a suit for personal [*181]  injury, not merely for economic damage, the same principles of law apply. See Wright v. Sony Pictures Entertainment, Inc., 394 F. Supp. 2d 27, 34 (D.D.C. 2005) (“by voluntarily  [**10] signing the Contestant Release Form, plaintiff waived his right to bring any claims for negligently caused personal injury”; applying District of Columbia law). This court has not previously considered the effect of an exculpatory clause in a membership agreement with a health club or fitness center, but many jurisdictions have done so. After surveying the legal landscape, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals concluded that most courts hold “that  [HN3] health clubs, in their membership agreements, may limit their liability for future negligence if they do so unambiguously.” Seigneur, 752 A.2d at 636. We have found the analysis in Seigneur to be very helpful.

3 Appellant’s brief explains that he “claims damages from Waller based upon negligent infliction of injury, and against Square 345 Limited Partnership based upon respondeat superior and upon apparent agency and authority, as well as negligent failure to properly select, train and supervise a person whose services were retained to provide lessons in an activity which would certainly be dangerous if not expertly and responsibly performed.” He later elaborates: “While kick boxing is an inherently dangerous activity, had the demonstration  [**11] been conducted in a responsible, non-negligent way, it would not have been dangerous.” The words “strict liability” appear under the caption of the second amended complaint, but appellant has not cited any statute or regulation that purports to impose strict liability on demonstrations of kick boxing, nor has he alleged the common law elements of strict liability in tort. See Word v. Potomac Electric Power Co., 742 A.2d 452, 459 (D.C. 1999). Neither has he proffered facts which would support such a theory. In sum, the waiver is sufficient to cover any theory of liability which is supported by more than conclusory allegations.

 [HN4] A fundamental requirement of any exculpatory provision is that it be clear and unambiguous. Maiatico v. Hot Shoppes, Inc., 109 U.S. App. D.C. 310, 312, 287 F.2d 349, 351 (1961) (“exculpation must be spelled out with such clarity that the intent to negate the usual consequences of tortious conduct is made plain”; also recognizing that in most circumstances modern law “permit[s] a person to exculpate himself by contract from the legal consequences of his negligence”). Cf. Adloo v. H.T. Brown Real Estate, Inc., 344 Md. 254, 686 A.2d 298, 305 (Md. 1996) (“Because it does not clearly,  [**12] unequivocally, specifically, and unmistakably express the parties’ intention to exculpate the respondent from liability resulting from its own negligence, the clause is insufficient for that purpose.”). The provision at issue here meets the requirement of clarity. Article V is entitled, in capital letters, “WAIVER AND LIABILITY.” The Article ends with a prominent “box” containing a sentence typed in capital letters. Appellant Moore initialed that box, verifying that he had “carefully read this waiver and release and fully understands that it is a waiver and release of liability . . . .” By accepting the terms of membership, Moore “agree[d] to assume any and all liabilities associated with the personal injury, death, property loss or other damages which may result from or arise out of attendance at or use of the Club or participation in any of the Club’s programs or activities . . . .” He understood that this waiver of liability would “apply to any and all claims against the Club and/or its owners, shareholders, officers, directors, employees, agents or affiliates . . . for any . . . personal injuries . . . resulting from or arising out of any of [the] foregoing risks at the Club .  [**13] . . .” He “release[d] and discharge[d] the Club . . . from any and all claims, damages, demands, rights of action or causes of action…, including those which arise out of the negligence of the Club . . . .” This release is conspicuous and unambiguous, and it is clearly recognizable as a release from liability. Moreover, the injuries alleged here were reasonably within the contemplation of the parties. “Because  [HN5] the parties expressed a clear intention to release liability and because that release clearly included liability for negligence, that intention should be enforced.” Anderson v. McOskar Enterprises, Inc., 712 N.W.2d 796, 801 (Minn. Ct. App. 2006) (health and fitness club). 4

4 Because this waiver expressly refers to “claims . . . which arise out of the negligence of the Club,” its effect is clear. We have held, however, that it is not always necessary to use the word “negligence” in order to relieve a party of liability for such conduct. See Princemont Construction Corp. v. Baltimore & Ohio R.R. Co. 131 A.2d 877, 878 (D.C. 1957) (“the terms of an indemnity agreement may be so broad and comprehensive that although it contains no express stipulation indemnifying against a party’s  [**14] own negligence, it accomplishes the same purpose”); see also Avant v. Community Hospital, 826 N.E.2d 7, 12 (Ind. Ct. App. 2005)( [HN6] “an exculpatory clause need not include the word ‘negligence’ so long as it conveys the concept specifically and explicitly through other language”).

 [*182]  Appellant protests that the waiver provisions are so broad that they could be construed to exempt the Club from liability for harm caused by intentional torts or by reckless or grossly negligent conduct. Because such provisions are unenforceable, he argues that the entire release is invalid. We disagree. “‘A better interpretation of the law is that  [HN7] any “term” in a contract which attempts to exempt a party from liability for gross negligence or wanton conduct is unenforceable, not the entire [contract].'” Anderson, 712 N.W.2d at 801 (quoting Wolfgang v. Mid-American Motorsports, Inc., 898 F. Supp. 783, 788 (D. Kan. 1995) (which in turn quotes RESTATEMENT (SECOND) OF CONTRACTS § 195(1) (1981) (“A term exempting a party from tort liability for harm caused intentionally or recklessly is unenforceable on grounds of public policy.” (emphasis added))). See Ellis v. James V. Hurson Associates, Inc., 565 A.2d 615, 617 (D.C. 1989)  [**15] (“The Restatement sets forth the relevant principles. Where less than all of an agreement is unenforceable on public policy grounds, a court may nevertheless enforce the rest of the agreement ‘in favor of a party who did not engage in serious misconduct.'” (quoting RESTATEMENT (SECOND) OF CONTRACTS § 184(1) (1981))).

Nor is Article V (the waiver and release) unenforceable due to unequal bargaining power, as Mr. Moore asserts. We do not suppose that the parties in fact had equal power, but Moore does not meet the criteria for invalidating a contract on the grounds he invokes. He does not invite our attention to any evidence that he objected to the waiver provision or attempted to bargain for different terms. Nor has he shown that the contract involved a necessary service.

 [HN8] Even though a contract is on a printed form and offered on a “take it or leave it” basis, those facts alone do not cause it to be an adhesion contract. There must be a showing that the parties were greatly disparate in bargaining power, that there was no opportunity for negotiation and that the services could not be obtained elsewhere.

Schlobohm v. Spa Petite, Inc., 326 N.W.2d 920, 924-25 (Minn. 1982) (emphasis in  [**16] original). “Health clubs do not provide essential services[,]” Shields v. Sta-Fit, Inc., 79 Wn. App. 584, 903 P.2d 525, 528 (Wash. Ct. App. 1995), and “[t]he Washington metropolitan area . . . is home to many exercise and fitness clubs.” Seigneur, 752 A.2d at 639 (rejecting argument that patron’s bargaining position was grossly disproportionate to that of the fitness club).

We, of course, would not enforce such a release if doing so would be against public policy. See Godette v. Estate of Cox, 592 A.2d 1028, 1034 (D.C. 1991) ( [HN9] “An exculpatory clause [in a will] that excuses self-dealing [by the personal representative] or attempts to limit liability for breaches of duty committed in bad faith, intentionally, or with reckless indifference to the interest of the beneficiary, is generally considered to be against public policy.”); George Washington Univ. v. Weintraub, 458 A.2d 43, 47 (D.C. 1983) (exculpatory clause in lease was ineffective to waive tenants’ rights under implied warranty of habitability); see also Wolf v. Ford, 335 Md. 525, 644 A.2d 522, 526 (Md. 1994) (public policy will not permit exculpatory agreements in certain transactions affecting the performance of a public service obligation or “so important [*183]   [**17] to the public good that an exculpatory clause would be patently offensive”). However, we agree with the Maryland Court of Special Appeals and with numerous other courts which have held that it does not violate public policy to enforce exculpatory clauses contained in membership contracts of health clubs and fitness centers. Seigneur, 752 A.2d at 640-41 (and cases cited therein); see also, e.g., Schlobohm, 326 N.W.2d at 926 (“the exculpatory clause in the contract before us was not against the public interest”); Ciofalo v. Vic Tanney Gyms, Inc., 10 N.Y.2d 294, 177 N.E.2d 925, 927, 220 N.Y.S.2d 962 (N.Y. 1961) (“there is no special legal relationship and no overriding public interest which demand that this contract provision, voluntarily entered into by competent parties, should be rendered ineffectual”); Massengill v. S.M.A.R.T. Sports Medicine Clinic, P.C., 996 P.2d 1132 (Wyo. 2000). 5

5 The Supreme Court of Wisconsin refused to enforce one such clause on grounds of public policy. Atkins v. Swimwest Family Fitness Center, 2005 WI 4, 277 Wis. 2d 303, 691 N.W.2d 334 (Wis. 2005). That decision was based on several factors, however, and we do not understand the court to have announced a categorical rule. See id. at 340-42 (waiver was “overly broad  [**18] and all-inclusive,” the word “negligence” was not included, the provision was not “sufficiently highlight[ed],” and there was “no opportunity to bargain”).

The trial court properly held that “the waiver and release is valid and enforceable and is a complete defense for Grand Hyatt [and Mr. Waller] in this action.” The judgment of the Superior Court is hereby

Affirmed.