Release signed previously for different event by same defendant used to defeat claim at new event in Georgia

Georgia Recreational Use Statute also stops claims for slip and fall by spectator at event.

Shields v. RDM, LLC, 355 Ga. App. 409, 844 S.E.2d 297 (Ga. App. 2020)

State: Georgia: Court of Appeals of Georgia

Plaintiff: Kimberly and James Shields

Defendant: RDM, LLC d/b/a Georgia All Stars

Plaintiff Claims: negligence and loss of consortium, and seeking attorney fees, litigation costs, and damages

Defendant Defenses: Release and Recreational Use Statute

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2020

Summary

A mother watching her daughter perform in a gym tripped and fell breaking here leg stepping off mats. The gym raised the defenses of release, which the mother had signed at a previous event and the Georgia Recreational Use statute to successfully stop the claims of the mother.

Facts

…the record shows that Georgia All Stars offers tumbling instruction and provides competitive all-star cheerleading team programs in its Roswell, Georgia gym.3 On the day in question, November 19, 2015, Georgia All Stars hosted an exhibition of participants’ routines for parents to view in the practice area of the gym. And for this exhibition, the concrete gymnasium floor was covered with purple practice mats, and at least two vendors were there to promote their goods or services.

The Shieldses’ daughter was a participant in Special Twist, which is a “special needs all star cheer and dance team.” Special Twist is not part of the Georgia All Stars facility or teams, but is instead an independent 501 (3) (c) organization that, under previous ownership, had been permitted to practice in the Georgia All Stars facility with volunteer coaches and leadership. Georgia All Stars then adopted and continued the agreement, and Special Twist is charged nothing to use the facilities. Special Twist members were invited to participate in the exhibition on the night in question.

That evening, Special Twist performed an hour later than scheduled, and due to the number of people in attendance and the resulting crowd in the gym, spectators whose children had yet to perform were asked to wait outside. So, when Kimberly was eventually permitted inside the gym to watch Special Twist, she and “about a hundred [other] people” were “crammed into a corner” and stood to watch the performance.

When Special Twist finished performing, the coach took the members to watch other teams perform from the sidelines; but Kimberly and her daughter could not stay for the entire program due to another obligation they had early the next morning. As a result, Kimberly went to look for her daughter, who at the time was less than five feet tall. And as she was walking toward her daughter’s team, while attempting to look over other people and navigating through the crowd, Kimberly suddenly fell from the mats at a distance of what she described as two feet onto the concrete floor.

The area where Kimberly fell had not been marked off physically with rope, tape, or cones. And after she fell, a Georgia All Stars employee came over to assist Kimberly and called for an ambulance because she was unable to get up on her own. Then, at the hospital, Kimberly was diagnosed with four breaks between her leg and ankle that required surgery and many months of recovery.

Kimberly was familiar with the layout of the gym and the use of the purple mats because she watched her daughter perform or practice there on at least ten other occasions. But on the night in question, she noticed the mats were stacked in ways she had never seen before, and so she was not expecting the drop off where she fell. Nevertheless, it is undisputed that Georgia All Stars had parents sign releases containing warnings about potential hazards in the gym, and verbal warnings were given at the evening’s exhibition.

Prior to her daughter’s participation in a daily, one-week-long camp at the Georgia All Stars gym, Kimberly signed a medical-release form on July 30, 2015.5 In doing so, Kimberly understood that the medical release applied to her and her daughter, and that the document applied to her and her daughter’s participation in events at the gym.

The mother and her husband sued the gym for negligence and loss of consortium.

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

The court started out by reviewing the requirements for a contract to be effective under Georgia law.

The first step is to decide whether the language of the contract is clear and unambiguous. If so, the contract is enforced according to its plain terms, and the contract alone is looked to for meaning. Second, if the language of the contract is ambiguous in some respect, the rules of contract construction must be applied by the court to resolve the ambiguity. And finally, if ambiguity remains after applying the rules of construction, the issue of what the ambiguous language means and what the parties intended must be resolved by a jury.10

The court then looked at the four issues under Georgia’s law for a release to be valid.

Suffice it to say, the cardinal rule of contract construction is to “ascertain the intention of the parties, as set out in the language of the contract.” Additionally, it is the “paramount public policy of this state that courts will not lightly interfere with the freedom of parties to contract.” And a contracting party may “waive or renounce that which the law has established in his or her favor, when it does not thereby injure others or affect the public interest.” Finally, exculpatory clauses in Georgia are “valid and binding, and are not void as against public policy when a business relieves itself from its own negligence.”

In this case the court found the release was valid. The plaintiff then argued the release was only valid for the camp the defendant’s daughter had participated in where the release was signed. However, the court noted there was nothing in the release that limited its application to a specific event or a date certain.

In this case, although Kimberly argues that the medical-release form was only applicable to her daughter’s participation in a temporary camp program, nothing in the language of the release limits it to any specific program, event, or time period. Indeed, the plain language of the release states that it is applicable to “the activities that I or my child engage in while on the premises or under the auspices of GA,” “all of the risks, known and unknown, connected with GA related activities,” and “participation in GA-related activities.”

Always remember, there is no reason to limit the time frame of your release, doing so simply puts an end to your defenses when there is no t need to do so.

Find the release valid for a different time and location then the plaintiff argued the court then looked at whether the Georgia Recreational Use Act, OCGA § 51-3-20 et seq applied.

Recreational Use Statutes were created by legislatures to encourage land owners to open their land to other for recreational purposes. In general, the use must be free, or with no benefit to the land owner and for recreational purposes. Under Georgia’s law that meant:

(1) the nature of the activity that constitutes the use of the property in which people have been invited to engage, and (2) the nature of the property that people have been invited to use.” In other words, “the first asks whether the activity in which the public was invited to engage was of a kind that qualifies as recreational under the Act, and the second asks whether at the relevant time the property was of a sort that is used primarily for recreational purposes or primarily for commercial activity.”

Here, watching a child’s gymnastic routine was considered recreational by the court. There was also no fee charged by the defendant for the children to use the facility or for the parent to watch the child perform.

The plaintiffs argued that since there were vendors at the event, the defendant received a benefit for the use of the facility. The court looked at Georgia Supreme Court decisions over the type of charge and determined:

“[i]t is not the law—and we have never said that it was—that inviting people to use recreational property for recreational activities could still fail to qualify for immunity under the Act solely because the landowner had some sort of subjective profit motive in doing so.” Instead, the relevant question is whether “the landowner actually invited people onto the property (directly or indirectly) to do something ‘recreational,’ or whether people have instead been allowed onto the property to engage in commercial activity.” And in this case, the evidence shows that “both the nature of the activity and the nature of the property at the time of the [gymnastics exhibition] were purely recreational.”

Although the defendant may or may not have made some type of money from the vendors. There was no payment by the defendant to the facility to be there. There was no requirement that a purchase had to be made from a vendor or the vendors received any benefit from the exhibition. In fact, the court summed up its analysis of the facts in the case as:

To put it plainly, this case is the poster child for immunity under the RPA, and the trial court did not err in concluding that the Shieldses’ claims were barred under the statute.

The court stated both defenses would have stopped the claims of the plaintiffs. In fact, the court used an analysis I have never seen to describe the situation.

If the medical-release form is the belt of Georgia All Stars’s defense to this lawsuit, the protections afforded to property owners by the Recreational Property Act are its suspenders.

So Now What?

Too many times I see releases that have an ending date or a date when the release is no longer valid. Just the opposite needs to be made clear. That the release is valid for longer than one year. Many times, showing valid releases signed each year by the plaintiff is proof that the plaintiff knew and understood what they were signing, the risks and each release was another bar to the plaintiffs’ claims.

Do not limit the value of your release by putting a date on the release ending its effectiveness.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Jim Moss is an attorney specializing in the legal issues of the outdoor recreation community. He represents guides, guide services, outfitters both as businesses and individuals and the products they use for their business. He has defended Mt. Everest guide services, summer camps, climbing rope manufacturers; avalanche beacon manufactures and many more manufacturers and outdoor industries. Contact Jim at Jim@Rec-Law.us

Jim is the author or co-author of six books about the legal issues in the outdoor recreation world; the latest is Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law.

To see Jim’s complete bio go here and to see his CV you can find it here.

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