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Release upheld in Ohio to stop negligence claims for indoor ski jumping. However, gross negligence claims survived.

Motions by the defendant eliminated a lot of the claims of the plaintiff; however, the reckless claims are always a pain used to negotiate a settlement. If the judge bought the idea, maybe the plaintiff can get the jury to buy the idea.

Cantu, et al, vs. Flytz Gymnastics, Inc., et al, 2016 Ohio Misc. LEXIS 12186

State: Ohio, Court of Common Pleas, Summit County, Civil Division

Plaintiff: Michael A. Cantu, et al,

Defendant: Flytz Gymnastics, Inc., et al,

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence, willful, wanton and reckless action and Product Liability

Defendant Defenses: Release, Assumption of the Risk and the Statute of Repose

Holding: For the Defendant and the Plaintiff

Year: 2016

Summary

Recreation activities have moved indoors for more than 75 years. Now, all sorts of outdoor recreation activities have moved indoors and created additional activities and variations of those activities.

This decision concerns injuries received when the plaintiff jumped into a foam pit. The plaintiff and friends were there to practice skiing jumps. When the plaintiff landed he became a quadriplegic and sued for negligence, gross negligence and product liability claims.

Facts

The plaintiff and his friends decided to go to the defendant’s facility to practice skiing flips. The facility had a foam pit where the participants could land. While using a springboard to go over a vault the plaintiff landed head first in the pit sustaining a spinal cord injury rendering him a quadriplegic.

The plaintiff was a minor and had been driven to the facility by his mother. Both, he and his mother signed the release to participate in the activity. His mother claimed the form was long, and she did not read it. (The release was one page.)

Kristine Cantu testified that, consistent with her practice related to any other sports release or waiver, she “never read them” because they were “usually lengthy.” Although she indicated that the Flytz Release and Waiver Form was also lengthy, the Court notes that the form is one page long,….

The plaintiff and his parents admitted they had signed releases before, knew that the activities were risky and had participated in other risky activities and had been injured doing so.

The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, and this is the decision of the court.

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

Ohio allows a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue. See States that allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue and Zivich v. Mentor Soccer Club, Inc., 696 N.E.2d 201, 82 Ohio St.3d 367 (1998).

The release in question described the risks of the activity and included the risks and resulted in the plaintiff suffered, “including permanent disability, paralysis and death, which may be caused.”

A release is a contract and under Ohio law to be valid a contract must be “clear, unequivocal and unambiguous and it must be specific enough to cover only those claims of which the participant would be aware.” The court found this release met those requirements.

The plaintiffs argued the they were fraudulently induced to sign the release. A release signed by fraudulent inducement is voidable upon proof of the fraud. However, that fraud must be than saying you were misled if a reading of the contract would have shown that was not the case.

A person of ordinary mind cannot say that he was misled into signing a paper which was different from what he intended to sign when he could have known the truth by merely looking when he signed…. If a person can read and is not prevented from reading what he signs, he alone is responsible for his omission to read what he signs.”

The court found there was no fraud because the release itself was clear and there was no evidence from the plaintiff of any act or action that was fraudulent by the defendants.

The court granted the defendants motion for summary judgment to the negligence claims of the plaintiff.

The court also would have granted summary judgment to the defendants because the plaintiff assumed the risk of his injuries.

The Ohio Supreme Court has held that individuals engaged in recreational or sports activities “assume the ordinary risks of the activity and cannot recover for any injuries unless it can be shown that the other participant’s actions were either ‘reckless’ or ‘intentional’ as defined in Sections 500 and 8A of the Restatement of Torts 2d.”. “The doctrine of primary assumption of risk prevents a, Plaintiff from setting forth a prima facie case of negligence.” “Primary assumption of the risk relieves a recreation provider from any duty to eliminate the risks that are inherent in the activity…because such risk cannot be eliminated.”

The defense is not affected on whether or not the participant was able to appreciate the inherent dangers in the activity.

To defeat a primary assumption of risk defense the plaintiff must be able to prove the defendant’s conduct was reckless or intentional, and it does not matter if it is adults or minors organized or unorganized, supervised or unsupervised.

The plaintiff could not prove the actions of the defendant were reckless or intentional.

Under the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk, a, Plaintiff who voluntarily engages in a recreational activity or sporting event assumes the inherent risks of that activity and cannot recover for injuries sustained in engaging in the activity unless the defendant acted recklessly or intentionally in causing the injuries.

However, this part of the decision treads a narrow classification of the facts because the court found the plaintiff had pled enough facts for the reckless or intentional conduct claims to survive. The plaintiff pleaded and argued facts along with his expert witness “Defendant level of supervision and safety procedures, and whether, Defendant’s actions or inactions rose to the level of recklessness.”

The plaintiff’s expert argued the defendant failed to:

…ensure that Michael Cantu possessed an adequate level of performer readiness to safely participate in the intended activity,” “failing to provide adequate supervision of the open gym participants,” “failing to instruct Michael Cantu on how to land safely in a loose foam landing pit,” and “failing to provide a reasonably safe physical environment for the intended gymnastics activity,” specifically directing attention to the violative nature of the foam pit. Report at 3-6. Dr. George opines, among other things, that, given these violations and conduct, Defendants actions were “grossly inadequate” reckless and that, Defendants exhibited “willful and wanton” disregard for caution.

The final claim was a product liability claim arguing the foam pit was defective. The defendant argued the statute of repose applied.

The statute of repose is a statute that says if a claim against a product has not occurred in the first ten years after its creation, then no claims can be made after that period of time.

…no cause of action based on a product liability claim shall accrue against the manufacturer or sup-plier of a product later than ten years from the date that the product was delivered to its first purchaser or first lessee who was not engaged in a business in which the product was used the component in the production, construction, creation, assembly, or rebuilding of another product.

The foam pit had been constructed in 2000, and the plaintiff’s injury occurred in 2011. Consequently, the ten-year statute of repose had run preventing the plaintiff’s product liability claim.

The court granted the defendants motion for summary judgment for all claims of the plaintiff except for the claim of recklessness, which could lead to punitive damages.

So Now What?

Foam pits, trampolines, free fall towers join climbing walls indoors as types of activities or training for outdoor recreation activities are popping up everywhere. What used to be confined to Olympic training venues can now be accessed on the corner with a credit card.

We are going to see more of these types of actions. Like any recreational activity, they advertise, make promises, and are still in a growing mode both in the number of locations and the learning process in how their liability will evolve.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Cantu, et al, vs. Flytz Gymnastics, Inc., et al, 2016 Ohio Misc. LEXIS 12186

Cantu, et al, vs. Flytz Gymnastics, Inc., et al, 2016 Ohio Misc. LEXIS 12186

Michael A. Cantu, et al, Plaintiffs vs. Flytz Gymnastics, Inc., et al, Defendants.

CASE NO. CV-2014-01-0317

State of Ohio, Court OF Common Pleas, Summit County, Civil Division

2016 Ohio Misc. LEXIS 12186

June 2, 2016, Filed

CORE TERMS: summary judgment, reckless, wanton, willful, gymnastics, waiver form, moving party, nonmoving party, pit, releasee, liability claim, recreational activities, issue of material fact, genuine, foam, claims of negligence, repose, sports, genuine issue, initial burden, punitive damages, recklessness, inducement, indemnity, matter of law, fact remains, loss of consortium, inherent risks, assumption of risk, proprietor’

JUDGES: [*1] TAMMY O’BRIEN, JUDGE

OPINION BY: TAMMY O’BRIEN

OPINION

ORDER

The matters before the Court are, Defendant, Flytz Gymnastics, Inc.’s Motion for Summary Judgment filed on January 29, 2016, and, Defendant, John King’s Motion for Summary Judgment filed on January 29, 2016., Plaintiffs filed Separate Briefs in Opposition to these motions on March 4, 2016. Both, Defendants, Flytz Gymnastics, Inc. (“Flytz”) and John King (“King”), filed Reply briefs on March 21, 2016. For the reasons which follow, the Court GRANTS IN PART AND DENIES IN PART, Defendants’ Motions for Summary Judgment.

ANALYSIS

A. Facts:

The instant action arises out of an incident which occurred on August 22, 2011. On that day, Plaintiff Michael Cantu, sustained catastrophic personal injury when he attempted to use a spring board to go over a vault at Flytz Gymnastics and landed head first into a foam block pit. See, Plaintiffs’ Amended Complaint., Plaintiff sustained a spinal cord injury which left him a quadriplegic. See, Plaintiffs’ Amended Complaint.

Plaintiffs, Michael Cantu and his parents, have sued Flytz and its owner, King, alleging that they are liable for his injury., Plaintiffs have alleged that Flytz was negligent with respect to the “open [*2] gym night” attended by Michael Cantu and his friends and that this negligence resulted in Michael’s injury., Plaintiffs have further alleged that the conduct of Flytz and its employees, including King, was willful, wanton and reckless. In addition, Plaintiffs have brought a product liability claim against Flytz under R.C. 2307.71 et seq., Plaintiff’s parents, Aaron and Kristine Cantu, have also asserted a loss of consortium claim.

On the day in question, Michael was with a group of friends when one of them suggested that the group go to Flytz. Michael Cantu depo. at 57. This friend had been to Flytz before to practice his skiing flips. Id. at p. 43. Michael Cantu testified that the group intended to use the trampoline to practice ski tricks. Id. at 43, 63 and 93. Michael’s mother, Kristine Cantu, drove the group to Flytz.

Cantu and his friends were given Nonmember Release and Waiver Forms to read and sign. Because Michael was a minor, his mother signed the form on his behalf. Flytz Motion for Summary Judgment Exhibit B at pp. 32 and 33. Both Michael and his mother have acknowledged that neither of them read the entire form before Kristine signed it. Exhibit A at 69 and 103; Exhibit B at 34 and 35.

Subsequent [*3] to his injury, Kristine Cantu claimed that, had she read the release, she would never have allowed her son to participate in the activities. However, there is undisputed testimony from both Kristine and Michael Cantu that, throughout his life, Michael Cantu participated in many sports activities and many recreational activities, and that his mother signed release forms on his behalf in the past. Flytz Motion, Exhibit A at 18, 103; Flytz Motion, Exhibit Bat 15-16.

Plaintiff Michael Cantu, was involved in many sports and recreational activities and both he and his mother testified that they were aware that, inherent in those activities, there was always the risk of injury. Michael had previously participated in football, karate, volleyball and golf, and was interested in skiing, snowboarding and skateboarding. In fact, Plaintiff acknowledged he had sustained prior sports injuries. Flytz Motion, Exhibit B at 13-18.

Defendant Flytz moves for summary judgment on several bases which include the, Plaintiffs’ execution of a Release and Waiver form, the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk, lack of evidence of willful and wanton conduct by the, Defendants, and the statute of repose., Defendant [*4] King also moves for summary judgment.

B. Law and Analysis:

1. Standard.

In reviewing, Defendants’ Motions for Summary Judgment, the Court must consider the following: (1) whether there is no genuine issue of material fact to be litigated; (2) whether in viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to the non-moving party it appears that reasonable minds could come to but one conclusion; and (3) whether the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Dresher v. Burt, 75 Ohio St.3d 280, 662 N.E.2d 264 (1996); Wing v. Anchor Media, L.T.D., 59 Ohio St.3d 108, 570 N.E.2d 1095 (1991). If the Court finds that the non-moving party fails to make a sufficient showing on an essential element of the case with respect to which it has the burden of proof, summary judgment is appropriate. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L.E.2d 265 (1986).

Civ.R. 56(C) states the following, in part, in regards to summary judgment motions:

Summary judgment shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, written admissions, affidavits, transcripts

of the evidence in the pending case, and written stipulations of fact, if any timely filed in the action, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

Where a party seeks summary judgment on the ground that the nonmoving party cannot [*5] prove its case, the moving party bears the initial burden of informing the trial court of the basis for the motion, and identifying those portions of the record that demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact on the essential element(s) of the nonmoving party’s claims. Dresner, 75 Ohio St.3d at 293. The Dresner court continued, the moving party cannot discharge its initial burden under Civ.R. 56 simply by making a conclusory assertion that the nonmoving party has no evidence to prove its case. Rather, the moving party must be able to specifically point to some evidence of the type listed in Civ.R. 56(C) which affirmatively demonstrates that the nonmoving party has no evidence to support the nonmoving party’s claims. If the moving party fails to satisfy its initial burden, the motion for summary judgment must be denied. However, if the moving party has satisfied its initial burden, the nonmoving party then has a reciprocal burden outlined in Civ.R. 56(E) to set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial and, if the nonmovant does not so respond, summary judgment, if appropriate, shall be entered against the nonmoving party.

Banks v. Ross Incineration, 9th App. No. 98CA007132 (Dec. 15, 1999).

In this case, [*6] as demonstrated below, this Court finds that summary judgment is appropriate as to the, Plaintiffs’ claims of negligence, but finds that a genuine issue of material fact exists as to, Plaintiffs’ claims of reckless and wanton conduct and punitive damages.

2. Release and Waiver of Liability, Assumption of Risk, and Indemnity Agreement (“Release and Waiver”).

The Release and Waiver Form signed by, Plaintiff Kristine Cantu, is entitled, “Nonmember/Special Event/Birthday Party Activity, Release and Waiver Form.” Flytz Motion, Exhibit C. After the name of the person and contact information, the verbiage of the release and waiver form warns that “this activity involves risks of serious bodily injury, including permanent disability, paralysis and death.” Id.

Kristine Cantu testified that, consistent with her practice related to any other sports release or waiver, she “never read them” because they were “usually lengthy.” Kristine Cantu depo. at 15-16. Although she indicated that the Flytz Release and Waiver Form was also lengthy, the Court notes that the form is one page long, as is shown in part below:

Release and Waiver of Liability, Assumption of Risk, and Indemnity Agreement

In consideration [*7] of participating in the activities and programs at FLYTZ GYMNASTICS, INC., I represent that I understand the nature of this activity and that I am qualified, in good health, and in proper physical condition to participate in such activity. I acknowledge that if I believe event conditions are unsafe, I will immediately discontinue participation in this activity. I fully understand that this activity involves risks of serious bodily injury, including permanent disability, paralysis and death, which may be caused by my own actions, or inactions, those of others participating in the event, the condition in which the event takes place, or the negligence of the “releasees” named below, and that there may be other risks either not known to me or not readily foreseeable at this time and I fully accept and assume all risks and all responsibility for losses, cost and damages I incur as a result of my participation in the activity.

I hereby release, discharge, and covenant not to sue FLYTZ GYNMASTICS, INC., its respective administrators, directors, agents, officers, volunteers, and employees, other participants, any sponsors, advertisers and if applicable, owners and lessors of premises on which [*8] the activity takes place (each considered one of the “RELEASEES” herein) from all liability, claims, damages, losses or damages, on my account caused, or alleged to be caused, in whole, or in part, by the negligence of the “releasees” or otherwise, including negligent rescue operations and further agree that if, despite this release, waiver of liability and assumption of risk, I, or anyone on my behalf makes a claim against any of the Releasees, I will indemnify, save and hold harmless each of the Releasees from any loss, liability, damage or cost which may incur as a result of such claim.

I have read the RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABIITY, ASSUMPTION OF RISK AND INDEMNITY AGREEMENT, understand that I have given up substantial rights by signing it and have signed it freely and without any inducement or assurance of any nature and intend it to be a complete and unconditional release of all liability to the greatest extent allowed by law and agree that if any portion of this agreement is held to be invalid the balance, notwithstanding, shall continue in full force and effect.

The form specifically acknowledges that the activities and programs at Flytz involved “risks of serious bodily injury, [*9] including permanent disability, paralysis and death which may be caused” by the releasee’s actions or by the actions of others. It further identifies that “there may be risks either not known” or “not readily foreseeable” and that the releasee “accepts and assumes all risks for losses and damages.” Id. The form further releases claims of negligence by Flytz and includes a covenant not to sue, as well as indemnity and hold harmless provisions. The release was signed by Kristine Cantu on behalf of her son and indicated that she understood all the risks involved.

It is well established in Ohio that participants in recreational activities and the proprietor of a venue for such an activity are free to enter into contracts designed to relieve the proprietor from responsibility to the participant for the proprietor’s acts of negligence. See, Bowen v. Kil-Kare, Inc. (1992), 63 Ohio St.3d 84, 585 N.E.2d 384; Zivich v. Mentor Soccer Club, Inc. 82 Ohio St.3d 367, 696 N.E.2d 201, 1998-Ohio-389. As noted by the Ninth District Court of Appeals, in order to be upheld, the contract must be clear, unequivocal and unambiguous and it must be specific enough to cover only those claims of which the participant would be aware. Levine v. Gross, 123 Ohio App.3d 326, 330, 704 N.E.2d 262 (9th Dist. 1997). In the instant action, the Release and Waiver Form signed by Kristine Cantu clearly meets these requirements.

Plaintiffs argue [*10] that the intake clerk, Stacey King, did not specifically advise Kristine that, by signing the forms, she would be absolving Flytz of liability for injuries sustained by her son, by his negligence or the negligence of others., Plaintiffs attempt to circumvent the Release and Waiver by alleging it is unenforceable because of fraud in the inducement. They argue that Kristine Cantu was induced to sign the form upon misrepresentations made by Stacey King.

The Court notes that, Plaintiffs have not pled fraud in their Amended Complaint. Even if, Plaintiffs can be found to have properly pled a claim of fraud in the inducement, a release obtained by fraudulent inducement is merely voidable upon proof of fraud. Holler v. horror Corp., (1990), 50 Ohio St.3d 10, 14 at ¶ 1 of the syllabus. “A person of ordinary mind cannot say that he was misled into signing a paper which was different from what he intended to sign when he could have known the truth by merely looking when he signed…. If a person can read and is not prevented from reading what he signs, he alone is responsible for his omission to read what he signs.” Haller, supra at 14. In the instant action, there is no evidence of fraud. The Court finds that, Plaintiffs were advised of [*11] serious inherent risks by virtue of the Release and Waiver Form. Accordingly, the Court GRANTS summary judgment on any claims of negligence.

3. Primary Assumption of Risk.

Even without the Release and Waiver, this Court would also find that the, Defendants are entitled to summary judgment related to the, Plaintiffs’ claims of negligence under the doctrine of primary assumption the risk.

The Ohio Supreme Court has held that individuals engaged in recreational or sports activities “assume the ordinary risks of the activity and cannot recover for any injuries unless it can be shown that the other participant’s actions were either ‘reckless’ or ‘intentional’ as defined in Sections 500 and 8A of the Restatement of Torts 2d.” Marchetti v. Kalish (1990), 53 Ohio St.3d 95, 559 N.E.2d 699, syllabus. “The doctrine of primary assumption of risk prevents a, Plaintiff from setting forth a prima facie case of negligence.” Aber v. Zurz, 9th Dist No. 23876, 2008-Ohio-778, ¶9. “Primary assumption of the risk relieves a recreation provider from any duty to eliminate the risks that are inherent in the activity…because such risk cannot be eliminated.” (Citations omitted.) Bastian v. McGannon, 9th Dist. Lorain No. 07CA009213, 2008-Ohio – l149, ¶11.

As noted by the Ohio Supreme Court, the determining fact in such cases is the conduct of the defendant, “not the [*12] participant’s or spectator’s ability or inability to appreciate the inherent dangers of the activity.” Gentry v. Craycraft, 101 Ohio St.3d 141, 802 N.E.2d 1116, 2004-Ohio-

379, ¶9. To survive a primary assumption of risk claim, the, Plaintiff must prove the defendant’s conduct was reckless or intentional. Furthermore, “the reckless/intentional standard of liability applies regardless of whether the activity was engaged in by children or adults, or was unorganized, supervised, or unsupervised.” Gentry, supra at ¶8.

In the instant action, there can be no dispute that, Plaintiff Michael Cantu was engaged in a recreational activity at the time of his injury. Likewise, there can be no dispute that a fall, like that sustained by Michael, is an inherent risk in gymnastics, particularly when one is using a springboard to go over a piece of equipment. As such, there can be no recovery by, Plaintiffs unless it can be shown that Flytz’s actions were either “reckless” or “intentional.” Gentry, supra at ¶6 quoting Marchetti, supra at syllabus; see also, Mainv. Gym X-Treme, 10th Dist. No. 11A0-643, 2102-Ohio-1315 (Under the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk, a, Plaintiff who voluntarily engages in a recreational activity or sporting event assumes the inherent risks of that activity and cannot recover for injuries sustained in engaging in the activity [*13] unless the defendant acted recklessly or intentionally in causing the injuries. Id. at9.)

Accordingly, Defendants entitled to summary judgment related to the, Plaintiffs’ claims of negligence under the doctrine of primary assumption the risk. However, because the, Plaintiffs also claim that, Defendants acted in a reckless, willful and wanton manner, this does not end the analysis.

3. Reckless or Intentional Conduct and Punitive Damages.

The Supreme Court of Ohio has held that there can be no liability for injuries arising out of sporting or recreational activities unless the defendant was reckless or intentionally injured the, Plaintiff. Marchetti v. Kalish, 53 Ohio St.3d 95, 96-98, 559 N.E.2d 699 (1990). In this case, the Court finds that there are genuine issues of material fact as to whether or not, Defendants engaged in recklessness or willful or wanton conduct which resulted in injury to Michael Cantu.

All parties cite to testimony which appears to create genuine issues of material fact related to the instructions given by the, Defendants, Michael Cantu’s responding behavior, Defendant level of supervision and safety procedures, and whether, Defendants actions or inactions rose to the level of recklessness.

Plaintiffs have also cited the testimony [*14] of their expert, Gerald S. George, PhD. Dr. George reviewed industry rules and regulations and examined the facts and evidence in this case. Dr. George admitted that under “appropriate conditions, gymnastics is a reasonably safe and healthy activity for young people.” He, however, cautioned that “in the absence of appropriate safeguards, however, gymnastics becomes an unreasonably dangerous activity. Report at p. 2. Dr. George opines that, Defendants violated a number of safety regulations including “failing to ensure that Michael Cantu possessed an adequate level of performer readiness to safely participate in the intended activity,” “failing to provide adequate supervision of the open gym participants,” “failing to instruct Michael Cantu on how to land safely in a loose foam landing pit,” and “failing to provide a reasonably safe physical environment for the intended gymnastics activity,” specifically directing attention to the violative nature of the foam pit. Report at 3-6. Dr. George opines, among other things, that, given these violations and conduct, Defendants actions were “grossly inadequate” reckless and that, Defendants exhibited “willful and wanton” disregard for caution. [*15]

Upon this examination, the Court determines that genuine issues of material fact related to, Defendants’ alleged recklessness and/or willful and wanton conduct exist. Therefore, summary judgment is inappropriate on this issue. Because a question of fact remains on the issue of reckless and/or willful and wanton conduct, summary judgment on the issue of punitive damages is also denied.

4. Ohio’s Product Liability Statute, R.C. 2307.71et seq.

Defendants have also moved for summary judgment on the, Plaintiffs’ product liability claim related to the foam pit into which Michael Cantu fell., Defendants argue that this claim is barred by the statute of repose. This Court agrees.

The statute of repose applicable to claims of product liability, R.C. 2305.10 (C) (1) provides:

Except as provided in division (C)(2), (3), (4), (5), (6), and (7) of this section or in Section 2305.19 of the Revised Code, no cause of action based on a product liability claim shall accrue against the manufacturer or supplier of a product later than ten years from the date that the product was delivered to its first purchaser or first lessee who was not engaged in a business in which the product was used the component in the production, construction, creation, assembly, or rebuilding of another [*16] product.

The evidence demonstrated that the foam pit was constructed in 2000, and that there were no modifications to the pit at any time thereafter. John King depo. at 61, 67 and 85., Plaintiff’s accident occurred on August 22, 2011, 11 years after the installation of the foam pit. Pursuant to the specific language of R.C. 2305.10 (C) (1), Plaintiffs’ product liability claim is barred by the statute of repose.

From review of, Plaintiff’s brief, Plaintiffs appear to have abandoned this argument. Also, as discussed above, claims for negligence have been released by the, Plaintiffs. However, even barring that analysis, the statute of repose also applies to the, Plaintiffs’ product liability claim, and this claim is, therefore, barred.

5. Consortium.

The claims for loss of consortium by Michael Cantu’s parents, and punitive damages claim are directed at both, Defendants. A cause of action that is based upon loss of consortium is a derivative claim. Messmore v. Monarch Mach Tool Co., 11 Ohio App.3d 67 (9th Dist., 1983). As this Court has determined that, Plaintiff Michael Cantu is not entitled to recovery on negligence claims, the same applies to his parents. However, as genuine issues of material fact remain on the issues of reckless and/or willful and wanton conduct, as well [*17] as on punitive

damages, this Court denies summary judgment to both defendants on the loss of consortium and punitive damages claims.

CONCLUSION

Upon due consideration, after review of the briefs of the parties, the applicable law, exhibits, testimony and other evidence, the Court GRANTS, Defendants’ Motions for Summary Judgment as a matter of law on, Plaintiffs’ negligence claims. However, the Court finds that genuine issues of material fact remain as to whether, Defendants were reckless or acted in a willful or wanton manner. Accordingly the Court DENIES summary judgment as it pertains to, Plaintiffs’ claims of recklessness, and their claims for punitive damages.

The Final Pretrial previously schedule on July 22, 2016 at 8:30 AM, as well as the trial date of August 1, 2016, are confirmed.

IT IS SO ORDERED.

/s/ [Signature]

JUDGE TAMMY/O’BRIEN

Attorneys Terrance P. Gravens/Kimberly A. Brennan

Attorney Michael W. Czack


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.


Under Pennsylvania law, a collision with other skiers or boarders is an inherent risk of skiing. Skiing off the trail because of the collision is also an inherent risk of skiing.

The terrain off of the trail was different than normally found at a ski area. A 3-4 drop off into a pile of rocks. However, the risk is skiing off the trail, not what you run into when you do.

Vu v. Ski Liberty Operating Corp., et. al., 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 49013

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

Plaintiff: Quan Vu and May Siew

Defendant: Ski Liberty Operating Corp., et. al.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence and Loss of Consortium

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the defendant

Year: 2018

Summary

The definition of an inherent risk when skiing is not what causes the injury, only the risk that led to the injury. Under Pennsylvania law, there is a broad definition of inherent risks and this case was dismissed because the plaintiff assumed those inherent risks, and the defendant did not owe a duty to protect him from those risks.

Facts

The plaintiff was an experienced skier, who had been skiing for twenty years. He was skiing behind his daughter at the defendant’s ski area. A snowboarder came close to the plaintiff or hit the plaintiff sending or causing him to ski off the trail. He went off the trail, over a 3-4 drop and landed in a pile of rocks.

…Mr. Vu does not recall much detail about his accident. Mr. Vu testified: “I believe there was a snowboarder involved and I — the snowboarder got — either cut me off or got awfully close and I had a knee-jerk reaction to veer because the last thing I want to do is ram into somebody. So I — my knee-jerk reaction is to veer.” However, Mr. Vu could not recall what he saw that caused him to veer, whether he veered to the right or to the left, or whether the snowboarder was above or below him on the hill. The last thing that Mr. Vu remembered was skiing with his daughter.

He sued the defendant ski area because it was:

…negligent in the design, construction, and maintenance of the ski slope, failure to warn Mr. Vu of the dangerous condition, failure to construct a barrier to stop skiers from going over the edge into the pile of rocks, failure to inspect the scope and detect the defective condition, and failure to repair that condition.

The court granted the defendants motion for summary judgment.

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

The decision was based on the Pennsylvania Skier’s Responsibility Act. The court had to decide if the risks encountered by the plaintiff were inherent risks of skiing.

The Pennsylvania General Assembly expressly preserved the doctrine of assumption of the risk as a defense in downhill skiing cases in the Skier’s Responsibility Act, recognizing that “there are inherent risks in the sport of downhill skiing. As the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania explained, “[t]he assumption of the risk defense, as applied to sports and places of amusement, has also been described as a ‘no-duty’ rule, i.e., as the principle that an owner or operator of a place of amusement has no duty to protect the user from any hazards inherent in the activity.”

If there is no duty, then there can be no negligence.

Where there is no duty, there can be no negligence, and thus when inherent risks are involved, negligence principles are irrelevant–the Comparative Negligence Act is inapplicable–and there can be no recovery based on allegations of negligence.

Pennsylvania has a two-part test to determine if the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty.

First, this Court must determine whether [the plaintiff] was engaged in the sport of downhill skiing at the time of her injury.” “If that answer is affirmative, we must then determine whether the risk” of the circumstance that caused the plaintiff’s injury “is one of the ‘inherent risks’ of down-hill skiing.” If so, then summary judgment must be awarded against the plaintiff as a matter of law.

The first test was met; the plaintiff was skiing at the time of his accident.

The court then had to determine if the risks the plaintiff encountered were inherent to skiing. Under Pennsylvania law, inherent risks “are those that are “common, frequent, and expected” in downhill skiing.”

The plaintiff argued that because the plaintiff was no specifically aware of the risk of the 3-4-foot drop off and the pile of rocks, he could not assume the risk.

Plaintiffs argue that while Mr. Vu “was generally aware of the dangers of downhill skiing,” he was not aware “of the specific hazard of being ejected from the ski trail due to a steep 3 to 4 foot drop-off on that particular slope’s trail edge.” (emphasis in original). Because there is no evidence that Mr. Vu had subjective awareness of these risks, Plaintiffs argue, the doctrine of assumption of the risk cannot apply.

In many cases, assumption of the risk would not be a defense if the injured plaintiff had no specific knowledge of the risk. However, it was not the case here under the statute. It did not matter if the Plaintiff had specific knowledge of the risk or a general knowledge of the risks of skiing, he assumed those risks.

The court then looked at the facts and found there were two circumstances that gave rise to the plaintiff’s injuries, veering to avoid a collision and skiing over the drop off.

The first is an inherent risk of skiing in Pennsylvania.

We can easily conclude that the first risk is inherent and gives rise to no duty on behalf of Defendants. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has specifically determined that the risk of collision with another person on the slope is inherent to the sport of downhill skiing: “the risk of colliding with an-other skier is one of the common, frequent and expected risks ‘inherent’ in downhill skiing. Indeed, other skiers are as much a part of the risk in downhill skiing, if not more so, than the snow and ice, elevation, contour, speed and weather conditions.

The next issue was whether skiing over the drop off into a pile of rocks was an inherent risk of skiing. Here again, the court found skiing off the trail, no matter what you may encounter once you are off the trail, is an inherent risk of skiing. The court backed its point up quite interestingly.

We struggled to find case law on point to support our holding because we believe it to be such a common sense and logical conclusion that does not require in-depth analysis.

The court found the defendant did not owe the plaintiff a duty because he assumed the risks of his injury under the Pennsylvania Skier’s Responsibility Act.

So Now What?

Actually, an easy case. Easy under Pennsylvania law because of the Pennsylvania Supreme Courts interpretation of the Pennsylvania Skier’s Responsibility Act. When skiing in Pennsylvania collisions with other skiers or boarders are an inherent risk of skiing and skiing off the trail is also.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2018 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

If you like this let your friends know or post it on FB, Twitter or LinkedIn

     

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

Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law

To Purchase Go Here:

Facebook Page: Outdoor Recreation & Adventure Travel Law

Email: Rec-law@recreation-law.com

By Recreation Law    Rec-law@recreation-law.com    James H. Moss

#AdventureTourism, #AdventureTravelLaw, #AdventureTravelLawyer, #AttorneyatLaw, #Backpacking, #BicyclingLaw, #Camps, #ChallengeCourse, #ChallengeCourseLaw, #ChallengeCourseLawyer, #CyclingLaw, #FitnessLaw, #FitnessLawyer, #Hiking, #HumanPowered, #HumanPoweredRecreation, #IceClimbing, #JamesHMoss, #JimMoss, #Law, #Mountaineering, #Negligence, #OutdoorLaw, #OutdoorRecreationLaw, #OutsideLaw, #OutsideLawyer, #RecLaw, #Rec-Law, #RecLawBlog, #Rec-LawBlog, #RecLawyer, #RecreationalLawyer, #RecreationLaw, #RecreationLawBlog, #RecreationLawcom, #Recreation-Lawcom, #Recreation-Law.com, #RiskManagement, #RockClimbing, #RockClimbingLawyer, #RopesCourse, #RopesCourseLawyer, #SkiAreas, #Skiing, #SkiLaw, #Snowboarding, #SummerCamp, #Tourism, #TravelLaw, #YouthCamps, #ZipLineLawyer, #RecreationLaw, #OutdoorLaw, #OutdoorRecreationLaw, #SkiLaw,


Vu v. Ski Liberty Operating Corp., et. al., 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 49013

Vu v. Ski Liberty Operating Corp., et. al., 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 49013

Quan Vu and May Siew, Plaintiffs, v. Ski Liberty Operating Corp., et. al., Defendants,

1:16-cv-2170

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA

2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 49013

March 26, 2018, Decided

CORE TERMS: skiing, trail, edge, downhill, ski, skier, snowboarder, sport, inherent risk, slope, collision, rocks, summary judgment, drop-off, att, daughter, skied, snow, pile, foot, lift ticket, knee-jerk, genuine, resort, Skier’s Responsibility Act, matter of law, specific risk, experienced, elevation, veering

COUNSEL: [*1] For Quan VU, May Siew, Plaintiffs: D. Aaron Rihn, Mark D. Troyan, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Robert Peirce & Associates, P.C., Pittsburgh, PA USA.

For Ski Liberty Operating Corp. doing business as Liberty Mountain Resort, Defendant: Anthony W. Hinkle, Snow Time, Inc., Cipriani & Werner, P.C., Philadelphia, PA, USA.

For Snow Time, Inc., Ski Liberty Operating Corp., Counterclaim Plaintiffs: Anthony W. Hinkle, Cipriani & Werner, P.C., Philadelphia, PA USA.

For Snow Time, Inc., Ski Liberty Operating Corp., Counterclaim Defendants: Anthony W. Hinkle, Cipriani & Werner, P.C., Philadelphia, PA USA.

JUDGES: Hon. John E. Jones III, United States District Judge.

OPINION BY: John E. Jones III

OPINION

MEMORANDUM

Plaintiffs are Quan Vu and his wife, May Siew. (“Plaintiffs”). Defendants are Ski Liberty Operating Corp. and Snow Time, Inc., operating as Liberty Mountain Resort. (“Defendants”). This action arises out of a skiing accident at Liberty Mountain that left Mr. Vu severely injured. The complaint brings one count of negligence on behalf of Mr. Vu and one count of loss of consortium on behalf of Mrs. Siew, both alleging that the accident was caused by the Defendants’ negligence in maintaining the ski slope and failing to warn Mr. Vu of [*2] the slope’s hazardous condition. (Doc. 1). Presently pending before the Court is the Defendants’ motion for summary judgment. (the “Motion”) (Doc. 36). The Motion has been fully briefed and is therefore ripe for our review. (Docs. 38, 42, 43). For the reasons that follow, the Motion shall be granted.

I. BACKGROUND

On January 23, 2015, Mr. Vu was downhill skiing with his daughter at Liberty Mountain. (Doc. 41, ¶ 24). Mr. Vu was following his daughter from behind as they skied down the Lover Heavenly trail, a blue square intermediate hill, when he had his accident. (Id. at ¶¶ 24-25). Due to his injuries, Mr. Vu does not recall much detail about his accident. (Doc. 37, ¶ 11). Mr. Vu testified: “I believe there was a snowboarder involved and I — the snowboarder got — either cut me off or got awfully close and I had a knee-jerk reaction to veer because the last thing I want to do is ram into somebody. So I — my knee-jerk reaction is to veer.” (Doc. 37, att. 1, pp. 65-66). However, Mr. Vu could not recall what he saw that caused him to veer, whether he veered to the right or to the left, or whether the snowboarder was above or below him on the hill. (Id. at pp. 65-66). The last thing that Mr. Vu remembered [*3] was skiing with his daughter. (Id. at p. 66).

Mr. Vu’s daughter testified: “I saw someone get really close to him and he was trying to avoid them and it was either ramming into him, the snowboarder, or person who was trying to get really close to him, or veering off path.” (Doc. 42, att. 2, p. 8). “He — there was someone trying to kind of get really close to him. And he didn’t want to ram into him. So he — I don’t really understand — know what happened. But he tried to avoid it. And there was like a big ditch or something there. And he tried to stop and tried to avoid the person who was trying to cut him off.” (Id.). “My dad was — the snowboarder was — my dad was kind of like the ham in the middle of a sandwich. Between the end of the trail, the edge of the trail and the snowboarder.” (Id. at p. 9). “I just felt that the snowboarder was getting quite close to my dad and I didn’t want a collision to happen or the snowboarder to ram into my dad.” (Id. at p. 10).

Ultimately, whether he did so intentionally or not, Mr. Vu skied off of the edge of the trail and suffered catastrophic injuries. There was a drop-off at the edge of the ski trail of about three to four feet. (Doc. 41, ¶ 32). Below that drop-off was a large pile [*4] of rocks. (Id. at ¶ 31). Mr. Vu skied off of the edge of the trail, off of the embankment, and landed on the pile of rocks. (Doc. 37, ¶ 11).

Mr. Vu was an experienced skier at the time of his accident. He had skied for over twenty years and was capable of skiing black diamond slopes. (Id. at P 6). Mr. Vu testified that he was familiar with the Skier’s Responsibility Code and understood that he was responsible for skiing in control and in such a manner that he could stop or avoid other skiers. (Id.). Mr. Vu also testified that he understood that skiing is a dangerous sport and that he could get hurt if he skied out of control or if he fell. (Id.).

On the day of his accident, Mr. Vu’s wife purchased his Liberty Mountain Resort Lift Ticket. (Id. at ¶ 18). The back of the lift ticket reads as follows:

PLEASE READ

Acceptance of this ticket constitutes a contract. The conditions of the contract are stated on this ticket & will prevent or restrict your ability to sue Liberty Mountain Resort. If you do not agree with these conditions, then do not use the facility. Snowsports in their various forms, including the use of lifts, are dangerous sports with inherent and other risks. These risks include but are [*5] not limited to: variations in snow, steepness & terrain, ice & icy conditions, moguls, rocks, trees & other forms of forest growth or debris (above or below the surface), bare spots, lift towers, utility lines & poles, fencing or lack of fencing, snowmaking & snowgrooming equipment & component parts, on-snow vehicles & other forms of natural or man-made obstacles, and terrain features on or off designated trails as well as collisions with equipment, obstacles or other snowsport participants. Trail conditions vary constantly because of weather changes and use. All the inherent and other risks involved present the risk of permanent catastrophic injury or death. In consideration of using Liberty’s facilities, the purchaser or user of this ticket agrees to accept the risks of snowsports and understands and agrees that they are hazardous and further agrees NOT TO SUE Ski Liberty Operating Corp., its owners or employees if injured while using the facilities regardless of any negligence, including gross negligence, on the part of the resort, and/or its employees or agents. The purchaser or user of this ticket voluntarily assumes the risk of injury while participating in the sport, and agrees [*6] to report all injuries before leaving the resort . . .

(Doc. 37, Ex. D) (emphasis in original). Though Mr. Vu was uncertain if he read the language on the lift ticket on the day of his accident, he testified that he had read it at some point prior to his accident. (Doc. 37, ¶ 20). At his deposition, Mr. Vu was asked to read portions of the lift ticket and he had trouble doing so because the font was too small. (Doc. 37, att. 1, p. 70).

Mr. Vu and his wife initiated this action with the filing of a complaint on October 27, 2016. (Doc. 1). Plaintiffs allege that Defendants were negligent in the design, construction, and maintenance of the ski slope, failure to warn Mr. Vu of the dangerous condition, failure to construct a barrier to stop skiers from going over the edge into the pile of rocks, failure to inspect the scope and detect the defective condition, and failure to repair that condition. Defendants filed the instant motion for summary judgment on January 31, 2018. (Doc. 36).

I II. LEGAL STANDARD

Summary judgment is appropriate if the moving party establishes “that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). A dispute [*7] is “genuine” only if there is a sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to find for the non-moving party, and a fact is “material” only if it might affect the outcome of the action under the governing law. See Sovereign Bank v. BJ’s Wholesale Club, Inc., 533 F.3d 162, 172 (3d Cir. 2008) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). A court should view the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, drawing all reasonable inferences therefrom, and should not evaluate credibility or weigh the evidence. See Guidotti v. Legal Helpers Debt Resolution, L.L.C., 716 F.3d 764, 772 (3d Cir. 2013) (citing Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150 (2000)).

Initially, the moving party bears the burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact, and upon satisfaction of that burden, the non-movant must go beyond the pleadings, pointing to particular facts that evidence a genuine dispute for trial. See id. at 773 (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986)). In advancing their positions, the parties must support their factual assertions by citing to specific parts of the record or by “showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, or that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact.” FED. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1).

A court should not grant summary judgment when there is a disagreement about the facts or the proper inferences that a factfinder could draw from them. See Reedy v. Evanson, 615 F.3d 197, 210 (3d Cir. 2010) (citing Peterson v. Lehigh Valley Dist. Council, 676 F.2d 81, 84 (3d Cir. 1982)). Still, “the [*8] mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment.” Layshock ex rel. Layshock v. Hermitage Sch. Dist., 650 F.3d 205, 211 (3d Cir. 2011) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 247-48) (internal quotation marks omitted).

III. DISCUSSION

Defendants move for summary judgment on two legal bases. First, Defendants argue that Plaintiffs’ claims are barred as a matter of law because Mr. Vu’s injuries were caused by an inherent risk of skiing. Second, Defendants argue that Plaintiffs’ claims are barred by the exculpatory release language contained on the Liberty Mountain lift ticket. Because we find that Mr. Vu’s injuries arose out of risks inherent to the sport of downhill skiing, we hold that Defendants are entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law without even considering the exculpatory release language of the lift ticket.

The material facts surrounding Mr. Vu’s accident are not in dispute. Though Mr. Vu and his daughter are unclear on the specifics, it is undisputed that Mr. Vu ended up skiing off of the trail, over a drop-off, and into a pile of rocks. (Doc. 37, ¶ 11). Mr. Vu testified that a snowboarder was getting too close to him and his “knee-jerk” reaction was to veer to avoid a collision, causing him [*9] to ski off of the trail and over the embankment. (Doc. 37, att. 1, pp. 65-66). Mr. Vu’s daughter also testified that her father’s accident occurred when he tried to avoid a collision with a snowboarder. (Doc. 42, att. 2, p. 8). While Defendants argumentatively refer to this person as the “phantom snowboarder” and question the credibility of the testimony, for purposes of this Motion we can take Plaintiffs’ facts as true and assume that Mr. Vu skied off of the trail, either intentionally or as a result of a knee-jerk reaction, to avoid colliding with a snowboarder. Even so, summary judgment must be granted in favor of the Defendants because Mr. Vu’s accident occurred as a result of inherent risks of downhill skiing.

The Pennsylvania General Assembly expressly preserved the doctrine of assumption of the risk as a defense in downhill skiing cases in the Skier’s Responsibility Act, recognizing that “there are inherent risks in the sport of downhill skiing.” 42 Pa. C.S. § 7102(c). As the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania explained, “[t]he assumption of the risk defense, as applied to sports and places of amusement, has also been described as a ‘no-duty’ rule, i.e., as the principle that an owner or operator of a [*10] place of amusement has no duty to protect the user from any hazards inherent in the activity.” Chepkevich v. Hidden Valley Resort, L.P., 2 A.3d 1174, 1186 (2010) (citing Restatement (Second) of Torts, § 496A, cmt. C, 2). “Where there is no duty, there can be no negligence, and thus when inherent risks are involved, negligence principles are irrelevant–the Comparative Negligence Act is inapplicable–and there can be no recovery based on allegations of negligence.” Id.

In Hughes v. Seven Springs Farm, Inc., the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania established a two-part test for courts to use to determine whether a plaintiff’s claims are barred by the no duty rule of the Skier’s Responsibility Act. 762 A.2d 339, 343 (2000). “First, this Court must determine whether [the plaintiff] was engaged in the sport of downhill skiing at the time of her injury.” Id. at 344. “If that answer is affirmative, we must then determine whether the risk” of the circumstance that caused the plaintiff’s injury “is one of the ‘inherent risks’ of downhill skiing.” Id. If so, then summary judgment must be awarded against the plaintiff as a matter of law. Id. In the case at-bar, there can be no dispute that Mr. Vu was engaged in the sport of downhill skiing at the time of his accident. The salient question, therefore, becomes whether veering off-trail and over a drop-off into a pile [*11] of rocks to avoid a collision with a snowboarder are inherent risks of downhill skiing. If those risks are inherent to skiing, then Defendants had no duty to protect Mr. Vu. Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1186. If those risks are not inherent, traditional principles of negligence apply and we must determine what duty the Defendants owed Mr. Vu, whether the Defendants breached that duty, and whether the breach caused Mr. Vu’s injuries.

We begin with a discussion of what it means for a risk to be “inherent.” The Hughes court explained that “inherent” risks are those that are “common, frequent, and expected” in downhill skiing. Id. In interpreting risks, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has instructed that “the clear legislative intent to preserve the assumption of the risk doctrine in this particular area, as well as the broad wording of the Act itself, dictates a practical and logical interpretation of what risks are inherent to the sport.” Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1187-88. “Accordingly, courts have rejected attempts by plaintiffs to define the injury producing risks in very a specific and narrow manner.” Cole v. Camelback Mountain Ski Resort, 2017 WL 4621786, at *4 (M.D. Pa. Oct. 16, 2017) (Mariani, J.). For example, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in Chepkevich rejected the plaintiff’s argument that she did not assume the “specific [*12] risk” involved, looking instead to the “general risk” that gave rise to the accident. 2 A.3d at 1188. A number of courts have addressed the scope of the Skier’s Responsibility Act and have concluded that some of the inherent risks of downhill skiing include: lack of netting, improper course plotting, or soft snow1; skiing off trail and striking a tree2; collisions with unpadded snow equipment poles3; striking a fence on the edge of the trail4; and collisions with other skiers or snowboarders.5

1 Bjorgung v. Whitetail Resort, L.P., 550 F.3d 263 (3d Cir. 2008).

2 Id.

3 Smith v. Seven Springs Farm, Inc., 716 F.2d 1002 (3d Cir. 1983).

4 Cole, 2017 WL 4621786, at *5.

5 Hughes, 762 A.2d 339.

Before addressing the risks that Mr. Vu encountered, we must address Plaintiffs’ initial argument that the assumption of the risk doctrine is inapplicable. Plaintiffs argue that while Mr. Vu “was generally aware of the dangers of downhill skiing,” he was not aware “of the specific hazard of being ejected from the ski trail due to a steep 3 to 4 foot drop-off on that particular slope’s trail edge.” (Doc. 42, p. 8) (emphasis in original). Because there is no evidence that Mr. Vu had subjective awareness of these risks, Plaintiffs argue, the doctrine of assumption of the risk cannot apply. (Id. at pp. 9-13). For support of this argument, Plaintiffs cite several cases that are materially distinct from the case at-bar. First, Plaintiffs [*13] quote Barillari v. Ski Shawnee, Inc., “[i]t is not enough that the plaintiff was generally aware that the activity in which he was engaged had accompanying risks.” 986 F. Supp. 2d 555, 563 (M.D. Pa. 2013). Importantly, the court made this statement when analyzing the doctrine of voluntary assumption of the risk after determining that the Skier’s Responsibility Act was not applicable because the plaintiff was not engaged in the sport of downhill skiing at the time of the accident. Id. at 561. The instruction of this quote is inapplicable to our consideration of the no duty doctrine of assumption of the risk.

Next, Plaintiffs rely heavily on Bolyard v. Wallenpaupack Lake Estates, Inc., 2012 WL 629391(M.D. Pa. Feb. 27, 2012) (Caputo, J.). In Bolyard, the plaintiff sued the defendant for negligence after sustaining injuries while snow tubing on the defendant’s property. Id. at *1. The court recognized that while the plaintiff had “general knowledge” of the dangers of snow tubing on the hill, she did not assume the risk because “there is no evidence in the record that she had any knowledge of the specific hazards of that particular slope.” Id. at *6. Plaintiffs argue that “[s]imilar to the patron in Bolyard,” Mr. Vu was only generally aware of the risks he could suffer while skiing and thus assumption of the risk is inapplicable. (Doc. [*14] 42, p. 8). We disagree.

Notably, the slope in Bolyard was an old slope that was not currently in operation. 2012 WL 629391, at *1. The court used principles of negligence as applicable to landowners and licensees to determine the duty owed to the plaintiff and, consequently, considered the doctrine of voluntary assumption of the risk as a defense. Id. at **3-6. Analyzing the present action under the no duty rule, we do not consider the defense of voluntary assumption of the risk; instead, we must determine whether Mr. Vu’s injuries arose out of an inherent risk of the sport of skiing such that the Defendants had no duty at all. Pursuant to Hughes and the Skier’s Responsibility Act, there is no duty to protect a skier from the inherent risks of skiing and therefore, “when inherent risks are involved, negligence principles are irrelevant.” Id.

Finally, Plaintiffs cite Perez v. Great Wolf Lodge of the Poconos LLC,6
Staub v. Toy Factory, Inc.,
7
Jones v. Three Rivers Mgmt. Corp,
8 and Telega v. Sec. Bureau, Inc.9 in support of their position that assumption of the risk does not apply because Mr. Vu did not appreciate the specific risks that caused his accident. To start, none of these cases address the Skier’s Responsibility [*15] Act. These cases discuss appreciation of specific risk only after determining that the no duty rule was inapplicable because the risk encountered was not inherent. Again, we reiterate that “[n]egligence principles are irrelevant where the ‘no duty’ rule applies.” Lin v. Spring Mountain Adventures, Inc., 2010 WL 5257648, at *7 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 23, 2010). Whether the no duty rule applies turns on whether Mr. Vu’s particular injuries arose out of risks inherent in the sport of skiing — an issue that is not dependent on a plaintiff’s subjective awareness of those specific risks.

6 200 F. Supp. 3d 471, 478 (M.D. Pa. 2016) (Mariani, J.).

7 749 A.2d 522, (Pa. Super. 2000).

8 483 Pa. 75, 85, 394 A.2d 546, 551 (1978).

9 719 A.2d 372, 376 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1998).

We now turn to the risks involved in Mr. Vu’s accident. The facts reveal two circumstances that gave rise to Mr. Vu’s injuries: (1) veering to avoid a collision with a snowboarder; and (2) skiing over the drop-off at the edge of the trail and into a pile of rocks. If these risks are inherent to the sport of downhill skiing, Plaintiffs’ claims cannot stand.

We can easily conclude that the first risk is inherent and gives rise to no duty on behalf of Defendants. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has specifically determined that the risk of collision with another person on the slope is inherent to the sport of downhill skiing: “the risk of colliding with another skier is one of the common, frequent and expected [*16] risks ‘inherent’ in downhill skiing. Indeed, other skiers are as much a part of the risk in downhill skiing, if not more so, than the snow and ice, elevation, contour, speed and weather conditions.” Hughes, 762 A.2d at 344. Likely in recognition of the clear case law, Plaintiffs do not argue in their brief in opposition to the Motion that avoiding a collision with a snowboarder is a risk that would give rise to a duty on behalf of Defendants. To the extent that Plaintiffs’ claims of negligence are premised on Mr. Vu’s avoidance of a collision with the snowboarder, those claims must fail.

Next, we consider whether skiing over the edge of the trail and encountering a three to four foot drop-off into a pile of rocks is an inherent risk of downhill skiing. Plaintiffs frame this risk as the primary cause of Mr. Vu’s injuries.10 “Simply put, the risk of ejectment from a ski trail due to a 3 to 4 foot drop off and striking one’s head on rocks and/or boulders . . . is not an inherent, frequent, common, and expected risk of skiing.” (Doc. 42, p. 11). All parties recognize that the drop-off was at the edge of the trail rather than a ditch or hole in the slope itself. Though Plaintiffs stress that Mr. Vu did not “willingly [*17] decide to ski off trail,” the distinction is of no consequence. Plaintiffs describe the incident in terms of Mr. Vu being “ejected” from the trail due to the embankment, but it is illogical to argue that the existence of the drop-off itself would cause a skier to go over it. Whether Mr. Vu did so intentionally, accidentally, or as a means of avoiding a collision, the incontrovertible fact is that Mr. Vu did, ultimately, ski off of the three to four foot edge of the trail.

10 “. . . the specific hazard of being ejected from the ski trail due to a steep 3 to 4 foot drop-off on that particular slope’s trail edge.” (Doc. 42, p. 8); “Even if Defendant could establish that having a 3 to 4 foot trail edge drop presents a danger inherent to the sport of skiing . . .” (Id. at p. 9); “. . . he was ejected from the trail when attempting to avoid a collision and was confronted with a 3 to 4 foot drop in elevation from the ski trail.” (Id. at p. 11).

We hold that the risk of skiing off trail and suffering from the change of elevation between the trail and surrounding terrain is an inherent risk of downhill skiing. Mr. Vu was an experienced skier who was well aware of the risks of skiing off the designated slope; he testified repeatedly that he “would never ski off-trail.” (Doc. 41, att. 1, p. 43). He had previously skied at Liberty Mountain on multiple occasions and could not remember ever complaining about the trail or trail markings. (Id. at pp. 35-36). Additionally, Mr. Vu’s daughter testified that she did not have any difficulty discerning the edge of the slope where her father went off trail the evening of the accident. (Doc. 41, att. 2, p. 14). It would be irrational for [*18] any court to hold that skiing off trail and encountering dangerous terrain is not an inherent risk of the sport of downhill skiing — ski slopes are marked and maintained in appreciation of this risk, and beginner and experienced skiers alike know to stay within the trail limits to avoid injury. Mr. Vu himself testified that he understood that he could run into trees, rocks, boulders, or snowmaking equipment if he skied off trail. (Doc. 37, att. 1, p. 71).

We struggled to find case law on point to support our holding because we believe it to be such a common sense and logical conclusion that does not require in-depth analysis. One case from the New York appellate court, however, was particularly analogous. In Atwell v. State, the plaintiff was skiing near the edge of the trail when he observed a “floundering” skier in his path. 645 N.Y.S.2d 658, 659 (1996). Plaintiff “instinctively reacted and turned without thinking” to avoid a collision and ended up skiing off trail and into a tree. Id. The court easily found that plaintiff’s injuries were due to inherent risks of skiing. Id. at 650. “[F]rom claimant’s own description of the accident, there can be no dispute that everything he encountered, including the skier he turned [*19] to avoid hitting, the berm at the edge of the trail referred to by claimant’s expert and the tree with which he collided, are all statutorily recognized as inherent dangers of skiing.” The court noted that “[c]laimant chose to ski near the edge of the trail and there is nothing in the record to indicate that the location of the edge of the trail was not readily observable to him.” Id. Similarly here, Mr. Vu was an experienced skier who chose to ski near the edge of the slope. He had a knee-jerk reaction to avoid a skier, and ended up veering off of the trail and suffering from the elevation change and his collision with rocks. Not only is there a lack of any evidence that the edge of the trail was difficult to discern, but Mr. Vu’s daughter testified at length about how her father was close to the edge of the trail and specifically stated that she could observe the edge of the slope without difficulty. (Doc. 41, att. 2, p. 14).

We agree with the Supreme Court of New Hampshire, which simply held: “Even the most generous reading of the plaintiff’s pleadings reveals the chief cause of his injuries to be an unenumerated, yet quintessential risk of skiing: that a skier might lose control [*20] and ski off the trail. By participating in the sport of skiing, a skier assumes this inherent risk and may not recover against a ski area operator for resulting injuries.” Nutbrown v. Mount Cranmore, Inc., 140 N.H. 675, 684, 671 A.2d 548, 553 (1996).

IV. CONCLUSION

For the foregoing reasons, the Motion shall be granted. A separate order shall issue in accordance with this memorandum.

ORDER

Presently before the Court is Defendants’ motion for summary judgment. (Doc. 36). In conformity with the Memorandum issued on today’s date, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED THAT:

1. Defendants’ motion for summary judgment (Doc. 36) is GRANTED.

2. The Clerk of the Court SHALL CLOSE the file on this case.

/s/ John E. Jones III

John E. Jones III

United States District Judge


Only a New York City bike share case create a 34-page opinion on just motions that are filed. The results are all over the board, both the defendants and the plaintiff winning issues on an electronic release

A Ten-page release was upheld as valid. But the process was full of enough holes the plaintiff is still in the game.
Corwin, et al., v. NYC Bike Share, LLC, et al., 238 F. Supp. 3d 475; 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 29034

State: New York: United States District Court for the Southern District of New York

Plaintiff: Ronald D. Corwin, et al

Defendant: NYC Bike Share, LLC, et al

Plaintiff Claims: was improperly designed, installed, and maintained, Corwin brought claims for common-law and gross negligence and professional negligence and malpractice

Defendant Defenses: Release, Assumption of the Risk Immunity

Holding: Mixed

Year: 2017

Summary

Extremely complicated decision because of the number of claims of the plaintiff and the number of defendants in the case. Each defendant has a different perspective to the defenses.

The decision looks at what happens if you are not wearing a helmet while cycling and you receive a head injury as well as how assumption of the risk and open and obvious defenses are dealt with in a city and against city agencies.

The last issue, is electronic releases in New York City.

Facts

The plaintiff had signed up for a year long bike share rental agreement with New York City bike share. He did that online and, in the process, agreed to a release that was ten pages.

He rented a bike one day and was riding on the street. He felt pressure from traffic on his left. A bike share area was coming up on his right and he rode into it. The bike share locations must be on the streets in New York. He continued through the area and at the end hit a concrete wheel stop. He crashed suffering injuries.

Ronald D. Corwin, an annual member of the Citi Bike bicycle sharing program, was riding a Citi Bike in Midtown Manhattan. Upon passing through a Citi Bike station located on East 56th Street and Madison Avenue, he collided with a concrete wheel stop and violently hit his head against the cement. Alleging that the Citi Bike station in question was improperly designed, in-stalled, and maintained, Corwin brought claims for common-law and gross negligence and professional negligence and malpractice, and Beth Blumenthal, Corwin’s wife, brought derivative claims for loss of her husband’s services, society, companionship, and consortium.

He sued everyone there was in New York. Sixteen different law firms are listed in the case. The plaintiff sued:

City of New York (“City”), who planned, oversaw, and collaborated with the other defendants in implementing the Citi Bike program

NYC Bike Share, LLC (“NYCBS”), the company operating the Citi Bike system

New York City Department of Transportation

Alta Bicycle Share, Inc. (now named “Motivate, Inc.”), which is NYCBS’s parent company

Alta Planning + Design (“APD”)

Alta Planning + Design + Architecture of New York (“APDNY”), a design company and its wholly-owned subsidiary who drafted site plans for the Citi Bike system

Metro Express Services, Inc. (“Metro Express”) installation

Sealcoat USA, Inc. (“Sealcoat”) installation

The lawsuit was in Federal District Court. This opinion is the magistrate’s opinion on the motions filed by the parties. Judge assign non-trial work, such as deciding motions to magistrates. After the magistrate’s opinion is filed the parties have X days to respond/object. The judge then reviews and either adopts, modifies or writes his own opinion.

When the judge rules on the magistrate’s opinion there is usually a written record of the ruling. There are two additional motions the magistrate writes about that are in the record, but no ruling from the court.

Probably the parties settled based on this ruling.

There are a lot of arguments in this 34-page ruling. I’m only going to write about the ones that are important to the outdoor recreation and cycling community.

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

The first defense discussed here is the electronic release signed by the plaintiff to become a bike share member and rent bikes.

The first issues were plaintiff did not remember signing the release, but did sign up and admitted that he probably agreed to things.

The Bike Share program could not produce a release “signed” by the plaintiff. The produced a release that was in use at the time the plaintiff signed the release and the produced testimony of a former manager to testified that the only way the plaintiff could have become a member and ride bikes was if he had agreed to the release.

The plaintiff also argued the release was Unconscionable.

A contract or clause is unconscionable when it was “both procedurally and substantively unconscionable when made–i.e., some showing of an absence of meaningful choice on the part of one of the parties together with contract terms which are unreasonably favorable to the other party

The court first went into the issue of whether the release existed and was signed. The release was determined to be a “clickwrap” agreement.

Such an agreement requires the user to take an affirmative action, usually, the clicking of a box that states that he or she has read and agrees to the terms of service. “[U]nder a clickwrap arrangement, potential licensees are presented with the proposed license terms and forced to expressly and unambiguously manifest either assent or rejection prior to being given access to the product.”

The court found clickwrap agreements were enforceable.

Clickwrap agreements are “more readily enforceable [than online contracts that do not require the user to take an affirmative action], since they ‘permit courts to infer that the user was at least on inquiry notice of the terms of the agreement, and has outwardly manifested consent by clicking a box.

However, the presumption of enforceability is based several factors.

The touchstone in most courts’ analysis of the enforceability of clickwrap contracts turns on whether the website provided “reasonably conspicuous notice that [users] are about to bind them-selves to contract terms

In New York the courts have already set a group of tests to determine if a clickwrap agreement is enforceable.

First, terms of use should not be enforced if a reasonably prudent user would not have had at the very least inquiry notice of the terms of the agreement.

Second, terms should be enforced when a user is encouraged by the design and content of the website and the agreement’s webpage to examine the terms, such as when they are clearly available through hyperlink.

Conversely, terms should not be enforced when they are “buried at the bottom of a webpage” or “tucked away in obscure corners.” (collecting cases refusing to enforce such agreements).

Special attention should be paid to whether the site design brought the consumer’s attention to “material terms that would alter what a reasonable consumer would understand to be her default rights when initiating an online [transaction],” and, in appropriate cases, such terms should not be enforced even when the contract is otherwise enforceable (“When contractual terms as significant as . . . the right to sue in court are accessible only via a small and distant hyperlink . . . with text about agreement thereto presented even more obscurely, there is a genuine risk that a fundamental principle of contract formation will be left in the dust: the requirement for a manifestation of mutual assent.”) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

Broad exculpatory clauses waiving liability for negligence would certainly qualify as material terms that alter a contracting party’s commonly-understood default rights.

Using this set of parameters, the magistrate reviewed the bike Share release and found it was not unconscionable.

The plaintiff then argued the release was not clear, coherent or unambiguous.

To be enforceable, an exculpatory agreement must be stated in clear, coherent, unambiguous language and expressly release a defendant from ordinary claims.

This ambiguity was based on contradictions between two sections in the ten-page release. However, the court found there was no ambiguity.

Then the plaintiff argued the release was void on public policy grounds.

The plaintiff raised three arguments on why the release violated public policy. It violated New York City Administrative Code, it violated New York General Obligations law § 5-326 and it violated the cities common law duty to maintain roads.

The court found New York City administrative code could not serve as a basis for invalidating a release.

New York General Obligations law § 5-326 is the statute that restricts on who can use a release. The language of the statutes says that “operator of any pool, gymnasium, place of amusement or recreation, or similar establishment and the user of such facilities” can’t use a release. Since the bike share program was not a facility, the release was valid.

Finally, the common law duty the city of New York had to maintain the roads did not violate the release because “…the Citi Bike station, including all of its on-street equipment located in the parking lane, falls within the City’s non-delegable duty to maintain the public roads.”

The release was not void based on public policy considerations.

However, the release did not apply to the city of New York because that would be contrary to public policy.

In the end the negligence claims of the plaintiff were denied because of the release. The gross negligence claims were still valid. Under New York Law and the law of most states, claims for gross negligence cannot be stopped by a release.

The next issue was how the fact the plaintiff did not wear a helmet, at the time of his injury, would be used in the case.

The defendants argued that the plaintiff not wearing a helmet should be used by the defendants to show the plaintiff was liable for his injuries, (that the plaintiff was comparative negligence), to prove assumption of the risk and to mitigate the damages he incurred.

The plaintiff argued that since there was no statutory duty to wear a helmet, then the defendants could not make their arguments.

The court applied the same rationale to wearing a bike helmet as the courts had done in New York to wearing a seat belt in a car crash. Not wearing a bike helmet, it could not be used to prove liability on the part of the plaintiff but it could be used to reduce damages.

…the Appellate Division explicitly applied this reasoning to bicycle helmets, noting that “[Corwin’s] failure to use a helmet is akin to a plaintiff’s failure to use a seatbelt in a motor vehicle case. It is well settled that any such failure does not go to comparative liability, but rather to how dam-ages, if any, should be assessed.

The defendant then argued they should have qualified immunity on the plaintiff’s claims of failing to provide a bike helmet to him while renting a bike.

Immunity is granted by statute to governments and their agencies for the decisions they make. As long as the decisions are not intentional and thought out the immunity applies. The immunity then stops the courts from reviewing those decisions as long as the decisions are made under the guidelines the law has set out.

Although the city may use the fact the plaintiff did not wear a helmet to reduce any damages the city might owe to the plaintiff. The plaintiff cannot use that argument to say the city was liable for not providing helmets. Nor can the plaintiff argue the his not wearing a helmet was unreasonable and did not breach a duty of care.

Corwin will, of course, be free to demonstrate that his “conduct was not unreasonable under the circumstances and that he did not breach a duty of care because adults are not required to wear helmets while riding bicycles in New York City and the Citi Bike program does not provide helmets.

Here those guidelines were made by the city in its decision to not include helmets in the rentals of the bikes.

He may not, however, seek to hold the City liable for what was a well-reasoned and studied determination made in the public interest. (“[C]ourts should not be permitted to review determinations of governmental planning bodies under the guise of allowing them to be challenged in negligence suits.”). Accordingly, the City is granted summary judgment on Corwin’s negligence claim regarding its failure to provide helmets because it has qualified immunity on this issue.

Assumption of the Risk

The defendants moved for summary judgment because the plaintiff assumed the risk of his injuries while riding a bike. Primary assumption of the risk is defined as:

In voluntarily undertaken recreational activities, the duty of a defendant is “to make the conditions as safe as they appear to be. If the risks of the activity are fully comprehended or perfectly obvious, plaintiff has consented to them and defendant has performed its duty.

The risks were also identified in the release the plaintiff signed and which had been accepted by the court.

Member agrees that riding a Citi Bike bicycle involves many obvious and not-so-obvious risks, dangers, and hazards, which may result in injury or death . . . and that such risks, dangers, and hazards cannot always be predicted or avoided. Member agrees that such risks, dangers, and hazards are Member’s sole responsibility.”

However, the court rejected the defense because the plaintiff at the time of his injury was not engaged in a sporting activity.

Accordingly, the assumption of the risk doctrine is not applicable to this case. “In determining whether a bicycle rider has subjected himself or herself to the doctrine of primary assumption of risk, we must consider whether the rider is engaged in a sporting activity, such that his or her con-sent to the dangers inherent in the activity may reasonably be inferred.” Courts have consistently held that riding a bicycle on a paved road is not such a “sporting activity.” The fact that an individual may be engaging in a recreational or leisure activity is not enough because the doctrine “is not designed to relieve a municipality of its duty to maintain its roadways in a safe condition.

So, assumption of the risk only applies to recreation and sports in New York? If you are walking down a sidewalk and see a hole in the sidewalk, on your way to work you don’t assume the risk if you fall into the hole?

The next argument by the defendants are not liable because the danger the plaintiff encountered was open an obvious.

The Open and Obvious defense seems fairly simple. If the thing or condition that injured the plaintiff was open and obvious then the plaintiff cannot sue for his injuries. It is very similar to an assumption of the risk defense.

A defendant has “no duty to protect or warn against an open and obvious condition which is not inherently dangerous. Whether a condition was open and obvious is generally a question of fact inappropriate for summary judgment and “depends on the totality of the specific facts of each case.” Nevertheless, “a court may determine that a risk was open and obvious as a matter of law when the established facts compel that conclusion

The defendants argue the concrete wheel stop was open and obvious.

…because the concrete wheel stop, located in a striped white box with “zebra” cross-hatching underneath and surrounded by four three-foot-tall flexible delineators, was “open and obvious.

The plaintiff’s argument, based on the testimony of his expert witness was the wheel stop was not open and obvious because it was too big and was located in the travel lane had been camouflaged, in the way it was put in and painted.

The declaration of James M. Green, Corwin’s engineering expert, brings forth various issues relevant in this analysis. First, Green alleges that the Citi Bike station in question was wider than the specifications required, presenting Corwin with the “choice of continuing through the bike parking facility, or turning out into traffic, with only approximately 0.75 feet between [him] and moving vehicular traffic.” hour-long traffic study conducted by Green found that “cyclists circulate through the [Citi Bike] station with regularity” and that this was a “foreseeable consequence of this Station design.” Green therefore argues that the wheel stop, though in a parking lane, was placed within the foreseeable path of a cyclist. He further concluded that various factors, including the wheel stop’s partial obscuring by parked bicycles, its lack of contrast against the grey asphalt, and a cyclist’s need simultaneously to pay attention to dynamic vehicular and pedestrian traffic, would have made the wheel stop inconspicuous, not “open and obvious.”.

How something could be too big and then not be open and obvious is confusing. This was enough for the court to deny motion for summary judgment based on the open and obvious theory.

Gross Negligence of the Bike Share defendant

Gross negligence under New York law is

…conduct that evinces a reckless disregard for the rights of others or ‘smacks’ of intentional wrongdoing.” “[T]he act or omission must be of an aggravated character, as distinguished from the failure to exercise ordinary care.” “In order to establish a prima facie case in gross negligence, a plaintiff ‘must prove by a fair preponderance of the credible evidence’ that the defendant ‘not only acted carelessly in making a mistake, but that it was so extremely careless that it was equivalent to recklessness.

The plaintiff’s expert opined that the defendants ignored sound engineering practices when creating and installing the wheel stop and that it was foreseeable that the injuries would occur when the wheel stop was placed in the cycling path. Based on that language, the court found that the actions of the defendants could be defined as gross negligence.

The defendant won most of the decisions, however the plaintiff won enough and won significant ones that allowed the litigation to continue.

So Now What?

The final paragraph of the decision has a review of all decisions for the plaintiff and the defendants if you would like to keep a tally. However, there are several decisions concerning plaintiffs that were not reviewed here because they had no relationship to outdoor recreation or the legal issues commonly faced in outdoor recreation.

Obviously, the injuries to the plaintiff are significant to bring such forces to this litigation to justify this much work. The amount of effort put into prosecuting a case for a plaintiff can SOMETIMES be an indication of the damages to the plaintiff when those damages are not identified in the decision.

More importantly, the legal issues of suing New York City and its agencies are far more complex then found in most cities.

There are some interesting points worth noting. You could guess that the judge thought a ten-page release was long since she pointed it out. However, you cannot argue that your release is too long. Especially since electronically they do not have a length that is measured so easily.

Not wearing a helmet can be an issue in cycling and possibly skiing, even though the effectiveness of wearing one can be disputed. I suspect the next step would be to find a helmet expert by the plaintiff to argue that a helmet would not have prevented the damages the plaintiff received and the defendants will find an expert to argue the opposite.

The failure to provide proof that the plaintiff signed the release was overcome. However, design your system so you don’t have to jump through these hurdles. Crate a system that matches the signing to the credit card or other way of showing that on this date at this time the person entered his name and address, credit card number and clicked on this button saying he accepted the release. Then you add, his credit card would not have been charged unless he agreed to the release.

If you are designing bike share locations, do so in a way that people on bikes can assume they can ride through them.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2018 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

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By Recreation Law    Rec-law@recreation-law.com    James H. Moss

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