Interesting decision only real defense was the Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act, which provides little if any real defense.

Defendants are the company that booked the trip (Vail through Grand Teton Lodge Company) and the travel agent who booked the trip.

Rizas et. al. v. Vail Resorts, Inc.; et. al., 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 139788

State: Wyoming

Plaintiff: Alexis R. Rizas, Individually and as the Personal Representative of the Wrongful Death Beneficiaries of John J. Rizas, deceased; John Friel, Individually and as the Personal Representative of the Wrongful Death Beneficiaries of Elizabeth A. Rizas, Deceased; Ronald J. Miciotto, as the Per-sonal Representative of the Wrongful Death Beneficiaries of Linda and Lewis Clark, Deceased; James Clark; Lawrence Wilson; and Joyce Wilson, Plaintiffs

Defendant: Vail Resorts, Inc.; Grand Teton Lodge Company; Tauck, Inc., a.k.a. Tauck World Discovery, Inc., a.k.a. Tauck Tours, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence, Punitive damages

Defendant Defenses: Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act

Holding: Mixed, mostly for the plaintiff

Year: 2009

Summary

Decision looks at the liability of the travel agency and the hotel that booked a rafting float trip where three people died. The only defenses of available were the Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act which helped keep the lawsuit in Wyoming applying Wyoming law, but was ineffective in assisting in the defense of the lawsuit.

The rafting company is not part of this decision so probably the raft company settled with the defendants before the case was filed or this motion was heard.

Facts

Tauck is a corporation formed under the laws of New Jersey and primarily doing business in Connecticut. Stipulated Facts, Docket Entry 108. Tauck is in the business of selling tour packages to its clients, one of which in 2006 was a tour called the “Yellowstone & Grand Teton – North.” This tour began in Salt Lake City, Utah and ended in Rapid City, South Dakota. Id. The tour included a two-night stay at the Jackson Lake Lodge in the Grand Teton National Park, and the Lodge was operated by GTLC. GTLC is organized under the laws of Wyoming and operates within the Grand Teton National Park pursuant to a concessionaire agreement with the National Park Service. Among the services that GTLC offered its guests is a 10-mile float trip along the Snake River from Deadman’s Bar to the Moose Landing. Tauck’s 2006 promotional materials contains the following sentence: “Take a scenic ten-mile raft trip on the Snake River as it meanders through spectacular mountain scenery alive with wildlife, including moose, elk, deer, and many species of birds.”

On June 2, 2006, a tour group gathered at the Lodge at approximately 8:00 a.m. They traveled via several vans to the rafting launch site at Deadman’s Bar. The trip took approximately one hour. There the larger group was split into four smaller groups, one for each raft provided. Raft No. 1 was guided by Wayne Johnson, an employee of GTLC. The raft at issue, Raft No. 2, had 11 passengers: John Rizas, Elizabeth Rizas, Patricia Rizas, Linda Clark, James Clark, Lawrence “Bubba” Wilson, Joyce Wilson, Tom Rizas, Ruth Rizas, Jon Shaw, and Maria Urrutia. The raft guide was Daniel Hobbs, who was also a GTLC employee and had been for four years.

During the float trip, Raft No. 2 struck a log jam. The collision occurred in the Funnelcake channel, which was one of several braided channels of the river. The raft upended as a result and all passengers were thrown into the river. John Rizas, Elizabeth Rizas, and Linda Clark died as a result.

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

The first issue was a choice of laws (jurisdiction and venue) provision in the agreement with the travel agency Tauck, which stated venue was to be in Connecticut. The plaintiff was arguing that the case should be moved to Connecticut, which is odd, because the plaintiff’s filed the case to start in Wyoming. However, since they sued in Wyoming, the plaintiff is still arguing that Connecticut law should apply.

Tauck argued the choice of law provisions was for its benefit, and it had the right to waive that provision in the agreement. The court found that Tauck had the right to waive a provision in the agreement that was there for its benefit.

In Wyoming, a contract must be construed according to the law of the place where it was made. There is no evidence indicating where the contract at issue was formed, but that makes little difference because the law of waiver of contract provisions is widespread and well accepted. “A party to a contract may waive a provision of the contract that was included for his benefit.”

The court held that the provision was for Tauck’s benefit because the living plaintiffs were residents of Georgia and Louisiana.

The court also stated, even it had not found for Tauck on this issue this way; it would have still used Wyoming law because of Wyoming’s strong public policy of recreational immunity.

Even if Tauck had not waived its right to enforce the choice-of-law provision, this Court would not enforce this provision due to Wyoming’s strong public policy of recreational immunity. Plaintiffs seek application of Connecticut law largely to avoid the effects of. The Court will discuss the Act in detail below; it is sufficient here to note that the Act provides a near-total elimination liability of a recreation provider where a person is injured because of an “inherent risk” of a recreational activity. River floating is specifically named as a qualifying recreational activity. Consequently, Plaintiffs seek application of Connecticut law because Connecticut is not so protective of its recreational providers as Wyoming.

Choice of law provisions are usually upheld by the courts; however, there are ways to get around them as this court explained.

The tour members and Tauck agreed that Connecticut law would apply, and Connecticut has a significant connection to the contract because of Tauck’s operation there. Nevertheless, Wyoming’s interest in the resolution of this issue is significantly greater because important Wyoming policy concerns are involved in the question of whether a provider of recreation opportunities should be subject to liability for injury from inherent risks. Absent a Connecticut plaintiff, Connecticut has no interest in whether a Wyoming corporation is held liable. Indeed, Connecticut’s interest in this case, if any, is probably more closely aligned with Tauck, which operates in that state.

The Court’s analysis is further informed by the fact that that Wyoming’s public policy in this matter is a strong one. Initially, the Act was less protective of recreation service providers, defining an “inherent risk” as “any risk that is characteristic of or intrinsic to any sport or recreational opportunity and which cannot reasonably be eliminated, altered or controlled.” In 1996, the Wyoming Legislature eliminated the clause, “and which cannot reasonably be eliminated, altered or controlled.” Subsequent to the amendment, this Court recognized the extraordinary protection offered to recreation providers in Wyoming:

Given this extraordinary protection, this Court must conclude that the Wyoming Legislature views immunity for recreation providers to be an important state interest. Wyoming law should apply in this case.

The court then reviewed the Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act. The plaintiff’s argued the Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act did not apply for three reasons.

First, they contend that Connecticut law applies–an argument that the Court has already resolved in favor of Defendants.

Second, Plaintiffs argue that Tauck is not a “provider” as defined in the Act.

Third, they assert that federal law preempts the Act.

The court found the first argument was already resolved in its analysis of jurisdiction above.

The second argument was the Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act did not apply to the defendant Tauck, because it was a travel agent in Connecticut and not a “provider” as defined under the act. The court found that Tauck was a provider under the act because as part of its package. Provider is defined as “[A]ny person or governmental entity which for profit or otherwise offers or conducts a sport or recreational opportunity.”

The final issue was the argument that the state law was pre-empted by federal law. The argument was based on the concessionaire agreement the defendant had with the NPS. Although the concession agreement with the NPS provided for visitor safety, there was nothing in the agreement showing intent to pre-empt the Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act.

The court then looked to see if the Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act provided a defense in this case. The court first defined Inherent Risk under Wyoming law.

‘Inherent risk’ with regard to any sport or recreational opportunity means those dangerous conditions which are characteristic of, intrinsic to, or an integral part of any sport or recreational opportunity.”

[As you can see, the definition of inherent risk is not a broad definition it narrowly defines the risks to those intrinsic or integral to the activity. That leaves out thousands of risks created by man such as steering the raft, water releases, choosing the run, etc. which are probably not protected by the act.]

Outside of the inherent risks, to thwart the act, the plaintiff only needs to argue the risk was not inherent and the case would proceed to trial because the Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act does not provide a defense to any risk not inherent in the sport. Because the court could not determine what risks were inherent what were not, it held the Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act did not apply in this case.

In any case, this Court is bound to apply Sapone. Plaintiffs have submitted evidence that tends to show that the river, on the day of the river float trip, was running higher and faster so as to result in an activity with some greater risk to the participants. In addition, Plaintiffs submitted evidence suggesting that this stretch of river was generally believed to be a dangerous one. Specifically, a National Park Service publication entitled “Floating the Snake River” states that the area from Deadman’s Bar to Moose Landing “is the most challenging stretch of river in the park, and most accidents occur here. The river drops more steeply, with faster water than in other sections south of Pacific Creek. Complex braiding obscures the main channel, and strong currents can sweep boaters into side channels blocked by logjams.” Id. This evidence is not uncontested, of course, but it is sufficient to preclude summary judgment on this issue. The Court finds that there is a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether colliding with the log jam was an inherent risk of the river float trip undertaken by the tour members on June 2, 2006.

The court moved on to Tauck’s motion for summary judgment because as a tour agency is was not liable for the negligent acts of third parties, it dealt with. The law supports that argument. “As a general rule, a tour operator is not liable for injuries caused by the negligence of third parties over which the tour operator did not exercise ownership or control.”

However, that general rules does not apply if a contract with the travel agency or marketing state the travel agency will undertake a duty. (Always remember Marketing makes Promises Risk Management has to Pay for.)

Here the court found the promotional materials were marketing and did not rise to the level to be promises to be kept.

The plaintiff also argued Tauck took on a greater duty to the guests when it undertook the duty to have the guests sign the defendant GTLC’s acknowledgment of risk forms. That duty included duty to inform the guests of the risk associated with river rafting. However, the court could find nothing in Tauck’s action indicating it was accepting a greater duty when it handed out the assumption of the risk forms.

The plaintiff’s created a fraud argument. Under Montana’s law:

To prove fraud, the plaintiff must show by clear and convincing evidence that (1) the defendant made a false representation intended to induce action by the plaintiff; (2) the plaintiff reasonably believed the representation to be true; and (3) the plaintiff suffered damages in relying upon the false representation

The plaintiff’s argued that the defendants made all sorts of statements and advertising that the float trip was a leisurely scenic trip. The channel the raft guide took was not leisurely but was a dangerous channel by some authorities. However, the issue was, did the defendants intentionally made the statements about the river to induce the plaintiffs to the trip.

The defendants wanted the plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages dismissed. In Wyoming, punitive damages appear to be a claim much like negligence. The punitive damages claim was based on the same allegations that the fraud claim was made, that the defendants misrepresented the nature of the float trip.

Punitive damages in Wyoming are:

We have approved punitive damages in circumstances involving outrageous conduct, such as intention-al torts, torts involving malice and torts involving willful and wanton misconduct.” Willful and wanton misconduct is the intentional doing, or failing to do, an act in reckless disregard of the consequences and under circumstances and conditions that a reasonable person would know that such conduct would, in a high degree of probability, result in harm to another. “The aggravating factor which distinguishes willful misconduct from ordinary negligence is the actor’s state of mind. In order to prove that an actor has engaged in willful misconduct, one must demonstrate that he acted with a state of mind that approaches intent to do harm.”

Failing to advise the plaintiffs that the river was running higher than normal because of the spring run off did not rise to a level to be reckless and willful misconduct. The one channel of several the one guide went down was a negligent decision, not a willful one.

So Now What?

Fairly simple, use a release. It would have stopped this lawsuit sooner. If the outfitter would have used a release, it could have protected the lodge and the travel agent. I’m sure the lodge is going to use one now, which will probably just muddy the water because of multiple releases and defendants.

There are very few statutes that provide any real protection in the outdoor recreation industry. Most, in fact, make it easier for the plaintiffs to win. The exception to the rule is a few of the Ski Area Safety Statutes.

Be prepared and do more than rely on a week statute.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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