You can collect for damaged gear you rented to customers if your agreements are correct. This snowmobile outfitter recovered $27,000 for $220.11 in damages.

It helps to get that much money if the customer is a jerk and tries to get out of what they owe you. It makes the final judgment even better when one of the plaintiffs is an attorney.

Citation: Hightower-Henne v. Gelman, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4514, 2012 WL 95208

State: Colorado; United States District Court for the District of Colorado

Plaintiff: Tracy L. Hightower-Henne, and Thomas Henne

Defendant: Leonard M. Gelman

Plaintiff Claims: Violation of the Fair Debt Collections Act

Defendant Defenses: They did not violate the act

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2012

Summary

The plaintiff’s in this case rented snowmobiles and brought one back damaged. The release they signed to rent the snowmobiles stated if they damaged the snowmobiles they would have to pay for the damage and any lost time the snowmobiles could not be rented (like a car rental agreement).

The plaintiffs damaged a snowmobile and agreed to pay for the damages. The Snowmobile outfitter agreed not to charge them for the lost rental income.

When the plaintiff’s got home, they denied the claim on their credit card bill. The Snowmobile outfitter sued them for the $220.11 in damages and received a judgment of $27,000.

The plaintiff then sued the attorney representing the snowmobile outfitter for violation of the federal fair debt collection’s act, which is the subject of this lawsuit. The plaintiff lost that lawsuit also.

This case shows how agreements in advance to pay for damages from rented equipment are viable and can be upheld if used.

Facts

Although this is described as a debt collection case, it is a case where an outfitter can recover for the damages done to his equipment that he rented to the plaintiffs. The facts are from this case, which took them from an underlying County Court decision in Summit County Colorado.

Mrs. Hightower-Henne, a Nebraska attorney, rented two snowmobiles from Colorado Backcountry Rentals (“CBR”) for herself and her husband, signing the rental agreement for the two machines and declining the offered insurance to cover loss or damage to the machines while in their possession. While at the CBR’s office, the Hennes were shown a video depicting proper operation of snowmobiles in general and were also verbally advised on snowmobile use by an employee of CBR. Plaintiffs, a short while thereafter, met another employee of CBR, Mr. Weber, at Vail Pass and were given possession of the snowmobiles after an opportunity to inspect the machines. Plaintiffs utilized their entire allotted time on the snowmobiles and brought them back to Mr. Weber as planned. Mr. Weber immediately noticed that the snowmobile ridden by Mr. Henne was missing its air box cover and faring, described as a large blue shield on the front of the snowmobile, entirely visible to any driver. At the he returned the snowmobile, Mr. Henne told Mr. Weber that the parts had fallen off approximately two hours into the ride and that he had tried to carry the faring back, but, as he was unable to do so, he left the part on the trail.3 Mr. Henne signed a form acknowledging the missing part(s) and produced his driver’s license and a credit card with full intent that charges to fix the snowmobile would be levied against that card. Mr. Henne signed a blank credit card slip, which the parties all understood would be filled-in once the damage could be definitively ascertained.4 Although CBR, pursuant to the rental agreement signed by Mrs. Hightower-Henne, was entitled to charge the Hennes for loss of rentals for the snowmobile while it was being repaired, CBR waived that fee and charged Mr. Henne a total of only $220.11.

…one of the rented snowmobiles suffered damage while in the possession of Mr. Henne. Although agreeing to pay for the damage initially, Mr. Henne later disputed the charges levied by CBR against his credit card, resulting in a collection lawsuit brought by CBR against Mr. and Mrs. Henne in Summit County Court. This court takes the underlying facts from the Judgment Order of Hon. Wayne Patton in the Summit County Case as Judge Patton presided over a trial and therefore had the best opportunity to assess the witnesses, including their credibility and analyze the exhibits. The defendant in this case, Leonard M. Gelman, was the attorney for CBR in the Summit County case.

This story changed at trial in the Summit County case, where Mr. Henne reported that the parts fell off the machine about 5-10 minutes into the ride. Mr. Henne also testified that he did not know he was missing a part – he claimed a group of strangers told him that his snowmobile was missing a part and he thereafter retraced his route to try to find the piece but could not find it. Judge Patton found that “Mr. Henne’s testimony does not make sense to the court.” The court found that the evidence indicated the parts came off during the ride and that since the clips that held the part on were broken and the “intake silencer” was cracked, Judge Patton indicated, “The court does not believe that the fairing just fell off.”

Mr. Henne’s proffered credit card was for a different account that Mrs. Hightower-Henne had used to rent the snowmobiles.

CBR’s notation on the Estimated Damages form states, “Will not charge customer for the 2 days loss rents as good will.”

At trial in the Summit County case, Mr. and Mrs. Henne maintained that Mr. Henne’s sig-nature on the damage estimate and the credit card slip were forgeries. The court found that Mr. Weber, CBR’s employee who witnessed Mr. Henne sign the documents, was a credible witness and found Mr. Henne’s claim that he had not signed the documents was not credible. The court also found that there was no incentive whatsoever for anyone to have forged Mr. Henne’s signature on anything since “[CBR] already had Ms. Hightower-Henne’s credit card information and authorization so even if Mr. Henne had refused to sign the disputed documents it had recourse without having to resort to subterfuge.”

After deciding in favor of CBR on the liability of Mr. and Mrs. Henne for the damage to the snowmobile in the total amount of $653.60, Judge Patton considered the issue of attorney’s fees and costs incurred in that proceeding. Finding that the original rental documents signed by Mrs. Hightower-Henne contained a prevailing party award of attorney fees pro-vision, the court awarded CBR $25,052.50 in attorney’s fees against Mrs. Hightower-Henne plus $1,737.92 in costs.6 The court stated that even though the attorney fee award was substantial considering the amount of the original debt, the time expended by CBR’s counsel was greatly exacerbated by Mrs. Hightower-Henne’s “motions and threats” and that it was the Hennes who “created the need for [considerable] hours by their actions in filing baseless criminal complaints, filing motions to continue the trial and by seeking to have phone testimony of several witnesses who had no knowledge of what took place while Defendant’s (sic) had possession of the snowmobiles.”

As a result of groundless criminal claims, baseless counterclaims, perjured testimony and over-zealous defense, instead of owing $220.11 for the snowmobile’s missing part, after the dust settled on the Summit County case, the Hennes became responsible for a judgment in excess of $27,000.00.

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

The facts set forth in the underlying damage recover case, are the important part. In this case, the attorney for the snowmobile outfitter was found not to have violated the federal fair debt collections act.

In awarding judgment to the defendant in this case, the judge also awarded him costs.

Defendant Leonard M. Gelman’s Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED and this case is dismissed with prejudice. Defendant may have his cost by filing a bill of costs pursuant to D.C.COLO.LCivR 54.1 and the Clerk of Court shall enter final judgment in favor of Defendant Gelman in accordance with this Order.

Adding insult to injury. Sometimes it be better to quit while you are behind.

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Hightower-Henne v. Gelman, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4514

Hightower-Henne v. Gelman, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4514

Tracy L. Hightower-Henne, and Thomas Henne, Plaintiffs, v. Leonard M. Gelman, Defendant.

Civil Action No. 11-cv-01114-KMT-BNB

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLORADO

2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4514

January 12, 2012, Decided

January 12, 2012, Filed

CORE TERMS: collection, collector, snowmobile, summary judgment, discovery, credit card, rental, Mountain Law Group, demand letters, email, entity, law firm, preface, missing, nonmoving party, principal purpose, regularity, regularly, disputed, opposing, genuine, rental agreement, signature, machine, ride, admissible, engaging, owed, practice of law, attorney’s fees

COUNSEL: [*1] For Tracy L. Hightower-Henne, Thomas J. Henne, Plaintiffs: Daniel Teodoru, Erin Colleen Hunter, West Brown Huntley & Hunter, P.C., Breckenridge, CO.

For Leonard M. Gelman, Defendant: Rusty David Miller, Thomas Neville Alfrey, Treece Alfrey Musat, P.C., Denver, CO.

JUDGES: Kathleen M. Tafoya, United States Magistrate Judge.

OPINION BY: Kathleen M. Tafoya

OPINION

ORDER

This matter is before the court on Defendant Leonard M. Gelman’s Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. No. 17] (“Mot.”) filed August 12, 2011. Plaintiffs, Tracy Hightower-Henne and Thomas Henne (collectively “the Hennes”), responded on September 14, 2011 [Doc. No. 23] (“Resp.”) and the defendant filed a Reply on October 3, 2011 [Doc. No. 25]. Also considered is Plaintiffs’ “Motion to File Sur-Reply” [Doc. No. 26], which is denied.1

1 Neither the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure nor the Local Rules of Practice in the District of Colorado provide for the filing of a surreply. Additionally, the court’s review of the proposed surreply reveals it is nothing more than an attempted unauthorized additional bite at the proverbial apple and adds nothing of merit to the summary judgment analysis.

Background

On February 8, 2010, Nebraska residents Tracy L. Hightower-Henne [*2] and her husband Thomas Henne joined a small group of friends and family for a snowmobile ride in Vail, Colorado. Mrs. Hightower-Henne, a Nebraska attorney, rented two snowmobiles from Colorado Backcountry Rentals (“CBR”) for herself and her husband, signing the rental agreement for the two machines and declining the offered insurance to cover loss or damage to the machines while in their possession. (Mot., Ex. H, Judgment Order of County Court Judge Wayne Patton, April 21, 2011, hereinafter “Judgment Order” at 1.)2 While at the CBR’s office, the Hennes were shown a video depicting proper operation of snowmobiles in general and were also verbally advised on snowmobile use by an employee of CBR. (Id.) Plaintiffs, a short while thereafter, met another employee of CBR, Mr. Weber, at Vail Pass and were given possession of the snowmobiles after an opportunity to inspect the machines. (Id. at 2.) Plaintiffs utilized their entire allotted time on the snowmobiles and brought them back to Mr. Weber as planned. Mr. Weber immediately noticed that the snowmobile ridden by Mr. Henne was missing its air box cover and faring, described as a large blue shield on the front of the snowmobile, entirely [*3] visible to any driver. (Id. at 3.) At the he returned the snowmobile, Mr. Henne told Mr. Weber that the parts had fallen off approximately two hours into the ride and that he had tried to carry the faring back, but, as he was unable to do so, he left the part on the trail.3 (Id. at 2.) Mr. Henne signed a form acknowledging the missing part(s) and produced his driver’s license and a credit card with full intent that charges to fix the snowmobile would be levied against that card. Mr. Henne signed a blank credit card slip, which the parties all understood would be filled-in once the damage could be definitively ascertained.4 (Id.) Although CBR, pursuant to the rental agreement signed by Mrs. Hightower-Henne, was entitled to charge the Hennes for loss of rentals for the snowmobile while it was being repaired, CBR waived that fee5 and charged Mr. Henne oa total of only $220.11. (Mot., Ex. B.)

2 As will be discussed in more detail herein, one of the rented snowmobiles suffered damage while in the possession of Mr. Henne. Although agreeing to pay for the damage initially, Mr. Henne later disputed the charges levied by CBR against his credit card, resulting in a collection lawsuit brought by [*4] CBR against Mr. and Mrs. Henne in Summit County Court, Case Number 10 C 255 ). (See Mot., Ex. G; hereinafter, the “Summit County case.”) This court takes the underlying facts from the Judgment Order of Hon. Wayne Patton in the Summit County Case as Judge Patton presided over a trial and therefore had the best opportunity to assess the witnesses, including their credibility and analyze the exhibits. The defendant in this case, Leonard M. Gelman, was the attorney for CBR in the Summit County case.

3 This story changed at trial in the Summit County case, where Mr. Henne reported that the parts fell off the machine about 5-10 minutes into the ride. Mr. Henne also testified that he did not know he was missing a part – he claimed a group of strangers told him that his snowmobile was missing a part and he thereafter retraced his route to try to find the piece but could not find it. Judge Patton found that “Mr. Henne’s testimony does not make sense to the court.” (Judgment Order at 3.) The court found that the evidence indicated the parts came off during the ride and that since the clips that held the part on were broken and the “intake silencer” was cracked, Judge Patton indicated, “The court [*5] does not believe that the fairing just fell off.” (Id.)

4 Mr. Henne’s proffered credit card was for a different account that Mrs. Hightower-Henne had used to rent the snowmobiles.

5 CBR’s notation on the Estimated Damages form states, “Will not charge customer for the 2 days loss rents as good will.” (Mot., Ex. B.)

Upon their return to Nebraska, however, Mr. and Mrs. Henne apparently decided they did not want to pay for the damage to the snowmobile, even with the waiver of the rental loss, and contested the charge to Mr. Henne’s credit card resulting in a reversal of the charge by the credit card issuer. Further, the Hennes leveled criminal forgery accusations against CBR’s employee with the Frisco, Colorado Police Department (id. at 4), alleging that the acknowledgment of damage form and the credit card slip were not signed by Mr. Henne. The police department investigated, but no charges were filed.

Mr. Henne’s ultimate cancellation of his former acquiescence to payment caused CBR to contact their corporate lawyer, Defendant Gelman, and ask that he attempt to obtain payment from the Hennes, authorizing a law suit if initial requests for payment failed. Obviously, CBR was no longer willing [*6] to waive the fee for loss of rental which was part of the contract Mrs. Hightower-Henne signed. (Id. at 2.)

At trial in the Summit County case, Mr. and Mrs. Henne maintained that Mr. Henne’s signature on the damage estimate and the credit card slip were forgeries. (Id. at 4.) The court found that Mr. Weber, CBR’s employee who witnessed Mr. Henne sign the documents, was a credible witness and found Mr. Henne’s claim that he had not signed the documents was not credible. (Id.) The court also found that there was no incentive whatsoever for anyone to have forged Mr. Henne’s signature on anything since “[CBR] already had Ms. Hightower-Henne’s credit card information and authorization so even if Mr. Henne had refused to sign the disputed documents it had recourse without having to resort to subterfuge.” (Id.)

After deciding in favor of CBR on the liability of Mr. and Mrs. Henne for the damage to the snowmobile in the total amount of $653.60, Judge Patton considered the issue of attorney’s fees and costs incurred in that proceeding. Finding that the original rental documents signed by Mrs. Hightower-Henne contained a prevailing party award of attorney fees provision, the court awarded CBR [*7] $25,052.50 in attorney’s fees against Mrs. Hightower-Henne plus $1,737.92 in costs.6 The court stated that even though the attorney fee award was substantial considering the amount of the original debt, the time expended by CBR’s counsel was greatly exacerbated by Mrs. Hightower-Henne’s “motions and threats” and that it was the Hennes who “created the need for [considerable] hours by their actions in filing baseless criminal complaints, filing motions to continue the trial and by seeking to have phone testimony of several witnesses who had no knowledge of what took place while Defendant’s (sic) had possession of the snowmobiles.” (Mot., Ex. I, June 22, 2011 Order of Hon. Wayne Patton, hereinafter “Atty. Fee Order” at 3.) The court also found that “although this was a case akin to a small claims case, Mrs. Hightower-Henne defended the case as if it were complex litigation.”7 (Id. at 1.) Judge Patton stated, with respect to the counterclaim filed by the Hennes, that “[a]lthough Mrs. Hightower-Henne did not pursue that claim at trial it shows the lengths she was willing to go to avoid payment of what was a fairly small claim.” (Id. at 1.)

6 Costs were awarded against both Mr. and Mrs. Henne [*8] jointly and severally.

7 In December 2010, the Hennes hired outside counsel to defend them in the county court action. (Id. at 4.)

As a result of groundless criminal claims, baseless counterclaims, perjured testimony and over-zealous defense, instead of owing $220.11 for the snowmobile’s missing part, after the dust settled on the Summit County case, the Hennes became responsible for a judgment in excess of $27,000.00.

In a prodigiously perfect example of throwing good money after bad, the Hennes now continue to prosecute this federal action against the lawyer representing CBR in the Summit County case, alleging violations of the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”).8 Unfortunately, even though the issue was raised at some point in the county court case, (see id. at 3, “Mrs. Hightower-Henne also made allegations that Plaintiff was violating fair debt collection laws”), these particular allegations were not resolved by the county court. Therefore, this court is now compelled to reluctantly follow the Hennes down this white rabbit’s hole to resolve the federal case.

8 This case was originally filed against CBR’s lawyer by the Hennes in Summit County on March 31, 2011, suspiciously [*9] a mere one week before commencing trial on the underlying case before Judge Patton. Defendant Gelman removed the case to federal court post-trial on April 27, 2011, one week subsequent to Judge Patton’s ruling against the Hennes. Between April 27, 2011 and August 12, 2011, the Hennes could have revisited the wisdom of continuing with this case had they been so inclined. However, the Hennes have not sought to even amend their Complaint in this matter, even though the findings call into question many of the arguments embodied in the federal complaint. (See, e.g., Compl. ¶ 26.)

Analysis

A. Legal Standard

Summary judgment is appropriate if “the movant shows 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). The moving party bears the initial burden of showing an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party’s case. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). “Once the moving party meets this burden, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to demonstrate a genuine issue for trial on a material matter.” Concrete Works, Inc. v. City & County of Denver, 36 F.3d 1513, 1518 (10th Cir. 1994) (citing [*10] Celotex, 477 U.S. at 325). The nonmoving party may not rest solely on the allegations in the pleadings, but must instead designate “specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324; see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). A disputed fact is “material” if “under the substantive law it is essential to the proper disposition of the claim.” Adler v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 144 F.3d 664, 670 (10th Cir.1998) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986)). A dispute is “genuine” if the evidence is such that it might lead a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the nonmoving party. Thomas v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co., 631 F.3d 1153, 1160 (10th Cir. 2011) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248).

When ruling on a motion for summary judgment, a court may consider only admissible evidence. See Johnson v. Weld County, Colo., 594 F.3d 1202, 1209-10 (10th Cir. 2010). The factual record and reasonable inferences therefrom are viewed in the light most favorable to the party opposing summary judgment. Concrete Works, 36 F.3d at 1517. At the summary judgment stage of litigation, a plaintiff’s version of the facts must find support in the record. Thomson v. Salt Lake Cnty., 584 F.3d 1304, 1312 (10th Cir. 2009). [*11] “When opposing parties tell two different stories, one of which is blatantly contradicted by the record, so that no reasonable jury could believe it, a court should not adopt that version of the facts for purposes of ruling on a motion for summary judgment.” Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380, 127 S. Ct. 1769, 167 L. Ed. 2d 686 (2007); Thomson, 584 F.3d at 1312.

B. Request for Additional Discovery

As an initial matter, Plaintiffs request the court grant them further discovery in order to fully explore the matters raised by Defendant Gelman’s affidavit, attached to the Motion. [Doc. No. 17-1, hereinafter “Gelman Affidavit.”]

The party opposing summary judgment and who requests additional discovery must specify by affidavit the reasons why it cannot present facts essential to its opposition to a motion for summary judgment by demonstrating (1) the probable facts are not available, (2) why those facts cannot be presented currently, (3) what steps have been taken to obtain these facts, and (4) how additional time will enable the party to obtain those facts and rebut the motion for summary judgment. Valley Forge Ins. Co. v. Healthcare Mgmt. Partners, Ltd., 616 F.3d 1086, 1096 (10th Cir. 2010)(internal quotations omitted); Been v. O.K. Indust., Inc., 495 F.3d 1217, 1235 (10th Cir. 2007)(The [*12] protection under Rule 56(d) “arises only if the nonmoving party files an affidavit explaining why he or she cannot present facts to oppose the motion.”)

As noted above, the instant motion and the Gelman Affidavit were filed on August 12, 2011. The discovery cut-off date in this case was not until October 3, 2011. (Scheduling Order, [Doc. No. 10] at 6.) Therefore, written discovery could have been timely served any time prior to August 31, 2011. When Defendant filed his motion and the affidavit, Plaintiffs still had nineteen days to compose and serve interrogatories and requests for production of documents in order to obtain substantiation – or lack thereof – of the matters contained in the Gelman Affidavit. Additionally, Plaintiffs had 49 days remaining within which to notice and schedule the deposition of Mr. Gelman, or any other person. Apparently, Plaintiffs did not avail themselves of these opportunities, or, for that matter, any other attempt to obtain discovery during the entirety of the discovery period. There is no reason for the court to now accredit Plaintiffs’ professed need for discovery at this late date when they did not undertake any discovery within the appropriate time [*13] frame even though the issues were then squarely before them. The request for further discovery is denied.

C. Defendant Gelman’s Status as Debt Collector

The court has been presented with the following: the testimony through affidavit of Leonard M. Gelman; the testimony through affidavit of Tracy Hightower (Resp., Ex. 3 [Doc. No. 23-3] “Hightower Affidavit”); the Judgment Order and the Atty. Fee Order of Judge Wayne Patton referenced infra; the Complaint filed in the Summit County case – case number 10 C 255 (Mot., Ex. G); a letter from Lee Gelman to Thomas Henne dated April 1, 2010 (Mot., Ex. D; Resp., Ex. 1, “Demand Letter”); a letter to Lee Gelman from Tracy L. Hightower-Henne dated April 5, 2010 (Mot., Ex. E); an email exchange between Lee Gelman and Tracy Hightower dated April 13, 2010 (Resp., Ex. 4); an undated internet home page of Mountain Law Group (Mot., Ex. F); a document purporting to be a “Colorado Court Database” listing seven cases involving as plaintiff either Summit Interests Inc., Back Country Rentals, or Colorado Backcountry Rentals for the time period March 25, 2009 through November 18, 2010 (Resp., Ex. 7); three letters signed by “Lee Gelman, Esq.” drafted on letterhead [*14] of a law firm named Dunn Keyes Gelman & Pummell with origination dates of March 10, 2008, March 19, 2009 and December 19, 2008 (Resp., Ex. 8); and, the snowmobile rental agreements and other documents relevant to the Summit County case (Mot., Exs. A – C).

The FDCPA regulates the practices of “debt collectors.” See 15 U.S.C. § 1692(e). If a person or entity is not a debt collector, the Act does not provide any cause of action against them. Plaintiffs’ Complaint alleges only violations of the FDCPA (See Compl. [Doc. No. 2]) by Defendant Gelman; therefore, if Defendant is not a debt collector, Plaintiffs’ action must fail.

The FDCPA contains both a definition of “debt collector” and language describing certain categories of persons and entities excluded from the definition.9 Thus, an alleged debt collector may escape liability either by failing to qualify as a “debt collector” under the initial definitional language, or by falling within one of the exclusions. The plaintiff in an FDCPA claim bears the burden of proving the defendant’s debt collector status. See Zimmerman v. The CIT Group, Inc., Case No. 08-cv-00246-ZLW-KMT, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 108473, 2008 WL 5786438, at *9 (D. Colo. October 6, 2008) (citing Goldstein v. Hutton, Ingram, Yuzek, Gainen, Carroll & Bertolotti, 374 F.3d 56, 60 (2d. Cir.2004).

9 None [*15] of these enumerated exceptions are alleged to be applicable in this case.

The Act defines “debt collector” as:

[A]ny person who uses any instrumentality of interstate commerce or the mails in any business the principal purpose of which is the collection of any debts, or who regularly collects or attempts to collect, directly or indirectly, debts owed or due or asserted to be owed or due another.

15 U.S.C. § 1692a(6). See Allen v. Nelnet, Inc., Case No. 06-cv-00586-REB-PAC, 2007 WL 2786432, at *8-9 (D. Colo. Sept. 24, 2007). The Supreme Court has made it clear that the FDCPA applies to attorneys “regularly” engaging in debt collection activity, including such activity in the nature of litigation. Heintz v. Jenkins, 514 U.S. 291, 299, 115 S. Ct. 1489, 131 L. Ed. 2d 395 (1995). The FDCPA establishes two alternative predicates for “debt collector” status – engaging in such activity as the “principal purpose” of an entity’s business and/or “regularly” engaging in such collection activity. 15 U.S.C. § 1692a(6). It is clear from the evidence that debt collection is not Defendant Gelman’s or his law firm’s principal purpose, nor is debt collection the principal purpose of non-defendant CBR. Goldstein, 374 F.3d at 60-61. Therefore [*16] the court must examine the issue from the regularity perspective. The Goldstein court directed

Most important in the analysis is the assessment of facts closely relating to ordinary concepts of regularity, including (1) the absolute number of debt collection communications issued, and/or collection-related litigation matters pursued, over the relevant period(s), (2) the frequency of such communications and/or litigation activity, including whether any patterns of such activity are discernable, (3) whether the entity has personnel specifically assigned to work on debt collection activity, (4) whether the entity has systems or contractors in place to facilitate such activity, and (5) whether the activity is undertaken in connection with ongoing client relationships with entities that have retained the lawyer or firm to assist in the collection of outstanding consumer debt obligations. Facts relating to the role debt collection work plays in the practice as a whole should also be considered to the extent they bear on the question of regularity of debt collection activity . . . . Whether the law practice seeks debt collection business by marketing itself as having debt collection expertise [*17] may also be an indicator of the regularity of collection as a part of the practice.

Id. at 62-63.

1. Defendant Gelman’s Practice of Law at Mountain Law Group

The testimony of Mr. Gelman provided through his affidavit is considered by the court to be unrefuted since Plaintiffs failed to avail themselves of any discovery which might have provided grounds for contest.

After recounting his background as an environmental lawyer for the Department of Justice, Mr. Gelman describes his practice of law with the Mountain Law Group as an attorney and through the Colorado Office of Dispute Resolution as a mediator. (Gelman Aff. ¶¶ 1, 3.) Mr. Gelman also acts as the manager of his wife’s medical practice. (Id. ¶ 5.) Because of his responsibilities as a mediator and an administrator, Mr. Gelman only spends approximately 25% of his working time engaged in the practice of law through Mountain Law Group. (Id. ¶ 8.) If one considers a normal business day to be nine hours, Mr. Gelman then spends approximately 2.25 hours a day practicing law at the Mountain Law Group. Of that time at the law firm, Mr. Gelman devotes approximately 30% to “Business/Contracts,” the only area of his practice which generates any [*18] debt collection activity. (Id. ¶¶ 8, 22.) Extrapolating, then, Mr. Gelman spends approximately .67 of an hour, or approximately 45 minutes, out of each day pursuing business matters of all kinds for his clients.

One of Mr. Gelman’s business clients is CBR to which he provides legal assistance “with all of CBR’s corporate needs . . . [including] a) contract drafting and consultation on rental agreements, waivers, and other forms; and b) representation concerning regulatory and enforcement matters between the U.S. Forest Service and CBR.” (Id. ¶ 19.) Of all the clients of the Mountain Law Group’s seven lawyers, CBR is the only one who generates any debt collection work at all. (Id. ¶¶ 7, 22, 23.) Additionally, of the seven lawyers, Mr. Gelman, through his client CBR, is the only lawyer to have ever worked on, in any capacity, any debt collection matter.10 (Id.)

10 As noted in the Hightower Affidavit, it is not disputed that, as part of CBR’s employment of Mr. Gelman as their corporate attorney, they requested that he attempt to collect the Henne’s debt.. (Id. ¶ 2.)

Over a forty (40) month period, Mr. Gelman states that he sent only 18 demand letters on behalf of CBR to renters of snowmobiles [*19] who did not pay for damages they caused to CBR’s equipment. (Id. ¶ 20.) This averages out to one demand letter every 2.5 months.11

11 Of course, this does not mean that the demand letters are actually sent on such a regular basis.

In connection with Mr. Gelman’s practice of law with the Mountain Law Group, the court reviewed what is purportedly the law firm’s internet home page. (Mot., Ex. F.) This submission contains no date or retrieval or publication. Therefore, the court can give it little weight. However, as part of the analysis, the court notes that at the time of the internet display – whenever that was – the Mountain Law Group’s home page did not include any advertisement suggesting they provided debt collection services or as had any expertise in the collection of debt.

Mr. Gelman otherwise states that the Mountain Law Group neither owns nor uses any specialized computer software designed to facilitate debt collection activity. (Gelman Aff. ¶ 12.) Further, his unrefuted testimony is that the firm employs no paralegal or other staff to assist in debt collection for the firm. (Id. ¶ 5.)

Plaintiffs, however, assert that Mr. Gelman regularly and frequently pursues debt collection matters [*20] on behalf of CBR, pointing the court’s attention to a document entitled “Colorado Court Database” (“CCD”). The CCD may indicate that CBR or Summit Interests, Inc.12 was involved in seven13 case filings in 2009 and 2010. (Resp., Ex. 7.) None of the cases contained on the CCD indicate whether or not Defendant Gelman represented the named entity, nor do any of the cases identify the other parties. The CCD is in the form of a table with columnar headings, “Name,” “Case,” “Filed,” “Status,” “Party” and “County.” Under the column “Party,” six of the cases indicate “Money” and one indicates “Breach of Contract”; both of these terms are undefined. The court does not begin to understand how “Breach of Contract” for instance, can be a “party ” to a lawsuit. The court is completely unable to ascertain the relevance of this document or what bearing it has on whether or not Mr. Gelman is a debt collector since it does not reference Mr. Gelman or debt collection. The CCD, unintelligible as it stands, is therefore inadmissible and will not be considered for any purpose in the summary judgment proceeding. See Johnson v. Weld County, Colo., 594 F.3d at 1209-10.

12 In the April 1, 2010 demand letter from [*21] Mr. Gelman to Mr. Henne, Mr. Gelman professes to represent “Summit Interests, Inc., d/b/a/ Colorado Backcountry Rentals.” (Resp, [Doc. No. 23-1].)

13 The documents references more than ten items, but several have the same case number.

2. Mr. Gelman’s Debt Collection Methodology

This case involves essentially two communications from Mr. Gelman: the April 1, 2010 letter to Mr. Henne and the April 13, 2010 email from Mr. Gelman to Mrs. Hightower-Henne following her letter professing to represent Mr. Henne. (Compl. ¶¶ 21-23, 25, re: Demand Letterl and id. ¶ 24, re: April 13, 2010 email.)

a. Debt Collector Preface

In the April 1, 2010 letter, Mr. Gelman represented that “[t]his firm14 is a debt collector” and in the April 13, 2010 email, under his signature block, was the notation, “This is from a debt collector . . .” The court notes that the warning on the bottom of the April 13, 2010 email does not appear to be part of the normal signature block of Mr. Gelman, because it does not appear on the short transmission at the beginning of the email string wherein Mr. Gelman advised “Tracy,” that he just left her a voice mail as well. (Resp. at Doc. No. 23-4.) This email warning, therefore, appears [*22] to have been specifically typed in for inclusion in the lengthy portion of the email.

14 The letterhead on the communication is “Mountain Law Group.” Mountain Law Group is not a defendant in this action.

Mr. Gelman states he has mediated a large number of debt collection disputes and is therefore “relatively familiar with the collection industry.” (Gelman Aff. ¶ 11.) While the court considers the language used by Mr. Gelman – commonly referred to as a “mini-Miranda” or the “debt collector preface” – as “some” evidence to be considered in the debt collector determination, it is not particularly persuasive standing alone. First, setting forth such a debt collector preface does not create any kind of equitable estoppel. Equitable estoppel requires a showing of a misleading representation on which the opposing party justifiably relied which would result in material harm if the actor is later permitted to assert a claim inconsistent with the prior representation. Plaintiffs have offered no evidence to support a claim that they detrimentally relied upon the debt collector preface. See In re Pullen, 451 B.R. 206, 210 (Bkrtcy. N. D. Ga. 2011).

When attempting to collect a debt, the court applauds [*23] a practice whereby the sender recognizes itself as a debt collector in a mini-Miranda warning regardless of any legal requirement and considers such an advisement prudent and in the spirit of the FDCPA. This course of action would be expected of an attorney such as Mr. Gelman who frequently is in a position to mediate debt collection disputes. However, calling oneself a rose, does not necessarily arouse the same olfactory response as would a true rose.

b. Use of Form Letters

Plaintiffs argue that Mr. Gelman communicates as a debt collector through the use of form letters. For this proposition, they attach Exhibit 8, three letters apparently authored by Mr. Gelman when he was associated with the law firm of Dunn Keyes Gelman & Pummell, LLC. Each of the three letters appear to be what is commonly known as a demand letter – an attempt to collect money from persons who allegedly owed CBR as a result of damage done to a snowmobile. Each letter begins with a one line salutation introducing the lawyer as representing Colorado Backcountry Rentals, Inc. Thereafter, each letter proceeds for several paragraphs to outline specific and unique facts concerning the alleged debtor’s obligation for damages [*24] to CBR. (Id.) Each letter then contains a paragraph, in bold typeface, stating that the debtor can submit a sum certain in settlement of the matter in bold typeface. Each of the three letters contain a summary paragraph at the end which states the letter is a settlement offer and that court proceedings may be instituted if payment is not made. This general format is consistent with the April 1, 2010 demand letter sent to Mr. Henne. Two of the letters in Exhibit 8 contain the debt collector preface at both the beginning and end of the letter; one of the letters contains the legend only at the beginning, similar to the format of the April 1, 2010 demand letter sent to Mr. Henne by Mr. Gelman.

The court finds that these letters are not “form” collection letters such as those which would be utilized by a business engaged primarily in the business of debt collection. Although there is some boilerplate language common to all, each letter is personally authored and the main body of the text is a unique recitation of the facts and circumstances peculiar to that case. These three letters, viewed against the April 1, 2010 letter Mr. Gelman sent to Mr. Henne, are similar only in the boilerplate [*25] language at the beginning and end of the letter and do not persuade the court that they are form letters indicating that Mr. Gelman is in the regular business of collecting debts.

c. Pattern of Litigation Activity

Mrs. Hightower-Henne states, without any evidentiary foundation, that Defendant has filed “several suits for collections for CBR” which indicate “a pattern of escalating fees for nominal claims.” (Hightower Affidavit ¶ 4.) She does not further describe or attach any of the cases to which she refers, although one might assume they may be among those cases sketchily mentioned in rejected Exhibit 7 to the Plaintiffs’ Response. Mrs. Hightower-Henne blithely asserts that she has spoken to several persons who were “parties in these suits” but does not state what significance anything they may have told her was, or for that matter, what they even said. (Id.) Although the court will recognize this testimony as admissible, it is wholly unpersuasive as to the issue to which it is apparently directed.

d. Summary

Considering the undisputed testimony of Mr. Gelman and Mrs. Hightower-Henne together with the admissible documentary evidence submitted by the parties, this court finds that there [*26] are no material facts in dispute relevant to the determination of whether Mr. Gelman is a debt collector as defined in the FDCPA. For all the reasons set forth above, the court finds that Mr. Gelman is not a debt collector pursuant to the FDCPA and therefore, summary judgment in his favor is appropriate.

Given that the determination that Mr. Gelman is not a debt collector is dispositive of the case, the court declines to address further Mrs. Hightower-Henne’s standing to sue or whether any of the actions undertaken by Mr. Gelman would have violated the FDCPA had he been found to be a debt collector under the Act.

Wherefore, it is ORDERED

1. Defendant Leonard M. Gelman’s Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. No. 17] is GRANTED and this case is dismissed with prejudice. Defendant may have his cost by filing a bill of costs pursuant to D.C.COLO.LCivR 54.1 and the Clerk of Court shall enter final judgment in favor of Defendant Gelman in accordance with this Order.

2. Plaintiffs’ “Motion to File Sur-Reply,” [Doc. No. 26] is DENIED.

3. The Final Pretrial Conference set for January 19, 2012 at 10:45 a.m. is VACATED

Dated this 12th day of January, 2012.

BY THE COURT:

/s/ Kathleen M Tafoya

Kathleen M Tafoya

United [*27] States Magistrate Judge


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

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

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

State: Wyoming

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

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

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence, Punitive damages

Defendant Defenses: Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act

Holding: Mixed, mostly for the plaintiff

Year: 2009

Summary

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

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

Facts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Third, they assert that federal law preempts the Act.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Punitive damages in Wyoming are:

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

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

So Now What?

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

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

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

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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A fly-fishing lawsuit, a first.

Montana Federal Court covers a lot of interesting legal issues for the OR industry in this decision. However, defendant is in a tough position because the statutes provide no help, he can’t use a release and probably like most fly-fishing guides; he believes he won’t be sued.

McJunkin v. James Yeager d/b/a Jim Yeager Outfitters, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 169321

State: Montana

Plaintiff: Charles P. McJunkin, deceased, by and through his executor and personal representative, Rhett McJunkin, and Rhett McJunkin, executor and personal representative, on behalf of the heirs of Charles P. McJunkin

Defendant: James Yeager d/b/a Jim Yeager Outfitters

Plaintiff Claims: negligence, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and loss of consortium

Defendant Defenses: Montana Recreation Responsibility Act

Holding: Split, mostly for the defendant

Year: 2018

Summary

At the end of a float fly fishing trip, the boat hit a rock throwing the deceased into the river. While attempting to get the deceased back in the boat the deceased partner fell in. The deceased yelled to grab her because she could not swim. The defendant grabbed the girlfriend and maneuvered the boat through rapids.

The deceased drowned, (supposedly). Neither were wearing PFDs.

Facts

Yeager is a professional fishing guide and outfitter. On July 17, 2014, Yeager took a paying client, Charles P. McJunkin on a guided fishing trip in a raft on the Stillwater River. As Yeager was guiding and operating the raft, McJunkin fell into the river and drowned. McJunkin was 81 years old at the time of his death.

McJunkin had gone on similar guided fishing trips with Yeager for approximately 20 years. In fact, in the week preceding the July 17, 2014 accident, McJunkin had floated and fished the Stillwater River three times with Yeager. On each occasion, Yeager put-in at the Johnson Bridge Fishing Access, and used the Swinging Bridge Fishing Access Site for a take-out at the end of the day. The Swinging Bridge take-out is approximately one-quarter mile above a set of rapids known as the Beartooth Drop. Yeager had never floated through the Beartooth Drop with McJunkin.

On the date of the accident, Yeager was guiding McJunkin and his partner, Julia Garner (“Garner”). The plan was to again float from Johnson Bridge to the Swinging Bridge take-out. The river conditions encountered by Yeager that day were characteristic of, and consistent with conditions he previously encountered on that stretch of the river. Yeager approached the Swinging Bridge take-out in the same manner as he had on the three earlier days of fishing. As he approached the take-out, the raft crossed an underwater shelf of rocks. When the rear of the raft passed the shelf, the boat rocked and McJunkin fell into the water. Although the raft was equipped with personal floatation devices (PFDs), McJunkin was not wearing one at the time.

McJunkin swam toward the raft, and Yeager attempted to position the raft so that McJunkin could grab ahold of the side. During this process, the party floated past the Swinging Bridge take-out. To complicate matters further, as Yeager attempted to pull McJunkin into the raft, Garner fell into the water. The parties dispute what caused Garner’s fall. Plaintiffs contend Yeager accidentally hit her with an oar. Yeager indicated he didn’t know what caused her to fall in, testifying “I don’t know if I hit a rock or a wave or whatever, Julie went in.” Garner yelled to Yeager that she could not swim. Yeager made the split-second decision to let go of McJunkin and attempt to save Garner, fearing she would drown otherwise. Yeager was able to pull her back into the raft as they entered the Beartooth Drop. Meanwhile, McJunkin lost contact with Yeager and the raft and floated through the rapid. He ultimately did not survive.

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

Only the legal issues affecting fly fishing or the outdoor industry will be reviewed. This decision is a result of both parties filing motions for summary judgment, so there is no chronological hierarchy of how the decision is written. Each motion is tackled by the judge in the order to make the following arguments more manageable.

A few things to remember. Montana does not allow an outfitter or guide to use a release. See Montana Statutes Prohibits Use of a Release.

Both parties filed motions concerning the Montana Recreation Responsibility Act (MRRA). The MRRA is similar to the Wyoming Recreational Safety Act, both of which are solely assumption of the risk statutes and weak overall. The plaintiff argued the MRRA was unconstitutional on several grounds, all of which were denied. The defendant argued the MRRA should bar the plaintiff’s claims which were also denied.

The first issue was inherent risks under the MRRA are not defined per activity or in general.

Under the plain language of the MRRA, a risk must satisfy two requirements to constitute an “inherent risk” and thus fall within the Act’s protection. There must be (1) a danger or condition that is characteristic of, or intrinsic to the activity, and (2) the danger or condition must be one that cannot be prevented by the use of reasonable care. Mont. Code Ann. § 27-1-752(2).

This leaves a monstrous gap in the protection it affords, in fact, does not afford outfitters and guides in Montana any real protection.

The court did not agree that the MRRA was broad enough to protect the defendant in this case.

Here, there are genuine issues of material fact regarding whether the risk encountered by McJunkin was an inherent risk to the sport of float fishing, or whether Yeager could have prevented the risk using reasonable care. Yeager’s expert opined that drowning is an inherent risk of floating in a raft on a river, and McJunkin’s death was a result of that inherent risk. But Plaintiffs’ expert states the risk of drowning can be prevented by the use of reasonable care. Plaintiffs’ expert also opined that Yeager increased the risks to McJunkin, and failed to adhere to industry standards by not taking basic safety precautions and not having a plan or equipment to retrieve McJunkin from the water.

Because there was a genuine issue of material fact (a mix of plausible opinions) the MRRA was not broad or strong enough to stop the plaintiff’s claims and the defendant’s motion failed.

The plaintiff argued the MRRA was void because it was vague, it did not define inherent risk.

The void-for-vagueness doctrine chiefly applies to criminal statutes, but can apply to civil laws as well. Civil statutes, however, generally receive less exacting vagueness scrutiny. The United States Supreme Court has held “[t]o find a civil statute void for vagueness, the statute must be so vague and indefinite as really to be no rule or standard at all.” The Montana Supreme Court has similarly declared that a statute is unconstitutionally vague on its face only if it is shown “that the statute is vague ‘in the sense that no standard of conduct is specified at all.'” “[P]erfect clarity and precise guidance are not required.” A statute is not vague “simply because it can be dissected or subject to different interpretations.”

The plaintiff also argued that because the MRRA did not define risk that it was void.

A person of common intelligence can understand the risks associated with river sports or activities. There is no indication McJunkin would not have been able to appreciate such risks, including the potential risk involved in floating and fishing. Indeed, in their depositions Plaintiffs were able to articulate risks associated with floating on a river, such as falling out of the boat and drowning.

The plaintiff argued they should be able to sue for negligent infliction of emotional distress (“NEID”).

To constitute ‘serious’ or ‘severe,’ the emotional distress must be ‘so severe no reasonable person could be expected to endure it.'” The question of whether the threshold level of emotional dis-tress can be found is for the Court to determine. (“It is for the court to determine whether on the evidence severe [serious] emotional distress can be found; it is for the jury to determine whether, on the evidence, it has in fact existed.”).

In Feller, the Montana Supreme Court considered several factors in determining whether there is sufficient evidence of severe emotional distress, including: (1) whether the plaintiff had any physical manifestations of grief; (2) whether counseling was sought or recommended; (3) whether the plaintiff took medication or the use of medication dramatically increased; (4) whether the plain-tiff had continuous nights of sleeplessness or days without appetite; (5) whether the plaintiff maintained close relationships with family members and friends; (6) the duration of the emotional dis-tress; and (7) the circumstances under which the infliction incurred, including whether the plaintiff witnessed the distressing event.

The plaintiff also argued they should be able to sue for loss of consortium.

Montana law recognizes loss of consortium claims by an adult child of an injured parent. In Stucky, the Montana Supreme Court held an adult child must meet the following two-part test to establish a claim for loss of parental consortium: “1) a third party tortuously caused the parent to suffer a serious, permanent and disabling mental or physical injury compensable under Montana law; and 2) the parent’s ultimate condition of mental or physical impairment was so overwhelming and severe that it has caused the parent-child relationship to be destroyed or nearly destroyed.”

In establishing a loss of parental consortium claim, the plaintiff may present evidence of the following factors, which the jury may consider in determining both whether the two-part test has been satisfied, and what damages are appropriate: “the severity of injury to the parent; the actual effect the parent’s injury has had on the relationship and is likely to have in the future; the child’s age; the nature of the child’s relationship with the parent; and the child’s emotional, physical and geographic characteristics.”

The court then looked at the issue of abnormally dangerous. A finding of that an activity is abnormally dangerous brings more damages and fewer requirements to prove part of the negligence of the defendant.

“Whether an activity is abnormally dangerous is a question of law.” No court has held float fly fishing is an abnormally dangerous activity, and this Court declines Plaintiffs’ invitation to be the first to do so.

So Now What?

A statute that protects defendants based on assumption of the risk does so because it identifies specific risk and broadens the definitions of what an inherent risk is. An example would be the Colorado Skier Safety Act. That act describes the inherent risk of skiing and then adds dozens of more risk, which are beyond the normal scope of inherent.

Both the MRRA and the Wyoming Recreational Safety Act statutorily defines the common law but does nothing to broaden or strengthen the common law. They could better be defined as politically pandering, an attempt by a politician to make constituents feel better by giving them something, which, in reality, has no value.

The fly-fishing outfitter was caught in Montana’s lack of available defenses, no statutory protection and no availability of a release. He might be able to strengthen his defenses by having his clients sign an Assumption of the Risk Document. He also might offer them PFDs.

Furthermore, remember in most whitewater or cold-water deaths drowning is not the cause of the death. Most people die of a heart attack. risk or Wikipedia: Cold Shock Response.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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

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

Alexis R. Rizas, Individually and as the Personal Representative of the Wrongful Death Beneficiaries of John J. Rizas, deceased; John Friel, Individually and as the Personal Representative of the Wrongful Death Beneficiaries of Elizabeth A. Rizas, Deceased; Ronald J. Miciotto, as the Personal Representative of the Wrongful Death Beneficiaries of Linda and Lewis Clark, Deceased; James Clark; Lawrence Wilson; and Joyce Wilson, Plaintiffs, vs. Vail Resorts, Inc.; Grand Teton Lodge Company; Tauck, Inc., a.k.a. Tauck World Discovery, Inc., a.k.a. Tauck Tours, Inc., Defendants.

Case No. 08-CV-139-J

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF WYOMING

2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 139788

October 1, 2009, Filed

COUNSEL: [*1] For Alexis R Rizas, individually and as the personal representative of the wrongful death beneficiaries, on behalf of John J Rizas, John Friel, individually and as the personal representative of the wrongful death beneficiaries, on behalf of Elizabeth A Rizas, Ronald J Miciotto, individually and as the personal representative of the wrongful death beneficiaries, on behalf of Linda Lewis Clark, James Clark, individually, Lawrence Wilson, individually, Joyce Wilson, individually, Plaintiffs: Mel C Orchard, III, Roy A Jacobson, Jr, LEAD ATTORNEY, SPENCE LAW FIRM Jackson, WY USA.

For Grand Teton Lodge Company, a Wyoming corporation, Defendant: Joe M Teig, LEAD ATTORNEY, Susan Combs, HOLLAND & HART, Jackson, WY USA; Maryjo C Falcone, Peter W Rietz, LEAD ATTORNEY, RIETZ LAW FIRM, Dillon, CO USA.

For Tauck Inc, a New Jersey corporation doing business in the state of Connecticut, also known as Tauck Tours Inc, also known as Tauck World Discovery Inc, Defendant: William M McKellar, LEAD ATTORNEY, McKELLAR TIEDEKEN & SCOGGIN, Cheyenne, WY USA.

JUDGES: ALAN B. JOHNSON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

OPINION BY: ALAN B. JOHNSON

OPINION

ORDER ON DEFENDANTS’ MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

This matter comes before the Court on Defendants’ [*2] motions for summary judgment. Tauck, Inc. filed five motions and Grand Teton Lodge Company (“GTLC”) filed one, all on July 22, 2009. After careful consideration of the arguments and evidence supplied by both Plaintiffs and Defendants, for the reasons discussed in detail below, the Court finds that a genuine issue of material fact exists regarding the inherent risk of the river float activity. In all other respects, the Court will grant the defendants’ motions for summary judgment.

FACTS

The Court relates the following facts in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs, who are opposing Defendants’ motions for summary judgment.

Tauck is a corporation formed under the laws of New Jersey and primarily doing business in Connecticut. Stipulated Facts, Docket Entry 108, ¶ 9. Tauck is in the business of selling tour packages to its clients, one of which in 2006 was a tour called the “Yellowstone & Grand Teton – North.” Id. ¶ 24. This tour began in Salt Lake City, Utah and ended in Rapid City, South Dakota. Id. The tour included a two-night stay at the Jackson Lake Lodge in the Grand Teton National Park, and the Lodge was operated by GTLC. Id. ¶¶ 23, 24. GTLC is organized under the laws of Wyoming [*3] and operates within the Grand Teton National Park pursuant to a concessionaire agreement with the National Park Service. Id. ¶¶ 7, 8. Among the services that GTLC offered its guests is a 10-mile float trip along the Snake River from Deadman’s Bar to the Moose Landing. Id. ¶¶ 23, 24. Tauck’s 2006 promotional materials contains the following sentence: “Take a scenic ten-mile raft trip on the Snake River as it meanders through spectacular mountain scenery alive with wildlife, including moose, elk, deer, and many species of birds.” Plaintiff’s Resp. to Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiffs’ Claim for Fraud, Ex. 5.

On June 2, 2006, a tour group gathered at the Lodge at approximately 8:00 a.m. Stipulated Facts ¶ 27. They traveled via several vans to the rafting launch site at Deadman’s Bar. Id. The trip took approximately one hour. There the larger group was split into four smaller groups, one for each raft provided. Id. ¶ 28. Raft No. 1 was guided by Wayne Johnson, an employee of GTLC. The raft at issue, Raft No. 2, had 11 passengers: John Rizas, Elizabeth Rizas, Patricia Rizas, Linda Clark, James Clark, Lawrence “Bubba” Wilson, Joyce Wilson, Tom Rizas, Ruth Rizas, Jon Shaw, and Maria [*4] Urrutia. Id. ¶ 29. The raft guide was Daniel Hobbs, who was also a GTLC employee and had been for four years. Id. ¶ 30.

During the float trip, Raft No. 2 struck a log jam. Id. ¶ 32. The collision occurred in the Funnelcake channel, which was one of several braided channels of the river. The raft upended as a result and all passengers were thrown into the river. John Rizas, Elizabeth Rizas, and Linda Clark died as a result. Further facts will be discussed as necessary to resolve each legal issue.

DISCUSSION

This Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332 because there is complete diversity of citizenship between the plaintiffs and defendants. Vail Resorts was dismissed from this case for lack of jurisdiction on June 16, 2009. Plaintiffs are citizens of Maryland, Arizona, Louisiana, and Georgia. GTLC is incorporated in Wyoming, which is also its principal place of business. Tauk is incorporated in New Jersey, and its principal place of business is Connecticut.

Summary judgment is appropriate “if the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” [*5] Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); e.g., Kerber v. Qwest Pension Plan, 572 F.3d 1135, 1144 (10th Cir. 2009). The Court must view all facts and make inferences from the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. E.g., Utah Animal Rights Coalition v. Salt Lake County, 566 F.3d 1236, 1242 (10th Cir. 2009). The Court may consider only admissible evidence. Wright-Simmons v. City of Oklahoma City, 155 F.3d 1264, 1268 (10th Cir. 1998). See also Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e)(1).

Choice of Law

Because the Court is sitting in diversity, it would normally apply Wyoming law. See Butt v. Bank of America, N.A., 477 F.3d 1171, 1179 (10th Cir. 2007). In this case, however, Plaintiffs have raised a choice-of-law issue by urging this Court to apply Connecticut law. A federal court sitting in diversity applies the choice-of-law principles of the state in which it sits. Morrison Knudson Corp. v. Ground Improvement Techniques, Inc., 532 F.3d 1063, 1077 n.12 (10th Cir. 2008). Accordingly, this Court will apply Wyoming choice-of-law principles.

Plaintiffs first contend that Connecticut law applies because Tauck and its clients signed a contract to that effect. Specifically, the contract states the following:

It is agreed by Tauck World Discovery and the Tour Member that all legal claims, actions and proceedings against Tauck World Discovery under, in connection with, resulting from or incident to a tour may be instituted, if at all, only in a state or federal court within the State of Connecticut, USA, to the exclusion of the courts of or in any other state or jurisdiction. It is further agreed that all such claims, actions and proceedings shall [*6] be governed by and decided in accordance with the laws of the State of Connecticut.

Plaintiffs’ Resp. to Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiffs’ Claims for Fraud, Ex. 2. Tauck counters by claiming that the choice-of-law provision was intended for its benefit, and therefore it can waive that provision. Furthermore, it points out that, if the contract is to be enforced, there are a number of other provisions that would benefit Tauck, such as the choice-of-forum provision in the excerpt above.

In Wyoming, a contract must be construed according to the law of the place where it was made. J.W. Denio Milling Co. v. Malin, 25 Wyo. 143, 165 P. 1113, 1116 (Wyo. 1917). There is no evidence indicating where the contract at issue was formed, but that makes little difference because the law of waiver of contract provisions is widespread and well accepted. “A party to a contract may waive a provision of the contract that was included for his benefit.” E.g., Lanna v. Greene, 399 A.2d 837, 841 (Conn. 1978). See Takahashi v. Pepper Tank & Contracting Co., 58 Wyo. 330, 131 P.2d 339, 354 (Wyo. 1942). The question in this case is whether the choice-of-law provision was included for Tauck’s benefit.

The Court finds that it was. As far as the evidence indicates, none of the tour members or their survivors who are involved in this action are residents of Connecticut. [*7] The three plaintiffs who were also tour members, Mr. Clark and the Wilsons, are residents of Louisiana and Georgia, respectively. The residence of the three deceased tour members is not clear from the evidence submitted to the Court. Even if one of the three decedents were residents of Connecticut, that does not necessarily mean that the provision existed for that person’s benefit. Tauck drafted the provision at issue. The provision benefits Tauck by ensuring that any claims will be litigated in the forum most convenient to it, and under the law with which it is most familiar. Meanwhile, there is little or no benefit to any tour member who is not a resident of Connecticut. Even then, the choice-of-law provision would benefit the tour member by happenstance rather than by intention. Accordingly, Tauck may waive the choice of law provision, and has affirmatively stated that it has done so. Its waiver is further supported by the fact that it has never contended that suit is improper in this Court as a result of the choice-of-forum provision in the same contract.

Even if Tauck had not waived its right to enforce the choice-of-law provision, this Court would not enforce this provision due [*8] to Wyoming’s strong public policy of recreational immunity. Plaintiffs seek application of Connecticut law largely to avoid the effects of Wyoming’s Recreational Safety Act, Wyo. Stat. Ann. §§ 1-1-121 through -123 (LexisNexis 2009). The Court will discuss the Act in detail below; it is sufficient here to note that the Act provides a near-total elimination liability of a recreation provider where a person is injured because of an “inherent risk” of a recreational activity. River floating is specifically named as a qualifying recreational activity. Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-1-122(a)(iii). Consequently, Plaintiffs seek application of Connecticut law because Connecticut is not so protective of its recreational providers as Wyoming.

It is this very policy of protecting these providers that renders the contractual choice-of-law provision invalid. The Wyoming Supreme Court has not answered the question of whether the Act represents so strong a Wyoming policy as to render invalid a contractual choice-of-law provision that would eliminate the Act’s application. This Court believes that Wyoming, like other states, would look to general contract principles to resolve this question. The Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 187 (1971) states:

(1) The law of the state chosen by the parties to govern [*9] their contractual rights and duties will be applied if the particular issue is one which the parties could have resolved by an explicit provision in their agreement directed to that issue.

(2) The law of the state chosen by the parties to govern their contractual rights and duties will be applied, even if the particular issue is one which the parties could not have resolved by an explicit provision in their agreement directed to that issue, unless either

(a) the chosen state has no substantial relationship to the parties or the transaction and there is no other reasonable basis for the parties choice, or

(b) application of the law of the chosen state would be contrary to a fundamental policy of a state which has a materially greater interest than the chosen state in the determination of the particular issue and which, under the rule of § 188, would be the state of the applicable law in the absence of an effective choice of law by the parties.

(3) In the absence of a contrary indication of intention, the reference is to the local law of the state of the chosen law.

The tour members and Tauck agreed that Connecticut law would apply, and Connecticut has a significant connection to the contract [*10] because of Tauck’s operation there. Nevertheless, Wyoming’s interest in the resolution of this issue is significantly greater because important Wyoming policy concerns are involved in the question of whether a provider of recreation opportunities should be subject to liability for injury from inherent risks. Absent a Connecticut plaintiff, Connecticut has no interest in whether a Wyoming corporation is held liable. Indeed, Connecticut’s interest in this case, if any, is probably more closely aligned with Tauck, which operates in that state.

The Court’s analysis is further informed by the fact that that Wyoming’s public policy in this matter is a strong one. Initially, the Act was less protective of recreation service providers, defining an “inherent risk” as “any risk that is characteristic of or intrinsic to any sport or recreational opportunity and which cannot reasonably be eliminated, altered or controlled.” Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-1-122(a)(i) (LexisNexis 1989). In 1996, the Wyoming Legislature eliminated the clause, “and which cannot reasonably be eliminated, altered or controlled.” 1996 Wyo. Sess. Laws ch. 78, § 1. Subsequent to the amendment, this Court recognized the extraordinary protection offered to recreation [*11] providers in Wyoming:

The Court recognizes that its reading of the Wyoming Recreational Safety Act provides enormous protection to those in the business of providing recreational activities. . . . Consumers in Wyoming are now faced with an entire industry whose economic and consequent legislative power enables them to conduct business with only a passing thought to the safety of those who utilize their services. Despite this frightening prospect, the Court recognizes its place in our nation’s federal system of government. A court should not decimate the purpose of a legislative act, no matter how distasteful, when that purpose is clearly incorporated in the language of the act.

Cooperman v. David, 23 F. Supp. 2d 1315, 1321 (D. Wyo. 1998). Given this extraordinary protection, this Court must conclude that the Wyoming Legislature views immunity for recreation providers to be an important state interest. Wyoming law should apply in this case.

The Court’s decision is consistent with precedent set by the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. In Electrical Distributers, Inc. v. SFR, Inc., one issue considered by the court was whether the trial court properly applied Colorado law where a covenant not to compete named Colorado as the applicable law, [*12] but was to be performed exclusively in Utah. 166 F.3d 1074, 1083-84 (10th Cir. 1999). Using the analysis that this Court has adopted above, the Court of Appeals determined that Utah’s strong interest in careful scrutiny of covenants not to compete controlled over any interest Colorado had in enforcement of a contract made within its boundaries, but to be performed outside them. Id.

Recreation Safety Act

Defendants rely on Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act and claim that, pursuant to the Act, they owed no duty of care to any of the tour members. In response, Plaintiffs provide three reasons that the Act does not apply. First, they contend that Connecticut law applies–an argument that the Court has already resolved in favor of Defendants. Second, Plaintiffs argue that Tauck is not a “provider” as defined in the Act. Third, they assert that federal law preempts the Act. The Court will now address Plaintiffs second and third arguments in turn.

Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-1-122(a)(ii) defines “provider” as follows: “[A]ny person or governmental entity which for profit or otherwise offers or conducts a sport or recreational opportunity.” Plaintiffs claim that Tauck is not a provider because of its position that it did not conduct the activity itself, but rather was a travel agent [*13] that procured the raft trip on behalf of its tour members. In doing so, however, Plaintiffs overlook the undisputed fact that Tauck offered the float trip as part of its tour package. Given that the Act includes offering a recreational opportunity in its definition of “provider,” it is obvious that Tauck is, in fact, a provider.

Plaintiffs’ preemption argument requires significantly more discussion. State law may be preempted by federal law in three ways. First, Congress may expressly preempt state law. Barnett Bank of Marion County, N.A. v. Nelson, 517 U.S. 25, 31, 116 S. Ct. 1103, 134 L. Ed. 2d 237 (1996). Second, Congress may preempt an entire field by regulating that field so comprehensively that there is no room for state regulation. Id. at 31. Third, federal and state law may be in irreconcilable conflict, preempting state law even though Congress has not explicitly stated its intent to do so. Id. None of these three types of preemption occurred in this case.

The specific federal “law” that Plaintiffs believe preempt the Act is the concession contract between GTLC and the National Park Service. In particular, Plaintiffs point to the following language in the concession contract:

The Concessioner is responsible for providing a safe and healthful environment for its employees and clients as outlined [*14] in the Contract. The Concessioner will develop a Risk Management Program that will be approved by the Service in accordance with the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) and Service Guidelines. The Risk Management Program will be reviewed annually by the Service.

Plaintiffs’ Resp. to Motion For Summary Judgment on Wyoming Recreation Safety Act, Ex. 3. Plaintiffs claim that the concession contract “change[s] the character of the state law provisions encompassed by” the Act, and therefore results in an actual conflict between state and federal law. Plaintiffs’ Resp. Motion to Dismiss on Wyoming Recreation Safety Act, at 12. Plaintiffs also point to the National Park Service Management Policies 2006, which provides for visitor safety emergency response and emergency preparedness. That document refers several times to the safety of visitors to the park. Plaintiffs’ Resp. Motion to Dismiss on Wyoming Recreation Safety Act, Ex. 4.

Plaintiffs make an argument similar to that raised by the plaintiff in Carden v. Kelly, 175 F. Supp. 2d 1318 (D. Wyo. 2001). In Carden, this Court summarized the plaintiffs’ arguments as follows:

1) Plaintiff’s injuries occurred on federal land, the Bridger-Teton National Forest; 2) Defendants, in order to operate [*15] their business in the Bridger-Teton National Forest had to obtain a special-use permit from the Forest Service; 3) because Plaintiff’s injuries occurred on federal land, federal law, namely Forest Service regulations and the Defendants’ special-use permit apply; 4) the special-use permit contains provisions concerning negligence and injury to patrons of Forest Service permit holders, which Plaintiff claims requires the permit holders to inform their guests of the risks and have them sign a risk acknowledgment form; and 5) provisions in the Forest Service regulations requiring patrons of the Forest Service concessionaires to assume “usual” risks of activities within the National Forest conflicts with, and thus preempts, the Wyoming Recreation Statute.

Carden, 175 F. Supp. 2d at 1322. The Court determined that, although Congress had the authority to pre-empt the Recreation Safety Act on federal lands, it did not do so. Id. at 1322-26.

In the current case, the Court will follow Carden‘s sound reasoning. The Management Policies and the concession contract cited by Plaintiffs do broadly emphasize the Park Service’s interest in public safety, but does not indicate any intent to preempt Wyoming tort law. “Courts do not ‘lightly attribute [*16] to Congress or to a federal agency the intent to preempt state or local laws.'” Ramsey Winch Inc. v. Henry, 555 F.3d 1199, 1204 (10th Cir. 2009) quoting Nat’l Solid Wastes Mgmt. Ass’n v. Killian, 918 F.2d 671, 676 (7th Cir. 1990).

Plaintiffs in the case at bar attempt to distinguish Carden by noting that the requirements in Carden were imposed by the Forest Service, while this case involves the Park Service. Plaintiffs do not point out how this fact is relevant, and the Court does not discern any. The Park Service was created to

promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks . . . to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.

16 U.S.C. § 1. Its mission is therefore one of conservation, and the Court does not perceive any intent to impact state tort law. The Court finds that federal law has not preempted the Wyoming Recreational Safety Act.

It is now incumbent upon the Court to determine if the Act applies to the circumstances of this case and insulates the defendants from liability. The Act states, in relevant part,

(a) Any person who takes part in any sport or recreational opportunity assumes the inherent risks in that sport [*17] or recreational opportunity, whether those risks are known or unknown, and is legally responsible for any and all damage, injury or death to himself or other persons or property that results from the inherent risks in that sport or recreational opportunity.

(b) A provider of any sport or recreational opportunity is not required to eliminate, alter or control the inherent risks within the particular sport or recreational opportunity.

(c) Actions based upon negligence of the provider wherein the damage, injury or death is not the result of an inherent risk of the sport or recreational opportunity shall be preserved pursuant to W.S. 1-1-109.

Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-1-123.

Past disputes regarding the Act’s application involve, as does this case, questions about what constitutes an “inherent risk.” “‘Inherent risk’ with regard to any sport or recreational opportunity means those dangerous conditions which are characteristic of, intrinsic to, or an integral part of any sport or recreational opportunity.” Id. § 1-1-122(a)(i). The Wyoming Supreme Court has had few occasions to address the determination of what is an inherent risk of a particular activity. One of the more recent cases arose as a certified question from this Court. Jackson Hole Mount. Resort Corp. v. Rohrman, 2006 WY 156, 150 P.3d 167 (Wyo. 2006). The [*18] question certified was: “When faced with motions for summary judgment in which there are no genuine issues of material fact, how should a court differentiate, as a matter of law, between ‘inherent risks’ . . . and non-inherent risks . . . ?” Id. at 168.

[The] general answer is that if such a motion is filed, the trial court must scrutinized the facts brought forward by the parties with great care. If the court can say that, given the evidence, this is an “inherent risk” and reasonable minds cannot differ about that, then summary judgment is appropriate. If the risk is an inherent one, then the provider has no duty to eliminate, alter, or control it. On the other hand, if reasonable minds could differ as to whether or not the risk was one inherent to the recreational activity, then summary judgment is not appropriate and the answer to the question must be assigned to the jury (or other fact finder).

Id. This formulation, of course, depends on properly characterizing the activity and risk. For example, in the current case, the activity may be characterized as a “scenic float trip”–as Plaintiffs do throughout their memorandum in opposition to summary judgment–or as “river rafting.” The particular [*19] risk may be described generically as falling out of the boat or, more specifically, as colliding with a log jam resulting in ejection from the raft.

Governing precedent demands that the activity and risk be described as particularly as possible. In Cooperman v. David, for example, the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit stated that, “[w]hen attempting to determine whether a risk is inherent to a sport, we can not look at the risk in a vacuum, apart from the factual setting to which the [injured person] was exposed. And, we must evaluate the risk at the greatest level of specificity permitted by the factual record.” 214 F.3d 1162, 1167 (10th Cir. 2000). In this case, the activity is best described as river floating under the water conditions that were apparent when the tour members embarked. The risk is best described as the risk that the raft would encounter a log jam, ejecting one or more tour members into the river.

Applying the law from this point forward is somewhat more problematic because the precedent in this area is not entirely clear. In Cooperman, the court affirmed this Court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendant because a loose saddle cinch was an inherent risk of the activity of horseback [*20] riding. Id. at 1169. The trial court received expert testimony that a slipping saddle was a risk inherent to horseback riding. Id. at 1168. There was also testimony that the particular saddle at issue was cinched too loosely, and an inference that the loose cinching caused the saddle to slip. Id. The Cooperman court said that, even with this evidence, the risk was inherent because a person cinching a saddle had to balance between doing so too tightly and too loosely. “This imprecision in the cinching of the saddle is ‘characteristic’ or ‘typical’ of and therefore ‘inherent in’ the sport of horseback riding.” Id. Critically, the court stated,

As part of the Coopermans’ burden of showing that [the provider] owed Dr. Cooperman a duty of care, the Coopermans must provide some evidence to explain why the saddle fell, which explanation is not inherent to the sport. . . . Thus, stating only that the cinch was not tight enough does not show that the risk was no longer inherent to the sport. The Coopermans have the burden of presenting some evidence on summary judgment that would raise a question of fact that the loosely cinched saddle was caused, not by an inherent risk, but rather by a risk that was atypical, uncharacteristic, [*21] not intrinsic to, and thus not inherent in, the recreational activity of horseback riding. The Coopermans have not met this burden.

Id. at 1168-69.

The current case presents certain parallels. It is undisputed based on the evidence before the Court that being ejected or otherwise falling out of a raft is generally an inherent risk of river floating. For example, Sheri Griffith, an outfitter and river guide, testified that it is an inherent risk that a person might “become a swimmer” during a float trip. Griffith Depo. 152. There is no testimony that contradicts her opinion. It is also undisputed that the rafting guide instructed the tour members that, if they were to end up in the river, the proper procedure was to float on their back until they could be recovered. L. Wilson Depo. 318; Hobbs Depo. 136. This is similar to the expert testimony in Cooperman that a slipping saddle is an inherent risk of horseback riding: it describes the risk in general terms without looking at the specific cause. Also like Cooperman, Plaintiffs in this case have not submitted admissible evidence that describes a specific cause of the injury, and shown that the particular cause falls outside of the realm of being an inherent [*22] risk. Following the Cooperman analysis, then, the Court would conclude that Plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate that a genuine issue of material fact exists regarding whether encountering a log jam resulting in ejection from the raft is an inherent risk of river floating.

But the Court must also consider Sapone v. Grand Targhee, Inc., 308 F.3d 1096 (10th Cir. 2002). In that case, a six-year-old girl was injured when her horse bolted. Sapone, 308 F.3d at 1098. The plaintiffs presented evidence from an expert that “(1) the instructions were inadequate, (2) the horse was too large, (3) headgear should have been provided, (4) the trail ride may have been too dangerous, and (5) her parents were not notified of the accident.” Id. at 1104. It is not entirely clear why these facts would affect the nature of the risk. The court concluded “that a reasonable jury might conclude that [the girl’s] injuries were the result of negligence that is not characteristic of, intrinsic to, or an integral part [of] horseback riding.” Id. at 1105. Two possible interpretations of this passage are that negligence is never an integral part of horseback riding, or that some negligence is an integral part, but not the negligent acts complained of in that case. The former interpretation would render the statute futile [*23] as a way to safeguard recreation providers against liability, so it is unlikely that the Court of Appeals intended that meaning. The latter interpretation is more plausible, but raises the difficult question of what types of negligence are inherent to a particular activity and which are not. In either case, a trial court or fact finder is confronted with the difficult task of determining whether negligence occurred in order to determine whether the defendant owed a duty.

In any case, this Court is bound to apply Sapone. Plaintiffs have submitted evidence that tends to show that the river, on the day of the river float trip, was running higher and faster so as to result in an activity with some greater risk to the participants. In addition, Plaintiffs submitted evidence suggesting that this stretch of river was generally believed to be a dangerous one. Rutter Depo. Ex. 1. Specifically, a National Park Service publication entitled “Floating the Snake River” states that the area from Deadman’s Bar to Moose Landing “is the most challenging stretch of river in the park and most accidents occur here. The river drops more steeply, with faster water than in other sections south of Pacific Creek. [*24] Complex braiding obscures the main channel and strong currents can sweep boaters into side channels blocked by logjams.” Id. This evidence is not uncontested, of course, but it is sufficient to preclude summary judgment on this issue. The Court finds that there is a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether colliding with the log jam was an inherent risk of the river float trip undertaken by the tour members on June 2, 2006.

Negligence

Tauck moved for summary judgment in its favor on Plaintiffs’ negligence claim. Tauck’s argument boils down to an assertion that it is essentially a travel agency, and therefore is not liable for any negligence committed by GTLC. Plaintiffs contend that Tauck is a common carrier, and therefore subject to a heightened duty of care. They also assert that Tauck assumed a duty to warn of dangerous conditions when it distributed a form entitled “Acknowledgment of Risk” on the way to the river.

As a general rule, a tour operator is not liable for injuries caused by the negligence of third parties over which the tour operator did not exercise ownership or control. E.g., Sova v. Apple Vacations, 984 F. Supp. 1136, 1140 (S.D. Ohio 1997).1 The general rule may not apply, however, in the face of contractual language to the [*25] contrary. In this case, Plaintiffs contend that Tauck’s promotional materials contained promises that Tauck would assume a certain duty. For example, they point to language in which Tauck states tour members will “enjoy VIP attention from our experienced Tauck Directors who are dedicated to making your trip the best it can be” and that “[o]nce you arrive at your Tauck Bridges destination, leave the day-to-day details to us–all you need to do is have fun with your family.” Plaintiffs’ Resp. to Motion for Summary Judgment on Negligence, 5-6. They compare this language to that relied upon by the court in Stevenson v. Four Winds Travel, Inc. to find that the plaintiff had a right to expect a warning of a slippery condition while on a tour. 462 F.2d 899, 906-07 (5th Cir. 1972).

1 The Wyoming Supreme Court has not yet addressed this question, but it would likely follow this general rule.

Stevenson, however, is distinguishable from the current case. First, the language in the promotional materials in Stevenson is considerably stronger than those distributed by Tauck. For example, the materials stated that guests would be “cared for by a carefully selected Four Winds Tour escort” and that the tour directors “know precisely what you will be seeing and doing every day.” Id. In contrast, Tauck’s materials state that trips “are enhanced by [*26] our experienced directors,” and that Tauck will “take care of all [arrangements] for you, so you can indulge in the joys of travel without any of the day-to-day hassles.” Plaintiffs’ Resp. to Motion for Summary Judgment on Negligence, 5. To the extent that these vague statements mean anything at all, it falls far short of a promise to assume a duty. In addition, there is no indication in Stevenson that there was a separate contract. In this case, however, Tauck’s “Conditions of Tour”–relied upon by Plaintiffs in its argument that Connecticut law is applicable–contains a provision in which Tauck disclaims liability for “any Damages, or any problems concerning any . . . supplier providing tour services [or] programs, . . . including but not limited to . . . negligence by any . . . other supplier providing tour services [or] programs.” Plaintiffs’ Resp. to Motion for Summary Judgment on Recreation Safety Act, Ex. 1. Courts have relied on similar disclaimers to bar liability for acts of third parties that are beyond the control of the tour operator because the disclaimers are evidence that the operator did not intend to assume a guarantee of safety, even if the disclaimer is not itself [*27] contractually binding. E.g., Sova, 984 F. Supp. at 1139-40 (collecting illustrative cases). Accordingly, this Court finds that, as a matter of law, Tauck had no duty, either by virtue of its position as a tour operator or assumed through its promotional materials.

Plaintiffs next contend that Tauck is a common carrier pursuant to the common law and Article 10, Section 7 of the Wyoming Constitution. That provision states: “All corporations engaged in the transportation of persons, property, mineral oils, and minerals products, news or intelligence, including railroads, telegraphs, express companies, pipe lines and telephones, are declared to be common carriers.” Plaintiffs then rely upon section 314A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts, which states that a common carrier has a duty to its passengers to take reasonable action “to protect them against unreasonable risk of physical harm,” and to render aid if they are harmed. Tauck contends that it is not a common carrier because it does not actually transport tour members during the river floating trip.

Tauck’s position has merit, and there is authority for the proposition that a tour operator is not a common carrier. E.g., Stafford v. Intrav, Inc., 841 F. Supp. 284, 287 (E.D. Mo. 1993). The Court need not resolve the question of whether Tauck is a common carrier, however, because even if it is in general, it was not transporting [*28] tour members at the time of the raft collision. The undisputed evidence is that the tour members, during the rafting trip, were being transported by GTLC, not Tauck. In short, the tour members were no longer subject to Tauck’s custody or control, and therefore Tauck owed no duty. See Id. (tour operator had no duty to warn of dangerous condition on premises not under its control).

This leaves the question of whether distribution of “Acknowledgment of Risk” forms resulted in an imposition of a duty on Tauck. Plaintiffs cite section 324A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts, which states:

One who undertakes, gratuitously or for consideration, to render services to another which he should recognize as necessary for the protection of a third person or his things is subject to liability to the third person for physical harm resulting from his failure to exercise reasonable care to protect his undertaking, if

(a) his failure to exercise reasonable care increases the risk of such harm, or

(b) he has undertaken to perform a duty owed by the other to the third person, or

(c) the harm is suffered because of reliance of the other or the third person upon the undertaking.

The Wyoming Supreme Court adopted this provision as reflected in subsection (a) in Ellsworth Bros., Inc. v. Crook, 406 P.2d 520, 524 (Wyo. 1965). Relying [*29] on the Restatement, Plaintiffs claim that “by requiring its Tour Directors to get guests to sign GTLC’s Acknowledgment of Risk form well in advance of arriving at the Lodge, Tauck undertook the duty to inform guests about risks associated with the raft trip.” Plaintiffs’ Resp. to Motion for Summary Judgment on Negligence, 7.

This statement, however, assumes that by undertaking to distribute the “Acknowledgment of Risk” form, Tauck was undertaking the broader task of informing guests about risks associated with the raft trip. There is no evidence before the Court to support this assumption. The only evidence that Tauck undertook to do anything for GTLC is testimony that GTLC asked Tauck to present the form to those tour members who were to participate in the rafting trip. Rice Depo. 47.2 There is no testimony that suggests Tauck was asked, or agreed, to inform guests of all risks involved in the rafting trip.

2 There is some conflict in the record regarding precisely when the tour members were given the form, but that is not material for resolution of this issue.

The Court finds as a matter of law that Tauck did not owe a duty to the tour members to warn them of the conditions of the river or otherwise act to prevent their injuries. Tauck may not be found negligent on a theory of direct liability.

Joint Venture

The Court must next address Tauck’s [*30] contention that it may not be held vicariously liable for GTLC’s negligence because the two companies did not form a joint venture. Tauck argues that GTLC was simply a supplier, and that the two businesses did not jointly embark on a business venture. In Wyoming, a person alleging the existence of a joint venture has the burden to prove four elements:

(1) an agreement, express or implied, among the members of the group; (2) a common purpose to be carried out by the group; (3) a community of pecuniary interest in that purpose, among the members; and (4) an equal right to a voice in the direction of the enterprise, which gives an equal right of control.

Popejoy v. Steinle, 820 P.2d 545, 549 (Wyo. 1991) quoting Holliday v. Bannister, 741 P.2d 89, 93 n.1 (Wyo. 1987).

Considering the first element, that of an agreement, the Court finds that there is a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether Tauck and GTLC agreed to provide services. Plaintiffs have submitted a document entitled “Tour Operator Contract,” which governs the terms of the sale of room blocks and river float trips to Tauck. Plaintiff’s Resp. to Motion for Summary Judgment on Joint Venture, Ex. 5. Several witnesses, officials of Tauck, testified that they viewed GTLC as a supplier, not as a partner. Nevertheless, viewing [*31] the contract in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs, it is not unreasonable to characterize it as an agreement for the purposes of this joint venture analysis.

The Court also finds that a reasonable jury could find that Tauck and GTLC had a common purpose. This purpose was to sell tour members lodging and river float trips. Tauck’s purpose was somewhat broader, generally, because it sold lager tours of which the interaction with GTLC was a small part, but this does not remove the fact that GTLC and Tauck were united in purpose during this portion of the tour. Similarly, they both had a pecuniary interest in the enterprise. Tauck points out that GTLC received the same amount for its float tours whether its guests were members of a Tauck tour or individuals. But the arrangement nonetheless furthered GTLC’s financial goals by bringing significant numbers of guests to GTLC. Similarly, Tauck benefitted financially by featuring GTLC lodging and the float trip as part of its tour.

The Court does not find, however, that Tauck and GTLC had an equal right of control. Plaintiffs rely heavily on the fact that both business had the capability to cancel the float trip at their discretion, but that [*32] does not suggest an equal voice in the activity in question. For example, the evidence submitted to the Court indicates that the Tauck tour director brought the residents to the lodge and interacted with GTLC staff, but there is no indication that any Tauck official had the authority to direct any day-to-day activities. It had no input into the decision to hire Mr. Hobbs, the guide of Raft No. 2, or to direct the manner in which he conducted the rafting trip. Tauck could not have directed that the river guide take the group down a different part of the river, or terminated the guide’s employment. If GTLC had decided to terminate its river floating operations, Tauck would have been powerless to prevent it, aside from the scope of any service contract that was currently in place. Tauck and GTLC were two separate operations, and there is no evidence submitted to the Court that suggests otherwise. The Court finds, as a matter of law, that Tauck and GTLC did not have a joint venture.

The Court notes that, with no direct liability and no joint venture resulting in vicarious liability, Tauck is not liable for any claims of negligence.

Fraud

Plaintiffs have alleged that GTLC and Tauck committed [*33] fraud by enacting a scheme whereby the tour members were lured into taking a dangerous rafting trip as a result of GTLC and Tauck’s material misrepresentations regarding the level of danger. “To prove fraud, the plaintiff must show by clear and convincing evidence that (1) the defendant made a false representation intended to induce action by the plaintiff; (2) the plaintiff reasonably believed the representation to be true; and (3) the plaintiff suffered damages in relying upon the false representation.” Garrison v. CC Builders, Inc., 2008 WY 34, 179 P.3d 867, 877 (Wyo. 2008). The false representation must be made knowingly: “One cannot be guilty of fraudulently or intentionally concealing or misrepresenting facts of which he is not aware.” Meeker v. Lanham, 604 P.2d 556, 559 (Wyo. 1979). Plaintiffs’ fraud claim fails because they have failed to provide evidence from which a reasonable jury could find by clear and convincing evidence that Defendants knowingly made a false representation of a material fact.

Plaintiffs first cite statements made in Tauck’s travel brochure discussing the rafting trip. “[T]he record shows that Tauck’s 2006 Brochure described the Snake River as a ‘meandering float trip,’ when in actuality, the Plaintiffs’ [sic] ended up on a whitewater raft trip with Class IV rapids.”
[*34] Plaintiffs’ Resp. to Motion for Summary Judgment on Fraud Claim, 8. Plaintiffs also cite statements in Tauck’s promotional materials stating that its tour directors are “knowledgeable professionals, with a wealth of information,” and that Tauck “does it all for you,” and that tour members can “leave all day-to-day details” to Tauck. Id.

For the most part, these promotional statements are “mere puffery” E.g., Alpine Bank v. Hubbell, 555 F.3d 1097, 1106 (10th Cir. 2009). The one arguable exception is the description of the activity as a “meandering float trip,” which may be sufficiently definite that a sensible person may be justified in relying on it to some degree. Even in that case, however, there is no indication that Tauck was aware that the river floating trip would be anything other than as described.

The key problem with Plaintiffs’ case is that there is no indication that this particular stretch of the Snake River was inherently dangerous on the day of the collision. Instead, the evidence, viewed in a light most favorable to Plaintiffs, indicates that the guide of the raft that collided with the log jam took the raft into an unsafe channel. For example, the deposition of Wayne Johnson, one of the river guides on June 2, 2006, indicates [*35] that he viewed the “Funnelcake” channel as dangerous on that date. Johnson Depo. 184. Mr. Reed Finlay, a river guide with a different company, testified at some length about the “Funnelcake” channel, specifically that it was dangerous on the date of the collision. Finlay Depo. 126-32. Indeed, it is undisputed that the float trip on the day of the collision was peaceful and uneventful until Raft No. 2 entered the channel and struck the log jam. J. Wilson Depo. 76-77; R. Rizas Depo. 102, 209, 219. In short, there is no indication that Tauck made a misrepresentation when the rafting trip was marketed as a “meandering float trip.”

Plaintiffs also rely on several statements made by employees of Tauck and GTLC before the raft trip. First, Mr. Wilson saw saw people white water rafting while on the bus trip into Jackson on June 1, 2006. When the he asked the tour director, Mr. Rice, if that was what their rafting trip would be like, Mr. Rice replied that the rafting trip would be a “leisurely, scenic float down the Snake River,” and not to worry. Mr. Rice also stated that Tauck had “never lost anybody.” L. Wilson Depo. 61-62. Second, while the groups were in the GTLC vans on the way to the [*36] river, Ms. Elizabeth Rizas asked the van driver about the safety of the float trip. The van driver responded by telling her that she was more likely to be in an accident in the van traveling to the river than on the float trip. J. Wilson Depo 39-40. There is also some evidence that the van driver also stated that they had “never lost anybody yet.” Id. 60.

Again, there is no evidence indicating that these statements are deliberately false. Much like Tauck’s advertising, there was no reason for Tauck or GTLC to believe that the rafting trip would be anything other than a leisurely, scenic float trip. Although Plaintiffs repeatedly rely on the fact that the river was flowing stronger and faster than usual because of the spring thaw, there is no evidence suggesting that this change in conditions precluded GTLC from being able to provide the safe and relaxing experience that the tour members were expecting. The additional fact that the float trip resulted in a devastating collision instead is not relevant when considering what Tauck and GTLC knew at the time they made the statements at issue.

Lastly, Plaintiffs contend that Defendants committed fraud by failing to inform them of the full nature [*37] of the risks on this particular float trips. The Court finds that any failure to inform the guest of these dangers is not actionable as a matter of law. First, there can be no fraud because there is no statement involved. The Court also relies on the Wyoming Supreme Court’s explicit refusal to adopt the tort of nondisclosure in Pittard v. Great Lakes Aviation, 2007 WY 64, 156 P.3d 964, 976 (Wyo. 2007). Plaintiffs have failed to establish the existence of a genuine issue of material fact that would preclude summary judgment in Defendants’ favor on the fraud issue.

Punitive Damages

GTLC has moved to dismiss Plaintiffs’ claim for punitive damages.3 Plaintiffs’ response is similar to their fraud argument, that is, that GTLC deliberately misrepresented the float trip as safe and leisurely.

3 Tauck has also moved for summary judgment in its favor on the punitive damages issue. The Court, however, has already determined that Tauck is not liable, either directly or vicariously. Accordingly, the Court’s discussion addresses only Plaintiffs’ claim as it applies to GTLC.

The Wyoming Supreme Court has set out the following standard regarding punitive damages:

We have explained that punitive damages “are to be awarded only for conduct involving some element of outrage, similar to that usually found in crime. . . . We have approved punitive damages in circumstances involving outrageous conduct, such as intentional torts, torts involving malice and torts involving willful and wanton misconduct.” Weaver v. Mitchell, 715 P.2d 1361, 1369-70 (Wyo. 1986). Willful and wanton misconduct is the intentional doing, [*38] or failing to do, an act in reckless disregard of the consequences and under circumstances and conditions that a reasonable person would know that such conduct would, in a high degree of probability, result in harm to another. Mayflower Rest. Co. v. Griego, 741 P.2d 1106, 1115 (Wyo. 1987). “The aggravating factor which distinguishes willful misconduct from ordinary negligence is the actor’s state of mind. In order to prove that an actor has engaged in willful misconduct, one must demonstrate that he acted with a state of mind that approaches intent to do harm.” Bryant v. Hornbuckle, 728 P.2d 1132, 1136 (Wyo. 1986) (internal citation omitted).

Cramer v. Powder R. Coal Co., 2009 WY 45, 204 P.3d 974, 979-80 (Wyo. 2009).

Plaintiffs reason as follows:

Defendants here should have communicated the true Snake River conditions to the Plaintiffs rather than misrepresent the conditions and intentionally take the guests who had signed up for a scenic float trip into something knowingly quite different. Defendant’s failure to communicate the details indicates “reckless disregard of the consequences, and under such circumstances and conditions that a reasonable man would know, or have reason to know, that such conduct would, in a high degree of probability, result in substantial harm to another.” Danculovich [v. Brown], 593 P.2d [187,] 191.

Plaintiffs’ Response to Motion for Summary Judgment on Punitive Damages [*39]
, 11.

Plaintiffs’ contention that GTLC was aware that the float trip was materially more dangerous than previously represented to the tour members is not, as the Court has discussed, reflected in the record. Although it is undisputed that the level and flow of water was increased, and that this increase may heighten the risk of log jams or hide obstructions in the river, there is no evidence suggesting that the character of the river was altered to such an extent that it was willfully reckless to take passengers on the float trip.

The facts of this case are in stark contrast to those cases relied on by the Plaintiffs in which the Wyoming Supreme Court overturned trial courts’ grants of summary judgment in defendants’ favor on punitive damages. For example, the conduct alleged in Danculovich was drunk driving and speeding resulting in the driver losing control of the vehicle and killing the decedent. 593 P.2d at 190. The evidence in that case indicated that the defendant, who was driving the vehicle, had a blood alcohol content of 0.12%. Id. The court described the evidence of speeding as follows:

Radar clock of vehicle at 56 m.p.h. was made at north edge of business district. A witness estimated speed [*40] at 75 m.p.h. at city limits. Another witness estimated speed at 85 m.p.h. when vehicle passed him at point about .4 of mile before place of accident. Accident reconstruction expert estimated speed at place of accident to be minimum of 75 m.p.h. The speed limit within the city limits was 30 m.p.h. and beyond the city limits, 55 m.p.h.

Id. n.3. In Errington v. Zolessi, a treating physician conducted several cystograms of a patient following a laparoscopically assisted vaginal hysterectomy. 9 P.3d 966, 968 (Wyo. 2000). The cystograms initially indicated the presence of a fistula, and later confirmed it, but the doctor told the patient that she was healing normally, albeit slowly. Id. The Wyoming Supreme Court held that there was sufficient evidence that would allow a reasonable jury to find that the physician acted with reckless disregard for the patient’s safety. In either case, it is apparent that simply failing to advise the tour group members of the increased flow of the river does not rise to the level of reckless and willful misconduct. There is no question that the consequences of any negligence committed were devastating. But this Court must evaluate the question of outrageous conduct based on what was known [*41] at the time of the allegedly negligent act, not looking back at events with the benefit of hindsight. This is not to say that this conduct may not constitute simple negligence, but it does not warrant punitive damages.

IT IS ORDERED that Tauck’s Motion for Summary Judgment on Wyoming Recreational Safety Act, Docket No. 87, is DENIED.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Tauck’s Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiffs’ Claim of Negligence, Docket No. 81, is GRANTED.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Tauck’s Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiffs’ Claims of Joint Venture, Docket No. 84, is GRANTED.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Tauck’s Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiffs’ Claims of Fraud, Docket No. 90, is GRANTED.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Tauck’s Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiffs’ Claim for Punitive and Exemplary Damages, Docket No. 93, is GRANTED.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Grant Teton Lodge Company’s Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiffs’ Claims, Docket No. 96, is granted in part and denied in part. Specifically, the motion is DENIED as it relates to application of the Wyoming Recreation Safety Act, and is in all other respects GRANTED.

Dated this day of October, 2009.

/s/ Alan B. [*42] Johnson

ALAN B. JOHNSON

UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE


McJunkin v. James Yeager d/b/a Jim Yeager Outfitters, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 169321

McJunkin v. James Yeager d/b/a Jim Yeager Outfitters, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 169321

Charles P. Mcjunkin, deceased, by and through his executor and personal representative, Rhett Mcjunkin, and Rhett Mcjunkin, executor and personal representative, on behalf of the heirs of Charles P. Mcjunkin, Plaintiffs, vs. James Yeager d/b/a Jim Yeager Outfitters, Defendant.

CV 17-12-BLG-TJC

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF MONTANA, BILLINGS DIVISION

2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 169321

September 28, 2018, Decided

September 28, 2018, Filed

COUNSEL: [*1] For Charles P. McJunkin, deceased, by and through his executor and personal representative, Rhett McJunkin, Rhett McJunkin, executor and personal representative, on behalf of the heirs of Charles P. McJunkin, Plaintiffs: Philip L. McGrady, LEAD ATTORNEY, McGRADY LAW, Whitefish, MT.

For James Yeager, doing business as, Jim Yeager Outfitters, Defendant: Ross Daniel Tillman, LEAD ATTORNEY, John M. Newman, BOONE KARLBERG, P.C., Missoula, MT.

JUDGES: TIMOTHY J. CAVAN, United States Magistrate Judge.

OPINION BY: TIMOTHY J. CAVAN

OPINION

ORDER

Rhett McJunkin, as personal representative of the estate of Charles P. McJunkin, and on behalf of the heirs of Charles P. McJunkin (“Plaintiffs”), brings this action against Defendant James Yeager, doing business as Jim Yeager Outfitters (“Yeager” or “Defendant”), in relation to a fatal boating accident that occurred on the Stillwater River near Columbus, Montana. Plaintiffs assert claims for negligence, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and loss of consortium. (Doc. 1.)

Presently before the Court are Plaintiffs’ Motion to Amend the Complaint (Doc. 23), Plaintiffs’ Motion for Partial Summary Judgment Regarding the Constitutionality of the Montana Recreation Responsibility Act [*2] (Doc. 28), and Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 31). The motions are fully briefed and ripe for the Court’s review.

Having considered the parties’ submissions, the Court finds Plaintiffs’ Motion to Amend should be DENIED, Plaintiff’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment should be DENIED, and Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment should be GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND1

1 The background facts set forth here are relevant to the Court’s determination of the pending motions for summary judgment and are taken from the parties’ submissions and are undisputed except where indicated.

Yeager is a professional fishing guide and outfitter. On July 17, 2014, Yeager took a paying client, Charles P. McJunkin (“McJunkin”), on a guided fishing trip in a raft on the Stillwater River. As Yeager was guiding and operating the raft, McJunkin fell into the river and drowned. McJunkin was 81 years old at the time of his death.

McJunkin had gone on similar guided fishing trips with Yeager for approximately 20 years. In fact, in the week preceding the July 17, 2014 accident, McJunkin had floated and fished the Stillwater River three times with Yeager. On each occasion, Yeager put-in at the Johnson Bridge Fishing Access, and used the Swinging Bridge Fishing Access Site for a take-out at the end of the day. The Swinging Bridge take-out is approximately one-quarter mile above a set [*3] of rapids known as the Beartooth Drop. Yeager had never floated through the Beartooth Drop with McJunkin.

On the date of the accident, Yeager was guiding McJunkin and his partner, Julia Garner (“Garner”). The plan was to again float from Johnson Bridge to the Swinging Bridge take-out. The river conditions encountered by Yeager that day were characteristic of, and consistent with conditions he previously encountered on that stretch of the river. Yeager approached the Swinging Bridge take-out in the same manner as he had on the three earlier days of fishing. As he approached the take-out, the raft crossed an underwater shelf of rocks. When the rear of the raft passed the shelf, the boat rocked and McJunkin fell into the water. Although the raft was equipped with personal floatation devices (PFDs), McJunkin was not wearing one at the time.

McJunkin swam toward the raft, and Yeager attempted to position the raft so that McJunkin could grab ahold of the side. During this process, the party floated past the Swinging Bridge take-out. To complicate matters further, as Yeager attempted to pull McJunkin into the raft, Garner fell into the water. The parties dispute what caused Garner’s fall. Plaintiffs [*4] contend Yeager accidentally hit her with an oar. Yeager indicated he didn’t know what caused her to fall in, testifying “I don’t know if I hit a rock or a wave or whatever, Julie went in.” Garner yelled to Yeager that she could not swim. Yeager made the split-second decision to let go of McJunkin and attempt to save Garner, fearing she would drown otherwise. Yeager was able to pull her back into the raft as they entered the Beartooth Drop. Meanwhile, McJunkin lost contact with Yeager and the raft and floated through the rapid. He ultimately did not survive.

II. LEGAL STANDARD FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

[HN1] Summary judgment is appropriate where the moving party demonstrates the absence of a genuine issue of material fact and entitlement to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). Material facts are those which may affect the outcome of the case. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986). A dispute as to a material fact is genuine if there is sufficient evidence for a reasonable fact-finder to return a verdict for the nonmoving party. Id. “Disputes over irrelevant or unnecessary facts will not preclude a grant of summary judgment.” T.W. Elec. Serv., Inc. v. Pac. Elec. Contractors Ass’n, 809 F.2d 626, 630 (9th Cir. 1987).

[HN2] The party seeking summary judgment always bears the initial burden of establishing the absence of a genuine [*5] issue of material fact. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. The moving party can satisfy this burden in two ways: (1) by presenting evidence that negates an essential element of the nonmoving party’s case; or (2) by demonstrating that the nonmoving party failed to make a showing sufficient to establish an element essential to that party’s case on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial. Id. at 322-23. If the moving party fails to discharge this initial burden, summary judgment must be denied and the court need not consider the nonmoving party’s evidence. Adickes v. S. H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 159-60, 90 S. Ct. 1598, 26 L. Ed. 2d 142 (1970).

[HN3] If the moving party meets its initial responsibility, the burden then shifts to the opposing party to establish that a genuine issue as to any material fact actually does exist. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586, 106 S. Ct. 1348, 89 L. Ed. 2d 538 (1986). In attempting to establish the existence of this factual dispute, the opposing party must “go beyond the pleadings and by ‘the depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file,’ designate ‘specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324 (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e)). The opposing party cannot defeat summary judgment merely by demonstrating “that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 586; Triton Energy Corp. v. Square D Co., 68 F.3d 1216, 1221 (9th Cir. 1995) (“The mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the [*6] nonmoving party’s position is not sufficient.”) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252).

III. DISCUSSION

A. Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment Related to the Montana Recreation Responsibility Act

Plaintiffs assert Yeager’s negligence caused McJunkin’s death. Yeager contends Plaintiffs’ negligence claim fails as a matter of law because it is barred by Montana’s Recreation Responsibility Act (the “MRRA”), Mont. Code Ann. § 27-1-751, et seq. Thus, Yeager argues summary judgment on the negligence claim is warranted.

Plaintiffs counter that the MRRA is unconstitutionally vague, and violates the constitutional guarantee of equal protection and right to full legal redress. Plaintiffs, therefore, move for partial summary judgment declaring the MRRA unconstitutional. Plaintiffs further assert that even if the MRRA is constitutional, there are genuine issues of material fact which preclude summary judgment.

1. Yeager’s Motion for Summary Judgment under the MRRA

[HN4] The MRRA limits the liability of recreational opportunity providers for injuries resulting from the inherent risks of sports or recreational opportunities.2 Specifically, the MRRA provides in relevant part:

(1) A person who participates in any sport or recreational opportunity assumes the inherent risks in [*7] that sport or recreational opportunity, whether those risks are known or unknown, and is legally responsible for all injury or death to the person and for all damage to the person’s property that result from the inherent risks in that sport or recreational opportunity.

(2) A provider is not required to eliminate, alter, or control the inherent risks within the particular sport or recreational opportunity that is provided.

(3)(a) Sections 27-1-751 through 27-1-754 do not preclude an action based on the negligence of the provider if the injury, death, or damage is not the result of an inherent risk of the sport or recreational opportunity.

Mont. Code. Ann. § 27-1-753.

2 “Sport or recreational opportunity” is defined broadly in the MRRA as “any sporting activity, whether undertaken with or without permission, include but not limited to baseball, softball, football, soccer, basketball, bicycling, hiking, swimming, boating, hockey, dude ranching, nordic or alpine skiing, snowboarding, snow sliding, mountain climbing, river floating, whitewater rafting, canoeing, kayaking, target shooting, hunting, fishing, backcountry trips, horseback riding and other equine activity, snowmobiling, off-highway vehicle use, agritourism, an on-farm educational opportunity, and any similar recreational activity.” Mont. Code. Ann. § 27-1-752(4).

The MRRA defines “Inherent risks” as:

[T]hose dangers or conditions that are characteristic of, intrinsic to, or an integral part of any sport or recreational activity and that cannot be prevented by the use of reasonable care.

Mont. Code Ann. § 27-1-752(2).

[HN5] When interpreting a statute, a court is required to look to the plain meaning of the words. Clarke v. Massey, 271 Mont. 412, 897 P.2d 1085, 1088 (1995). A court will only resort to the legislative history of a statute if the legislative intent cannot be determined from the statute’s plain wording. Id. “[T]he office of judge is simply to ascertain and declare what is in terms or in substance contained therein, not to insert [*8] what has been omitted or to omit what has been inserted.” Mont. Code Ann. § 1-2-101.

Yeager maintains that the statute has a simple, straight-forward application to the facts of this case. He argues McJunkin’s death was caused by drowning; falling out of a boat and drowning is an inherent risk of fishing from a raft; therefore, Plaintiffs’ negligence claim is barred under the MRRA as a matter of law. In short, Yeager asserts because the injury in this case involved drowning while fishing from a raft, the MRRA precludes Plaintiffs’ claim. (Doc. 32 at 15.)

Yeager reads the MRRA much too broadly. Construing the statute in this fashion would immunize providers of recreational activities from their own negligence. The Court finds that such a construction would be contrary to the statute’s plain words, the legislative intent in enacting the legislation, and would likely render the MRRA unconstitutional.

[HN6] Under the plain language of the MRRA, a risk must satisfy two requirements to constitute an “inherent risk” and thus fall within the Act’s protection. There must be (1) a danger or condition that is characteristic of, or intrinsic to the activity, and (2) the danger or condition must be one that cannot be prevented [*9] by the use of reasonable care. Mont. Code Ann. § 27-1-752(2). Therefore, the MRRA does not insulate a provider from all risks which are characteristic of, or intrinsic to the activity. It only provides protection for those risks which cannot be prevented with the use of reasonable care. In order to make this determination, it is necessary to look at the facts and circumstances of each case and the specific risk or condition involved.

Wyoming has a similar “Recreation Safety Act.” Wyo. Stat. Ann. §§ 1-1-121 through 1-1-123. Like the MRRA, the Wyoming Act provides that “[a]ny person who takes part in any sport or recreational opportunity assumes the inherent risk in that sport or recreational opportunity, whether those risks are known or unknown . . . .” Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-1-123(a). It also similarly states that a provider of the “recreational opportunity is not required to eliminate, alter, or control the inherent risks” of the activity. Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-1-123(b). One critical difference between the two acts, however, is the definition of an inherent risk. The MRRA and the Wyoming Act both define inherent risk to mean “those dangers or conditions which are characteristic of, intrinsic to, or an integral part” of the activity. Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-1-122(a)(i). But the Wyoming Act’s definition does not also include the MRRA’s requirement [*10] that the risk “cannot be prevented by the use of reasonable care.”

Nevertheless, the construction of the Wyoming Act is instructive as far as the similarities go. Courts which have construed and applied the Wyoming statute have rejected the broad, general interpretation advanced by Yeager in this case. To determine what risks are inherent, decisions under the Wyoming Act have consistently required that a court “go beyond a broad characterization and inquire into the specific circumstances of both [the plaintiff’s] actions and those of the recreation provider.” Creel v. L & L, Inc., 2012 WY 124, 287 P.3d 729, 736 (Wyo. 2012).

In Cooperman v. David, 214 F.3d 1162 (10th Cir. 2000), for example, the plaintiff was injured during a guided horseback trail ride. The injury occurred when the plaintiff’s saddle slipped around to the belly of the horse, causing the plaintiff to fall to the ground. The defendant moved for summary judgment under the Wyoming Recreation Safety Act, arguing that a slipping saddle is an inherent risk of horseback riding. In determining the application of the Act, the Tenth Circuit made clear that the risk in question must be not be evaluated broadly or generally, but in the context of the specific factual setting presented.

Horseback riding undoubtedly carries some inherent risk [*11] that the rider will fall off the horse and get injured. A horse could stumble on an uneven path, or rear, or simply begin to gallop for no apparent reason. All of these risks clearly would qualify as inherent risks of horseback riding. Simply because some risks are inherent in horseback riding, however, does not mean that all risks of falling from a horse are necessarily inherent; instead, it is necessary to look factually at the specific risk to which the rider was exposed. When attempting to determine whether a risk is inherent to a sport, we can not look at the risk in a vacuum, apart from the factual setting to which the rider was exposed. And, we must evaluate the risk at the greatest level of specificity permitted by the factual record. See Madsen, 31 F.Supp.2d at 1328 (“The Court believes that one must look to the specific facts of a case to see whether there is a duty, and not simply look to the abstract character of the risk.”).

Cooperman, 214 F.3d at 1167.

The same evaluation must be conducted under the MRRA. It is not enough to find that falling out of a boat and drowning is a general risk of fishing from a raft; therefore, drowning is an inherent risk in fishing. Although there may be circumstances where the risk of drowning [*12] cannot be prevented with the use of reasonable care, it is undoubtedly true the risk may be prevented in many other circumstances.

Therefore, each case must be examined in light of the specific factual context of the case to determine whether the specific risk involved could have been prevented using reasonable care. As the Wyoming Supreme Court points out, “[s]ome risks may occur from the choices a recreation provider makes on behalf of the participant and from the conditions in which the recreational opportunity is provided. Thus, atypical or uncharacteristic risks can arise even in those specific sports the Wyoming legislature clearly intended to exempt from liability for inherent risks.” Dunbar v. Jackson Hole Mtn. Resort Corp., 392 F.3d 1145, 1148–49 (10th Cir.2004).

In addition, Yeager’s broad interpretation of the MRRA would effectively immunize providers of a recreational opportunity from their own negligence. If providers were protected from all fishing-related drownings under the MRRA, they would be relieved of liability where the death was caused by negligence, or even by willful or wanton misconduct. For example, it would apply not only to situations where a participant falls out of a raft and drowns without negligent conduct by the provider; it would [*13] also apply where the provider negligently causes a raft to collide with a bridge abutment or other known obstruction in the river.

Such an application would be contrary to the legislative intent of the MRRA, which expressly provides that the Act does not “preclude an action based on the negligence of the provider. . . .” Mont. Code Ann. § 27-1-753. As recognized under the Wyoming Act, the “intent behind the Recreation Safety Act was not to preclude parties from suing for a provider’s negligence, it was merely to stop people from suing providers for those risks that were inherent to a sport.” Madsen v. Wyoming River Trips, 31 F.Supp.2d 1321, 1328 (D. Wyo. 1999).

Finally, construing the MRRA as Yeager urges would likely render the Act unconstitutional. [HN7] Statutes should be construed “to avoid an unconstitutional interpretation if possible.” Hernandez v. Bd. of Cty. Comm’rs, 2008 MT 251, 345 Mont. 1, 189 P.3d 638, 642 (Mont. 2008). The Montana Supreme Court found a prior version of Montana’s Skier Responsibility Act unconstitutional because it prohibited a skier “from obtaining legal recourse against an operator even if the injury is proximately caused by the negligent or even intentional actions of the operator.”3
Brewer v. Ski-Lift, Inc., 234 Mont. 109, 762 P.2d 226, 230 (Mont. 1988). The Court found that although the state had a legitimate interest in protecting the economic vitality of the ski industry, there was no rational relationship [*14] between that purpose and requiring that skiers assume all risks for injuries regardless of the presence of negligence by the ski area operator. Id. at 230. See also, Oberson v. U.S. Dept. of Ag., Forest Serv., 2007 MT 293, 339 Mont. 519, 171 P.3d 715 (Mont. 2007) (snowmobile liability statute’s gross negligence standard, which relieved snowmobile operators from their negligent conduct, violated equal protection).

3 The statute at issue in Brewer barred recovery from a ski area operator if the skier suffered an injury resulting “from participating in the sport of skiing.” Brewer, 762 P.2d at 229 (citing Mont. Code Ann. § 23-2-736(1)).

The purpose of the MRRA is substantially the same as the skier and snowmobile liability statutes — protection of providers of recreational activities from liability for risks over which the provider has no control. Under Yeager’s interpretation of the MRRA, providers of float fly fishing would be immune from liability for drownings, even when caused by the provider’s own negligence. Under Brewer and Oberson, such a construction would violate Plaintiffs’ rights to equal protection, due process, and access to the courts.

Therefore, whether the MRRA protects a provider of recreational opportunities from certain risks cannot be determined by looking at the broad, abstract character of the risk. Instead, the specific facts and circumstances in each case must be examined to determine whether the risk involved can be prevented by the use of reasonable care. If so, the MRRA does not [*15] shield the provider from liability.

That being established, the determination of whether McJunkin’s drowning resulted from an inherent risk of floating and fly fishing is not appropriate for summary judgment. While there may be cases where there are no genuine issue of material fact, and the issue may be appropriately decided as a matter of law, [HN8] the determination of whether a risk is an inherent risk is generally a factual determination for the jury to decide. See e.g. Mead v. M.S.B., Inc., 264 Mont. 465, 872 P.2d 782, 788-89 (Mont. 1994) (holding whether an inherent risk had been established under the Skier Responsibility Act was a question of fact to be resolved by the trier of fact); Cooperman, 214 F.3d at 1169 (noting the question of what is an inherent risk is normally a question of fact for the jury); Halpern v. Wheeldon, 890 P.2d 562, 566 (Wyo. 1995) (“when genuine issues of material fact exist, it is proper to present the issue to the jury of whether a risk is inherent to a particular activity.”).4

4 At the time the Halpern case was decided, the Wyoming Act’s definition of inherent risk was similar to the MRRA. It was defined as “any risk that is characteristic of or intrinsic to any sport or recreational opportunity and which cannot reasonably be eliminated, altered or controlled.” Halpern, 890 P.2d at 564. The highlighted portion of the definition was subsequently removed by the Wyoming legislature.

Here, there are genuine issues of material fact regarding whether the risk encountered by McJunkin was an inherent risk to the sport of float fishing, or whether Yeager could have prevented the risk using reasonable care. Yeager’s expert opined that drowning [*16] is an inherent risk of floating in a raft on a river, and McJunkin’s death was a result of that inherent risk. But Plaintiffs’ expert states the risk of drowning can be prevented by the use of reasonable care. Plaintiffs’ expert also opined that Yeager increased the risks to McJunkin, and failed to adhere to industry standards by not taking basic safety precautions and not having a plan or equipment to retrieve McJunkin from the water.

Accordingly, the Court finds there are genuine issues of material fact regarding whether the risks encountered by McJunkin could have been prevented by the use of reasonable care.

As such, Yeager’s Motion for Summary Judgment is DENIED as to Count I of the Complaint.

2. Plaintiffs’ Motion for Summary Judgment

McJunkin challenges the constitutionality of the MRRA on due process and equal protection grounds. [HN9] Statutes are presumed to be constitutional, and “the party challenging the constitutionality of a statute bears the burden of proving the statute unconstitutional beyond a reasonable doubt.” Globe v. Montana State Fund, 2014 MT 99, 374 Mont. 453, 325 P.3d 1211, 1216 (Mont. 2014). “‘The question of constitutionality is not whether it is possible to condemn, but whether it is possible to uphold the legislative action . . . .'” Davis v. Union Pac. R. Co., 282 Mont. 233, 937 P.2d 27, 31 (1997) (quoting Fallon County v. State 231 Mont. 443, 753 P.2d 338, 340 (Mont. 1988). “[E]very [*17] possible presumption must be indulged in favor of the constitutionality of the Act.” Id. Thus, courts “will construe a statute to further, rather than to frustrate, the Legislature’s intent according to the plain meaning of the statute’s language.” In re Custody and Parental Rights of D.S., 2005 MT 275, 329 Mont. 180, 122 P.3d 1239, 1243 (Mont. 2005). See also Hernandez, 189 P.3d at 642 (stating it is the court’s duty “to avoid an unconstitutional interpretation if possible”).

a. The MRRA is not Unconstitutionally Vague

Plaintiffs argue the MRRA is unconstitutionally vague on its face, and as applied. Plaintiffs contend the MRRA purports to limit liability for injuries that result from inherent risks, but it does not define “inherent risk” in any clear manner. Thus, Plaintiffs argue there is no fair way to apply the statute because it is unclear what constitutes an “inherent risk.”

[HN10] The void-for-vagueness doctrine chiefly applies to criminal statutes, but can apply to civil laws as well. Civil statutes, however, generally receive less exacting vagueness scrutiny. Vill. of Hoffman Estates v. Flipside, Hoffman Estates, 455 U.S. 489, 498-99, 102 S. Ct. 1186, 71 L. Ed. 2d 362 (1982). The United States Supreme Court has held “[t]o find a civil statute void for vagueness, the statute must be so vague and indefinite as really to be no rule or standard at all.” Boutilier v. INS, 387 U.S. 118, 123, 87 S. Ct. 1563, 18 L. Ed. 2d 661 (1967). The Montana Supreme Court has similarly declared that a statute is unconstitutionally [*18] vague on its face only if it is shown “that the statute is vague ‘in the sense that no standard of conduct is specified at all.'” In re Custody, 2005 MT 275, 329 Mont. 180, 122 P.3d 1239, 1243 (Mont. 2005). “[P]erfect clarity and precise guidance are not required.” Id. A statute is not vague “simply because it can be dissected or subject to different interpretations.” Montana Media, Inc. v. Flathead Cty., 2003 MT 23, 314 Mont. 121, 63 P.3d 1129, 1140 (Mont. 2003).

Here, the Court finds the MRRA is not unconstitutionally vague on its face. Section 27-1-752(2) plainly provides a standard for assessing what constitutes an “inherent risk.” The standard is established with common, readily-understood terms, and it incorporates the familiar negligence standard of reasonable care. Mont. Code Ann. § 27-1-752(2).

Further, contrary to Plaintiffs’ argument, the fact the MRRA does not specifically enumerate the risks inherent in each of the 30 recreational activities listed in the statute does not make the Act unconstitutional. [HN11] The Montana Supreme Court has recognized that even if a term in a statute is not exhaustively defined, and allows the court some discretion in determining whether the evidence presented satisfies the statute, the statute will not be rendered unconstitutionally vague. See In re Custody, 122 P.3d at 1243 (holding that although § 41-3-423(2)(a) did not contain an exhaustive list of conduct that constitutes the term “aggravated circumstances,” [*19] the statute was not void for vagueness). Moreover, even the more specific recreational liability statutes that Plaintiffs uses for comparison, provide non-exclusive lists of inherent risks. See e.g. Mont. Code Ann. § 23-2-702(2) (“‘Inherent dangers and risks of skiing’ means those dangers or conditions that are part of the sport of skiing, including: . . .”); § 23-2-822(2) (“Risks inherent in the sport of off-highway vehicle operation include . . .”); § 27-1-726(7) (“‘Risks inherent in equine activities’ means dangers or conditions that are an integral part of equine activities, including but not limited to: . . .”).

The Court further finds the MRRA is not unconstitutionally vague as applied. A person of common intelligence can understand the risks associated with river sports or activities. There is no indication McJunkin would not have been able to appreciate such risks, including the potential risk involved in floating and fishing. Indeed, in their depositions Plaintiffs were able to articulate risks associated with floating on a river, such as falling out of the boat and drowning. Therefore, McJunkin could have understood that the MRRA may limit Yeager’s liability for accidents on the river.

Accordingly, the Court finds the MRRA is not [*20] void for vagueness.

b. The MRRA Does Not Violate the Constitutional Guarantee of Equal Protection

Plaintiffs also argue the MRRA violates the constitutional guarantee of equal protection in two ways. First, Plaintiffs assert the Act eliminates any theory of negligence on the part of recreational providers, essentially excusing them from the consequences of their own negligence. Second, Plaintiffs argue the MRRA arbitrarily treats certain groups of recreationalists differently. Plaintiffs assert that participants in activities covered by the MRRA are treated differently from those participating in activities covered under other activity-specific recreation statutes because the MRRA is vague, whereas the other statutes are not. Plaintiffs further assert the MRRA treats recreationists covered by the Act differently because the MRRA attempts to resurrect the “secondary” assumption of risk defense, and inserts a “primary” assumption of risk defense.

i. The MRRA Does not Eliminate All Theories of Negligence

As discussed above, although a provider is not liable for, or required to eliminate, alter, or control inherent risks under the MRRA, the provider still owes a duty of care for risks that [*21] can be prevented by the use of reasonable care. Thus, the Court finds the MRRA continues to permit negligence claims against a provider if the risk could have been prevented by the use of reasonable care. Thus, the MRRA does not violate Plaintiffs’ equal protection rights by immunizing providers from their own negligence.

ii. The MRRA Does Not Arbitrarily Treat Groups of Recreationists Differently

The MRRA is drawn broadly and defines “sport or recreational opportunity” by reference to a non-exhaustive list of 30 activities. Mont. Code. Ann. § 27-1-752(4). Some of the listed activities are also covered by their own activity-specific recreation liability statutes, such as skiing, snowmobiling and off-road vehicle use. Id.; §§ 23-2-651, et seq.; 23-2-702, et seq.; 23-2-822. Therefore, the MRRA goes on to exclude those activities from its scope. Mont. Code Ann § 27-1-754 (stating the MRRA does “not apply to duties, responsibilities, liability, or immunity related to” activities that are already subject to an activity-specific recreational statute).

Plaintiffs assert that this statutory scheme causes different groups of recreationists to be treated differently. Specifically, Plaintiffs assert the recreationists who fall under the MRRA are disadvantaged in several [*22] respects.

First, Plaintiffs argue the MRRA’s alleged vagueness only affects the subset of recreationists who participate in activities covered by the Act. Whereas, recreationists engaging in other sports, such as skiing or snowmobiling, have specific notice of their rights and the provider’s responsibilities. The Court has determined, however, that the MRRA is not unconstitutionally vague. Further, as noted above, even the activity-specific recreation statutes that specifically identify certain inherent risks do so in a non-exhaustive fashion. Thus, there is no significant difference in treatment between the recreationists who fall under the MRRA, and those who fall under other recreational statutes with respect to notice.

Next, Plaintiffs assert the MRRA departs from other recreational statutes by attempting to revive the “secondary” assumption of risk defense and by suggesting a “primary” assumption of risk defense. Historically, Montana has not used the terms “primary” and “secondary” assumption of risk. Nevertheless, legal commentators have explained [HN12] “primary” assumption of risk refers to the concept of duty, and “secondary” assumption of risk refers to contributory negligence.
[*23] See Dan B. Dobbs, et al., Dobbs’ Law of Torts § 238 (2d ed. 2018) (“[T]he term ‘primary assumption of risk’ is used to indicate the no-duty or no-breach conception and its attendant complete-bar effect; and the term ‘secondary assumption of risk’ is used to indicate the contributory negligence conception.”); 65A C.J.S. Negligence § 398 (2018) (“Primary assumption of risk limits the duty which a person owes to another. Secondary assumption of risk, on the other hand, which is a type of contributory negligence and is an affirmative defense, may be raised by the defendant after the plaintiff has met the burden of showing that the defendant breached a legal duty owed to the plaintiff.”); W. Page Keeton, et al., Prosser and Keeton on the Law of Torts § 68, 480-81 (5th Ed. 1984) (stating “primary” assumption of risk “is really a principle of no duty,” and explaining that under the duty perspective, “the plaintiff voluntarily enters into some relation with the defendant, with knowledge that the defendant will not protect him against one or more future risks that may arise from the relation . . . the legal result is that the defendant is simply relieved of the duty which would otherwise exist.”).

With regard to [*24] “secondary” assumption of risk, Plaintiffs assert the MRRA, “unlike any other recreation act in Montana,” resurrects the “secondary” assumption of risk defense, without articulating any specific inherent risks the participant would be assuming. (Doc. 29 at 15.) As Yeager points out, however, the MRRA is in fact similar to the other recreation statutes in that they also provide that the participant assumes the risks inherent in the particular activity. See e.g. Mont. Code Ann. § 23-2-736(4) (“A skier shall accept all legal responsibility for injury or damage of any kind to the extent that the injury or damage results from inherent dangers and risks of skiing.”); § 23-2-822 (1) (“An off-highway vehicle operator shall accept all legal responsibility for injury or damage of any kind to the extent that the injury or damage results from risks inherent in the sport of off-highway vehicle use. . . .”); 23-2-654(3) (“A snowmobiler shall accept all legal responsibility for injury or damage of any kind to the extent that the injury or damage results from risks inherent in the sport of snowmobiling.”). Further, as discussed in regard to Plaintiff’s vagueness challenge, the MRRA does not fail to put participants on notice of the inherent [*25] risks they are assuming. As such, recreationists participating in activities that fall under the MRRA are not on significantly different legal footing than participants in other recreational activities. Finally, Plaintiffs contend the MRRA’s suggestion of a “primary” assumption of risk defense amounts to an end-run around comparative negligence. As used here, the assumption of risk terminology in the MRRA refers to a principle of no duty. In Halpern v. Wheeldon, 890 P.2d 562, 565 (Wyo. 1995), the Wyoming Supreme Court found the assumption of risk language in the Wyoming Recreation Safety Act, “was intended to limit the duty to which a provider owes to a participant.” The Court explained that because primary assumption of risk was only intended to limit the provider’s duty, it did not affect the comparative negligence scheme. Id. Likewise, here, the Court finds the assumption of risk language in the MRRA affects only the provider’s duty. It does not revive contributory negligence or undermine Montana’s comparative negligence law. Moreover, as noted, the other activity-specific recreation statutes contain similar assumption of risk language. Thus, recreationists are treated the same under both the MRRA and other activity-specific recreation [*26] statutes, and there is no violation of equal protection.

c. The MRRA Does Not Unconstitutionally Interfere With the Right to Trial by Jury

Finally, Plaintiffs argue the MRRA infringes upon the province of the jury by injecting questions of ultimate fact into preliminary legal questions. As discussed above, however, whether McJunkin’s death was the result of an inherent risk of float fly fishing, and whether it could have been prevented by the use of reasonable care, are jury questions. Thus, the Court finds the MRRA does not unconstitutionally interfere with Plaintiffs’ fundamental right to trial by jury.

B. Yeager’s Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiffs’ Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress Claim

Yeager contends Plaintiffs’ claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress (“NEID”) fails as a matter of law because there is insufficient evidence for a jury to find Plaintiffs suffered serious or severe emotional distress.5 The Court agrees.

5 Yeager also asserts Plaintiffs’ NIED claim fails because there is no actionable predicate act of negligence since the MRRA bars Plaintiffs’ negligence claim. As discussed, however, the Court has found there are disputed issues of material fact regarding Plaintiff’s negligence claim. Accordingly, Yeager’s argument fails in this regard.

[HN13] Under Montana law, an independent cause of action for NIED arises “under circumstances where serious or severe emotional distress to the plaintiff was the reasonably foreseeable consequence of the defendant’s negligent act or omission.” Sacco v. High Country Ind. Press, Inc., 271 Mont. 209, 896 P.2d 411, 426 (Mont. 1995). [*27] “To constitute ‘serious’ or ‘severe,’ the emotional distress must be ‘so severe no reasonable person could be expected to endure it.'” Feller v. First Interstate Bancsystem, Inc., 2013 MT 90, 369 Mont. 444, 299 P.3d 338, 344 (Mont. 2013). The question of whether the threshold level of emotional distress can be found is for the Court to determine. Sacco, 896 P.2d at 425 (“It is for the court to determine whether on the evidence severe [serious] emotional distress can be found; it is for the jury to determine whether, on the evidence, it has in fact existed.”) (quoting Restatement (Second) of Torts, § 46, comment j at 78).

In Feller, the Montana Supreme Court considered [HN14] several factors in determining whether there is sufficient evidence of severe emotional distress, including: (1) whether the plaintiff had any physical manifestations of grief; (2) whether counseling was sought or recommended; (3) whether the plaintiff took medication or the use of medication dramatically increased; (4) whether the plaintiff had continuous nights of sleeplessness or days without appetite; (5) whether the plaintiff maintained close relationships with family members and friends; (6) the duration of the emotional distress; and (7) the circumstances under which the infliction incurred, including whether the plaintiff witnessed the distressing event. Feller, 299 P.3d at 345.

Here, the Court finds [*28] Plaintiffs have not presented evidence of the type of emotional distress necessary to demonstrate serious or severe compensable emotional distress. Rhett McJunkin and Charles McJunkin, Jr. testified at deposition that they have both experienced grief, trouble sleeping and have had nightmares. Rhett McJunkin also testified he took sleep medication approximately one year after the accident, but could not recall what the medication was, who prescribed the medication, or how long own long it was taken. Rhett McJunkin also stated he has also experienced “angst” and “anxiety,” and Charles McJunkin, Jr. indicated his focus has been affected.

Nevertheless, there is no indication of any physical manifestation of grief, and neither has sought counseling, taken or increased medication to manage their emotional distress, have suffered a loss of appetite, are unable to maintain close family relationships, and neither witnessed the accident. The Court finds that consideration of the Feller factors does not lead to the conclusion that Plaintiffs’ emotional distress rises to the level where severe emotional distress may be found.

The Court certainly sympathizes with Plaintiffs’ grief for their loss [*29] of their father. Nevertheless, their testimony does not show their emotional distress was so severe that “no reasonable person could be expected to endure it.” Feller, 299 P.3d at 344.

Accordingly, Yeager’s Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED on Count II of the Complaint.

C. Yeager’s Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiffs’ Loss of Consortium Claim

Yeager argues Plaintiffs’ loss of consortium claim also fails as a matter of law because there is insufficient evidence to support the claim.6 The Court finds there are disputed issues of material fact that preclude summary judgment.

6 Yeager again asserts Plaintiffs’ loss of consortium claim fails because there is no actionable predicate act of negligence. As discussed, this argument is again rejected because there are disputed issues of material fact regarding Plaintiffs’ negligence claim.

[HN15] Montana law recognizes loss of consortium claims by an adult child of an injured parent. N. Pac. Ins. Co. v. Stucky, 2014 MT 299, 377 Mont. 25, 338 P.3d 56, 61 (Mont. 2014). In Stucky, the Montana Supreme Court held an adult child must meet the following two-part test7 to establish a claim for loss of parental consortium: “1) a third party tortuously caused the parent to suffer a serious, permanent and disabling mental or physical injury compensable under Montana law; and 2) the parent’s ultimate condition of mental or physical impairment was so overwhelming and severe that it has caused the parent-child relationship to be destroyed or nearly destroyed.” Id. at 66.

7 The Court adopted the two-part test from Keele v. St. Vincent Hosp. & Health Care Ctr., 258 Mont. 158, 852 P.2d 574 (Mont. 1993), which recognized parental loss of consortium claims by minor children. The Montana Supreme Court stated it found no reason to adopt a different standard for an adult child’s claim of loss of parental consortium. Stucky, 338 P.3d at 65. The Court specifically rejected adopting the more stringent “extraordinarily close and interdependent relationship” test from Hern v. Safeco Ins. Co. of Ill., 2005 MT 301, 329 Mont. 347, 125 P.3d 597 (Mont. 2005), which applies to loss of consortium claims brought by the parent of an adult child.

[HN16] In establishing a loss of parental consortium claim, the plaintiff [*30] may present evidence of the following factors, which the jury may consider in determining both whether the two-part test has been satisfied, and what damages are appropriate: “the severity of injury to the parent; the actual effect the parent’s injury has had on the relationship and is likely to have in the future; the child’s age; the nature of the child’s relationship with the parent; and the child’s emotional, physical and geographic characteristics.” Id.

Stucky involved an injury to a parent, rather than the death of a parent. Nevertheless, an adult child’s loss of a parent would readily meet the requirements established in Stucky for the maintenance of a consortium claim. The fact McJunkin died is sufficient to establish the first prong of the test, which requires serious permanent injury. Second, death is obviously an injury so “overwhelming and severe” as to destroy the parent-child relationship. Thus, the second prong of the test is clearly established.

Yeager points out that Plaintiffs are in their late 50’s/early 60’s, they lived hundreds of miles away from their father, received no financial support from him, and saw him only occasionally. Plaintiffs counter that they had [*31] a tight bond with their father, and that Charles McJunkin, Jr. talked to his father on a regular basis. This is evidence for the jury to assess. Stucky, 338 P.3d at 65.

Accordingly, the Court finds there are disputed issues of material fact that preclude summary judgment on Plaintiffs’ loss of consortium claim. Yeager’s Motion for Summary Judgment as to Count III of the Complaint is therefore, DENIED.

III. MOTION TO AMEND COMPLAINT

Plaintiffs have also filed a Motion to Amend the Complaint. (Doc. 23.) Plaintiffs seek to add a new theory of liability to the existing negligence claim. In particular, Plaintiffs seek to add the theory of strict liability based upon an abnormally dangerous activity. Yeager opposes the motion, arguing Plaintiffs were not diligent in moving to amend, and the proposed amendment is futile.

On June 1, 2017, the Court issued a Scheduling order setting the deadline to amend pleadings for July 3, 2017. (Doc. 20.) Plaintiffs filed the instant motion seeking leave to amend on November 29, 2017. (Doc. 23.)

[HN17] In situations where the deadline for amendments to pleadings has passed, a party must show good cause for not seeking leave to amend within the Court’s scheduling order. Fed.R.Civ.P. 16(b)(4) (“[a] schedule may [*32] only be modified for good cause and with the judge’s consent”); Coleman v. Quaker Oats Co., 232 F.3d 1271, 1294 (9th Cir. 2000).

In Johnson v. Mammoth Recreations, Inc., 975 F.2d 604, 609 (9th Cir. 1992), the Ninth Circuit explained that “[u]nlike Rule 15(a)’s liberal [HN18] amendment policy which focuses on the bad faith of the party seeking to interpose an amendment and the prejudice to the opposing party, Rule 16(b)’s ‘good cause’ standard primarily considers the diligence of the party seeking the amendment.” Good cause to excuse noncompliance with the scheduling order exists if the pretrial schedule “cannot reasonably be met despite the diligence of the party seeking the extension.” Id. (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 16 Advisory Committee’s Notes (1983 Amendment)).

Prejudice to the opposing party may provide an additional reason to deny a motion to amend, but “the focus of the inquiry is upon the moving party’s reasons for seeking modification.” Id. at 609. “If that party was not diligent, the inquiry should end.” Id.; see also In re Western States Wholesale Natural Gas Antitrust Litigation, 715 F.3d 716, 737 (9th Cir. 2013) (upholding denial of motion to amend where “the party seeking to modify the scheduling order has been aware of the facts and theories supporting amendment since the inception of the action”).

[HN19] If good cause exists for seeking amendment after the scheduling order’s deadline, the Court then turns to Rule 15(a) to determine whether amendment should be allowed. [*33] “Although Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(a) provides that leave to amend ‘shall be freely given when justice so requires,’ it ‘is not to be granted automatically.'” In re Western States, 715 F.3d at 738 (quoting Jackson v. Bank of Hawaii, 902 F.2d 1385, 1387 (9th Cir.1990)). Under Rule 15(a), the Ninth Circuit directs that courts consider the following five factors to assess whether to grant leave to amend: “(1) bad faith, (2) undue delay, (3) prejudice to the opposing party, (4) futility of amendment; and (5) whether plaintiff has previously amended his complaint.” Id. Each of these factors is not given equal weight, however. “Futility of amendment can, by itself, justify the denial of a motion for leave to amend.” Bonin v. Calderon, 59 F.3d 815, 845 (9th Cir. 1995).

A. Lack of Diligence

As noted above, Plaintiffs seek to amend the Complaint to include an additional theory of strict liability. The Court finds that Plaintiffs did not act diligently in seeking to amend the Complaint. The motion to amend was filed nearly five months after the Court’s deadline to amend pleadings. Plaintiffs’ explanation for the delay is that the additional theory of liability is premised upon Yeager’s expert report, which they did not receive until November 13, 2017.

The Court finds, however, that Plaintiffs were aware of the facts and theories supporting the amendment long prior to receipt of [*34] Yeager’s expert report. The expert report did not provide any new facts, but rather offered opinion evidence that fly fishing from a raft is inherently dangerous, and that the danger cannot be eliminated by reasonable precautions. But Plaintiffs have been aware that Yeager intended to raise an inherent risk defense since Yeager filed his answer on March 6, 2017, and raised the MRRA as an affirmative defense. (Doc. 4 at 7.) Yeager also filed a Preliminary Pretrial Statement approximately six months before the expert report was produced that put Plaintiffs on further notice of this theory of defense. (See Doc. 18 at 6) (stating that “[f]alling out of a raft on a river is a danger that cannot be prevented by the use of reasonable care.”) Therefore, Plaintiffs’ argument that they did not possess information supporting the abnormally dangerous activity theory of liability until after they received the expert report is not persuasive. See Bonin, 59 F.3d at 845 (holding a motion to amend may be denied “where the movant presents no new facts but only new theories and provides no satisfactory explanation for his failure to fully develop his contentions originally”).

B. Futility of Amendment

Even if the Court found “good cause,” under [*35] Rule 16, application of the Rule 15 factors dictate denial of the motion to amend. Although there is no indication Plaintiffs are acting in bad faith, or that amendment would unduly prejudice Yeager, the Court has found undue delay. Moreover, the Court finds the amendment would be futile.

In seeking to impose strict liability, Plaintiffs conflate the concept of inherent risk with an abnormally dangerous activity. The activity at issue here — fly fishing from a raft — is not the kind of activity that has been recognized as abnormally dangerous. [HN20] Simply because an activity has inherent risks, does not mean the activity is abnormally dangerous for purposes of strict liability. A comparison of activities that are considered abnormally dangerous illustrates the point. See e.g. Beckman v. Butte-Silver Bow Cty., 2000 MT 112, 299 Mont. 389, 1 P.3d 348 (Mont. 2000) (trenching); Sunburst Sch. Dist. No. 2 v. Texaco, Inc., 2007 MT 183, 338 Mont. 259, 165 P.3d 1079 (Mont. 2007) (operating a gas refinery near residences and a school); Ulmen v. Schwieger, 92 Mont. 331, 12 P.2d 856 (Mont. 1932) (highway construction); and Stepanek v. Kober Const., 191 Mont. 430, 625 P.2d 51 (Mont. 1981) (construction scaffolding). The Court does not find the characteristics and risks of fly fishing equate in any meaningful way with these types of activities.8

8 Likewise, the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 519, which has been adopted by the Montana Supreme Court, identifies the following as abnormally dangerous activities: “Water collected in quantity in unsuitable or dangerous place,” “Explosives in quantity in a dangerous place,” “Inflammable liquids in quantity in the midst of a city,” “Blasting, in the midst of a city,” “Pile driving, with abnormal risk to surroundings,” “Release into air of poisonous gas or dust,” “Drilling oil wells or operating refineries in thickly settled communities,” and “production of atomic energy.” Again, these activities are of a wholly different nature than float fly fishing.

“Whether an activity is abnormally dangerous is a question of law.” Chambers v. City of Helena, 2002 MT 142, 310 Mont. 241, 49 P.3d 587, 591 (Mont. 2002), overruled on other grounds, Giambra v. Kelsey, 2007 MT 158, 338 Mont. 19, 162 P.3d 134 (Mont. 2007). No court has held float fly fishing is an abnormally dangerous activity, and [*36] this Court declines Plaintiffs’ invitation to be the first to do so.

In addition, the Court has determined the MRRA is constitutional and applies to Plaintiff’s negligence claim. The MRRA limits a recreational provider’s liability. Mont. Code Ann. § 27-1-752(3); 27-1-753. The Montana Legislature enacted the MRRA to protect recreational providers from liability for injuries that are caused by the very characteristics of a particular activity that make it attractive to participants. 2009 Mt. Laws Ch. 331 (H.B. 150), preamble. The Legislature specifically intended to limit providers’ liability and to discourage claims based on damages that result from inherent risks in a sport or activity. Id. The Legislature enacted the MRRA to further the State’s interest in maintaining the economic viability of Montana’s sports and recreational industries. Id.

Imposing strict liability would eviscerate the purpose of the MRRA. Instead of limiting recreational provider’s liability for inherent risks, it would render them strictly liable for those risks. See Christian v. Atl. Richfield Co., 2015 MT 255, 380 Mont. 495, 358 P.3d 131, 150 (Mont. 2015) (“A claim based upon strict liability for the conduct of an abnormally dangerous activity . . . means that the defendant is liable for harm resulting from the activity, even [*37] if the defendant acted with reasonable care.”). In short, it would accomplish the exact opposite of what the MRRA was intended to do.

Therefore, because Plaintiffs have not shown good cause for their delay in seeking amendment, and because the amendment would be futile, Plaintiffs’ Motion to Amend the Complaint is DENIED.

IV. CONCLUSION

For the foregoing reasons, the Court ORDERS as follows: (1) Plaintiffs’ Motion to Amend (Doc. 23) is DENIED;

(2) Plaintiffs’ Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Doc. 28) is DENIED; and

(3) Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 31) is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.

IT IS ORDERED.

DATED this 28th day of September, 2018.

/s/ Timothy J. Cavan

TIMOTHY J. CAVAN

United States Magistrate Judge


Have you ever read your insurance policy? You should! The one at issue in this case specifically excluded the risks the policy was bought to cover.

An event organizer of a 5K Extreme Rampage purchased an insurance policy that specifically excluded coverage for a 5K run with obstacles, mud runs and tough-guy races.

Johnson v. Capitol Specialty Ins. Corp., 2018 Ky. App. Unpub. LEXIS 447

State: Kentucky, Court of Appeals of Kentucky

Plaintiff: Chris Johnson D/B/A Extreme Rampage, and Chris Johnson, and Christopher Johnson, Rampage LLC, Christopher Johnson D/B/A Rampage, LLC, and/or Extreme Rampage, Casey Arnold, Individually and as Administratrix Of the Estate of Chad Arnold, and as Next Friend and Guardian/ Conservator for Miles Arnold, and as Assignee for All Claims Held By “The Johnson Parties

Defendant: Capitol Specialty Insurance Corporation

Plaintiff Claims: negligence; violation of the Kentucky Consumer Protection Act and the Unfair Claims Settlement Practices Act; fraud; and breach of contract

Defendant Defenses:

Holding:

Year: 2018

Summary

Insurance litigation about a claim for an event, service, trip or liability is much costlier and time-consuming than any litigation concerning an injury.

In this case, the event owner and organizer of a mud run obstacle course in Kentucky purchased insurance for the event, which excluded all coverage needed for the event. Effectively, the plaintiff in this case paid for paper that had no value.

The trial courts and the appellate court agreed with the insurance company because the exclusions were in the policy that was available to the insured prior to the event.

Facts

The plaintiff in this appeal created an owned a mud run obstacle course the Extreme Rampage. Johnson the individual created Extreme Rampage LLC, which then organized and ran the event.

The event was a 3K obstacle race, similar if not identical to mud runs, death races, etc., The race was to be held at the Kentucky Horse Park. The horse park required a $1 million-dollar policy covering them.

Johnson contacted an insurance agent over the phone who completed an application and sent it off. A quote was received and accepted. The cost was $477.00, which should have been the first clue; it was too cheap. The only part of the application or proposal that Johnson saw was the “subjectivities page” which stated the policy was to be issued after a list of things were verified. The items to be verified list things as rallies, cattle drives, etc., but did not list obstacle course, running events or the like.

When the policy was issued it contained two exclusions. The first was labeled the sponsor exclusion by the court and stated:

THIS ENDORSEMENT CHANGES THE POLICY. PLEASE READ IT CAREFULLY

EXCLUSION — ATHLETIC OR SPORTS PARTICIPANTS

This endorsement modifies insurance provided under the following:

COMMERCIAL GENERAL LIABILITY COVERAGE PART.

SCHEDULE

Description of Operations:

Special event — 5K run with obstacles.

. . .

With respect to any operations shown in the Schedule, this insurance does not apply to “bodily injury” to any person while practicing for or participating in any sports or athletic contest or exhibition that you sponsor.

And the second exclusion labeled by the court as the participant exclusion provided as follows:

THIS ENDORSEMENT CHANGES THE POLICY. PLEASE READ IT CAREFULLY EXCLUSION — PARTICIPANTS

(SPECIFIED ACTIVITIES/OPERATIONS)

SCHEDULE

Descriptions of Activity/Operations

Mud Runs and Tough Guy Races

This insurance does not apply to “bodily injury,” “property damage,” “personal or advertising injury” or medical expense arising out of any preparation for or participation in any of the activities or operations shown in the schedule above.

During the race, one of the participants collapsed and died. His wife sued. The insurance company denied coverage. That means the insurance company was not only not going to pay the claim, they were not going to pay for attorneys to defend the case.

The Insurance Company filed a declaratory action. This lawsuit was between Johnson, the policyholder and the insurance company where the insurance company was looking for a ruling stating it had no duty to provide coverage. This is a request for immediate decision from the court on the interpretation of the policy.

Johnson, the insured and Arnold the family of the deceased participant both filed suit against the insurance company. The trial court combined the two lawsuits into one. Both filed motions for summary judgment and the insurance company filed its motion for summary judgment.

After reading the exclusions, the policy only covered spectators at the event. The spectators had to be 100′ from the event so any spectator injured that was closer than 100′ to the event could sue, and Johnson would have no coverage for that claim either. Basically, the policy was a worthless piece of paper for the event.

The trial court granted the insurance companies motion for summary judgment, and this appeal ensued. Both Johnson and the Arnold family appealed.

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

Insurance policies have their own set of laws. Even though they are contracts, after the contract is formed, new ways of interpreting a policy are created.

One such rule is any ambiguity in the policy will be ruled or interpreted against the insurance company. Since policies are presented as a take it or leave it contract, any mistakes in the contract are ruled so the policy holder wins.

The first claim is a quasi-fraud claim based on the lack of information concerning the exclusions. The court looked at this more as a situation where the event organizer did not read the policy.

Johnson cannot avoid the terms of the insurance contract by pleading ignorance of its contents. It is axiomatic that “insured persons are charged with knowledge of their policy’s contents.

Because Johnson signed the policy (? Application not the policy, in reality) Johnson was held to the terms of the policy.

Although Johnson claims, based on his interaction with Delre, that the terms of the policy were not what he had anticipated, no genuine issue of material fact exists that Johnson signed the policy and, as a matter of law, was presumed to know its contents.

The next argument was the insurance agent the event organizer worked with was an agent of the insurance company Capitol. As such, the agents could be liable and the agents could create liability for Capitol. An agency is created when the principal, the insurance company, grants specific authority to the agent.

“Actual authority arises from a direct, intentional granting of specific authority from a principal to an agent.” The Restatement (Third) of Agency § 2.02(1) (2006) provides that “[a]n agent has actual authority to take action designated or implied in the principal’s manifestations to the agent and acts necessary or incidental to achieving the principal’s objectives, as the agent reasonably understands the principal’s manifestations and objectives when the agent determines how to act.”

However, there was no evidence in the record to show any agency between the insurance sales person and the insurance company, even though the sales person is called an agent.

The next argument was over the language in the policy. The event organizer argued the exclusion should not apply because the term “sponsor” was ambiguous.

Exclusions in insurance contracts are to be narrowly interpreted, and all questions resolved in favor of the insured. Exceptions and exclusions are to be strictly construed so as to render the insurance effective. Any doubt as to the coverage or terms of a policy should be resolved in favor of the insured. And since the policy is drafted in all details by the insurance company, it must be held strictly accountable for the language used.

After narrowly interpreting the policy, any ambiguity in the language of the policy must be interpreted in favor of the policy holder and against the insurance company.

…[t]he rule of strict construction against an insurance company certainly does not mean that every doubt must be resolved against it and does not interfere with the rule that the policy must receive a reasonable interpretation consistent with the parties’ object and intent or narrowly expressed in the plain meaning and/or language of the contract. Neither should a nonexistent ambiguity be utilized to resolve a policy against the company. We consider that courts should not rewrite an insurance contract to enlarge the risk to the insurer.

However, the court found the term in this case, was not ambiguous.

The event organizer then argued that the Concurrent Proximate Cause Doctrine should apply in this case. The concurrent proximate cause doctrine holds that when an insured event flows from an insured event, the protection afforded by the insurance policy flows with to the new event.

Where the loss is essentially caused by an insured peril with the contribution of an excluded peril merely as part of the chain of events leading to the loss, there is coverage under the policy. Stated alternately, coverage will exist where a covered and noncovered peril join to cause the loss provided that the covered peril is the efficient and dominant cause.

The court found that there was no insured event to begin with so nothing could “flow” to the uninsured event.

The appellate court upheld the motion in the declaratory action by the trial court stating the insurance company Capitol had no duty to defend the event organizer Johnson and thus any liability to the Arnold family.

So Now What?

This is simple. You MUST do the following things if you are the owners, sponsor, organizer or insured with an insurance policy.

  1. Read it
  2. Understand it
  3. Make sure it covers what you need it to cover.
  4. Find an agent who understands what you need and can communicate that to all the insurance companies he may be working with.
    1. If that means getting the insurance company out from behind their desk and down the river, to an event, or in your factory do that.
  5. Always confirm in writing or electronically that the coverage you requested and need is covered in the policy you are purchasing.
  6. Ask to see the policy and any exclusions, prerequisites or other requirements before paying for it. Once you open your wallet, you won’t get your money back.
  7. If the price of the policy is too good to be true, start investigating. On average a policy should cost $5 to $10 per person per day for outdoor recreation coverage. That amount is the bottom line and can go beyond that. If you are purchasing a policy at 1980 prices $2.00 per person per day, you are buying worthless paper.

You cannot be in business without an insurance policy. Contrary to popular believe, insurance policies do not attract lawsuits. How do people know if you are insured? If they do not know you are insured, how can someone decided to sue just because you have money.

If for no other reason, you need a policy that will pay to prove you are right. The attorney fees, court costs, exhibits, witness fees alone on a small case will exceed $50K. That means with no policy or a bad policy, you are out $50 to $100K before you even begin to pay a claim.

Insurance policies are difficult. I spent six years, three before and three after working for Nationwide Insurance. Reading a policy, let alone understanding it is mind numbing and hard. But you better or you will be standing in the cold, because someone took your house.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Johnson v. Capitol Specialty Ins. Corp., 2018 Ky. App. Unpub. LEXIS 447

Johnson v. Capitol Specialty Ins. Corp.

Court of Appeals of Kentucky

June 22, 2018, Rendered

NO. 2017-CA-000171-MR, NO. 2017-CA-000172-MR

Reporter

2018 Ky. App. Unpub. LEXIS 447 *; 2018 WL 3090503CHRIS JOHNSON D/B/A EXTREME RAMPAGE, AND CHRIS JOHNSON, AND CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON, RAMPAGE LLC, CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON D/B/A RAMPAGE, LLC, AND/OR EXTREME RAMPAGE (COLLECTIVELY KNOWN AS “THE JOHNSON PARTIES”) BY AND THROUGH ASSIGNEE CASEY ARNOLD, APPELLANTS v. CAPITOL SPECIALTY INSURANCE CORPORATION, APPELLEE;CASEY ARNOLD, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS ADMINISTRATRIX OF THE ESTATE OF CHAD ARNOLD, AND AS NEXT FRIEND AND GUARDIAN/ CONSERVATOR FOR MILES ARNOLD, AND AS ASSIGNEE FOR ALL CLAIMS HELD BY “THE JOHNSON PARTIES”, APPELLANTS v. CAPITOL SPECIALTY INSURANCE CORPORATION, APPELLEE

Notice: THIS OPINION IS DESIGNATED “NOT TO BE PUBLISHED.” PURSUANT TO THE RULES OF CIVIL PROCEDURE PROMULGATED BY THE SUPREME COURT, CR 76.28(4)(C), THIS OPINION IS NOT TO BE PUBLISHED AND SHALL NOT BE CITED OR USED AS BINDING PRECEDENT IN ANY OTHER CASE IN ANY COURT OF THIS STATE; HOWEVER, UNPUBLISHED KENTUCKY APPELLATE DECISIONS, RENDERED AFTER JANUARY 1, 2003, MAY BE CITED FOR CONSIDERATION BY THE COURT IF THERE IS NO PUBLISHED OPINION THAT WOULD ADEQUATELY ADDRESS THE ISSUE BEFORE THE COURT. OPINIONS CITED FOR CONSIDERATION BY THE COURT SHALL BE SET OUT AS AN UNPUBLISHED DECISION IN THE FILED DOCUMENT AND A COPY OF THE ENTIRE DECISION SHALL BE TENDERED ALONG WITH THE DOCUMENT TO THE COURT AND ALL PARTIES TO THE ACTION.

Prior History:  [*1] APPEAL FROM FAYETTE CIRCUIT COURT. HONORABLE KIMBERLY N. BUNNELL, JUDGE. ACTION NOS. 14-CI-00948 & 15-CI-00777. APPEAL FROM FAYETTE CIRCUIT COURT. HONORABLE KIMBERLY N. BUNNELL, JUDGE. ACTION NOS. 14-CI-00948 & 15-CI-00777.

Counsel: BRIEFS FOR APPELLANTS, CHRIS JOHNSON D/B/A EXTREME RAMPAGE, AND CHRIS JOHNSON, AND CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON, RAMPAGE LLC, CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON D/B/A RAMPAGE, LLC, AND/OR EXTREME RAMPAGE: Don A. Pisacano, Lexington, Kentucky.

BRIEFS FOR APPELLANTS, CASEY ARNOLD, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS ADMINISTRATRIX OF THE ESTATE OF CHAD ARNOLD, AND AS NEXT FRIEND AND GUARDIAN/ CONSERVATOR FOR MILES ARNOLD, AND AS ASSIGNEE FOR ALL CLAIMS HELD BY “THE JOHNSON PARTIES”: A. Neal Herrington, Christopher H. Morris, Louisville, Kentucky.

BRIEFS FOR APPELLEE, CAPITOL SPECIALTY INSURANCE CORPORATION: Richard J. Rinear, Zachary D. Bahorik, Cincinnati, Ohio.

Judges: BEFORE: CLAYTON, CHIEF JUDGE; MAZE AND THOMPSON, JUDGES. MAZE, JUDGE, CONCURS. THOMPSON, JUDGE, CONCURS IN RESULT ONLY.

Opinion by: CLAYTON

Opinion

AFFIRMING

CLAYTON, CHIEF JUDGE: These consolidated appeals1 are taken from a Fayette Circuit Court order entering declaratory summary judgment in favor of Capitol Specialty Insurance Corporation. The primary issue is whether a [*2]  general commercial liability insurance policy issued by Capitol covers potential damages stemming from the death of a participant in an obstacle race, or whether exclusions in the policy bar recovery.

The obstacle race, known as “Extreme Rampage,” was organized and presented by Chris Johnson, the owner of Rampage, LLC. The 5K race, which included a climbing wall and mud pits, was held at the Kentucky Horse Park on March 2, 2013. Under the terms of his contract with the Horse Park, Johnson was required to “provide public liability insurance issued by a reputable company, which shall cover both participants and spectators with policy coverage of one million dollars ($1,000,000.00) minimum for each bodily injury[.]”

Johnson purchased the policy from Stephen Delre, an insurance agent employed at the Tim Hamilton Insurance Agency (“THIA”). Delre filled out an application for insurance on Johnson’s behalf and submitted it to Insurance Intermediaries, Inc. (“III”). III submitted the application to Capitol. Capitol prepared a proposal for coverage which III gave to THIA. Johnson accepted the proposal and III produced the policy based upon the terms offered by Capitol.

The policy contained two [*3]  provisions excluding bodily injury to the event participants from its coverage. For purposes of this opinion, the exclusions will be referred to as the “sponsor” exclusion and the “arising out of” exclusion.

The sponsor exclusion provided as follows:

THIS ENDORSEMENT CHANGES THE POLICY. PLEASE READ IT CAREFULLY

EXCLUSION — ATHLETIC OR SPORTS PARTICIPANTS

This endorsement modifies insurance provided under the following:

COMMERCIAL GENERAL LIABILITY COVERAGE PART.

SCHEDULE

Description of Operations:

Special event — 5K run with obstacles.

. . .

With respect to any operations shown in the Schedule, this insurance does not apply to “bodily injury” to any person while practicing for or participating in any sports or athletic contest or exhibition that you sponsor.

The participant exclusion provided as follows:

THIS ENDORSEMENT CHANGES THE POLICY. PLEASE READ IT CAREFULLY EXCLUSION — PARTICIPANTS

(SPECIFIED ACTIVITIES/OPERATIONS)

SCHEDULE

Descriptions of Activity/Operations

Mud Runs and Tough Guy Races

This insurance does not apply to “bodily injury,” “property damage,” “personal or advertising injury” or medical expense arising out of any preparation for or participation in any of the activities or operations [*4]  shown in the schedule above.

During the course of the Extreme Rampage race, one of the participants, Chad Arnold, collapsed and died. His wife, Casey Arnold, acting individually, as the administratrix of his estate and as guardian/conservator for their minor son Miles (“Arnold”), filed a wrongful death suit naming numerous defendants, including Johnson. Johnson sought defense and indemnity under the Capitol policy. Capitol denied coverage and filed a declaratory judgment complaint in Fayette Circuit Court on March 17, 2014, asserting it had no duty to defend or indemnify Johnson because the policy expressly excluded coverage for event participants.

Johnson and Arnold subsequently filed a complaint in a different division of Fayette Circuit Court against Capitol, THIA, Delre, and III, asserting claims of negligence; violation of the Kentucky Consumer Protection Act and the Unfair Claims Settlement Practices Act; fraud; and breach of contract. On April 15, 2015, the two actions were consolidated by court order. Johnson and Arnold filed a motion for summary judgment; Capitol filed a motion for summary declaratory judgment. The trial court held extensive hearings on the motions and thereafter [*5]  entered an order granting Capitol’s motion and dismissing with prejudice all claims asserted against Capitol by Johnson and Arnold. Additional facts will be set forth as necessary later in this opinion.

In granting summary declaratory judgment to Capitol, the trial court held that that the policy issued by Capitol to Johnson excluded coverage to the Johnson defendants for the underlying claims of the Arnold defendants because the sponsor exclusion was clear and unambiguous and the Johnson defendants are a “sponsor” within the plain meaning of the word as used in the exclusion. The trial court further held that, as a matter of law, neither the concurrent proximate cause doctrine nor the efficient proximate cause doctrine applies to afford coverage under the policy to the Johnson defendants for the claims of the Arnold defendants; that neither Delre nor THIA is an agent of any kind of Capitol; and finally, that no other oral or written contract modified and/or superseded the policy to afford coverage by Capitol.

These appeals by Johnson and Arnold followed.

In reviewing a grant of summary judgment, our inquiry focuses on “whether the trial court correctly found that there were no genuine [*6]  issues as to any material fact and that the moving party was entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Scifres v. Kraft, 916 S.W.2d 779, 781, 43 1 Ky. L. Summary 17 (Ky. App. 1996) (citing Kentucky Rules of Civil Procedure (CR) 56.03). Summary judgment may be granted when “as a matter of law, it appears that it would be impossible for the respondent to produce evidence at the trial warranting a judgment in his favor and against the movant.” Steelvest, Inc. v. Scansteel Serv. Ctr., Inc., 807 S.W.2d 476, 483 (Ky. 1991) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). “The record must be viewed in a light most favorable to the party opposing the motion for summary judgment and all doubts are to be resolved in his favor.” Id. at 480. On the other hand, “a party opposing a properly supported summary judgment motion cannot defeat it without presenting at least some affirmative evidence showing that there is a genuine issue of material fact for trial.” Id. at 482. “An appellate court need not defer to the trial court’s decision on summary judgment and will review the issue de novo because only legal questions and no factual findings are involved.” Hallahan v. The Courier-Journal, 138 S.W.3d 699, 705 (Ky. App. 2004).

We have grouped the Appellants’ arguments into the following six categories: first, that the terms of the policy do not reflect what Johnson requested from Delre; second, that Delre and THIA were actual or apparent agents of Capitol whose alleged misrepresentations [*7]  or omissions to Johnson about the policy bound their principal; third, that neither the “sponsor” exclusion nor the “arising out of” exclusion in the policy was applicable; fourth, that the exclusions create an ambiguity in the policy when read with the coverage endorsements; fifth, that the concurrent proximate cause doctrine provides coverage under the policy; and sixth, that the trial court erred in dismissing all claims against Capitol.

1. The purchase of the policy

Johnson denies that the insurance policy attached to Capitol’s declaratory judgment complaint is a true and accurate copy of the policy he purchased and admits only that the document attached to the complaint is the document he received in the mail after he had paid for the policy.

According to deposition testimony, Johnson first spoke with Delre about obtaining insurance coverage for the Extreme Rampage event in a telephone conversation in December 2012. Johnson had purchased an insurance policy for a similar race event from Delre approximately six months earlier. Delre questioned Johnson about the type of coverage he was seeking. Johnson was unaware that Delre was simultaneously filling out a “special event” insurance [*8]  application. According to Johnson, he told Delre he needed participant coverage and Delre specifically asked him how many participants would be involved in the event. Delre nonetheless left blank on the “special event” application form whether athletic participant coverage was requested. Delre signed Johnson’s name to the application for insurance without Johnson reviewing the document. After the insurance application was submitted, Delre sent a proposal to Johnson which he claims he never received.

On February 8, 2013, Johnson visited Delre and THIA’s office to pay for the policy in the amount of $477. He signed a “subjectivities page” which stated that the policy quote was subject to verification of the following:

No events involving the following: abortion rights, pro choice or right-to-life rallies/parades or gatherings, air shows or ballooning events, auto racing regardless of vehicle size (including go-karts, motorcycles and snowmobiles), cattle drives, events involving inherently dangerous or stunting activities, events with water rides/slides etc., political demonstrations or protest rallies by groups with a history of violent incidents, [n]o events with fireworks displays. AND [*9]  — Spectators must be a safe distance (100 feet minimum) from the obstacle course.

Johnson was not shown the actual policy, nor was he informed of the participation exclusions in the insurance proposal.

A copy of the complete policy containing the “sponsor” exclusion and the “arising out of” exclusion was mailed to Johnson on February 27, 2013. Johnson asserts that the policy did not conform to what he agreed to in his conversation with Delre and that he was never informed that participants would be excluded from coverage. He points out that the policy was also later unilaterally modified by Delre after the Horse Park requested a certificate of insurance indicating that it was an “additional insured” on the policy.

Johnson cannot avoid the terms of the insurance contract by pleading ignorance of its contents. It is axiomatic that “insured persons are charged with knowledge of their policy’s contents[.]” Bidwell v. Shelter Mut. Ins. Co., 367 S.W.3d 585, 592 (Ky. 2012) (citing National Life & Accident Ins. Co. v. Ransdell, 259 Ky. 559, 82 S.W.2d 820, 823 (1935)). “In Midwest Mutual Insurance Company v. Wireman, 54 S.W.3d 177 (Ky. App. 2001), the Court of Appeals held an insured can waive UM coverage by signing the application for liability coverage, even if the insured alleges the agent never explained the meaning of UM coverage to him.” Moore v. Globe Am. Cas. Co., 208 S.W.3d 868, 870 (Ky. 2006). “All persons are presumed to know the law and the mere lack of knowledge [*10]  of the contents of a written contract for insurance cannot serve as a legal basis for avoiding its provisions.” Id. (internal quotation and citation omitted).

Although Johnson claims, based on his interaction with Delre, that the terms of the policy were not what he had anticipated, no genuine issue of material fact exists that Johnson signed the policy and, as a matter of law, was presumed to know its contents. The trial court did not err in ruling that there was no genuine issue of material fact concerning the policy and that no other oral or written contract modified or superseded the policy to afford coverage to Johnson for Arnold’s claims.

2. Were Delre and THIA agents of Capitol

Arnold seeks to hold Capitol liable for any omissions or misrepresentations of Delre and THIA by arguing that they were Capitol’s actual or apparent agents. “Under common law principles of agency, a principal is vicariously liable for damages caused by torts of commission or omission of an agent or subagent, . . . acting on behalf of and pursuant to the authority of the principal.” Williams v. Kentucky Dep’t of Educ., 113 S.W.3d 145, 151 (Ky. 2003), as modified (Sept. 23, 2003) (internal citations omitted).

“Actual authority arises from a direct, intentional granting of [*11]  specific authority from a principal to an agent.” Kindred Healthcare, Inc. v. Henson, 481 S.W.3d 825, 830 (Ky. App. 2014). The Restatement (Third) of Agency § 2.02(1) (2006) provides that “[a]n agent has actual authority to take action designated or implied in the principal’s manifestations to the agent and acts necessary or incidental to achieving the principal’s objectives, as the agent reasonably understands the principal’s manifestations and objectives when the agent determines how to act.” Kentucky’s Insurance Code provides that “[a]ny insurer shall be liable for the acts of its agents when the agents are acting in their capacity as representatives of the insurer and are acting within the scope of their authority.” Kentucky Revised Statutes (KRS) 304.9-035.

There is no evidence in the record that Capitol made a direct, intentional grant of authority to THIA and Delre to act as its agents or representatives; nor is there evidence that Capitol made any manifestations of its objectives to THIA or Delre with the expectation that they would act to achieve those objectives. Furthermore, as elicited in the hearing before the trial court, Capitol does not have a written agreement with THIA or Delre establishing them as its agents nor is there a registration or filing with the Kentucky Department of Insurance designating them as licensed [*12]  agents of Capitol. By contrast, Delre and THIA are registered, authorized agents of Nationwide Insurance in Kentucky and Johnson actually believed he would be purchasing a Nationwide policy from Delre.

As evidence of an actual agency relationship, Arnold points to the fact that THIA and Capitol both have contracts with III, the intermediary brokerage company which sent Johnson’s application for insurance to Capitol, seeking a policy proposal. The existence of contracts with the same third party was not sufficient in itself to create an actual agency relationship between THIA and Delre and Capitol. Capitol prepared the insurance proposal in reliance on the information contained in the application submitted by III; Capitol had no contact with or control over Delre or THIA. Consequently, Capitol could not be bound by what Johnson believed Delre had promised.

Similarly, there is no evidence that THIA and Delre were apparent agents of Capitol. “Apparent authority . . . is not actual authority but is the authority the agent is held out by the principal as possessing. It is a matter of appearances on which third parties come to rely.” Mark D. Dean, P.S.C. v. Commonwealth Bank & Tr. Co., 434 S.W.3d 489, 499 (Ky. 2014) (quoting Mill St. Church of Christ v. Hogan, 785 S.W.2d 263, 267 (Ky. App. 1990)). “One who represents that another is his servant [*13]  or other agent and thereby causes a third person justifiably to rely upon the care or skill of such apparent agent is subject to liability to the third person for harm caused by the lack of care or skill of the one appearing to be a servant or other agent as if he were such.” Paintsville Hosp. Co. v. Rose, 683 S.W.2d 255, 257 (Ky. 1985) (quoting Restatement (Second) of Agency § 267 (1958)).

The only representations made to Johnson by Capitol were in the form of the proposal and written policy he signed. Capitol never held out Delre and THIA as its agents. Johnson admitted he had no contact with Capitol whatsoever and did not even know the policy he purchased was provided by Capitol until after the Extreme Rampage event.

The trial court did not err in holding that no agency relationship, actual or apparent, existed between Capitol and Delre and THIA.

3. Applicability of the policy exclusions

The trial court ruled that the “sponsor” exclusion was clear and unambiguous and the Johnson defendants were a “sponsor” within the plain meaning of the word as it was used in the exclusion. The Appellants disagree, arguing that the multiple definitions of the term “sponsor,” which is not defined in the policy, render it ambiguous.

“Interpretation and construction of an insurance contract is a matter [*14]  of law for the court.” Kemper Nat’l Ins. Companies v. Heaven Hill Distilleries, Inc., 82 S.W.3d 869, 871 (Ky. 2002). Exclusions in insurance contracts

are to be narrowly interpreted and all questions resolved in favor of the insured. Exceptions and exclusions are to be strictly construed so as to render the insurance effective. Any doubt as to the coverage or terms of a policy should be resolved in favor of the insured. And since the policy is drafted in all details by the insurance company, it must be held strictly accountable for the language used.

Eyler v. Nationwide Mut. Fire Ins. Co., 824 S.W.2d 855, 859-60 (Ky. 1992) (internal citations omitted).

On the other hand,

[t]he rule of strict construction against an insurance company certainly does not mean that every doubt must be resolved against it and does not interfere with the rule that the policy must receive a reasonable interpretation consistent with the parties’ object and intent or narrowly expressed in the plain meaning and/or language of the contract. Neither should a nonexistent ambiguity be utilized to resolve a policy against the company. We consider that courts should not rewrite an insurance contract to enlarge the risk to the insurer.

St. Paul Fire & Marine Ins. Co. v. Powell-Walton-Milward, Inc., 870 S.W.2d 223, 226-27 (Ky. 1994).

The Appellants rely on an opinion of the federal district court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Sciolla v. West Bend Mut. Ins. Co., 987 F. Supp. 2d 594 (E.D. Pa. 2013) which held an identical insurance exclusion [*15]  to be inapplicable after concluding the term “sponsor” is ambiguous due to the lack of a universally accepted definition of the term by dictionaries and the courts. Sciolla, 987 F. Supp. 2d at 603. The Sciolla court assembled the following dictionary definitions of “sponsor:”

The full definition given by Merriam-Webster is: “a person or an organization that pays for or plans and carries out a project or activity; especially: one that pays the cost of a radio or television program usually in return for advertising time during its course.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 1140 (9th ed. 1983). . . .

. . . [T]he American Heritage Dictionary defines sponsor, in relevant part, as “[o]ne that finances a project or an event carried out by another person or group, especially a business enterprise that pays for radio or television programming in return for advertising time.” American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 1679, (4th ed., 2009). Other dictionaries defines sponsor as “[o]ne that finances a project or an event carried out by another,” The American Heritage College Dictionary, 1315 (3d ed. 1993), or, as a verb, “to pay or contribute towards the expenses of a radio or television program, a performance, [*16]  or other event or work in return for advertising space or rights.” Oxford English Dictionary, 306 (2d ed. 1989).

Id. at 602.

The Sciolla court grouped the definitions into two categories: “The first concept is that of a person or an organization that pays for a project or activity. . . . The second concept is of a person or an organization that plans and carries out a project or activity.” Id. (italics in original).

As recognized by the Sciolla court, in order to be found ambiguous, a term with multiple definitions must be subject to more than one interpretation when applied to the facts of the case before it. Id. at 603. “Because a word has more than one meaning does not mean it is ambiguous. The sense of a word depends on how it is being used; only if more than one meaning applies within that context does ambiguity arise.” Board of Regents of Univ. of Minnesota v. Royal Ins. Co. of Am., 517 N.W.2d 888, 892 (Minn. 1994). As the United States Supreme Court has observed in the context of statutory interpretation, “[a]mbiguity is a creature not of definitional possibilities but of statutory context[.]” Brown v. Gardner, 513 U.S. 115, 118, 115 S. Ct. 552, 555, 130 L. Ed. 2d 462 (1994).

It is the Appellants’ position that Johnson did not “sponsor” the Extreme Rampage but actually organized, promoted, and ran the event. In his deposition, Johnson stated that he was not a “sponsor” of the [*17]  Extreme Rampage event but that he “owned” the event, and that he actually discovered Delre and THIA while seeking sponsorships for Rampage events. Delre in his deposition confirmed that Johnson asked him to be a sponsor. When he was asked how he got started funding Rampage, LLC, Johnson replied “Sponsorships and my own pocket.” Thus, the evidence indicates that Johnson helped to fund Extreme Rampage and also planned and carried it out. There is no evidence that he financed a project carried out by another or that he paid for the project in exchange for advertising space.

The fact that Johnson’s actions do not meet each and every one of the multiple definitions of “sponsor” does not render the term ambiguous, however, when the term is viewed in the context of the language of the exclusion, which applies to “bodily injury to any person while practicing for or participating in any sports or athletic contest or exhibition that you sponsor.” (Emphasis added.)

The policy provides the following definition of “you”: “Throughout this policy the words ‘you’ and ‘your’ refer to the Named Insured shown in the declarations, and any other person or organization qualifying as a Named Insured under [*18]  this policy. The words ‘we’, ‘us’ and ‘our’ refer to the company providing this insurance.” Thus, Johnson, the Named Insured, is “you.” When the term “sponsor” is viewed within the context of an insurance policy covering one discrete event sponsored by the Named Insured, Johnson, it was plainly intended to refer to Johnson and to the specific Extreme Rampage event he was sponsoring.

The Appellants argue that the trial court did not have the right to choose which of the multiple competing definitions of sponsor applied. When viewed in the context of the exclusion, however, the definition is plainly limited to the sponsorship activities of the Name Insured, Johnson.

Because the trial court did not err in holding that the “sponsor” exclusion is applicable, we need not address the validity of the “arising out of” exclusion.

4. The applicability of the concurrent proximate cause doctrine

Johnson argues that even if the policy exclusions apply, the concurrent proximate cause doctrine provides coverage under the policy. Johnson contends that the doctrine was adopted by the Kentucky Supreme Court in Reynolds v. Travelers Indem. Co. of Am., 233 S.W.3d 197, 203 (Ky. App. 2007). Reynolds is an opinion of the Court of Appeals, and it did not officially adopt the doctrine; [*19]  it approved of the reasoning in a case from our sister state in Bowers v. Farmers Insurance Exchange, 99 Wash. App. 41, 991 P.2d 734 (2000), which applied the “efficient proximate cause doctrine.” Reynolds, 233 S.W.3d at 203.

The doctrine holds that

Where the loss is essentially caused by an insured peril with the contribution of an excluded peril merely as part of the chain of events leading to the loss, there is coverage under the policy. Stated alternately, coverage will exist where a covered and noncovered peril join to cause the loss provided that the covered peril is the efficient and dominant cause.

10A Couch on Insurance 3d § 148:61 (2005).

Applying the doctrine, Johnson argues that even if Chad Arnold’s participation in the race was an excluded peril, the loss was essentially caused by a peril that was insured. He contends that the allegations of Arnold’s complaint, such as failure to provide reasonable medical treatment; failure to plan and have proper policies and procedures; and failure to train, instruct, and supervise are not predicated upon a cause of action or risk that is excluded under the policy. He points to the affidavit of a doctor who reviewed Chad Arnold’s medical records and post-mortem examination and concluded that he died of a pre-existing heart condition unconnected [*20]  with his participation in the race.

This argument ignores the fact that the “sponsor” exclusion does not reference causation or a specific “peril”; it merely excludes participants in the covered event from recovery for bodily injury, whatever the cause. It does not require a finding that the bodily injury was caused by participation in the event.

We agree with the reasoning of the federal district court for the Western District of Kentucky, which addressed a factually-similar situation involving a student who collapsed and died while practicing for his college lacrosse team. Underwriters Safety & Claims, Inc. v. Travelers Prop. Cas. Co. of Am., 152 F. Supp. 3d 933 (W.D. Ky. 2016), aff’d on other grounds, 661 F. App’x 325 (6th Cir. 2016). The college’s insurance policy contained an exclusion for athletic participants. The plaintiffs argued that the allegations of their complaint were focused on the college’s failure to provide pre-participation medical forms to physicians who examined the student and on the college’s failure to render proper medical treatment. The district court described these arguments as “red herrings” that attempted “to re-contextualize the fatal injury as a result of medical malpractice or concurrently caused by medical malpractice and engagement in athletic activity.” Underwriters, 152 F. Supp. 3d at 937. The complaint filed by the [*21]  student’s estate “did not seek redress for a bodily injury that occurred during pre-participation athletic medical screenings. The policy specifically excludes bodily injury while engaged in athletic or sports activities. Passfield [the student] was engaged in such an activity at the time of the injury. While the Court liberally construes insurance policies in favor of the insured, the Court also strictly construes exclusions. This is an instance of the latter.” Id. Similarly, in the case before us, the exclusion applies specifically to bodily injury while participating in the Extreme Rampage. The exclusion does not require a causal link between the participation and the injury to apply. There is no genuine issue of fact that Chad Arnold was a participant in the race and that, as the complaint alleges, “during the course of the event, the decedent collapsed, consciously suffered for an undetermined amount of time, and died.”

5. Do the two exclusions create an ambiguity in the policy

Johnson further argues that the two exclusions create an ambiguity in the policy when read in conjunction with two coverage endorsements. Johnson claims that the “Combination Endorsement-Special Events” and [*22]  the “Limitation-Classification Endorsement” provide unfettered coverage while the two exclusions limit coverage, thus creating an ambiguity. Johnson’s brief gives no reference to the record to show where the endorsements are found, nor does it indicate when or how the trial court addressed this issue. CR 76.12(4)(c)(v) requires an appellate brief to contain “ample supportive references to the record and . . . a statement with reference to the record showing whether the issue was properly preserved for review and, if so, in what manner.” The purpose of this requirement “is so that we, the reviewing Court, can be confident the issue was properly presented to the trial court and therefore, is appropriate for our consideration.” Oakley v. Oakley, 391 S.W.3d 377, 380 (Ky. App. 2012). “[E]rrors to be considered for appellate review must be precisely preserved and identified in the lower court.” Skaggs v. Assad, 712 S.W.2d 947, 950 (Ky. 1986). We are simply “without authority to review issues not raised in or decided by the trial court.” Regional Jail Authority v. Tackett, 770 S.W.2d 225, 228 (Ky. 1989). Nor is it the task of the appellate court to search the record for pertinent evidence “not pointed out by the parties in their briefs.” Baker v. Weinberg, 266 S.W.3d 827, 834 (Ky. App. 2008).

We recognize that the hearing on August 25, 2016, at which this issue may have been argued before the trial court, was not recorded. [*23]  Nonetheless, “when the complete record is not before the appellate court, that court must assume that the omitted record supports the decision of the trial court.” Commonwealth v. Thompson, 697 S.W.2d 143, 145 (Ky. 1985).

6. Dismissal of all claims against Capitol.

Finally, Arnold argues that the trial court erred in dismissing all causes of action against Capitol. Arnold contends that the arguments before the trial court only concerned the applicability of the insurance policy, but never addressed the additional allegations in the complaint of negligence, consumer protection, unfair claims settlement practices, and fraud. Arnold does not explain what the grounds for Capitol’s liability on these claims would be if, as the trial court ruled, the “sponsor” exclusion is valid and Delre and THIA were not acting as Capitol’s agents. Under these circumstances, the trial court did not err in dismissing all claims against Capitol.

For the foregoing reasons, the order of the Fayette Circuit Court granting summary declaratory judgment to Capitol is affirmed.

MAZE, JUDGE, CONCURS.

THOMPSON, JUDGE, CONCURS IN RESULT ONLY.

Bibliography

CHRIS JOHNSON D/B/A EXTREME RAMPAGE, AND CHRIS JOHNSON, AND CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON, RAMPAGE LLC, CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON D/B/A RAMPAGE, LLC, AND/OR EXTREME RAMPAGE (COLLECTIVELY KNOWN AS “THE JOHNSON PARTIES”) BY AND THROUGH ASSIGNEE CASEY ARNOLD, APPELLANTS v. CAPITOL SPECIALTY INSURANCE CORPORATION, APPELLEE;CASEY ARNOLD, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS ADMINISTRATRIX OF THE ESTATE OF CHAD ARNOLD, AND AS NEXT FRIEND AND GUARDIAN/ CONSERVATOR FOR MILES ARNOLD, AND AS ASSIGNEE FOR ALL CLAIMS HELD BY “THE JOHNSON PARTIES”, APPELLANTS v. CAPITOL SPECIALTY INSURANCE CORPORATION, APPELLEE, 2018 Ky. App. Unpub. LEXIS 447, 2018 WL 3090503, (Court of Appeals of Kentucky June 22, 2018, Rendered).


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.

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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.

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Negligence Per Se is the violation of a law or regulation created to protect a group of people. If you are Negligent Per Se, you have no defenses.

Defendant took plaintiffs on a guided personal watercraft tour with an employee/guide who had not been trained as required by Florida’s law.

Tassinari v. Key West Water Tours, L.C., et al., 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 46490

State: Florida: United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida

Plaintiff: Ronald Tassinari, an individual, Sheila Silva, individually, and as next best friend of Ashley Silva

Defendant: Key West Water Tours, L.C., a Florida corporation, Defendant. Key West Water Tours, L.C., a Florida corporation, Third-Party Plaintiff

Third Party Defendant(s): Jeffrey Wilkerson, Third-Party Defendant

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence Per Se

Defendant Defenses: : (1) it is entitled to exoneration from liability because there is no evidence of negligence or unseaworthiness; (2) alternatively, it is entitled to have its liability limited to the value of the watercraft (approx. $ 3,000.00) because it was without privity or knowledge of any negligence or un-seaworthiness; (3) Florida statutory law does not apply; and (4) Plaintiff Tassinari’s claims are barred by the waiver and “hold harmless” provisions of the rental agreement.

Holding: For the Plaintiff

Year: 2007

Summary

If there is a statute that applies to your business or activity, you must know and abide by the statute. Failure to do so can void all of your defenses and in some cases the claim may not be covered by your insurance policy.

Here the defendant rented personal watercraft to the plaintiffs without instructing the guests as required by Florida Statute. By not abiding by the statute, the defendant’s defenses were void and the defendant’s liability was decided by the court.

Facts

The plaintiff’s, husband, wife and daughter paid for a guided personal watercraft (PWC or formerly known as jet ski) tour. During the tour, another tour participant panicked and drove his PWC at a high rated of speed into the plaintiff’s.

The plaintiff’s sued the defendant PWC tour company. The PWC tour company sued the participant who drove the PWC into the plaintiff’s as third-party plaintiffs versus third party defendants.

The defendants relied on four defenses:

(1) it is entitled to exoneration from liability because there is no evidence of negligence or unseaworthiness;

(2) alternatively, it is entitled to have its liability limited to the value of the watercraft (approx. $ 3,000.00) because it was without privity or knowledge of any negligence or un-seaworthiness;

(3) Florida statutory law does not apply; and

(4) Plaintiff Tassinari’s claims are barred by the waiver and “hold harmless” provisions of the rental agreement.

The plaintiff argued that because the defendant did not hire or require it’s guides to meet educational requirements required by state law, the defendant was negligent per se.

Negligence per se is negligence that violates a law or regulation which was created for the purpose of protecting a group of people that were injured by the plaintiff.

The Florida statutes in question were:

Florida Statute § 327.39

§ 327.39. Personal watercraft regulated.

(b) 1. It is unlawful for the owner of any leased, hired, or rented personal watercraft, or any person having charge over or control of a leased, hired, or rented personal watercraft, to authorize or knowingly permit the watercraft to be operated by any person who has not received instruction in the safe handling of personal watercraft, in compliance with rules established by the commission.

The second statute was Florida Statute § 327.54

§ 327.54. Liveries; safety regulations; penalty.

(1) A livery may not knowingly lease, hire, or rent a vessel to any person:

(e) When the vessel is equipped with a motor of 10 horsepower or greater, unless the livery provides prerental or preride instruction that includes, but need not be limited to:

1. Operational characteristics of the vessel to be rented.

2. Safe vessel operation and vessel right-of-way.

3. The responsibility of the vessel operator for the safe and proper operation of the vessel.

4. Local characteristics of the waterway where the vessel will be operated.

Any person delivering the information specified in this paragraph must have successfully completed a boater safety course approved by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators and this state.

The first statute required the person renting a PWC to instruct the renter on the use of the PWC. The second statute identified the instructions to be given and required the person giving the instructions to have successfully completed a boater safety course. The defendant’s employee in this case had not given the necessary instructions and had not completed a boater safety course.

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

Federal judiciary has a rule they apply to these situations called the Pennsylvania Rule. The Pennsylvania Rule states:

…when a ship at the time of an collision is in actual violation of a statutory rule intended to prevent collisions, it is no more than a reasonable presumption that the fault, if not the sole cause, was at least a contributory cause of the disaster and in such a case the burden rests upon the ship of showing not merely that her fault might not have been one of the causes, or that it probably was not, but that it could not have been.

Basically, the Pennsylvania rule shifts the burden of proof from the plaintiff, who normally has the burden to proof the defendant was at fault, to the defendant, requiring the defendant to prove, it was not at fault.

The next hurdle is the state law’s relationship to admiralty law. Admiralty law is a Federal law, in fact, a series of international laws, to control transportation of goods and people across borders and international travel. States can only make laws concerning admiralty issues if there is not federal law on the subject already. If the federal law conflicts with the state law, the federal law applies.

Applying the Pennsylvania rule, because Defendant violated statutory rules intended to prevent boat collisions, the Court presumes that Defendant’s fault caused the collision and the burden shifts to Defendant to show this violation could not have caused the accident.

There is no federal law concerning the rental of PWCs. So, the two Florida statutes were available to the plaintiff. Additionally, the Florida statutes were created to protect a specific group of people, and the plaintiffs were part of the group to be protected.

These statutes, under Chapter 327 Vessel Safety, were enacted to protect boater safety, including the prevention of collisions. Further, these statutes were enacted, in part, to protect the safety of renters of watercraft (see e.g. § 327.54), so Plaintiffs are among the class of persons intended to be protected by the statutes.

Side note: the defendant co-owner admitted he was not familiar with Florida’s statutes that were at issue. The court’s response was the classic you learn in law school, and you should learn in kindergarten. “…ignorance of the law is not a defense.”

The defendant argued that instruction would have changed the accident or prevented the accident. The court did not buy that argument.

However, greater knowledge often gives a greater sense of control. Therefore, it is possible that if Jeffrey Wilkerson had received proper instruction in handling the watercraft, he might not have panicked. Defendant has not shown that its violation of statutory rules “could not” have contributed to the accident. Therefore, Defendant’s fault is presumed.

For the defendant not to be liable, the must be completely free of fault, and the violation of the Florida statute created fault on the part of the defendant; consequently, the defendant was not free of fault.

The defendant then argued the limitation of liability under admiralty law applied. The limitation of liability states the defendant is liable to the value of the vessel after the accident. Here the defendant argued the extent of their liability was $3,000 because that was what the PWC was worth.

For the defendant to use this defense, required a two-step test:

(1) “the court must determine what acts of negligence or conditions of unseaworthiness caused the accident;” and (2) “the court must determine whether the ship owner had knowledge or privity of those same acts of negligence or conditions of unseaworthiness.

Since the defendants could have easily investigated whether their employee had taken a boater safety course, and they did not, they could not take advantage of the limitation of liability because the defendant should have had knowledge of the unseaworthiness of the PWC.

The next defense argued was the release signed by the plaintiff. Here the release was void because it violated public policy. The statute created a safety requirement on the part of the defendant. The statute was enacted to keep the public safe. Therefore, failing to keep the public safe was a public policy issue.

[A] clause in an agreement exempting a party from tort liability is unenforceable on grounds of public policy if the agreement would exempt a party from liability arising from that party’s failure to comply with a safety statute, as the safety obligation created by the statute for such purpose is an obligation owed to the public at large and is not within the power of any private individual to waive.”

In this case, the Florida statutes violated are boater safety statutes imposing a standard of conduct on owners and liveries of vessels. It would be against public policy to enforce contract clauses purporting to exempt liveries from liability for violating these statutes. While the release and waiver provisions in the rental contracts are sufficient to release Defendant from liability for ordinary negligence, the provisions are invalid as against public policy when applied to liability arising from violation of these statutes.

The defendant’s motion for summary judgement was denied. The plaintiff had filed a motion for summary judgment as to the liability of the defendant. That motion was granted. The sole remaining issue then was the amount of the liability, how much the defendant owed the plaintiff.

So Now What?

Releases are the best defense to lawsuits in most states. However, the most effective legal argument to void a release is to claim the defendant was Negligence Per Se. Here the court found that because the statutes were created for public policy reasons, the release violated public policy and thus was void.

Most state courts just void the release stating the release cannot prevent claims based on violation of a statute.

More importantly, any time a statute is created that applies to your business or activity, you must understand and follow the statute. Both statutes argued above had criminal penalties for violation of the statutes. Not only was the defendant liable in a lawsuit for violating the statutes, the defendants could be fined by the state.

Don’t get into business without knowing the law.

More articles on Negligence Per Se

Motion for Summary Judgment failed because the plaintiff’s claim was based upon a failure to follow a statute or rule creating a negligence per se defense to the release in this Pennsylvania sailing case.

Instructional Colorado decision Negligence, Negligence Per Se and Premises Liability

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Corwin, et al., v. NYC Bike Share, LLC, et al., 238 F. Supp. 3d 475; 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 29034

Corwin, et al., v. NYC Bike Share, LLC, et al., 238 F. Supp. 3d 475; 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 29034

Ronald D. Corwin, et al., Plaintiffs, -against- NYC Bike Share, LLC, et al., Defendants.

14-CV-1285 (SN)

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK

238 F. Supp. 3d 475; 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 29034

March 1, 2017, Decided

March 1, 2017, Filed

SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Reconsideration denied by Corwin v. NYC Bike Share, LLC, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 53812 (S.D.N.Y., Apr. 7, 2017)

Summary judgment granted by Corwin v. NYC Bike Share, LLC, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 57254 (S.D.N.Y., Apr. 13, 2017)

CORE TERMS: bike, station, wheel, helmet, bicycle, summary judgment, street, cyclist’s, parking, user, roadway, lane, public policy, matter of law, traffic, wear, installation, riding, notice, negligence claims, qualified immunity, affirmative defenses, municipality, contractor, installed, recreational, planning, genuine, rider, safe

COUNSEL: [**1] For Ronald D. Corwin, Beth Blumenthal, Plaintiffs: Martin William Edelman, LEAD ATTORNEY, Edelman & Edelman, P.C., New York, NY; Michael K. O’Donnell, LEAD ATTORNEY, Law Office of Michael K. O’donnell, Greenwich, CT; Neil R. Finkston, Law Office of Neil R. Finkston, Great Neck, NY.

For NYC Bike Share LLC, Alta Bicycle Share, Inc., Defendants, Cross Claimants, Cross Defendants: Peter W. Beadle, Law Offce of Vaccaro & White, LLP, New York, NY; Steve Vaccaro, Law Offices of Vaccaro and White, New York, NY.

For City of New York, Defendant: Eileen Theresa Budd, Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP, New York, NY; Howard Martin Wagner, Trief and Olk, New York, NY; Judith Feinberg Goodman, Goodman & Jacobs LLP, New York, NY.

For Alta Planning + Design, Inc., Alta Planning Design Architecture of New York, PLLC, Defendants, Cross Defendants: Kevin Jude O’Neill, LEAD ATTORNEY, Gogick, Byrne & O’Neil, LLP, New York, NY; Katherine Buchanan, The Law Firm of Hall & Hall, LLP, Staten Island, NY.

For MetroExpress Services, Inc., Defendant: Kevin F. Pinter, LEAD ATTORNEY, Nicoletti, Gonson, Spinner & Owen, LLP, New York, NY; Gary Richard Greenman, Nicoletti Gonson Spinner LLP, New York, NY.

For Sealcoat USA, [**2] Inc., Defendant, Cross Defendant: John P. Cookson, LEAD ATTORNEY, McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter, LLP (NY), New York, NY; Brian L. Battisti, Morrison Mahoney, LLP(NYC), New York, NY.

For Sealcoat USA Inc., ADR Provider: Mitchell John Baker, LEAD ATTORNEY, Baker, Leshko, Saline & Blosser, LLP, White Plains, NY.

For Metro Express, Inc., Interested Party: Kevin F. Pinter, LEAD ATTORNEY, Nicoletti, Gonson, Spinner & Owen, LLP, New York, NY; Gary Richard Greenman, Nicoletti Gonson Spinner LLP, New York, NY.

For New York City Department of Transportation, Cross Claimant, Cross Defendant: Kimberly Kristen Brown, Hoey, King,Epstein, Prezioso & Marquez, New York, NY.

For NYC Bike Share LLC, Cross Claimant, Cross Defendant: Steve Vaccaro, Law Offices of Vaccaro and White, New York, NY.

For City of New York, Cross Claimant, Cross Defendant: Eileen Theresa Budd, Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP, New York, NY.

For Alta Planning Design, Inc., Alta Planning Design Architecture of New York, PLLC, Cross Claimants, Cross Defendants: Kevin Jude O’Neill, LEAD ATTORNEY, Gogick, Byrne & O’Neil, LLP, New York, NY.

For Beth Blumenthal, Cross Defendant: Martin William Edelman, LEAD ATTORNEY, Edelman & [**3] Edelman, P.C., New York, NY; Michael K. O’Donnell, LEAD ATTORNEY, Law Office of Michael K. O’donnell, Greenwich, CT.

For City of New York, Cross Claimant, Cross Defendant: Eileen Theresa Budd, Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP, New York, NY; Judith Feinberg Goodman, Goodman & Jacobs LLP, New York, NY.

For MetroExpress Services, Inc., MetroExpress Services, Inc., Cross Defendant, Cross Claimants: Gary Richard Greenman, Nicoletti Gonson Spinner LLP, New York, NY.

For Sealcoat USA, Inc., Cross Claimant: John P. Cookson, LEAD ATTORNEY, McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter, LLP (NY), New York, NY.

JUDGES: SARAH NETBURN, United States Magistrate Judge.

OPINION BY: SARAH NETBURN

OPINION

[*480] OPINION & ORDER

SARAH NETBURN, United States Magistrate Judge:

On October 25, 2013, 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 [*481] that the Citi Bike station in question was improperly designed, installed, and maintained, Corwin brought claims for common-law and gross negligence and [**4] professional negligence and malpractice, and Beth Blumenthal, Corwin’s wife, brought derivative claims for loss of her husband’s services, society, companionship, and consortium.1

1 As Blumenthal’s claims depend entirely on the viability of Corwin’s causes of actions, the two claims are referred to in shorthand as “Corwin’s” throughout the text of the opinion. Where the Court grants summary judgment or partial summary judgment to defendants on certain of Corwin’s claims, Blumenthal’s claims are dismissed as well. Vega-Santana v. Nat’l R.R. Passenger Corp., 956 F. Supp. 2d 556, 562 (S.D.N.Y. 2013) (“Where the primary cause of action is dismissed on summary judgment, the loss of consortium claim must be dismissed as well.”).

On February 27, 2014, Corwin brought claims against three defendants: the 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, and the New York City Department of Transportation (“DOT”). ECF No. 1, Compl. On December 31, 2014, Corwin amended his complaint to remove the DOT and add three additional defendants: Alta Bicycle Share, Inc. (now named “Motivate, Inc.”), which is NYCBS’s parent company; and Alta Planning + Design (“APD”) and 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. ECF No. 27, First Am. Compl. After conducting significant discovery, Corwin moved for and was granted leave to amend his complaint to join two additional defendants, Metro Express Services, Inc. (“Metro Express”) and Sealcoat USA, Inc. (“Sealcoat”), both contractors who are [**5] alleged to have participated, in violation of the station’s design plan, in the installation of the wheel stop struck by Corwin. ECF No. 192, Second Am. Compl.

All of the defendants move separately for summary judgment on a variety of grounds.2 All defendants argue that the condition was open and obvious and that Corwin’s negligence claims generally fail as a matter of law. The City, NYCBS, and APD argue that Corwin’s common-law negligence claims were released by the Bicycle Rental, Liability Waiver, and Release Agreement (“Release Agreement”) that he had to sign as a condition of Citi Bike membership, and that they are barred by the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk. APD, Metro Express and Sealcoat argue that, as third-party entities in a contractual relationship with Corwin, they owed him no duty of care. APD additionally argues that the Citi Bike station’s deviation from the design is an absolute bar to liability, and that there was no causation between its design and Corwin’s injury. The City also contends that Corwin’s claims are barred due to the doctrine of qualified immunity and its lack of written notice of the condition pursuant to a municipal notice statute.

2 As their liability is exclusively a product of being a parent company of a wholly owned subsidiary, Alta Bicycle Share, Inc./Motivate, Inc. moves for summary judgment together with NYCBS, and APD moves together with APDNY. For the sake of brevity, these motions are referred to as the “NYCBS” and “APD” motions, respectively.

For his [**6] part, Corwin moves for partial summary judgment on two issues. First, he argues that the Release Agreement is unenforceable on numerous statutory, public policy, and contract formation grounds, and that defendants’ affirmative defenses [*482] relying on the Agreement should be dismissed as a matter of law. Second, he contends that the fact that he was not wearing a helmet at the time of the accident is irrelevant as a matter of law to issues of assumption of the risk, comparative fault, or failure to mitigate damages, and therefore defendants’ affirmative defenses relying on this argument should be dismissed.

For the following reasons, the cross-motions for summary judgment are GRANTED in part and DENIED in part. Corwin’s motion to dismiss defendants’ affirmative defenses relying on the Release Agreement is DENIED as to NYCBS; the Agreement is enforceable as a matter of law as to NYCBS. Corwin’s motion to dismiss the affirmative defenses relating to the Release Agreement is GRANTED as to the City because a contractual waiver of the City’s non-delegable duty to maintain public thoroughfares would be contrary to public policy. Corwin’s motion to dismiss defendants’ affirmative defenses relating [**7] to his non-use of a helmet is GRANTED in part; defendants may not argue that this is relevant to questions of liability to establish comparative negligence or assumption of the risk, but if liability is found, may argue that Corwin failed to mitigate damages. The City’s motion for summary judgment is DENIED; as stated above, the Release Agreement is ineffective to waive Corwin’s claims at to the City, and the City has not demonstrated its entitlement to judgment as a matter of law on qualified immunity, notice, or other grounds. NYCBS’s motion for summary judgment is GRANTED in part; because the Court finds that the Release Agreement is enforceable as to NYCBS, Corwin’s common-law negligence claims are barred, but he may still maintain gross negligence claims. APD’s motion for summary judgment is GRANTED because APD and APDNY did not owe any duty to Corwin. Accordingly, APD and APDNY are dismissed from this case. Metro Express and Sealcoat’s motions for summary judgment are DENIED because a genuine dispute of material fact exists as to whether they owed Corwin a duty of care under applicable New York law.

BACKGROUND

I. History of the Citi Bike Program

Beginning in 2009, the City of New [**8] York began to study the feasibility of installing a bike share system in and around City streets, located in curbside parking lanes, on sidewalks, and near public spaces and parks. ECF No. 293, City’s Rule 56.1 Statement (“City St.”) ¶ 2. On April 10, 2012, the City and NYCBS entered into an agreement for the design, construction, operation, maintenance, and publicizing of “Citi Bike,” a network of self-service bike share stations with publicly available bicycles. ECF No. 310, Corwin’s Rule 56.1 Statement (“Corwin St.”) ¶ 2. The system became operational in May 2013. City St. ¶ 5; ECF No. 317, NYCBS’s Rule 56.1 Statement (“NYCBS St.”) ¶ 1.

The City-NYCBS contract required NYCBS to design and install on-street bike parking stations “with appropriate protections and markings from adjacent parking and moving traffic. . . . [including] non-permanent bollards and paint markings.” City St. ¶ 31. The contract also noted that all protections and markings were to be preapproved by the DOT’s Division of Traffic. Id.

The design for the Citi Bike stations was modeled in part on the City’s previous experience with “bike corrals,” which were also placed in parking lanes and were designed by the DOT’s Highway Design Unit and [**9] Pedestrian and Bicycle Group. City St. ¶¶ 41-42. These corrals had many elements that would ultimately be integrated [*483] into the Citi Bike stations, such as wheel stops, paint marking and bollards. Id. ¶ 42.

At the time that the NYCBS contract was signed with the City, APD and APDNY were subsidiaries of Alta Bicycle Share, Inc., NYCBS’s parent company. Id. ¶ 48. APD assembled a team of architects, engineers, and designers to collaborate with the City on station design. Id. ¶¶ 49-50. Using a bike corral on Smith and Sackett Street as an exemplar, the APD and the City developed “Station Siting Guidelines” that included the use of unpainted, concrete wheel stops. Id. ¶¶ 51-57. Though the City originally approved the use of rubber wheel stops, it instructed NYCBS to replace them with concrete wheel stops because the rubber stops were not sufficiently durable. Id. ¶ 96. The wheel stops were considered by APD to be necessary to prevent damage to the station equipment by encroaching vehicles. Id. ¶ 58.

The final design for Citi Bike stations situated in parking lanes included white thermoplastic markings and three-foot tall, reflective, flexible delineators on or near the markings. Wheel stops [**10] were to be used in the stations to protect the station equipment. Id. ¶¶ 64-66. These elements were collectively referred to as “street treatment.” Id. ¶ 81. While NYCBS installed the station equipment directly, it contracted the installation of street treatment to Metro Express, allegedly without the City’s awareness. Id. ¶ 83. MetroExpress, in turn, subcontracted this work to another entity, Sealcoat, allegedly without the awareness of either the City or NYCBS. Id. ¶¶ 85-86.

The City considered, but chose not to mandate that Citi Bike riders wear helmets. It also did not provide helmets for Citi Bike riders on demand. Id. ¶ 8. The City came to this conclusion because (a) New York law did not mandate that adult cyclists wear helmets and it did not want to promote different standards for Citi Bike riders and other cyclists as a matter of public policy; (b) it believed, based on studies conducted in other cities, that mandatory helmet laws decreased bicycle ridership in general and bike share system use in particular; (c) certain statistics indicated that mandatory helmet laws actually decreased cyclist safety by reducing the number of cyclists on the road; and (d) research suggested [**11] that helmeted cyclists tended to ride more recklessly than those without helmets. Id. ¶¶ 9-16; Corwin St. ¶ 10. The City also specifically evaluated the feasibility and wisdom of instituting a public helmet distribution system, but ultimately concluded that there were numerous logistical barriers to such a system, such as hygiene, the fact that the structural integrity of helmets would be compromised if they were involved in an accident, and lack of proper fitting and sizing capabilities. City St. ¶¶ 18-22. The City further considered what it viewed as unfavorable experiences with such systems in Seattle, Boston, and Melbourne, Australia. Id. ¶ 25. The City did, however, provide annual Citi Bike members with discounted vouchers for helmets and expanded its helmet giveaway and fitting programs. Id. ¶¶ 27-28.

II. Design and Installation of Citi Bike Station on East 56th Street and Madison Avenue

The station where Ronald Corwin’s accident occurred was located at the intersection of East 56th Street and Madison Avenue. Id. ¶ 98. The City issued a permit to NYCBS for the installation of the station on July 22, 2013, and the station equipment was installed on July 30, 2013. Id. ¶¶ 103-04. [**12] The City approved APD’s design drawing of the station on August 6, 2013, including all street treatment. Id. ¶ 100. The approved design had only one wheel stop at the west end of the station, [*484] no thermoplastic striping within the boxes at the ends of the station, a station width of eight feet, and a total of six delineators. ECF No. 301, Alta Planning and Design Rule 56.1 Statement (“APD St.”) ¶ 30. None of the site plan drawings, including the approved drawing, contained a wheel stop at the east end of the station closest to Madison Avenue.

The street treatment at the East 56th Street and Madison Avenue station was installed on or about October 22, 2013. APD St. ¶ 31. Notwithstanding its absence on the approved plan, a wheel stop was installed at the east end of the station as well, and the station did not conform to the approved plan in several other respects: the station footprint was made wider by the installation of thermoplastic striping more than eight feet in width, additional delineators were added, and cross-hatched striping was installed on either end of the station underneath the wheel stops. Id. ¶ 34. Though this is disputed by the defendants, Corwin argues that the wider footprint [**13] is relevant because, as it provided less clearance between the edge of the station and moving traffic, it would have encouraged a cyclist to use the station itself as a temporary riding lane. ECF No. 335, Decl. of Pl.’s Exp. James E. Green, ¶¶ 56-58. The City denies approving the installation of a second wheel stop at this site, and claims that its records do not show that it had written notice regarding the additional wheel stop. City St. ¶¶ 102, 106, 108.

The entity responsible for installing the wheel stop is contested; Metro Express and Sealcoat contend that an October 18, 2013 email from NYCBS informed them only of the need for repairs to the station, and that after Sealcoat representative Ryan Landeck visited the station on October 22, 2013, he reported that there was nothing to be done at the station in a October 24, 2013 email to Metro Express. ECF No. 368-3, Landeck Depo. at 41, 51; ECF No. 368-4, Landeck Oct. 24, 2013 E-mail. Metro Express further contends that the City had often instructed NYCBS, who in turn had instructed Metro Express to install “Supplemental Street Treatments” not depicted on station plans, and that such supplemental installations included second wheel [**14] stops. ECF No. 368-8, May 17, 2013 Email; ECF No. 335-20, Strasser 06/28/16 Depo. at 48-51. Metro Express alleges that on July 17, 2013, and October 9, 2013, it was specifically ordered by NYCBS to install a second wheel stop not depicted on station plans at three stations around the network. ECF 368-10; 368-11; 368-12; 368-13; 368-14. There is no direct evidence in the record, however, that such a request was ever issued for the East 56th Street and Madison Avenue station.

III. Ronald Corwin’s Citi Bike Membership and Release Agreement

Ronald Corwin signed up online for an annual Citi Bike membership on June 25, 2013. Corwin St. ¶ 15. Corwin does not remember the details of the process, and did not recall clicking on or reading the Bicycle Rental, Liability Waiver, and Release Agreement as a condition of membership. Id. ¶ 18. Nevertheless, he did admit in deposition testimony that “I don’t deny that I signed whatever it is I had to sign in order to get my Citi Bike Pass.” NYCBS St. ¶ 21. NYCBS has not, however, produced a version of the Agreement dated contemporaneously to Corwin’s registration, or Corwin’s actual electronic signature. Corwin St. ¶ 22.

While the applicability and enforceability [**15] of the Release Agreement is disputed by the parties, there is no serious dispute as to its content. NYCBS has produced an agreement dated July 25, 2014, and Justin Ginsburgh, former General Manager of [*485] NYCBS and current Vice President of Business Development of its parent company Motivate Inc./Alta Bicycle Share, testified that this agreement was active on the date that Corwin became a member. ECF No. 316, Ginsburgh Decl. ¶¶ 10; ECF No. 371-3, Ginsburgh Supp. Decl. ¶¶ 2-3; ECF 316-1, Bicycle Rental, Liability Waiver, and Release Agreement (“Release Agreement”). Ginsburgh attested that it would be impossible to become a Citi Bike member without first being shown the Release Agreement in a scrollable text box and then clicking a box stating “I certify that I am the Member, I am 18 years old or over, and I have read and agree to the conditions set forth in (sic) User Agreement.” NYCBS St. ¶¶ 17-18; City St. ¶¶ 118-20.

The Release Agreement contains several provisions, which are reproduced below in relevant part:

Section 6. Releases:

In exchange for You being allowed to use any of the Services, Citi Bike bicycles, Stations, Bike Docks, or related information, You . . . do hereby fully and forever release [**16] and discharge all Released Persons for all Claims that You have or may have against any Released Person, except for Claims caused by the Released Person’s gross negligence or willful misconduct. Such releases are intended to be general and complete releases of all Claims. The Released Persons may plead such releases as a complete and sufficient defense to any Claim, as intended 3rd beneficiaries of such releases.

“Claims” is defined in the Release Agreement as “any and all claims, injuries, demands, liabilities, disputes, causes of action (including statutory, contract, negligence, or other tort theories), proceedings [or] damages that arise from or relate to (a) any of the Services, including any of the Citi Bike bicycles, Stations, Bike Docks, or related information . . . .” “Released Persons” is defined in the Agreement, as relevant, as including: “(i) NYCBS and all of its owners, managers, affiliates, employees, agents, representatives, successors, and assigns [and] (ii) the City of New York.”

Section 7. Disclaimers:

You do hereby acknowledge and agree that your use of any of the services, Citi Bike bicycles, stations, bike docks, or releated [sic] information, is at your sole risk. . . . [**17] All of the services, Citi Bike bicycles, stations, bike docks, or related information are provided “as is” and “as available” (and you rely on them solely at your own risk). . . . You assume full responsibility and risk of loss for using any of the services, Citi Bike bicycles, stations, bike docks, or releated [sic] information, and NYCBS and all other released persons are not liable for any claim attributable to any of the foregoing.

Section 8. Limited Liability:

You do hereby acknowledge and agree that, except as may otherwise be limited by New York General Obligation Law Section 5-326, NYCBS and all other released persons are not responsible or liable for any claim, including those that arise out of or relate to (A) any risk, danger or hazard described in the Agreement, (B) Your use of or inability to use, any of the services, Citi Bike bicycles, stations, bike docks, or releated (sic) information, (C) your breach of this agreement or your violation of any law, (D) any negligence, misconduct, or other action or inaction by you, (E) your failure to wear a bicycles helmet while using Citi Bike bicycle, or (F) any negligence, misconduct, or other action or inaction of any third party. You do hereby waive all claims with respect to any [**18] [*486] of the foregoing, including those based in contract, tort (including negligence), statutory, or other grounds, even if NYCBS or any of the other released persons has been advised of the possibility of such claims. The total liability of NYCBS and all other released persons for all claims, including those based in contract, tort (including negligence), statutory, or other grounds, is limited to the sum of $100.

Section 9. Assumption of Risk by Member:

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 to Member or others, as well as damage to property, 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.

IV. Ronald Corwin’s Ride and Accident

At 10:57 a.m. on October 25, 2013, Ronald Corwin picked up a Citi Bike at a station located on the southeastern corner of 6th Avenue and East 56th Street. From there, he travelled in the direction of Grand Central Station. Corwin St. ¶ 25; NYCBS St. ¶ 32. He was not wearing a helmet. Corwin St. ¶ 26; City St. ¶ 137. Corwin proceeded eastbound in the [**19] traffic lane on East 56th Street, with vehicular traffic proceeding to his left. NYCBS St. ¶ 34. Because Corwin claimed to have been “under pressure” from the vehicular traffic, he turned into the Citi Bike station on East 56th Street and Madison Avenue. Id. ¶ 35. The station area was indicated by a perimeter of 4 inch white thermoplastic stripes on the asphalt roadway, and three foot tall white flexible delineators with gray reflective tape spaced approximately every 10 feet along the thermoplastic striping. Id. ¶ 36. At either end of the station, unpainted concrete wheel stops measuring 5 feet, 10.5 inches long by five inches high, were installed on the roadway. Id. ¶ 40. These wheel stops were framed by a box of white thermoplastic striping with diagonal cross-hatching, staked out by three-foot tall flexible delineators. Id. ¶ 41. While he was travelling within the station “envelope,” the front wheel of Corwin’s Citi Bike hit the concrete wheel stop installed near the crosswalk at the Madison Avenue end of the station, causing him to crash onto the pavement and sustain serious injury. Corwin St. ¶ 26.

ANALYSIS

I. Standard of Review

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a), the court “shall grant summary judgment if [**20] the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” See also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). The moving party must show that “under the governing law, there can be but one reasonable conclusion as to the verdict.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986). The moving party bears the initial burden of establishing that there are no material facts in dispute and must provide “affirmative evidence” from which a factfinder could return a verdict in its favor. Id. at 257. Then “the burden shifts to the nonmovant to point to record evidence creating a genuine issue of material fact.” Salahuddin v. Goord, 467 F.3d 263, 273 (2d Cir. 2006). “[T]he trial court’s task at the summary judgment motion stage of the litigation is carefully limited to discerning whether there are any genuine issues of material fact to be tried, not to [*487] deciding them. Its duty, in short, is confined at this point to issue-finding; it does not extend to issue-resolution.” Gallo v. Prudential Residential Servs., LP, 22 F.3d 1219, 1224 (2d Cir. 1994).

In determining whether summary judgment is appropriate, the court must resolve all ambiguities and draw all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. See Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378, 127 S. Ct. 1769, 167 L. Ed. 2d 686 (2007). Summary judgment is improper if “there is any evidence in the record from any source from which a reasonable inference [**21] could be drawn in favor of the nonmoving party. . . .” Chambers v. TRM Copy Ctrs. Corp., 43 F.3d 29, 37 (2d Cir. 1994). To create a disputed fact sufficient to deny summary judgment, the non-moving party must produce evidence in the record and “may not rely simply on conclusory statements or on contentions that the affidavits supporting the motion are not credible. . . .” Ying Jing Gan v. City of New York, 996 F.2d 522, 532 (2d Cir. 1993). Instead, the response “must set forth specific facts demonstrating that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Wright v. Goord, 554 F.3d 255, 266 (2d Cir. 2009) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

II. Waiver and Release

It is undisputed that in order to become a member of Citi Bike, Corwin would have been required to assent to a release of claims as set forth in the Bicycle Rental, Liability Waiver, and Release Agreement (“Release Agreement”). This Agreement covered “any and all claims, injuries, demands, liabilities, causes of action (including statutory, contract, negligence, or other tort theories) . . . that arise from or relate to (a) any of the Services, including any of the Citi Bike bicycles, Stations, Bike Docks, or related information or (b) Your use of any of the foregoing.” It required Corwin to “discharge all Released Persons for all Claims that You have or may have against any Released Person, except [**22] for Claims caused by the Released Person’s gross negligence or willful misconduct.” ECF 316-1, Release Agreement. As relevant here, the Agreement expressly included NYCBS and the City of New York, as well as all of NYCBS’s “owners, managers, affiliates, employees, agents, representatives, successors, and assigns” within the definition of “Released Persons.” Id.

Corwin moves for partial summary judgment to strike the City and NYCBS’s affirmative defenses based on the Release Agreement, arguing that the Agreement is ambiguous, contrary to law, and/or void as a matter of public policy. For their part, the City and NYCBS move for summary judgment arguing that Corwin’s negligence claims against them are waived by the release, with the exception of those sounding in gross negligence. Though it is not expressly named in the release, APD also argues that the claims against it are released because of its relationship to NYCBS.

As a threshold issue, the Court considers if there is a genuine dispute as to whether Corwin signed a release and, if so, its scope. Corwin argues that because defendants have failed to produce an actual copy of the Release Agreement with his electronic signature, or a [**23] copy of the Agreement as it existed when he became an annual member, defendants cannot demonstrate that he signed the waiver at all. Defendants have produced a declaration from Justin Ginsburgh, former General Manager of NYCBS and current Vice President of Business Development of its parent company Motivate Inc./Alta Bicycle Share, that describes the membership process and states that Corwin would have [*488] had to agree to the terms of the Agreement in order to become a member. ECF No. 316, Ginsburgh Decl., ¶¶ 7-9. Ginsburgh also declares that the Release Agreement appended to his declaration, dated July 15, 2014, was a “true and complete copy of the User Agreement that was in effect in May 2013 when Mr. Corwin became a Citi Bike member.”3 Id. at ¶ 10; ECF No. 371-3, Ginsburgh Supp. Decl., ¶¶ 2-3 (“The User Agreement . . . was fully in effect when plaintiff Ronald Corwin obtained his Citi Bike membership on June 25, 2013.”). Ginsburgh had previously noted in deposition testimony, however, that he was no longer in his General Manager position as of April 1, 2014, and therefore “[didn’t] know if any changes occurred [to the membership signup] after that.” ECF No. 360-6, Justin Ginsburgh Depo. [**24] at 463. Corwin stated in deposition testimony that he completed the membership application and “signed whatever it is [he] had to sign in order to get [his] Citi Bike pass,” but did not remember the contents of the Agreement or whether he had read it. ECF No. 315-4, Ronald Corwin 9/9/2015 Depo. at 195.

3 The first Ginsburgh Declaration inaccurately references Corwin becoming a Citi Bike member in May 2013; in fact, Corwin became a Citi Bike member on June 25, 2013.

Corwin has failed to “set forth specific facts demonstrating that there is a genuine issue for trial,” Wright, 554 F.3d at 266, as to the existence and scope of the Agreement. Defendants have produced declaration testimony from Justin Ginsburgh, and Corwin has challenged the credibility of those statements. He has not, however, despite extensive discovery, introduced any evidence that there was an agreement with different terms in effect when Corwin became a Citi Bike member, or even any evidence that raises doubt as to whether the Agreement provided by defendants was in effect. Nor has Corwin provided any evidence that he was somehow able to sign up for his Citi Bike membership without following the process described by Ginsburgh, which required him to manifest assent to the Release Agreement. Therefore, Corwin has failed to raise a genuine dispute of material fact regarding the existence of a contract between [**25] the parties. Accordingly, whether or not Corwin’s claims are barred by the Release Agreement shall depend solely on the effectiveness of Corwin’s assent under the circumstances, and the enforceability of the waiver provisions as to the various defendants.

A. Unconscionability Analysis in Online “Clickwrap” Contracts

The first question for the Court’s consideration is whether, absent any overarching questions of statutory or common law public policy, the contract is enforceable on its own terms or whether, as Corwin argues, it is an “unconscionable and unenforceable contract of adhesion.” 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.” Gillman v. Chase Manhattan Bank, N.A., 73 N.Y.2d 1, 10, 534 N.E.2d 824, 537 N.Y.S.2d 787 (1988) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted); see also Desiderio v. Nat’l Ass’n of Sec. Dealers, Inc., 191 F.3d 198, 207 (2d Cir. 1999).

The parties agree that the contract in question is 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 [*489] service. “[U]nder a clickwrap arrangement, [**26] 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.” Register.com, Inc. v. Verio, Inc., 356 F.3d 393, 429 (2d Cir. 2004). 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.'” Meyer v. Kalanick, No. 15-CV-9796 (JSR), 199 F. Supp. 3d 752, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 99921, 2016 WL 4073071, at *6 (S.D.N.Y. July 29, 2016) (citing Cullinane v. Uber Techs., Inc., No. 14-CV-14750 (DPW), 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 89540, 2016 WL 3751652, at *6 (D. Mass. July 11, 2016)). While the Court of Appeals has not categorically ruled on the issue, it has strongly implied that such contracts are presumptively enforceable. See, e.g., Starkey v. G Adventures, Inc., 796 F.3d 193, 197 (2d Cir. 2015) (noting that case would have been “simpler to resolve had [defendant] used a ‘clickwrap’ mechanism to provide reasonable notice and to obtain [plaintiff’s] assent”). Accordingly, most lower courts have enforced such contracts, absent extraordinary circumstances. See Berkson v. Gogo LLC, 97 F. Supp. 3d 359, 397 (E.D.N.Y. 2015) (collecting cases); Centrifugal Force, Inc. v. Softnet Commc’n, Inc., No. 08-CV-5463 (CM), 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 20536, 2011 WL 744732, at *7 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 1, 2011) (“In New York, clickwrap agreements are valid and enforceable contracts.”).

Nevertheless, a user’s clicking of a box is not, without more, sufficient to signal their assent to any contract term. The touchstone in most courts’ analysis of the enforceability [**27] of clickwrap contracts turns on whether the website provided “reasonably conspicuous notice that [users] are about to bind themselves to contract terms.” Specht v. Netscape Commc’ns Corp., 306 F.3d 17, 32 (2d Cir. 2002) (Sotomayor, J.). In many cases, this becomes a fact-intensive inquiry because “electronic agreements fall along a spectrum in the degree to which they provide notice, and it is difficult to draw bright-line rules because each user interface differs from others in distinctive ways.” Meyer, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 99921, 2016 WL 4073071, at *8.

In Berkson, Judge Weinstein of the Eastern District of New York, surveying cases from federal courts nationwide, provided a useful set of parameters to guide this inquiry. 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. Berkson, 97 F. Supp. 3d at 401 (citing Nguyen v. Barnes & Noble Inc., 763 F.3d 1171, 1177 (9th Cir. 2014)). 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. Id. (citing Ticketmaster Corp. v. Tickets.Com, Inc., No. 99-CV-7654 (HLH), 2003 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 6483, 2003 WL 21406289, at *2 (C.D. Cal. Mar. 7, 2003)). Conversely, terms should not be enforced when they are “buried at the bottom of a webpage” or “tucked away in obscure corners.” Id. at 401-02 (collecting cases refusing to enforce such agreements). Special attention [**28] 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. Id. at 402; see also Meyer, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 99921, 2016 WL 4073071, at *10 (“When contractual terms as significant as . . . the right to sue in court are accessible only via a small and distant hyperlink . . . with text [*490] 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.

In this case, NYCBS represents that “before the prospective member can proceed to pay for the membership, each person is shown the . . . ‘User Agreement.’ The User Agreement is displayed on the page in its own scrollable text box, which may also be opened in a new window for ease [**29] of viewing and printing.” ECF No. 316, Ginsburgh Decl., at ¶ 7. The “continue” button allowing Corwin to provide his payment information would not activate until Corwin clicked on a statement reading “I certify that I am the Member, I am 18 years old or over, and I have read and agree to the conditions set forth in [sic] User Agreement.” Id. at ¶¶ 8-9; Release Agreement, ECF No. 316-1 at 56. The Release Agreement itself, roughly 10 pages in length, contained a bold-faced and underlined section in larger font titled “Releases; Disclaimers; Limited Liability; Assumption of the Risk.” The text of the sections in question are in normal-sized font. Though Corwin stated that he had no specific recollection of reading and signing the Release Agreement, he did admit “I don’t deny that I signed whatever it is I had to sign in order to get my Citi Bike pass.” ECF No. 315-4, Ronald Corwin 9/9/2015 Depo. at 195.

Applying the considerations in Berkson, the Release Agreement is enforceable. The full scrollable text of the agreement was available on the same page a user must utilize to register, requiring no clicking of hyperlinks, and the user cannot continue to input his payment information until [**30] he signals assent to the agreement by taking the affirmative step of clicking a box. While it is possible to imagine clearer signaling of the importance of the waiver provisions to an unwary or unsophisticated consumer, the terms are not hidden or buried in an obscure part of the website, but rather are in plain view. Accordingly, the Release Agreement is not unconscionable, and Corwin is not entitled to strike the City and NYCBS’s affirmative defenses on this basis.

B. Ambiguity

To be enforceable, an exculpatory agreement must be stated in clear, coherent, unambiguous language and expressly release a defendant from ordinary claims. See, e.g., Spancake v. Aggressor Fleet Ltd., No. 91-CV-5628 (DLC), 1995 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 7319, 1995 WL 322148, at *4 (S.D.N.Y. May 26, 1995). Corwin argues that the waiver is unenforceable due to ambiguity, finding a conflict between Section 8 (“Limited Liability”), which purports to release defendants from claims arising from riders’ “failure to wear a bicycle helmet while using a Citi Bike bicycle,” and Section 5, which does not list failing to wear a helmet as one of 11 “Prohibited Acts.” ECF 316-1, Release Agreement.

There is plainly no contradiction between Section 5 and Section 8. Section 5 lists actions, such as defacing a Citi Bike bicycle, transferring a bicycle to a non-member, or using a cellphone while riding that [**31] could presumably lead to contractual consequences for the member. Not wearing a helmet is not prohibited, which is also consistent with New York law allowing adult cyclists to ride without a helmet. See infra Part III.

Section 8 instead provides a non-exhaustive list of circumstances for which the [*491] contract seeks to limit liability. On its face, the fact that this list is not identical to that in Section 5 presents no contradiction, as they are presented for entirely different purposes.4 Moreover, the examples in Section 8 are meant only to illustrate some of the circumstances under which liability is to be limited; the section refers to limited liability for “any claim, including those that arise out of or relate to . . . your failure to wear a bicycle helmet while using Citi Bike bicycle.” Id. (emphasis added).

4 On wholly separate grounds, in Part III of its opinion, the Court grants Corwin summary judgment on Defendants’ affirmative defenses that Corwin’s failure to wear a bicycle helmet relieves them of liability because as a matter of New York law, the failure to wear a helmet goes only to the question of mitigation of damages. This does not, however, affect the clear and unambiguous nature of the waiver provisions.

As such, the Release Agreement is not void due to ambiguity.

C. Unenforceability on Public Policy Grounds

New York law “frowns upon contracts intended to exculpate a party from the consequences of his own negligence and though, with certain exceptions, they are enforceable, such agreements are subject to close judicial scrutiny.” Gross v. Sweet, 49 N.Y.2d 102, 106, 400 N.E.2d 306, 424 N.Y.S.2d 365 (1979). Therefore, an exculpatory contract must express “in unequivocal terms the [**32] intention of the parties to relieve a defendant of liability for the defendant’s negligence.” Lago v. Krollage, 78 N.Y.2d 95, 100, 575 N.E.2d 107, 571 N.Y.S.2d 689 (1991); Roane v. Greenwich Swim Comm., 330 F. Supp. 2d 306, 321 (S.D.N.Y. 2004) (finding that appearance of the actual word “negligence” was significant in determining whether exculpatory contract was to be enforced). But “even an agreement that clearly and unambiguously attempts to exempt a party only from liability for ordinary negligence will not be enforced . . . if it is found to violate public policy . . . .” Ash v. New York Univ. Dental Ctr., 164 A.D.2d 366, 369, 564 N.Y.S.2d 308 (1st Dep’t 1990).

Public policy “is to be ascertained by reference to the laws and legal precedents and not from general considerations of supposed public interests.” Lubov v. Horing & Welikson, P.C., 72 A.D.3d 752, 753, 898 N.Y.S.2d 244 (2d Dep’t 2010) (citation omitted); see also Lewis v. N.Y. State Dep’t of Civil Serv., 60 A.D.3d 216, 222, 872 N.Y.S.2d 578 (3d Dep’t 2009) (defining New York public policy as “the law of the [s]tate, whether found in the Constitution, the statutes or judicial records”) (citation omitted). Parties may, however, “agree to give up statutory or constitutional rights in a contract, as long as public policy is not violated.” J. D’Addario & Co., Inc. v. Embassy Indus., Inc., 20 N.Y.3d 113, 119, 980 N.E.2d 940, 957 N.Y.S.2d 275 (2012).

Corwin argues that the Release Agreement violates three sources of public policy–New York City Administrative Code § 19-110, which provides that municipal permit holders may be held liable for their own negligence, New York General Obligations Law § 5-326, which invalidates exculpatory clauses in agreements with operators of recreational facilities, and [**33] the City’s non-delegable common-law duty to maintain the public streets.

i. New York City Administrative Code § 19-110

New York City Administrative Code (“NYCAC”) § 19-110 reads:

Liability for damage. In all cases where any person shall engage in any activity for which a permit is required pursuant to [the subchapter concerning streets [*492] and sidewalks], such person shall be liable for any damage which may be occasioned to persons, animals, or property by reason of negligence in any manner connected with the work.

Corwin argues that this statute represents a “public policy” intended to provide a “statutory remedy” against all persons who negligently perform work subject to the issuance of a permit. He notes that there was no explicit reference to waiving any rights or remedies under NYCAC § 19-110 in the Release Agreement, but even if there were, such a waiver would be unenforceable because of an alleged public policy to protect the public and ensure a remedy against any person acting under a permit to individuals injured by their negligence.

Case law regarding § 19-110 (and its predecessor provision, § 19-107) is sparse, and no court has held that § 19-110 provides a statutory right at all–much less a non-waivable statutory right elevated to [**34] the status of public policy. Instead, the available case law deals exclusively with whether the statute can be invoked as a basis for the City to seek indemnification, as opposed to contribution, from a negligent municipal contractor. See City of New York v. Consol. Edison Co., 198 A.D.2d 31, 31-32, 603 N.Y.S.2d 47 (1st Dep’t 1993) (finding that statute did not provide a basis for indemnification, but rather only that a contractor was responsible for its own negligence); Petrucci v. City of New York, 167 A.D.2d 29, 34, 569 N.Y.S.2d 624 (1st Dep’t 1991) (concluding that statute did not provide a basis for indemnification of the City, but only an “intent to render the contractor responsible for those damages actually caused to injured third parties or property by its own negligence or carelessness”); Libardi v. City of New York, 201 A.D.2d 539, 540-41, 607 N.Y.S.2d 717 (2d Dep’t 1994) (same).

This limited case law appears to do no more than clarify, in line with common-law negligence principles, that the City may seek contribution for damages to third parties occasioned by a negligent contractor or property owner conducting work pursuant to a municipal permit. It is plainly insufficient to constitute an overarching public policy guaranteeing Corwin the right to sue any contractor notwithstanding a contractual waiver. Indeed, Corwin has cited no case in which the statute was interpreted to provide a plaintiff a private right of action or a “statutory [**35] remedy” differing in any way from a common-law negligence claim. Accordingly, NYCAC § 19-110 cannot serve as a basis for invalidating the Release Agreement.

ii. New York General Obligations Law § 5-326

New York has a statutory restriction that invalidates exculpatory clauses or agreements between users and owners and operators of recreational facilities. N.Y. General Obligations Law (“GOL”) § 5-326 provides:

Every covenant, agreement or understanding in or in connection with, or collateral to, any contract, membership application, ticket of admission or similar writing, entered into between the owner or operator of any pool, gymnasium, place of amusement or recreation, or similar establishment and the user of such facilities, pursuant to which such owner or operator receives a fee or other compensation for the use of such facilities, which exempts the said owner or operator from liability for damages caused by or resulting from the negligence of the owner, operator or person in charge of such establishment, or their agents, servants or employees, shall be [*493] deemed to be void as against public policy and wholly unenforceable.

The Release Agreement explicitly refers to this statute, noting that Released Persons are not “responsible or liable . . . except as may [**36] otherwise be limited by New York General Obligations Law 5-326.” ECF No. 316-1.

In order for GOL § 5-326 to apply, the plain text of the statute indicates that the agreement in question must (1) be made between a user and an owner or operator of a “place of amusement or recreation” or “similar establishment,” and (2) a fee or other compensation must be paid for “use” of a “facility” covered by the statute. Courts that have considered situations where equipment was rented and taken out of the control of the facility owner or operator have additionally considered whether the owner or operator exercised a substantial level of control over the environment in which the recreational activity takes place. See, e.g., Dumez v. Harbor Jet Ski, Inc., 117 Misc. 2d 249, 250, 458 N.Y.S.2d 119 (Sup. Ct. Niagara Cty. 1981).

Corwin argues that the Citi Bike program was primarily, or at the very least, substantially, a “recreational” program, and that the defendants’ business plan presupposed a significant number of daily and recreational users. He cites to a state court proceeding in which a neighborhood association challenged the installation of a Citi Bike station in a public park on the grounds that it was purely a commuter program. There, the City argued and the court held that the program fulfilled a valid recreational purpose. Friends of Petrosino Square v. Sadik-Khan, 42 Misc. 3d 226, 977 N.Y.S.2d 580 (Sup. Ct. N.Y. Cty. 2013), aff’d, 126 A.D.3d 470, 5 N.Y.S.3d 397 (1st Dep’t 2015). Therefore, [**37] according to Corwin, because the Citi Bike rental station where the accident occurred was a “place of recreation,” and he paid a fee to access the facility in the form of his annual membership, GOL § 5-326 operates to invalidate the exculpatory clause in the contract.5

5 Corwin also argues that the express language in the Release Agreement referencing GOL § 5-326 operates as an admission that negligence claims stemming from Citi Bike are not waivable and “is compelling proof of defendants’ recognition that [the] waiver is void.” ECF No. 361, Pl.’s Reply Mem. at 8. This is incorrect. Rather, the reference to GOL § 5-326 is plainly to ensure that the waiver provisions are not overbroad, putting users on notice that any such claims, were they to exist, would not be waived. It is not an admission that such claims actually could exist, or that in this case they do exist.

While the parties may dispute whether Corwin’s fateful Citi Bike ride was “recreational” in character, it is clear that the applicability of GOL § 5-326 cannot possibly turn on whether the given individual was using the bicycle recreationally or for commuting purposes. Defendants, moreover, argue that the statute does not apply because the membership fee does not entitle the user access or use of any physical facility; the fee is solely for the rental of a bike, while any individual is free to traverse the Citi Bike stations or New York City streets.

Several New York courts have held that GOL § 5-326 does not apply to accidents occurring on publicly accessible roadways, trails, or fields. See Deutsch v. Woodridge Segway, LLC, 117 A.D.3d 776, 777, 985 N.Y.S.2d 716 (2d Dep’t 2014) (statute not applied to plaintiff who rented a Segway vehicle and was taken on defendant-guided tour of muddy public trail “because the fee she paid to the defendant was for the rental of the Segway vehicle, and was not an admission [**38] fee for the use of the public trail over which the tour was conducted”); [*494] Brookner v. N.Y. Roadrunners Club, Inc., 51 A.D.3d 841, 842, 858 N.Y.S.2d 348 (2d Dep’t 2008) (statute not applied to marathon runner because entry fee “was for his participation in the marathon, and was not an admission fee allowing him to use the City-owned public roadway over which the marathon was run” and “public roadway in Brooklyn where the plaintiff alleges he was injured is not a ‘place of amusement or recreation'”); Tedesco v. Triborough Bridge & Tunnel Auth., 250 A.D.2d 758, 758, 673 N.Y.S.2d 181 (2d Dep’t 1998) (statute not applied to cyclist on paid bike tour “since the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, where the plaintiff . . . was injured, is not a ‘place of amusement or recreation'”); Stuhlweissenburg v. Town of Orangetown, 223 A.D.2d 633, 634, 636 N.Y.S.2d 853 (2d Dep’t 1996) (statute not applied to accident occurring in softball game where no fee was paid to access field).

On the other hand, other courts have applied GOL § 5-326 to certain accidents on publicly accessible roadways, trails, or fields. See Williams v. City of Albany, 271 A.D.2d 855, 856-57, 706 N.Y.S.2d 240 (3d Dep’t 2000) (declining to follow Stuhlweissenburg and invalidating waiver for accident occurring in publicly accessible field for plaintiff playing in privately-operated flag football league); Filson v. Cold River Trail Rides, Inc., 242 A.D.2d 775, 777, 661 N.Y.S.2d 841 (3d Dep’t 1997) (invalidating waiver in horseback-riding accident guided by defendant but occurring on publicly accessible parkland); Wright v. Freeport Hudson Anglers, Inc., 2009 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 4712 (Sup Ct. Nassau Cnty. Apr. 8, 2009) (invalidating waiver for sea accident occurring in fishing tournament).

In seeking to reconcile [**39] the case law, Defendants point out that every court to consider the applicability of GOL § 5-326 to an accident occurring on a public, paved, urban street has found the statute to be inapplicable. Corwin, for his part, argues that these cases are inapposite because the bike station was not part of a public road at all, but rather a separate “recreational facility” that happened to be located on a public road.6

6 If true, this, of course, would contradict Corwin’s argument that the Release Agreement is unenforceable as to the City because it purports to waive the City’s non-delegable duty to maintain its roads.

Considering the case law and the legislative intent animating the statute, the Court finds as a matter of law that a Citi Bike station is not a “facility” for the purposes of § 5-326. The stations are plainly more properly characterized as storage facilities for bicycles rather than facilities for recreation in and of themselves. Even if riders incidentally enter or pass through the stations on their bicycles, or if the design of the particular bike station that was the site of the accident encouraged riders to pass through it, this does not turn them into “places of amusement or recreation.” Assuming without deciding that Citi Bike is properly characterized as a primarily recreational program, the intended sites for that recreational use are the City’s roadways and bike lanes–the very types of [**40] paved public thoroughfares that courts have held are not “places of amusement or recreation.” See, e.g., Brookner, 51 A.D.3d at 842. Therefore, the station can only be defined in two ways: either it is part of the public road on which riders are meant to engage in recreational activity, or it is a storage facility that is not part of the roadway. Either way, it is not a “place of amusement or recreation” or “similar establishment,” as required to trigger the statute. Accordingly, GOL § 5-326 cannot serve as a basis for invalidating the Release Agreement.

iii. City’s Common Law Duty to Maintain the Roads

New York courts have long held “that a municipality owe[s] to the public the absolute [*495] duty of keeping its streets in a reasonably safe condition.” Friedman v. State, 67 N.Y.2d 271, 283, 493 N.E.2d 893, 502 N.Y.S.2d 669 (1986) (quotations omitted); see also Wittorf v. City of New York., 23 N.Y.3d 473, 480, 991 N.Y.S.2d 578, 15 N.E.3d 333 (2014) (“[A] municipality has a duty to maintain its roads and highways in a reasonably safe condition and liability will flow for injuries resulting from a breach of that duty.”). As this duty has been characterized as “absolute” and “non-delegable” (though subject to the doctrine of qualified immunity, see infra Part IV), Corwin argues that the City’s duty applies to the bike station and wheel stop at issue and cannot be released by means of a private contract. The City [**41] contends that while it does indeed have a duty to maintain public roadways, a contractual waiver of this duty is permissible and would not offend any overarching public policy.

Before considering whether the City’s duty to maintain public roadways may be released by contract to a voluntary participant in a public transportation program such as Citi Bike, the Court must first determine whether the Citi Bike station where Corwin’s accident occurred properly falls within the scope of that duty. Indeed, defendants argue repeatedly that cyclists are not intended to use bike station areas as a travel lane, and that those facilities are intended only for the storage, retrieval, and return of bicycles. They contend that the presence of the concrete wheel stops and surrounding cross-hatching, white thermoplastic striping, and flexible delineators plainly distinguished the bike station from the adjoining roadway, and should have indicated to a cyclist that it was an area in which cycling was not permitted.

In determining the scope of a municipality’s duty, New York courts have generally considered whether the municipality affirmatively undertook to provide an improved area adjacent to the road, [**42] such as a shoulder. If so, it has generally been held to be responsible for its maintenance. See Bottalico v. State, 59 N.Y.2d 302, 305, 451 N.E.2d 454, 464 N.Y.S.2d 707 (1983) (finding highway shoulder to be within scope of duty because it was “both foreseeable and contemplated that, once provided, an improved shoulder at times will be driven upon”). The touchstone of this analysis is foreseeability. It does not necessarily depend on the reasonableness of a plaintiff’s conduct. A municipality is required to “maintain the shoulder in a reasonably safe condition for foreseeable uses, including its use resulting from a driver’s negligence.” Id. at 304; see also Stiuso v. City of New York, 87 N.Y.2d 889, 891, 663 N.E.2d 321, 639 N.Y.S.2d 1009 (1995) (same); Saulpaugh v. State, 132 A.D.2d 781, 781-82, 517 N.Y.S.2d 328 (4th Dep’t 1987) (same).

On the other hand, no duty exists where a paved roadway “is more than adequate for safe public passage and travel beyond those limits is neither contemplated nor foreseeable.” Tomassi v. Town of Union, 46 N.Y.2d 91, 97, 385 N.E.2d 581, 412 N.Y.S.2d 842 (1978) (noting that “utility poles, drainage ditches, culverts, trees and shrubbery are often in close proximity to the traveled right of way . . . [b]ut for the careful driver, the placement of these items near the pavement creates no unreasonable danger”). The courts have repeatedly denied recovery for roadway users whose injury stemmed from the lack of maintenance of areas near the roadway whose use was unforeseeable even in emergencies. [**43] See, e.g., Preston v. State, 6 A.D.3d 835, 836, 775 N.Y.S.2d 115 (3d Dep’t 2004) (no recovery for driver hitting tree seven feet from the edge of the travel line, where “nothing in the record indicat[ed] [*496] that defendant affirmatively took any action to create or maintain the area”); Green v. Cty. of Allegany, 300 A.D.2d 1077, 1077, 752 N.Y.S.2d 487 (4th Dep’t 2002) (no recovery for failure to maintain drainage ditch and culvert headwall); Muller v. State, 240 A.D.2d 881, 882, 658 N.Y.S.2d 727 (3d Dep’t 1997) (no recovery for failure to maintain drainage ditch headwall beyond the traversable shoulder where the “emergency use of such additional area was neither contemplated nor foreseeable”).

The record does not demonstrate that the City actively contemplated that cyclists would be passing through Citi Bike stations; indeed, precisely the alleged failure to contemplate this possibility forms the basis for Corwin’s argument that the City is not entitled to qualified immunity on this issue. The Court does find, however, that the possibility of cyclists passing through Citi Bike stations located in on-street parking lanes was foreseeable. At times, defendants’ representatives have seemed to admit that riding in the parking lane was, if not expressly permitted, at least a common practice of cyclists. ECF No. 335-24, Jon Orcutt 09/03/15 Depo. at 396-97. (“There are plenty of places with a wide parking lane . . . where [**44] a wide parking lane is kind of implemented as a stealth bike lane.”) This conclusion is buttressed by a brief traffic study conducted by Corwin’s expert, James M. Green. ECF No. 335, Green Decl. ¶¶ 35, 57 (finding that cyclists regularly circulated through the station at issue and arguing that this was a “foreseeable consequence of this Station design,” which was wider and jutted further out into the traffic lane). But even absent the expert’s study, logic dictates that, just as an automobile is not generally permitted to drive on an improved shoulder but may swerve into it (negligently or not) in a situation where the circumstances so require, it is foreseeable that a cyclist such as Corwin may (negligently or not) enter into the Citi Bike station seeking safety when feeling pressured by tight traffic.

This is, perhaps, an imperfect analogy: whereas the express and primary purpose of an improved highway shoulder is to provide a safe outlet for motorists in emergency situations, this is not so for Citi Bike stations, whose primary purpose is the storage, retrieval, and return of bicycles. Nevertheless, the applicable case law does not require that the primary purpose of the improved [**45] space abutting the road be for such emergency uses; as stated above, foreseeability is sufficient to trigger the municipality’s duty. Nor have courts drawn distinctions between motorists and other roadway users; instead, they have found that cyclists may bring claims predicated on state or municipal government’s failure to maintain roadways. See, e.g., Cotty v. Town of Southampton, 64 A.D.3d 251, 255, 880 N.Y.S.2d 656 (2d Dep’t 2009) (primary assumption of risk doctrine “not designed to relieve a municipality of its duty to maintain its roadways in a safe condition . . . and such a result does not become justifiable merely because the roadway happens to be in use by a person operating a bicycle”); Caraballo v. City of Yonkers, 54 A.D.3d 796, 796-97, 865 N.Y.S.2d 229 (2d Dep’t 2008) (“[T[he infant plaintiff cannot be said, as a matter of law, to have assumed the risk of being injured by a defective condition of a pothole on a public street, merely because he was participating in the activity of recreational noncompetitive bicycling, and using the bicycle as a means of transportation.” (citations omitted)).

Finally, there can be no question that the duty to maintain the roads applies not only to the physical condition of the road itself, but also to the placement of [*497] obstacles or hazards that make use of the road unsafe. Annino v. City of Utica, 276 N.Y. 192, 196-97, 11 N.E.2d 726 (1937) (municipality found liable [**46] for a tripod dangerously placed over a manhole cover so as to constitute a dangerous obstruction); Whitney v. Town of Ticonderoga, 127 N.Y. 40, 44, 27 N.E. 403 (1891) (“[T]he impairment of a highway for public use may be no less such by an obstruction placed in it than by a physical disturbance or injury to the bed of the roadway.”).

Accordingly, the Court finds that 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. Therefore, the Court must now decide whether the City can waive this duty by contract as a condition of participating in the Citi Bike public transportation program.

“[E]ven an agreement that clearly and unambiguously attempts to exempt a party only from liability for ordinary negligence will not be enforced by the courts . . . if it is found to violate public policy either by way of conflicting with an overriding public interest or because it constitutes an abuse of a special relationship between the parties, or both.” Ash, 164 A.D.2d at 369. Indeed, when choosing to invalidate such clauses, courts have often analyzed the “public interest” and “special relationship” prongs together. See id. at 369-71 (invalidating exculpatory clause between dental clinic and patient both [**47] because of the public interest in protecting the welfare of its citizens and ensuring medical quality and the uniqueness of the physician-patient relationship); Conklin v. Canadian-Colonial Airways, Inc., 266 N.Y. 244, 247-48, 194 N.E. 692 (1935) (invalidating clause between common carrier and passenger because allowing public service corporations to disclaim all liability for negligence by contract is contrary to public interest, and passengers are not typically given a choice in contracting); Johnston v. Fargo, 184 N.Y. 379, 384-85, 77 N.E. 388 (1906) (invalidating exculpatory clause between employer and employees both because of the state interest in the “maintenance of proper and reasonable safeguards to human life and limb” and the unequal bargaining power between the parties). On the other hand, courts have readily enforced exculpatory clauses in arm’s length commercial transactions between two private parties, see, e.g., Florence v. Merchants Cent. Alarm Co., Inc., 51 N.Y.2d 793, 412 N.E.2d 1317, 433 N.Y.S.2d 91 (1980), when not expressly prohibited by statute.

No case has considered the specific question of whether a municipality’s duty to keep its streets in a reasonably safe condition for travel can be waived by contract. For almost two centuries, however, New York state courts have spoken of an “absolute” duty that could not be delegated to third parties. See Annino, 276 N.Y. at 196 (1937) (“The city owed to the public the absolute duty of [**48] keeping its streets in a reasonably safe condition for travel and was bound to exercise reasonable care to accomplish that end.”) (emphasis added) (citations omitted); Storrs v. City of Utica, 17 N.Y. 104, 108-09 (1858) (finding that municipal corporations “owe[] to the public the duty of keeping its streets in a safe condition for travel” and “although the work may be let out by contract, the corporation still remains charged with the care and control of the street in which the improvement is carried on . . . [and cannot] either avoid indictment in behalf of the public or its liability to individuals who are injured.”). The only significant exception to this nondelegable duty is that “it is intended to protect the traveling public”–therefore, [*498] the duty has been held not to extend to injured employees of independent contractors working on road construction projects. Lopes v. Rostad, 45 N.Y.2d 617, 624-25, 384 N.E.2d 673, 412 N.Y.S.2d 127 (1978). In reaching this conclusion, the Lopes court stated that, because the government is responsible for providing the public with roads and highways for travel:

[w]ith this responsibility comes the further obligation to assure, insofar as is reasonably possible, that the thoroughfares of travel will be constructed and maintained in a safe condition. A governmental body would hardly [**49] have fulfilled its responsibility if the roadways it provided for public use were a source of public danger. It is for this reason that “[g]overnments have ever been most zealous to afford special protection to the users of streets, highways and other means of transportation” (1936 Report of NY, Law Rev Comm, p 955).

Id. at 625.

Corwin, a cyclist passing through a bike station located in a parking lane on a public street, falls within the category of those deemed protected by a municipality’s duty to maintain its roadways. While it is certainly understandable that the City would seek to limit its exposure to liability stemming from those using the Citi Bike program, its desire to see this salutary transportation initiative succeed is not sufficiently related to the key, centuries-old public policy of guaranteeing the safety of the users of City streets. It is this public policy that underlies its non-delegable duty to keep streets and roadways safe. The City has designed a public transportation system that involves physical installations in parking lanes on heavily transited streets, and permitted a contractor, NYCBS, to implement and manage that program. Even though the purported liability waiver is confined [**50] to road conditions in the circumscribed area of the bike stations, the Court finds that the enforcement of such a waiver against over a million Citi Bike users is contrary to the public policy that dictates that the City has the duty to guarantee road safety.7

7 The waiver would certainly be effective as to claims unrelated to road conditions, such as, for example, the quality of the bicycles or the malfunctioning of the rental kiosks.

After all, the fact that Corwin was riding a Citi Bike, as opposed to his own bicycle, at the time of his accident was purely coincidental. The City does not articulate any public policy in barring Corwin’s claim but permitting a claim brought by a non-member of Citi Bike who strikes the same wheel stop while riding his own bicycle. There is no basis for immunizing the City from suit by one class of cyclists–who participate in a highly publicized transportation program such as Citi Bike–while allowing non-Citi Bike users to bring suit for the same accident occurring in the same area of the street. Simply put, the law clearly imposes upon the City a duty to ensure road safety for all pedestrians, cyclists, motorists, and road users on all sections of the road that are foreseeably transitable.

At oral argument, counsel for the City indicated that the execution of transportation programs such as Citi Bike would not be feasible without [**51] such waivers of liability. But the City is not left wholly unprotected. As discussed in Parts IV and V of this opinion, the finder of fact may determine that the City is entitled to qualified immunity in regards to the station design, or that the City was not “affirmatively negligent” and is thus protected by the notice provisions of New York Administrative Code § 7-201. Therefore, the Court does not believe that its invalidation of the [*499] waiver as to road conditions and hazards within the bike stations threatens the viability of the Citi Bike program.

D. Conclusion

For the foregoing reasons, the Release Agreement effectively releases Corwin’s common-law negligence claims against NYCBS, allowing only claims of gross negligence to proceed against it. The waiver does not apply to the City, however, because such a release of the City’s duty would be contrary to public policy; accordingly, Corwin may proceed with his common-law negligence claims against the City. The Court need not decide if the APD is a “Released Person” under the Agreement, as it grants summary judgment to APD on all claims in Part VIII of this opinion on other grounds.

III. Affirmative Defenses Based on Corwin’s Failure to Wear [**52] a Helmet

Defendants have set out various affirmative defenses–including comparative negligence, primary assumption of the risk, and failure to mitigate damages–premised on the uncontested fact that Corwin was not wearing a bicycle helmet at the time of the crash. Corwin moves for partial summary judgment on all of these defenses, arguing that there was no statutory obligation that he do so, that the City and NYCBS themselves represented that wearing a helmet was unnecessary, and that New York Vehicle and Traffic Law (“VTL”) § 1238(7) and case law in New York and other jurisdictions expressly prohibits such conduct from being considered for the purposes of liability or damages.

As a preliminary matter, Corwin argues that defendants have failed to produce sufficient evidence to raise a factual question as to whether there was an unreasonable risk of a head injury while riding a Citi Bike without a helmet. Summary judgment is improper if “there is any evidence in the record from any source from which a reasonable inference could be drawn in favor of the nonmoving party . . . .” Chambers, 43 F.3d at 37. There are disputed questions of material fact in this case as to both (a) whether a reasonably prudent person in Corwin’s [**53] circumstances would have worn a helmet and (b) whether wearing such a helmet would have mitigated the damages Corwin suffered. See, e.g., ECF No. 344, Decl. of Elizabeth McCalley (arguing that Corwin would not have sustained many of his severe injuries had he worn a helmet).

There is no dispute that Corwin was not obligated to wear a helmet while riding a Citi Bike or any other bicycle; unlike the seatbelt requirements of N.Y. VTL § 1229-c, there is no statutory obligation for an adult bicyclist to wear a helmet while riding a bike on a public road. N.Y. VTL § 1238(5) does require children under the age of fourteen to do so, but imposes no affirmative obligations on individuals over that age. A subsection of the same statute also indicates that “the failure of any person to comply with the provisions of this section shall not constitute contributory negligence or assumption of risk, and shall not in any way bar, preclude or foreclose an action for personal injury or wrongful death by or on behalf of such person, nor in any way diminish or reduce the damages recoverable in any such action.” VTL § 1238(7); see also Lamica v. Precore, 273 A.D.2d 647, 647-48, 709 N.Y.S.2d 694 (3d Dep’t 2000) (in accident involving helmetless child on bicycle, dismissing defendants’ counterclaim that parents were negligent [**54] for failing to ensure child wore helmet). Therefore, Corwin argues, if New York has seen fit to preclude expressly the consideration of helmet evidence for either liability or damages purposes even when wearing a helmet is mandated [*500] by law, surely the failure to wear a helmet by someone not obligated to do so by law should be similarly inadmissible.

The fact that New York has categorically barred the consideration of such evidence in a statute aimed at the protection of children does not, however, imply that the state has a general public policy against the admission of such evidence for all bicycle riders. Indeed, though Corwin argues that it would be “anomalous and irrational” to admit helmet evidence for an older rider under no legal obligation to wear a helmet, there is a clear and obvious rationale for the limited reach of the statute: a desire to prevent families from being burdened with costs stemming from accidents occurring on account of their young children’s inability to perceive risks, and a determination that parents should not be found negligent for failing to ensure that their children wear helmets. No court has interpreted VTL § 1238(7) to stand for a general public policy that the [**55] failure to wear a helmet is inadmissible for purposes of measuring comparative negligence or mitigation of damages, and the Court declines to do so today.

While the New York Court of Appeals has not spoken authoritatively on the specific question of whether the non-use of a bicycle helmet is admissible under such circumstances, the framework that it adopted regarding the non-use of seat belts in automobiles is instructive. At a time when no law mandated that occupants of a passenger car wore seat belts, the court explicitly rejected the failure to wear a seat belt as a basis for contributory negligence8 or primary assumption of the risk, but concluded that:

nonuse of an available seat belt . . . is a factor which the jury may consider, in light of all the other facts received in evidence, in arriving at its determination as to whether the plaintiff has exercised due care, not only to avoid injury to himself, but to mitigate any injury he would likely sustain. However . . . the plaintiff’s nonuse of an available seat belt should be strictly limited to the jury’s determination of the plaintiff’s damages and should not be considered by the triers of fact in resolving the issue of liability. [**56]

Spier v. Barker, 35 N.Y.2d 444, 449-50, 323 N.E.2d 164, 363 N.Y.S.2d 916 (1974).

8 Though the Spier decision was rendered before New York’s adoption of the comparative fault system and therefore discussed only if a plaintiff would be wholly barred from recovery under the then-existing doctrine of contributory negligence, New York courts have consistently considered seat belt evidence exclusively for purposes of mitigation of damages, and not for the apportionment of comparative fault. See, e.g., Stein v. Penatello, 185 A.D.2d 976, 976-77, 587 N.Y.S.2d 37 (2d Dep’t 1992).

Therefore, in cases involving the failure to wear a seat belt, New York law imposes a pre-accident obligation to mitigate damages, and the burden of proving that the injured party failed to do so rests upon the defendant. Davis v. Davis, 49 A.D.2d 1024, 1024, 374 N.Y.S.2d 482 (4th Dep’t 1975). Lower New York courts have applied the same principles to other types of protective gear as well. See, e.g., Penzell v. State, 120 Misc. 2d 600, 466 N.Y.S.2d 562, 567 (Ct. Cl. 1983) (motorcycle helmets); Giannetti v. Darling Del. Carting Co., 175 Misc. 2d 1, 666 N.Y.S.2d 372, 374-76 (Sup. Ct. Suffolk Cnty. 1997) (safety gloves in fast food restaurant). And, indeed, in the state court proceedings parallel to this case, 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 [*501] damages, if any, should be assessed.” Corwin v. City of New York, 141 A.D.3d 484, 490, 36 N.Y.S.3d 118 (1st Dep’t 2016) (citation omitted).9

9 State courts in other jurisdictions have also drawn analogies between seat belt and helmet use. See, e.g., Stehlik v. Rhoads, 2002 WI 73, 253 Wis. 2d 477, 645 N.W.2d 889 (Wis. 2002) (same principles govern seat belt and helmet defenses for ATV rider); Meyer v. City of Des Moines, 475 N.W.2d 181, 186 (Iowa 1991) (same for moped rider); Warfel v. Cheney, 157 Ariz. 424, 758 P.2d 1326 (Ariz. App. 1988) (same for motorcyclist).

To be sure, some courts across the country have reached contrary conclusions.10 See, e.g., Cordy v. Sherwin Williams Co., 975 F. Supp. 639, 647-48 (D.N.J. 1997) (noting that nothing in federal or state law alerts adult cyclists that their rights may be prejudiced by failure to wear a helmet, finding fewer safety concerns with helmetless biking and rejecting analogy to seat belt laws); Walden v. State, 250 Mont. 132, 818 P.2d 1190, 1196-97 (Mont. 1991) (holding same in state where evidence [**57] of seat belt use is inadmissible for mitigation of damages purposes). The decision in Corwin, however, and the logic of Spier and the New York cases extending it beyond the seat belt domain, compel denial of Corwin’s motion for summary judgment as it pertains to the affirmative defenses relating to mitigation of damages.

10 Corwin relies on Phelan v. State of New York, 11 Misc. 3d 151, 804 N.Y.S.2d 886 (N.Y. Ct. Cl. 2005), where the New York Court of Claims declined to consider a bicyclist’s non-use of a helmet in mitigation of damages. The case, however, is distinguishable as “no persuasive testimony, medical or otherwise, was proffered to establish that [plaintiff’s] injuries would have been either avoided or reduced had she worn a helmet.” Id. at 167. Therefore, the defendant failed to make even a prima facie case that damages should be mitigated by the decedent’s failure to wear a helmet. To the extent that Phelan also based the decision on the fact the “[d]ecedent was not required to wear a helmet [by law],” this is inconsistent with the Appellate Division’s decision in Corwin, 141 A.D.3d 484, 36 N.Y.S.3d 118, and the logic of Spier v. Barker, 35 N.Y.2d 444, 323 N.E.2d 164, 363 N.Y.S.2d 916.

Nevertheless, even as Spier and its progeny indicate that Corwin’s non-use of a helmet will be admissible for the purposes of calculating damages, the cases also hold that such evidence is inadmissible on questions of liability. Therefore, defendants shall not be permitted to argue that Corwin was comparatively negligent for failing to wear a helmet.11 For the same reason and for the reasons expressed in Part VI of this Opinion, defendants will also not be permitted to argue that Corwin’s claims are barred by the doctrine of primary assumption of risk. See also Cotty, 64 A.D.3d at 256 (2d Dep’t 2009) (“[R]iding a bicycle on a paved public roadway normally does not constitute a sporting activity for purposes of applying the primary assumption of risk doctrine.”).

11 Of course, defendants may still argue at trial that Corwin was comparatively negligent for other reasons, including, inter alia, the speed, manner, and location of where he was riding his bicycle.

Accordingly, Corwin’s motion for summary judgment is DENIED as to the City’s Seventh and Ninth affirmative defenses (ECF. No. 200), NYCBS’s Sixth affirmative [**58] defense (ECF No. 199), and Metro Express’s Sixth affirmative defense (ECF No. 213) concerning the relevance of his non-use of a helmet to mitigation of damages, and GRANTED as the City’s Second and Eighth affirmative defenses, NYCBS’s First and Seventh affirmative defenses and Metro Express’s Second and Seventh affirmative defenses, inasmuch as those defenses assert the relevance of his non-use of a helmet to comparative negligence and assumption of the risk. Sealcoat [*502] did not explicitly reference Corwin’s failure to use a helmet as an affirmative defense, (ECF No. 211) and in Part VIII, the Court grants summary judgment to APD and APDNY, thus rendering the question of summary judgment on their First affirmative defense moot.

IV. Qualified Immunity

A. City’s Qualified Immunity for Bike Station Design and Wheel Stop Placement

The City of New York moves for summary judgment on the grounds that its involvement in the design and planning of the Citi Bike program is a uniquely governmental function for which it is entitled to qualified immunity as a matter of law. See Valdez v. City of New York, 18 N.Y.3d 69, 76, 960 N.E.2d 356, 936 N.Y.S.2d 587 (2011) (“Even if a plaintiff establishes all elements of a negligence claim, a state or municipal defendant engaging in a governmental [**59] function can avoid liability if it . . . proves that the alleged negligent act or omission involved the exercise of discretionary authority.”).

“When a negligence claim is asserted against a municipality, the first issue for a court to decide is whether the municipal entity was engaged in a proprietary function or acted in a governmental capacity at the time the claim arose.” Applewhite v. Accuhealth, Inc., 21 N.Y.3d 420, 425, 995 N.E.2d 131, 972 N.Y.S.2d 169 (2013). A municipality engages in governmental functions when its acts are “undertaken for the protection and safety of the public pursuant to the general police powers,” and in proprietary functions when “its activities essentially substitute for or supplement traditionally private enterprises.” Id. (citations omitted). If a municipality acts in a governmental capacity, the plaintiff must prove that he was owed a special duty, and that the exercise of governmental authority was not discretionary. Turturro v. City of New York, 28 N.Y.3d 469, 478-79, 45 N.Y.S.3d 874, 68 N.E.3d 693 (2016).

Traffic planning decisions, including decisions about the design of roads and other facilities, are proprietary functions, arising from a municipality’s “proprietary duty to keep its roads and highways in a reasonably safe condition.” Wittorf, 23 N.Y.3d at 480. This duty, while “nondelegable . . . is measured by the courts with consideration given [**60] to the proper limits on intrusion into the municipality’s planning and decision-making functions.” Friedman, 67 N.Y.2d at 283 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). As such, “in the specific proprietary field of roadway safety, a municipality is afforded ‘a qualified immunity from liability arising out of a highway planning decision'” under certain circumstances. Turturro, 28 N.Y.3d at 479-80 (quoting Friedman, 67 N.Y.2d at 283)).

Such immunity arises only when the defendant can “demonstrate that a public planning body considered and passed upon the same question of risk as would go to a jury in the case at issue.” Jackson v. N.Y. City Transit Auth., 30 A.D.3d 289, 290-91, 818 N.Y.S.2d 32 (1st Dep’t 2006) (finding general evaluation of buses referencing passengers’ ability to grab onto overhead racks insufficient to grant qualified immunity on claim that transit authority should have installed grab bars and handholds); Leon v. N.Y. City Transit Auth., 96 A.D.3d 554, 554-55, 947 N.Y.S.2d 33 (1st Dep’t 2012) (denying qualified immunity for passenger injured by falling in gap between train car and platform when City had only studied the risk that train would scrape platform); see [*503] also Turturro, 28 N.Y.3d at 483 (no qualified immunity for City’s failure to study speeding traffic on avenue); Poveromo v. Town of Cortlandt, 127 A.D.3d 835, 837, 6 N.Y.S.3d 617 (2d Dep’t 2015) (no qualified immunity for municipality’s failure to install certain traffic devices at an intersection absent a study); Kuhland v. City of New York, 81 A.D.3d 786, 787, 916 N.Y.S.2d 637 (2d Dep’t 2011) (no qualified immunity for design of traffic [**61] intersection in absence of any pedestrian traffic studies); cf. Levi v. Kratovac, 35 A.D.3d 548, 549, 827 N.Y.S.2d 196 (2d Dep’t 2006) (qualified immunity granted for design of traffic intersection pursuant to a pedestrian safety study and reasonable traffic plan).

In light of these principles, the key question is whether the City’s planning of the Citi Bike program “passed upon the same question of risk” that this case presents–namely, that the placement of unpainted concrete wheel stops within Citi Bike stations could pose a tripping danger to cyclists. The City describes a collaborative process between it and APD based on its experiences with “bike corrals” that employed similar features, including wheel stops. ECF No. 293, City St. ¶¶ 40-42, 50. The City indicates that it viewed wheel stops as “the most important safety feature that was also installed in 2011.” Id. ¶ 46. Accordingly, the result of its collaboration with APD was a set of guidelines including the use of “non-permanent bollards, wheel stops, and paint markings.” Id. ¶ 55; ECF No. 289-19, 04/23/12 Station Siting Guidelines at 11. The City notes that APD and APDNY considered a wheel stop to be a necessary feature to protect the bike station from vehicles encroaching on the station and [**62] damaging the equipment or injuring individuals who may be within the station. City St. ¶ 58; ECF No. 289-3, Adrian Witte 08/14/15 Depo. at 20-21; ECF No. 289-5, Jeff Olson 09/29/15 Depo. at 410-11. The City did not, however, approve of the use of wheel stops that extend outside of the parking lane and into the travel lane. City St. ¶ 66; ECF No. 291, Sameer Barkho Decl. ¶ 10. The City determined that a yellow and black object marker, which had been included in the original design of some bike corrals, was “optional” because the on-street bike parking station sat in a parking lane and not a travel lane, and “pavement markings were more than sufficient to signal to an approaching motorist or bicyclist the presence of the on-street bike parking station and the presence of the wheel stop in the parking lane.” Id. ¶ 11. On the contrary, wheel stops would be situated within a white painted rectangular box with “white paint markings forming diagonal lines within the rectangular box.” Id. at ¶ 12.

The record plainly indicates that the decision to install concrete wheel stops in Citi Bike stations was the product of careful consideration and deliberation between the City and APD’s design and [**63] engineering experts. This mere fact, however, does not suffice for the City to be entitled to qualified immunity as a matter of law. Corwin does not merely seek to have the fact finder “examine the criteria that were considered by the State’s professional staff, emphasize factors allegedly overlooked, and, with the benefit of hindsight, rule that the studies were inadequate as a matter of law.” Friedman, 67 N.Y.2d at 285-86. Rather, he argues that though the City considered the need and efficacy of wheel stop placement to prevent cars from encroaching into the stations and harming individuals or property, it conducted no studies whatsoever as to whether such wheel stops could constitute tripping hazards for cyclists passing through such stations.

[*504] Though it is a close question, because the City has obviously given the coloring, placement, and demarcation of wheel stops some thought, the Court finds that there is a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether the City studied or “passed upon the same question of risk” presented in this case. While there is extensive testimony in the record that the City believed that wheel stops were of great importance in protecting stations from automobiles, the City has presented [**64] no specific study that suggests that it considered the effect of wheel stop placement or design on the safety of pedestrians or cyclists passing through the station, or whether the City considered that the wheel stops might be in the foreseeable paths of cyclists who, by custom or necessity, pass through the Citi Bike station footprints. In particular, it is not clear on what basis the City decided that object markers were to be made “optional,” or if the City considered the adequacy of shorter wheel stops that would extend no further into the parking lane than the bikes themselves. Therefore, as a reasonable fact-finder could find that the City did not study or pass on the “same question of risk,” the City is not entitled to qualified immunity as a matter of law on the specific question of wheel stop placement. At trial, the jury will be asked special interrogatories to resolve these disputed facts.

B. City’s Qualified Immunity for Failure to Provide Bicycle Helmets to Citi Bike Users

The City also moves for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity on Corwin’s claims that “the intentional failure and refusal of the Defendants to design Citi Bike to include a convenient system [**65] of helmet rentals–as in place in Melbourne, Vancouver and Seattle–or otherwise provide helmets at all Citi Bike sites, was negligent . . . .” ECF No. 192, Second Am. Compl. ¶ 352.

The record plainly demonstrates that the City’s decision not to mandate or provide helmets to Citi Bike users was the fruit of a well-reasoned policy based on extensive study of the “same question of risk as would go to a jury in the case at issue.” Jackson, 30 A.D.3d at 290. As early as 2009, the City’s Feasibility Study noted that “increasing the number of bicyclists is one of the most reliable ways to increase bicyclist safety,” and cast doubt on the feasibility of helmet distribution. City St. ¶ 4; ECF No. 290-1, Bike Share Feasibility Study. The director of the City’s Bike Share Unit stated that the City found that “mandatory helmet laws decreased bicycle ridership in general and decreased participation in bike share programs in particular. [The City] considered statistics showing that mandatory helmets laws actually decreased the safety of bicycling . . . [and] bicycle riders wearing helmets tend to ride more recklessly than riders who do not.” ECF No. 290, John Frost Decl. ¶ 5. The City specifically noted that in Melbourne, [**66] Australia, mandatory helmet laws resulted in a lowered rate of bicycle usage. City St. ¶ 13; ECF No. 289-2, Kate Fillin-Yeh 08/20/15 Depo. at 46-48. The City also specifically considered installing automatic helmet rental machines and rejected the proposal on hygiene and structural integrity grounds in public comments justifying the policy choice. ECF No. 290, John Frost Decl. ¶ 6; ECF No. 289-1, Stephanie Levinsky-Shaw 08/12/15 Depo. at 222. Nevertheless, the City encouraged bicycle helmet use by distributing discount voucher coupons for the purchase of helmets to annual members and expanding helmet fitting and giveaway programs. ECF No. 290, Frost Decl. ¶ 7; ECF No. 289-2, Fillin-Yeh Depo. at 56, 60.

[*505] Contrary to Corwin’s contentions, the fact that Defendants may raise the issue of his non-use of a helmet to prove a failure to mitigate damages does not affect the City’s qualified immunity on this issue. 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.” [**67] Corwin, 141 A.D.3d at 495 (Andrias, J., dissenting). He may not, however, seek to hold the City liable for what was a well-reasoned and studied determination made in the public interest. See Weiss v. Fote, 7 N.Y.2d 579, 588, 167 N.E.2d 63, 200 N.Y.S.2d 409 (1960) (“[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.

V. New York City Administrative Code § 7-201

New York City Administrative Code § 7-201(c)(2) provides that:

No civil action shall be maintained against the city for damage to property or injury to person or death sustained in consequence of any street . . . being out of repair, unsafe, dangerous or obstructed, unless it appears that written notice of the defective, unsafe, dangerous or obstructed condition, was actually given to the commissioner of transportation . . . or where there was previous injury to person or property as a result of the . . . condition, and written notice thereof was given to a city agency, or there was written acknowledgement from the city of the . . . condition, and there was a failure or neglect [**68] within fifteen days after the receipt of such notice to repair or remove the defect, danger or obstruction complained of, or the place otherwise made reasonably safe.

Popularly known as the “Pothole Law,” the purpose of § 7-201(c)(2) is to prevent municipal liability for “nonfeasance” and to limit it to cases where the municipality had actual notice and opportunity to correct the hazardous condition. Katz v. City of New York, 87 N.Y.2d 241, 243, 661 N.E.2d 1374, 638 N.Y.S.2d 593 (1995). It is uncontested that the City did not have written notice of the installation of the specific wheel stop at the Madison Avenue end of the Citi Bike station where the crash occurred until after the accident, and that the drawing accompanying the permit does not show a wheel stop at that location. City St. ¶¶ 107-12. City records do not demonstrate any written complaints or claims of injury regarding a wheel stop at that location. Id. at ¶¶ 111-13.

There are, however, two exceptions to § 7-201(c)(2)–“that the municipality affirmatively created the defect through an act of negligence or that a special use resulted in a special benefit to the locality.” Yarborough v. City of New York, 10 N.Y.3d 726, 728, 882 N.E.2d 873, 853 N.Y.S.2d 261 (2008) (citation omitted).

Corwin does not merely allege that the City failed to remediate a dangerous condition created by a third party; indeed, his entire theory of liability [**69] is predicated on the premise that the City was affirmatively negligent in the design and placement of Citi Bike stations and wheel stops in the system as a whole. Additionally, he argues that the City was on notice of contractors’ failures to install stations as per plan specifications and yet failed to monitor them effectively, and ultimately approved an [*506] identical policy of putting wheel stops on both ends of Citi Bike stations. ECF No. 335-33, NYC Comptroller Audit; ECF No. 336-25, Station Plan w/ 2 Wheel Stops. The City, for its part, notes that neither it nor NYCBS, with whom it had a contractual relationship, actually installed the wheel stop at issue; rather, it alleges that it was installed by Sealcoat, a contractor of MetroExpress, who itself was NYCBS’s contractor. City St. ¶¶ 83-84.

The Court finds that there is a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether the City was affirmatively negligent so as to lose the written notice protections of § 7-201(c)(2). While Corwin cannot produce “smoking gun” evidence that the City affirmatively directed NYCBS or its agents to install the specific wheel stop in question, Corwin does provide evidence indicating that similar wheel stops were installed [**70] elsewhere in the City and that modifications to station plan installations were often done informally. See ECF No. 368-6 (10/30/2013 email from Dani Simons, NYCBS, to Stephanie Levitsky, DOT, stating “I do not know why [the wheel stop is] not in the drawings. I do know that [NYCBS directors] Hasib [Ikramullah] and Michael [Pellegrino] have both told me that we’ve started putting them on the cross-walk side of stations in high traffic areas . . . .”); ECF No. 336-19 (07/01/2013 email from Stephanie Levinsky to Jon Orcutt referencing “numerous on the fly modification[s]”); ECF No. 368-8 (May 15, 2013 email from DOT to NYCBS referencing “supplemental street treatments” not on the initial plan diagrams).

This evidence could lead a reasonable finder of fact to conclude that either the specific wheel stop in question, or all wheel stops that enter into the foreseeable pathway of a cyclist, were installed pursuant to affirmative acts of negligence by the City. The fact that the City had no direct contractual relationship or knowledge of the involvement of Metro Express or Sealcoat is not dispositive. Just as the City cannot delegate its duty to maintain the roads to a contractor, it cannot do so to a subcontractor [**71] of that contractor.

Accordingly, the question of whether the affirmative negligence exception to the written notice protections of § 7-201(c)(2) applies is a disputed question of fact to be resolved at trial, and the City is not entitled to summary judgment because it was not provided notice of the allegedly defective condition.12

12 Because the Court finds that the “affirmative negligence” exception may apply and because neither party has adequately briefed the “special use resulting in a special benefit” exception to § 7-201(c)(2), the Court declines to address the “special use” exception in this opinion.

VI. Primary Assumption of the Risk

The City, NYCBS, and APD also move for summary judgment on the grounds that the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk bars Corwin’s negligence claims. 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.” Turcotte v. Fell, 68 N.Y.2d 432, 439, 502 N.E.2d 964, 510 N.Y.S.2d 49 (1986). In this case, the Release Agreement signed by Corwin contained explicit provisions on assumption of the risk, which state, inter alia, that “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 [*507] avoided. Member agrees that such risks, dangers, [**72] and hazards are Member’s sole responsibility.” ECF No. 316-1, Release Agreement. Whether or not the broad assumption of the risk language is applicable depends on what courts consider to be the risks inherent in bicycling, recreational or otherwise, on a paved road in an urban environment.

The New York Court of Appeals has cautioned that the doctrine of assumption of risk is justifiable exclusively for its utility in “‘facilitat[ing] free and vigorous participation in athletic activities'” and warned that the doctrine must be “closely circumscribed” and not “applied outside this limited context” lest it unduly displace the state’s comparative negligence regime. Trupia v. Lake George Cent. Sch. Dist., 14 N.Y.3d 392, 395, 927 N.E.2d 547, 901 N.Y.S.2d 127 (2010) (citing Benitez v. New York City Bd. of Educ., 73 N.Y.2d 650, 657, 541 N.E.2d 29, 543 N.Y.S.2d 29 (1989)).13 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 consent to the dangers inherent in the activity may reasonably be inferred.” Cotty, 64 A.D.3d at 255. 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 [**73] 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.” Id.; see also Moore v. City of New York, 29 A.D.3d 751, 752, 816 N.Y.S.2d 131 (2d Dep’t 2006) (plaintiff did not assume risk of recreational cycling on paved park road); Vestal v. Cty. of Suffolk, 7 A.D.3d 613, 614-15, 776 N.Y.S.2d 491 (2d Dep’t 2004) (“[T]he injured plaintiff cannot be said as a matter of law to have assumed the risk of being injured as a result of a defective condition on a paved pathway merely because she participated in the activity of bicycling,” even where County argued that the pathway was “abandoned”).

13 In its reply memorandum of law, NYCBS appears to characterize Trupia as permitting an open-ended “social benefit” analysis to determine whether the assumption of risk doctrine applies and discusses the numerous beneficial aspects of the Citi Bike program as a public transit system. Trupia, however, was limited to discussing the social benefit to certain risky athletic activities and explicitly warns against applying the doctrine in any other context. 14 N.Y.3d 392, 395, 927 N.E.2d 547, 901 N.Y.S.2d 127.

To be sure, courts have held that the doctrine of assumption of the risk applied in other contexts involving recreational cyclists. See, e.g., DeJesus v. City of New York, 29 A.D.3d 401, 402, 815 N.Y.S.2d 502 (1st Dep’t 2006) (plaintiff assumed risk for riding on pedestrian-only pathway in housing development); Chrem v. City of New York, 293 A.D.2d 301, 302, 741 N.Y.S.2d 201 (1st Dep’t 2002) (plaintiff assumed risk of steep drop-off in the back of a dirt mound not designated for cycling); Furgang v. Club Med, Inc., 299 A.D.2d 162, 162, 753 N.Y.S.2d 359 (1st Dep’t 2002) (“[T]he risk of encountering ruts and bumps while riding a bike over a rough roadway without a helmet is so obvious [that] as a matter of law, plaintiff assumed any risk inherent in the activity . . . .”); Goldberg v. Town of Hempstead, 289 A.D.2d 198, 198, 733 N.Y.S.2d 691 (2d Dep’t 2001) (“Since the risk of striking a hole and falling is an inherent risk in riding a bicycle on most outdoor surfaces, [**74] and the defective condition in this case was open and obvious, the infant plaintiff assumed [*508] the risk associated with riding her bicycle on the ballfield.”) (citations omitted); Calise v. City of New York, 239 A.D.2d 378, 379, 657 N.Y.S.2d 430 (2d Dep’t 1997) (plaintiff assumed the risk of hitting an exposed tree root on unpaved path in public park). These cases, however, are readily distinguishable because they all involved individuals riding a bicycle on an unpaved path or other area plainly not designated for cycling. While defendants contend that the Citi Bike station was such an “undesignated” area, the station was obviously integrated into the public roadway, and Corwin has at the very least raised a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether the design of this station compelled or encouraged him to ride through it to avoid riding dangerously close to traffic. Therefore, his brief passage through the parking lane and bike station cannot be analogized to a considered decision to engage in recreational mountain biking or to ride down an undesignated pedestrian walkway.

Accordingly, the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk is unavailable, and defendants are not entitled to summary judgment on this theory.

VII. “Open and Obvious”

A defendant has “no duty [**75] to protect or warn against an open and obvious condition which is not inherently dangerous.” Stern v. River Manor Care Ctr., Inc., 106 A.D.3d 990, 990, 965 N.Y.S.2d 377 (2d Dep’t 2013). 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.” Russo v. Home Goods, Inc., 119 A.D.3d 924, 925-26, 990 N.Y.S.2d 95 (2d Dep’t 2014). Nevertheless, “a court may determine that a risk was open and obvious as a matter of law when the established facts compel that conclusion . . . .” Tagle v. Jakob, 97 N.Y.2d 165, 169, 763 N.E.2d 107, 737 N.Y.S.2d 331 (2001). Defendants contend that Corwin’s claims fail as a matter of law 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.”

Defendants’ claims are buttressed by cases holding that wheel stops located in parking lots or similar environments were sufficiently “open and obvious” so as to bar claims by injured pedestrians. See, e.g., May v. Ruby Tuesday, Inc., No. 13-CV-170 (FJS)(ATB), 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 140090, 2014 WL 4966544, at *5-6 (N.D.N.Y. Oct. 2, 2014) (parking lot wheel stop open and obvious especially given plaintiff’s admission that she had previously seen it); Abraido v. 2001 Marcus Ave, LLC, 126 A.D.3d 571, 571-72, 4 N.Y.S.3d 43 (1st Dep’t 2015) (wheel stop in well-lit parking lot open and obvious); Bellini v. Gypsy Magic Enters., Inc., 112 A.D.3d 867, 868, 978 N.Y.S.2d 73 (2d Dep’t 2013) (parking lot wheel stop open and obvious when plaintiff admitted she was attempting to step over it); Wachspress v. Cent. Parking Sys. of New York, Inc., 111 A.D.3d 499, 499-500, 974 N.Y.S.2d 439 (1st Dep’t 2013) (parking [**76] lot wheel stop open and obvious); Zimkind v. Costco Wholesale Corp., 12 A.D.3d 593, 593-94, 785 N.Y.S.2d 108 (2d Dep’t 2004) (same).

Whether or not a potential hazard is readily visible to the naked eye is evidently an important consideration in determining whether it is open and obvious, but it does not definitively resolve the question because “[t]he nature or location of some hazards, while they are technically visible, make them likely to be overlooked.” Westbrook v. WR Activities-Cabrera Mkts., 5 A.D.3d 69, 72, 773 N.Y.S.2d 38 (1st Dep’t 2004). On at least two occasions, New York courts, considering the broader context of plaintiffs’ encounter with wheel stops, declined [*509] to find that they were “open and obvious.” In Rivera v. Queens Ballpark Co., LLC, 134 A.D.3d 796, 797-98, 22 N.Y.S.3d 106 (2d Dep’t 2015), the court found that a concrete wheel stop that began in a designated parking space but partially extended into and obstructed a pedestrian walkway was not “open and obvious” as a matter of law. Similarly, in O’Leary v. Saugerties Cent. Sch. Dist., 277 A.D.2d 662, 662, 716 N.Y.S.2d 424 (3d Dep’t 2000), a plaintiff who tripped over a concrete parking lot wheel stop raised a triable issue of fact by arguing that it was undetectable and camouflaged by cars parked bumper-to-bumper.

Were the Court to view the wheel stop, cross-hatching, and delineators in isolation, it would be hard-pressed to distinguish them from the conspicuous parking lot wheel stops that New York courts have found to be “open and obvious” as a matter of law. Notwithstanding [**77] Corwin’s argument that the wheel stop was “camouflaged” because it was not painted in a bright color that would contrast it with its surroundings, photographic evidence submitted by both Corwin and defendants suggests to the Court that it would have been readily visible to an observant pedestrian. Nevertheless, the types of obstacles that a pedestrian might expect to encounter in a parking lot are substantially different from those that a cyclist would expect in an on-street bike station. Therefore, the Court finds that Corwin has raised a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the wheel stop was open and obvious to an attentive person in his position–that is, a cyclist traveling within a station that arguably invited use as a bike lane.

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.” ECF No. 335, Green Decl. ¶ 56. An [**78] 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.” Id. ¶¶ 35, 57. Green therefore argues that the wheel stop, though in a parking lane, was placed within the foreseeable path of a cyclist. Id. ¶ 46. 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.” Id. ¶¶ 48-49.

In determining whether summary judgment is appropriate, the Court must resolve all ambiguities and draw all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. See Scott, 550 U.S. at 378. Drawing all inferences in his favor, Corwin has distinguished the cases that feature garden-variety wheel stops in parking lots. Similar to the scenario in Rivera, 134 A.D.3d at 797, where the court did not find that a wheel stop was open and obvious as a matter of law when it partially obstructed a pedestrian walkway, there is a genuine dispute of material [**79] fact as to whether the wheel stop hazardously obstructed a path that was foreseeably and actually utilized by cyclists.

Accordingly, defendants are not entitled to summary judgment on the grounds that the wheel stop that caused Corwin’s accident was “open and obvious.”

[*510] VIII. Claims against Alta Planning + Design, Inc. and Alta Planning + Design + Architecture of New York, PLLC

Alta Planning + Design, Inc. and Alta Planning + Design + Architecture of New York, PLLC (collectively, “APD”), the architects and designers for the Citi Bike project who collaborated with the City to generate site plans for stations, move for summary judgment on Corwin’s claims of common law, gross, and professional negligence. APD notes that the key elements of the station that Corwin alleges caused his crash–primarily, the installation of the additional wheel stop at the east end of the station and the increased width of the station footprint–were installed in violation of its approved design. Corwin alleges that, even if APD did not recommend the installation of the specific wheel stop, their recommendation of unpainted concrete wheel stops throughout the Citi Bike system, and wheel stops’ placement within the [**80] foreseeable path of cyclists passing through stations were substantial factors in his accident. The Court need not resolve this dispute, however, because it finds that, regardless of the propriety of its recommendations to the City, APD did not owe a duty of care to Corwin under Espinal v. Melville Snow Contractors, Inc., 98 N.Y.2d 136, 773 N.E.2d 485, 746 N.Y.S.2d 120 (2002).

It is uncontested that, as an architecture firm, APD did not have any contractual obligations to install, inspect, or maintain Citi Bike stations and, therefore, could not be liable to Corwin under any theory dependent on its control of Citi Bike stations or wheel stops. See Gibbs v. Port Auth. of New York, 17 A.D.3d 252, 254, 794 N.Y.S.2d 320 (1st Dep’t 2005) (“Liability for a dangerous condition on property may only be predicated upon occupancy, ownership, control or special use of such premises . . . .”). It is similarly clear that APD had no direct contractual obligation to Corwin. Therefore, any duty to Corwin would necessarily flow out of APD’s contractual obligation to Alta Bicycle Share/NYCBS. “In the ordinary case, a contractual obligation, standing alone, will impose a duty only in favor of the promisee and intended third-party beneficiaries.” Eaves Brooks Costume Co. v. Y.B.H. Realty Corp., 76 N.Y.2d 220, 226, 556 N.E.2d 1093, 557 N.Y.S.2d 286 (1990); see also H.R. Moch Co. v. Rensselaer Water Co., 247 N.Y. 160, 168, 159 N.E. 896 (1928) (Cardozo, J.) (noting that a contrary holding would imply that a contracting party would be forced into “the involuntary assumption [**81] of a series of new relations, inescapably hooked together”).

In Espinal, the New York Court of Appeals, synthesizing decades of case law, announced three exceptions to the general principle that contracting parties do not owe a duty of care to third persons. These exceptions are:

(1) where the contracting party, in failing to exercise reasonable care in the performance of his duties, ‘launche[s] a force or instrument of harm’ (Moch, 247 N.Y. at 168); (2) where the plaintiff detrimentally relies on the continued performance of the contracting party’s duties (see Eaves Brooks, 76 N.Y.2d at 226) and (3) where the contracting party has entirely displaced the other party’s duty to maintain the premises safely (see Palka v. Servicemaster Mgmt. Servs. Corp., 83 N.Y.2d 579, 589, 634 N.E.2d 189, 611 N.Y.S.2d 817 (1994)).

Espinal, 98 N.Y.2d at 140.

Corwin could not have relied on APD’s continuing performance under its contract with Alta Bicycle Share/NYCBS because [*511] APD had no such obligations except submitting site plans, and it had no effect on the duty of the other defendants to maintain the bike stations safely. Therefore, the only Espinal exception that arguably applies is that APD “launched a force or instrument of harm” with its allegedly negligent site plans and recommendations for wheel stop placements. This standard is met where “the promisor, while engaged affirmatively in [**82] discharging a contractual obligation, creates an unreasonable risk of harm to others, or increases that risk.” Church v. Callanan Indus., Inc., 99 N.Y.2d 104, 111, 782 N.E.2d 50, 752 N.Y.S.2d 254 (2002); see also Guzman v. Wackenhut Corp., 394 F. App’x 801, 803 (2d Cir. 2010) (summary order).

On these facts, accepting the argument that providing allegedly negligent design advice and site plans is sufficient to “launch a force or instrument of harm” would lead to the very limitless expansion of tort liability that New York law seeks to prevent. Moch Co., 247 N.Y. at 165 (Cardozo, J.) (“An intention to assume an obligation of indefinite extension to every member of the public is seen to be the more improbable when we recall the crushing burden that the obligation would impose.”). Indeed, Corwin’s argument is that APD’s negligence consists not of specific malfeasance relating to the design of the Citi Bike station where his accident occurred,14 but its general negligence in approving the type, appearance, and placement of wheel stops throughout the Citi Bike system. The logical conclusion of this argument is that by providing services to Alta Bicycle Share/NYCBS, APD would be subjecting itself to potential tort liability to literally millions of potential plaintiffs who could be involved in an accident involving wheel stops in any one of hundreds of Citi Bike stations–even as [**83] it had no responsibility for the maintenance or installation of the allegedly hazardous obstructions.15 This is not the law as summarized in Espinal.

14 Indeed, as APD argues, the Citi Bike station at issue in this case did not conform to its plan at all. See ECF No. 321-30, APD Expert Report. Corwin’s own expert would seem to agree. In a rebuttal report, James M. Green contended that “the original Engineering design [presented by APD] was proper in minimizing the clearance behind the parked bicycles and leaving out a wheel stop at the [relevant] intersection and was not followed during the construction of the bike station.” ECF No. 321-24, Green 01/06/16 Rebuttal Report at 9.

15 Corwin’s evidence that APD actually had some responsibility for the installation of Citi Bike stations, which appears to consist of a single May 22, 2013 email from APD engineer Adrian Witte referring the installation of station “bridging” (ECF No. 336-28), and deposition testimony references to the “collaborative” process between APD, NYCBS, and the City (ECF No. 335-6. Jeff Olson 08/26/15 Depo. at ¶¶ 401-02, 484, 530), is insufficient to raise a genuine dispute of material fact about APD’s lack of responsibility over Citi Bike stations.

Finally, Corwin argues that APD was an alter ego of Alta Bicycle Share/NYCBS because APD served as the parent company over Alta Bicycle Share before its sale in 2014. ECF No. 192, Second Am. Compl. ¶ 16. “It is well-settled that the party seeking to pierce the corporate veil has the burden of establishing that there is a basis to do so.” Maggio v. Becca Constr. Co., 229 A.D.2d 426, 427, 644 N.Y.S.2d 802 (2d Dep’t 1996) (citations omitted). Notwithstanding the close relationship between APD and Alta Bicycle Share/NYCBS, and their former association, Corwin has failed to establish that APD is anything but a legitimate and separate business entity engaging in planning and design. “Those seeking to pierce a corporate veil of course bear a heavy burden of showing that the corporation was dominated as to the transaction [*512] attacked and that such domination was the instrument of fraud or otherwise resulted in wrongful or inequitable consequences. . . . An inference of abuse does not arise . . . where a corporation was formed for legal purposes or is engaged in legitimate business.” TNS Holdings, Inc. v. MKI Sec. Corp., 92 N.Y.2d 335, 339-40, 703 N.E.2d 749, 680 N.Y.S.2d 891 (1998); see also Joseph Kali Corp. v. A. Goldner, Inc., 49 A.D.3d 397, 398-99, 859 N.Y.S.2d 1 (1st Dep’t 2008) (refusing to pierce corporate veil [**84] between two entities operated by same principal). On the record before it, the Court sees no conceivable equitable reason to disregard the corporate form in this case.

As the Court concludes that APD did not owe any duty to Corwin under Espinal, it need not consider APD’s alternate arguments regarding proximate causation and its defense that Corwin’s claim arose out of a deviation from its design. The Court GRANTS APD’s motion for summary judgment in its entirety.

IX. Claims against Metro Express Services, Inc. and Sealcoat USA, Inc.

Defendants Metro Express Services, Inc. and Sealcoat USA, Inc. (“Metro Express” and “Sealcoat,” respectively), third-party contractors who are alleged to have installed or sub-contracted the installation of the specific wheel stop that caused Corwin’s injuries, move for summary judgment, arguing that they did not owe Corwin a duty of care under Espinal, 98 N.Y.2d 136, 773 N.E.2d 485, 746 N.Y.S.2d 120 (2002), and that the wheel stop is an open and obvious condition as a matter of law. Having already rejected the “open and obvious” argument in Part VII of this opinion, the Court considers whether Metro Express and Sealcoat had a duty to Corwin under one of the three Espinal exceptions discussed in Part VIII.

As was true [**85] for APD, there is no argument that Corwin “detrimentally relie[d] on the continued performance of the contracting party’s duties” or that Metro Express or Sealcoat “entirely displaced the other party’s duty to maintain the premises safely.” Id. at 140. Detrimental reliance becomes a consideration only when there is some form of continued contractual performance by the third-party contractor and is not relevant when the alleged negligent conduct concerns a one-time installation of station equipment (even if the contractor may have installed said equipment in many stations). And there is no evidence in the record that Metro Express or Sealcoat assumed any responsibilities, much less exclusive responsibilities, for the maintenance and safety of Citi Bike facilities.

Therefore, the only issue is whether there is a genuine dispute of material fact that Metro Express or Sealcoat “launch[ed] a force or instrument of harm.” Corwin contends that the wheel stop on the east side of the Citi Bike station was an “instrument of harm,” and a contractor negligently responsible for its installation could be found liable under Espinal. To be sure, “[a] builder or contractor is justified in relying upon the plans and specifications [**86] which he has contracted to follow unless they are so apparently defective that an ordinary builder of ordinary prudence would be put upon notice that the work was dangerous and likely to cause injury.” Ryan v. Feeney & Sheehan Bldg. Co., 239 N.Y. 43, 46, 145 N.E. 321 (1924). There are, however, genuine disputes of material fact as to whether the contractors installed the wheel stop in question and whether they did so pursuant to a plan provided them by NYCBS.

Citing ambiguities in emails received from NYCBS, Metro Express contends that a full installation of street treatments [*513] was never ordered for the Citi Bike station at issue, and in fact NYCBS only ordered Metro Express and Sealcoat to carry out repairs. ECF No. 366, Metro Express Reply Mem. at 3-4. Metro Express further notes that Sealcoat reported that there was nothing wrong with the station and never invoiced or received payment for any work. Id. at 5. Finally, it contends that Metro Express was never provided with a plan for the Station, and that NYCBS had been instructing Metro Express to install “supplemental street treatments” not depicted on the station plans, noting two specific instances in which they were ordered to do so in stations at Jay Street and Tech Place, and Charles Street and Greenwich [**87] Ave. Id. at 7-9.

While Metro Express and Sealcoat certainly raise issues of fact about their liability, there is sufficient information in the record to preclude a finding that they are entitled to judgment as a matter of law. For example, in addition to NYCBS’s allegations that Metro Express and Sealcoat were responsible for the installation, Ryan Landeck, Sealcoat Vice President, admitted in non-party deposition testimony in 2015 that Sealcoat had installed the wheel stop in question under Metro Express’s direction. ECF No. 289-10, Landeck 11/19/15 Depo. at 34, 45.16

16 Mr. Landeck later testified at a deposition that took place after Sealcoat was joined in the case that Sealcoat found that there was nothing to do be done at that location and Sealcoat did not invoice or receive payment for its alleged work at the station. ECF No. 368-3, Landeck 05/25/2016 Depo. at 51, 55. An October 23, 2013 email from Landeck to Michael Strasser, General Manager at Metro Express, further stated that “nothing was wrong at this station.” ECF No. 368-4.

Accordingly, the Court concludes that, unlike APD, there is a material dispute whether Metro Express and/or Sealcoat “launched a force or instrument of harm” if plaintiffs prove at trial that they negligently installed the wheel stop at the East 56th Street and Madison Avenue Citi Bike station in contravention of the site plan and the directions received from NYCBS. Unlike the case for APD, who provided general designs for hundreds of Citi Bike stations, there is no danger of an undue ballooning of tort liability because the contractors would be liable only for their own negligence and have an absolute defense if they can demonstrate [**88] that they were carrying out a pre-existing plan. Cf. In re World Trade Ctr. Lower Manhattan Disaster Site Litig., 44 F. Supp. 3d 409, 430 (S.D.N.Y. 2014) (finding that Espinal and Moch stood for “the general public policy that courts will not impose a tort duty on a contracting party where doing so would expose the party to potentially unlimited and undefined liability” and finding a duty where there was “no risk of . . . boundless tort liability”).

Therefore, because the Court finds that a question of fact exists regarding whether Metro Express and/or Sealcoat “launched a force or instrument of harm,” Metro Express and Sealcoat’s motions for summary judgment are DENIED.

X. Gross Negligence Claims

Given that Corwin’s common-law negligence claims against NYCBS are barred by the enforceability of the Release Agreement as discussed in Part II of the opinion, NYCBS moves for summary judgment on the grounds that Corwin’s gross negligence claims fail as a matter of law.17

17 The City has also moved for summary judgment on this point; however, the Court has found that Corwin’s common-law negligence claims may proceed as to the City.

Under New York law, gross negligence is “conduct that evinces a reckless [*514] disregard for the rights of others or ‘smacks’ of intentional wrongdoing.” Am. Tel. & Tel. Co. v. City of New York, 83 F.3d 549, 556 (2d Cir. 1996) (quoting Colnaghi, U.S.A., Ltd. v. Jewelers Prot. Servs., Ltd., 81 N.Y.2d 821, 823-24, 611 N.E.2d 282, 595 N.Y.S.2d 381 (1993)). “[T]he act or omission must be of an aggravated character, as distinguished from the failure to exercise ordinary care.” Curley v. AMR Corp., 153 F.3d 5, 13 (2d Cir. 1998). “In order to establish a prima facie case in gross [**89] 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.'” Travelers Indem. Co. of Connecticut v. Losco Grp., Inc., 204 F. Supp. 2d 639, 644 (S.D.N.Y. 2002) (quoting Hong Kong Exp. Credit Ins. Corp. v. Dun & Bradstreet, 414 F. Supp. 153, 160 (S.D.N.Y. 1975)).

Drawing all reasonable inferences in favor of Corwin, the nonmoving party, summary judgment is not appropriate on Corwin’s gross negligence claims. If, as argued by Corwin’s expert James M. Green, NYCBS is proven at trial to have unjustifiably ignored sound engineering practices and placed camouflaged wheel stops in the direct and foreseeable paths of cyclists, a reasonable factfinder could conclude that their conduct was sufficiently reckless and/or aggravated to meet the gross negligence standard. The defendants’ motion for summary judgment on Corwin’s gross negligence claims is therefore denied.

CONCLUSION

Corwin’s motion for summary judgment on defendants’ affirmative defenses relying on the Release Agreement is GRANTED as to the City and DENIED as to NYCBS. Corwin’s motion for summary judgment on defendants’ affirmative defenses relating to his non-use of a helmet is GRANTED in part; defendants may not argue that this is relevant to questions [**90] of liability to establish comparative negligence or assumption of the risk, but if liability is found, may argue that Corwin failed to mitigate damages. The City’s motion for summary judgment is DENIED. NYCBS’s motion for summary judgment is GRANTED in part; because the Court finds that the Release Agreement is enforceable, Corwin’s common-law negligence and professional negligence and malpractice claims are dismissed, but he may still maintain gross negligence claims. APD’s motion for summary judgment is GRANTED. Metro Express and Sealcoat’s motions for summary judgment are DENIED.

The Clerk of Court is respectfully directed to terminate Dkt. Nos. 288, 295, 303, 304, 309, and 314 and terminate defendants Alta Planning + Design, Inc. and Alta Planning Design Architecture of New York, PLLC from the case.

SO ORDERED.

/s/ Sarah Netburn

SARAH NETBURN

United States Magistrate Judge

DATED: New York, New York

March 1, 2017


Tassinari v. Key West Water Tours, L.C., et al., 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 46490

Tassinari v. Key West Water Tours, L.C., et al., 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 46490

Ronald Tassinari, an individual, Sheila Silva, individually, and as next best friend of Ashley Silva, a minor, Plaintiffs, vs. Key West Water Tours, L.C., a Florida corporation, Defendant. Key West Water Tours, L.C., a Florida corporation, Third-Party Plaintiff, vs. Jeffrey Wilkerson, Third-Party Defendant.

Case No. 06-10116-CIV-MOORE/GARBER

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF FLORIDA

2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 46490

June 27, 2007, Decided

June 27, 2007, Entered

SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Judgment entered by, Motion denied by Tassinari v. Key W. Water Tours, L.C., 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 80872 (S.D. Fla., Oct. 31, 2007)

PRIOR HISTORY: Tassinari v. Key West Water Tours, L.C., 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 43858 (S.D. Fla., June 18, 2007)

CORE TERMS: watercraft, maritime law’s, collision, boater, fault, summary judgment, boating, unseaworthiness, admiralty, maritime, handling, genuine, rental, vessel, safe, statutory rule, tour guide, public policy, per se, exoneration, privity, renters, ship, panicked, State Boating Law Administrators Betz Depo, liability arising, negligence per se, negligence cases, statutes enacted, standard of care

COUNSEL: [*1] For Ronald Tassinari, an individual, Sheila Silva, an individual and next best friend of Ashley Silva, Ashley Silva, a minor, Plaintiffs: Domingo Carlos Rodriguez, LEAD ATTORNEY, Rodriguez Aronson & Essington, Miami, FL; Patricia Leigh McMillan Minoux, LEAD ATTORNEY, Rodriguez, Aronson & Essington, P.A., Coral Gables, FL.

For Key West Water Tours, L.C., a Florida Corporation, Defendant: Bruce Michael Trybus, Joshua William Brankamp, Cooney Mattson Lance Blackburn Richards & O’Connor, Fort Lauderdale, FL.

For Key West Water Tours, L.C., a Florida Corporation, ThirdParty Plaintiff: Joshua William Brankamp, Cooney Mattson Lance Blackburn Richards & O’Connor, Fort Lauderdale, FL.

JUDGES: K. MICHAEL MOORE, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

OPINION BY: K. MICHAEL MOORE

OPINION

ORDER GRANTING SUMMARY JUDGMENT AS TO DEFENDANT’S LIABILITY

THIS CAUSE came before the Court upon Defendant Key West Water Tours, L.C.’s Motion for Summary Judgment (DE # 44) and Plaintiffs’ Motion for Summary Judgment as to Defendant’s Liability (DE # 46).

UPON CONSIDERATION of the Motions, the pertinent portions of the record, and being otherwise fully advised in the premises, the Court enters the following Order.

I. Background

Plaintiffs are residents [*2] of Massachusetts. Defendant Key West Water Tours, L.C. (“Defendant” or “Water Tours”) is a Florida corporation doing business in Monroe County, Florida, as a personal watercraft (jet skis and/or waverunners) rental agency and provider of guided personal watercraft tours to the public. On or about July 9, 2004, Defendant rented personal watercraft to Plaintiffs at or near Key West, Monroe County, Florida. Defendant then took a group of personal watercraft renters, including Plaintiffs and Third-Party Defendant Jeffrey Wilkerson, on a guided tour from its marina out to the area’s surrounding waters.

During the tour, the watercraft operated by Third-Party Defendant Jeffrey Wilkerson collided with the watercraft operated by Plaintiffs Ronald Tassinari and Ashley Silva, injuring Plaintiffs Ronald Tassinari and Ashley Silva.

Defendant argues that it is entitled to summary judgment on the following issues: (1) it is entitled to exoneration from liability because there is no evidence of negligence or unseaworthiness; (2) alternatively, it is entitled to have its liability limited to the value of the watercraft (approx. $ 3,000.00) because it was without privity or knowledge of any negligence [*3] or unseaworthiness; (3) Florida statutory law does not apply; and (4) Plaintiff Tassinari’s claims are barred by the waiver and “hold harmless” provisions of the rental agreement. Plaintiffs argue that they are entitled to summary judgment because Defendant violated certain Florida State statutes making Defendant negligent per se. Plaintiffs further argue that if Defendant is negligent per se, then Defendant is not entitled to have its liability limited to the value of the watercraft.

II. Standard of Review

The applicable standard for reviewing a summary judgment motion is unambiguously stated in Rule 56(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure:

The judgment sought shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

Summary judgment may be entered only where there is no genuine issue of material fact. Twiss v. Kury, 25 F.3d 1551, 1554 (11th Cir. 1994). The moving party has the burden of meeting this exacting standard. Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157, 90 S. Ct. 1598, 26 L. Ed. 2d 142 (1970). [*4] An issue of fact is “material” if it is a legal element of the claim under the applicable substantive law which might affect the outcome of the case. Allen v. Tyson Foods, Inc., 121 F.3d 642, 646 (11th Cir. 1997). It is “genuine” if the record taken as a whole could lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party. Id.

In applying this standard, the district court must view the evidence and all factual inferences therefrom in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. Id. However, the nonmoving party:

may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of the adverse party’s pleading, but the adverse party’s response, by affidavits or as otherwise provided in this rule, must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.

Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e). “The mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the [nonmovant’s] position will be insufficient; there must be evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the [nonmovant].” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986).

III. Discussion

A. The Pennsylvania Rule and Florida Statutory Law

Plaintiffs argue that Defendant is negligent per se because Defendant violated [*5] Florida State statutes enacted to protect the safety of personal watercraft renters. Pl. Mot. at 9-14. Federal maritime law’s unique version of negligence per se is embodied in what is called the “Pennsylvania Rule.” In re Superior Constr. Co., 445 F.3d 1334, 1340 (11th Cir. 2006). “Under the Pennsylvania Rule, when a ship at the time of an allision is in actual violation of a statutory rule intended to prevent allisions, it is no more than a reasonable presumption that the fault, if not the sole cause, was at least a contributory cause of the disaster and in such a case the burden rests upon the ship of showing not merely that her fault might not have been one of the causes, or that it probably was not, but that it could not have been.” Id. (citing The Pennsylvania, 86 U.S. 125, 136, 22 L. Ed. 148 (1873)).

Defendant argues that State law does not apply in a case brought under federal maritime law; therefore, the Pennsylvania rule does not apply to violations of Florida statutes. Def. Resp. at 6-8. However, the Seventh Circuit recognized that “[s]everal courts have applied the Pennsylvania rule to the violation of state statutes or local ordinances.” Complaint of Wasson, 495 F.2d 571, 583 (7th Cir. 1974) [*6] (citations omitted); see also Protectus Alpha Nav. Co., Ltd. v. North Pacific Grain Growers, Inc., 767 F.2d 1379, 1382-83 (9th Cir. 1985) (violation of Washington State statute would support negligence per se).

Further, State law has been applied in admiralty cases where there is no direct conflict with established federal maritime law. Wilburn Boat Co. v. Fireman’s Fund Insur. Co., 348 U.S. 310, 75 S. Ct. 368, 99 L. Ed. 337 (1955); 1 T. Schoenbaum, Admiralty and Maritime Law § 4-2 (4th ed.); see also Smith v. Haggerty, 169 F. Supp. 2d 376 (E.D. Pa. 2001) (applying State law regulations to negligence claims arising from a boating accident) (vacated on other grounds). The Supreme Court has recognized that “[i]n the field of maritime contracts, as in that of maritime torts, the National Government has left much regulatory power in the States.” Wilburn Boat, 348 U.S. at 313 (the Supreme Court ultimately declined to adopt a federal admiralty rule governing insurance policy provisions and decided to leave that area up to State regulation).

In the present case, Plaintiffs cite to several Florida statutes that were enacted, in part, in response to an act of Congress intended to “encourage greater State participation and [*7] uniformity in boating safety efforts, and particularly to permit the States to assume the greater share of boating safety education, assistance, and enforcement activities.” 46 U.S.C. § 13102 (2007). The Court is not persuaded that statutes enacted in response to Congress’s stated purpose of permitting the states to assume more responsibility in regulation of recreational boat safety are inapplicable merely because they were enacted by a state government.

Further, Defendant has not pointed to any established federal maritime law directly conflicting with and preempting these State statutes. In cases where a State statute conflicts with established federal maritime law or would materially frustrate a tenant of admiralty law, the State statutes should generally not be applied. Steelmet, Inc. v. Caribe Towing Corp., 779 F.2d 1485, 1488 (11th Cir. 1986); Branch v. Schumann, 445 F.2d 175 (5th Cir. 1971); Miami Valley Broadcasting Corp. v. Lang, 429 So. 2d 1333 (Fla. 4th DCA 1983). Defendant overstates the holdings in Branch and Lang, arguing that State law can never be used in maritime negligence cases. Branch and Lang merely stand for the principle that State law cannot change established [*8] substantive maritime law. In Branch and Lang, the State law would have imposed a stricter burden than that established by federal maritime law; because it conflicted with federal maritime law and would have effectively changed the accepted maritime standard of care, the State law could not be applied. The Florida statutes at issue were not designed to circumvent federal maritime law or substitute a stricter standard of care in negligence cases; rather, they were designed to help regulate recreational boating safety. The Pennsylvania rule is an established principle of federal maritime law, which may be applied to violations of Florida State statutes; this application does not, in and of itself, conflict with federal maritime law.

Florida Statute § 327.39 makes it unlawful for the owner of a personal watercraft to “authorize or knowingly permit the [watercraft] to be operated by any person who has not received instruction in the safe handling of personal watercraft, in compliance with rules established by the commission.” Florida Statute § 327.54 requires that the instruction in the safe handling of personal watercraft with a motor of 10 horsepower or greater be delivered by a person [*9] who has “successfully completed a boater safety course approved by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators and this state.” These statutes, under Chapter 327 Vessel Safety, were enacted to protect boater safety, including the prevention of collisions. Further, these statutes were enacted, in part, to protect the safety of renters of watercraft (see e.g. § 327.54), so Plaintiffs are among the class of persons intended to be protected by the statutes.

In this case, Defendant owned or had control over the personal watercraft involved in the collision. At the time of the collision, Defendant employed Chris Betz (“Betz”) as a personal watercraft tour guide and allowed Betz to provide the safety instruction to persons operating the personal watercraft on the tour, including Jeffrey Wilkerson. Def. Mot. at 4-6. Betz admitted in his deposition that he had never completed a boater’s safety course approved by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators. Betz Depo. at 12. Co-owner Gerald Grogan admitted that Key West Water Tours does not require its tour guides to have passed a safe boating course. Grogan Depo. at 19. Therefore, Defendant violated Florida [*10] statutes designed to protect boater safety and prevent collisions, by entrusting personal watercraft to persons who were not instructed in the safe handling of the personal watercraft as the law requires. Co-owner Jeremy Ray indicated that he was not very familiar with the Florida statutes at issue. Ray Depo. at 9, 20-21. However, ignorance of the law is not a defense.

Applying the Pennsylvania rule, because Defendant violated statutory rules intended to prevent boat collisions, the Court presumes that Defendant’s fault caused the collision and the burden shifts to Defendant to show this violation could not have caused the accident. Defendant argues that “[t]he sole cause of the subject accident was the negligent operation of a personal watercraft by Third-Party Defendant Jeffrey Wilkerson.” Def. Mot. at 11. Defendant asserts that “[t]here is not a single additional instruction that would have prevented the subject accident.” Id. Betz gave safety instructions. Betz Depo. at 32-33. According to Betz, Jeffrey Wilkerson “was coming in way too fast . . . just like an old lady in a car, panicked, eyes wide open, completely wide open, staring straight at the group and a panic in his face [*11] because he’s going too fast, and never let off the throttle until he hit.” Def. Mot. at 7. Defendant further asserts that Defendant had never had an accident previously and that Jeffrey Wilkerson had operated the watercraft without problem for about two hours before the accident. It is undisputed that Jeffrey Wilkerson panicked and that the watercraft was at full throttle until impact. However, greater knowledge often gives a greater sense of control. Therefore, it is possible that if Jeffrey Wilkerson had received proper instruction in handling the watercraft, he might not have panicked. Defendant has not shown that its violation of statutory rules “could not” have contributed to the accident. Therefore, Defendant’s fault is presumed.

C. Exoneration From Liability

“An owner will be exonerated from liability when he, his vessel, and crew are found to be completely free of fault.” In re Complaint of Caribbean Sea Transport, 748 F.2d 622, 626 (11th Cir. 1984) (citing Tittle v. Aldacosta, 544 F.2d 752, 755 (5th Cir. 1977)). As discussed above, Defendant cannot be said to be completely free of fault; therefore, Defendant is not entitled to exoneration.

D. Limitation of Liability Under Limitation [*12] Act

The Eleventh Circuit has held that the determination of whether the owner of a vessel is entitled to limitation of liability requires a two-step analysis: (1) “the court must determine what acts of negligence or conditions of unseaworthiness caused the accident;” and (2) “the court must determine whether the ship owner had knowledge or privity of those same acts of negligence or conditions of unseaworthiness.” Keys Jet Ski, Inc. v. Kays, 893 F.2d 1225, 1230 (11th Cir. 1990) (citing Farrell Lines, Inc. v. Jones, 530 F.2d 7, 10 (5th Cir. 1976)). “Privity and knowledge are deemed to exist where the owner had the means of knowledge or, as otherwise stated, where knowledge would have been obtained from reasonable inspection.” China Union Lines, Ltd. v. A.O. Andersen & Co., 364 F.2d 769, 792-93 (5th Cir. 1966). Under the Pennsylvania rule, as discussed above, Defendant’s violation of Florida statutes regarding proper instruction in safely operating the personal watercraft is presumed to have caused the collision. The owners of Key West Water Tours, L.C. knew, should have known, and could have discovered upon minimal investigation whether its tour guides, who they hired, had completed [*13] approved boater safety courses and whether the requirements of Florida law regarding proper safety and instruction were being met. Therefore, Defendant is not entitled to limitation of liability to the value of the watercraft.

E. Waiver and Hold Harmless Provisions of the Rental Agreement

“[A] clause in an agreement exempting a party from tort liability is unenforceable on grounds of public policy if the agreement would exempt a party from liability arising from that party’s failure to comply with a safety statute, as the safety obligation created by the statute for such purpose is an obligation owed to the public at large and is not within the power of any private individual to waive.” Johnson v. New River Scenic Whitewater Tours, Inc., 313 F. Supp. 2d 621, 631 (S.D.W. Va 2004) (citations omitted); Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 195 comment a (1981) (“If, for example, a statute imposes a standard of conduct, a court may decide on the basis of an analysis of the statute, that a term exempting a party from liability for failure to conform to that standard is unenforceable.”). In this case, the Florida statutes violated are boater safety statutes imposing a standard of conduct on [*14] owners and liveries of vessels. It would be against public policy to enforce contract clauses purporting to exempt liveries from liability for violating these statutes. While the release and waiver provisions in the rental contracts are sufficient to release Defendant from liability for ordinary negligence, the provisions are invalid as against public policy when applied to liability arising from violation of these statutes.

IV. Conclusion

For the foregoing reasons, it is

ORDERED AND ADJUDGED that Defendant Key West Water Tours, L.C.’s Motion for Summary Judgment (DE # 44) is DENIED. It is further

ORDERED AND ADJUDGED that Plaintiffs’ Motion for Summary Judgment as to Defendant’s Liability (DE # 46) is GRANTED. The pretrial conference to discuss remaining issues will be held as scheduled, on June 28, 2007.

DONE AND ORDERED in Chambers at Miami, Florida, this 27th day of June, 2007.

K. MICHAEL MOORE

UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE


Non-governmental park not liable under Georgia Recreational Use Statute because cyclists failed to negotiate a barricade. The dangerous condition was open, obvious and visible to all including the deceased.

Because cyclists failed to look up and did not see the barricades in time, does not change the fact the barricades were visible for hundreds of feet.

Stone Mountain Memorial Association v. Amestoy, 337 Ga. App. 467; 788 S.E.2d 110; 2016 Ga. App. LEXIS 358

State: Georgia; Court of Appeals of Georgia

Plaintiff: Nancy Amestoy

Defendant: Stone Mountain Memorial Association

Plaintiff Claims: (1) was liable for Martin’s death due to its failure to warn of the allegedly dangerous condition of the barricades, (2) had actual knowledge that the barricades posed a risk of serious bodily injury or death, and (3) willfully failed to warn of the alleged danger (despite knowing of the risk posed by the barricades).

Defendant Defenses: Georgia Recreational Use Statute

Holding: For the Defendant at trial Court, Plaintiff on appeal 

Year: 2016

Summary

The Georgia Recreational Use Statute extends immunity to non-governmental landowners. Here a cyclist died after failing to look up and see barricades blocking a road. Because the barricades were open and obvious, the Recreational Use Statute protected the landowner from suit. 

Facts 

The deceased was on a bike ride. The road he was riding had been closed for a foot race. The closure was  accomplished by two saw horse barricades. The deceased in attempting to negotiate between them fell suffering head injuries, while wearing a helmet, and died.

…between 7:30 and 7:45 a.m. on the day in question, officers with SMMA’s public-safety department engaged in temporary traffic-control efforts on portions of Stone Mountain Park’s Robert E. Lee Boulevard in anticipation of a 5k walk/run event that was scheduled to begin at 8:00 a.m. These temporary traffic-control efforts consisted of two saw-horse style barricades placed  side-by-side across the road’s southbound lanes, spanning approximately ten-feet wide with an approximately one-and-a-half foot gap between them. Both barricades bore orange and white stripes and “do not enter” signs.

It appeared to witnesses that the deceased did not look up until the last minute to see the barricades. 

…Martin Amestoy was observed riding his bicycle toward the barricades at what a witness believed was a “safe, normal speed”; however, Amestoy’s head was down. Amestoy then traveled between the barricades, striking the inside corner of the lefthand barricade with his handlebar, and was thrown forward off of his bike.3 Although he was wearing a helmet, Amestoy suffered severe head trauma and died later that day. 

The plaintiff, wife of the deceased, sued for:

(1) was liable for Martin’s death due to its failure to warn of the allegedly dangerous condition of the barricades, (2) had actual
knowledge that the barricades posed a risk of serious bodily injury or death, and (3) willfully failed to warn of the alleged danger (despite knowing of the risk posed by the barricades).

The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment stating it was not liable because of the Georgia Recreational Use Act. The plaintiff argued that the exception to the act applied, if the landowner of and did not warn of a dangerous condition. The Trial court agreed and the defendant immediately appealed that order. 

SMMA responded and filed a motion for summary judgment, contending that it was immune from suit under the RPA. The trial court ultimately denied SMMA’s motion when it concluded that genuine issues of material fact remained as to whether (1) the barricades were a dangerous condition and (2) SMMA had actual knowledge that this condition was dangerous.

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

The defendant appealed the decision based upon the facts that:

… (1) there was no evidence that it had actual knowledge of a dangerous condition, (2) the allegedly dangerous condition was
open and obvious as a matter of law, and (3) there was no evidence that it willfully failed to warn of the allegedly dangerous condition. Because the allegedly dangerous condition–i.e., the barricades blocking the southbound lanes of Robert E. Lee Boulevard–was open and obvious as a matter of law….

Under the Georgia Recreational Use Act, the landowner owes no duty of care to keep the premises safe for others entering the land for recreational purposes.

In enacting the RPA, the General Assembly sought to “encourage property owners to make their property available to the public for recreational purposes by limiting the owners’ liability.”8 In this regard, OCGA § 51-3-22 provides that “an owner of land owes no duty of care to keep the premises safe for entry or use by others for recreational purposes or to give any warning of a dangerous condition, use, structure, or activity on the premises to persons entering for recreational purposes.”

There is a liability for willful or malicious failure to guard or warn against a dangerous condition, use, structure or activity. Under Georgia’s law:

…”willful failure” involves “a conscious, knowing, voluntary, intentional failure, rather than a mere inadvertent, accidental,  involuntary, inattentive, inert, or passive omission.” And malice requires either “an actual intent to cause the particular harm produced or the wanton and [willful] doing of the act with an awareness of the plain and strong likelihood that harm may result.”  Thus, in order for the “willful or malicious failure” exception to apply, Nancy Amestoy must show that the property owner  (SMMA) had actual knowledge that (1) the property was being used for recreational purposes; (2) a condition existed involving unreasonable risk of death or serious bodily harm; (3) the condition was not apparent to those using the property; and (4) having the foregoing knowledge, the property owner chose not to warn users in disregard of the possible con-sequences. Constructive knowledge is insufficient to meet this burden of proof, and the property owner has no duty to inspect the property. Importantly, the plaintiff must satisfy each prong of this four-part test to succeed against a recreational property owner under this exception.

The court held the plaintiff failed to produce any evidence to create a jury question on whether or not the condition was not apparent to those using the property, the third prong of the test.

The court cited witness statements and statements from the investigators that the barriers where visible at least for hundreds of feet. 

Considering the above testimony, Nancy Amestoy presented no evidence that SMMA had actual knowledge that the barricades were not apparent to park users when they were open and obvious, as overwhelmingly demonstrated by the foregoing testimony and photographic evidence.

The Appellate Court reversed the trial court and granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment based on the Georgia Recreational Use Statute

So Now What? 

The first take away is the Georgia Recreational Use Statute protects parks owned non-governmental landowners from suit. The second is, even though the statute has an exception for “willful or malicious failure to guard or warn against a dangerous condition, use, structure, or activity,” the landowner must have actual knowledge, not just constructive knowledge of the dangerous condition.

Here because the barricades were visible for hundreds of feet, the barricades did not constitute a dangerous condition. 

If you are a cyclist, look up once in a while. 

What do you think? Leave a comment.

 Copyright 2017 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

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#IceClimbing, #JamesHMoss, #JimMoss, #Law, #Mountaineering, #Negligence,
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barricade, actual knowledge, dangerous condition, prong,
summary judgment, visible, punctuation, warn, recreational purposes, property
owners, warning, ‘willful, feet, bicyclist, matter of law, issues of material
fact, recreational, genuine, guard, user, captain, injured party, subjective,
stream, block, cone, stationed, distance, bicycle, evidence sufficient, Georgia
Recreational Use Statute, Recreational Use, Stone Mountain Memorial
Association, Non-governmental Park,

 

 

 


Stone Mountain Memorial Association v. Amestoy, 337 Ga. App. 467; 788 S.E.2d 110; 2016 Ga. App. LEXIS 358

Stone Mountain Memorial Association v. Amestoy, 337 Ga. App. 467; 788 S.E.2d 110; 2016 Ga. App. LEXIS 358

Stone Mountain Memorial Association v. Amestoy.

A16A0056.

COURT OF APPEALS OF GEORGIA

337 Ga. App. 467; 788 S.E.2d 110; 2016 Ga. App. LEXIS 358

June 21, 2016, Decided

HEADNOTES Georgia Advance Headnotes

(1) Torts. Real Property Torts. General Premises Liability. The wife of a bicyclist who died of a head injury after striking a barricade that had been placed across the road in a public park to protect runners in a road race failed to produce sufficient evidence to create a jury question as to the park owner’s actual knowledge that the barricades were not apparent to those using the property as required to prove an exception to immunity under OCGA § 51-3-25 (1) of the Recreational Property Act; the road was straight and open and the barricades were highly visible.

COUNSEL: Samuel S. Olens, Attorney General, Kathleen M. Pacious, Deputy Attorney General, Loretta L. Pinkston, Kirsten S. Daughdril, Senior Assistant Attorneys General, Kristine K. Hayter, Assistant Attorney General, for appellant.

Childers, Schleuter & Smith, William A. Parker, Jr., for appellee.

JUDGES: [***1] DILLARD, Judge. Phipps, P. J., and Peterson, J., concur.

OPINION BY: DILLARD

OPINION

[*467] [**111] Dillard, Judge.

Stone Mountain Memorial Association (“SMMA”) appeals from the trial court’s denial of its motion for summary judgment in a premises-liability and wrongful-death action brought by Nancy Amestoy following her husband Martin’s tragic death in a bicycling accident at Stone Mountain Park. Specifically, SMMA contends that the trial court erred in denying its motion for summary judgment because it is immune from liability under the Recreational Property Act (“RPA”).1 Because we agree with SMMA that the RPA immunizes it from liability, we reverse.

1 See OCGA § 51-3-20 et seq.; see also OCGA § 51-3-20 [HN1] (“The purpose of this article is to encourage owners of land to make land and water areas available to the public for recreational purposes by limiting the owners’ liability toward persons entering thereon for recreational purposes.”).

Viewed in the light most favorable to Nancy Amestoy (i.e., the nonmoving party),2 the record reflects that between 7:30 and 7:45 a.m. on the day in question, officers with SMMA’s public-safety department engaged in temporary traffic-control efforts on portions of Stone Mountain Park’s Robert E. Lee Boulevard in anticipation of a 5k walk/run event that [***2] was scheduled to begin at 8:00 a.m. These temporary traffic-control efforts consisted of two saw-horse style barricades placed side-by-side across the road’s southbound lanes, spanning approximately ten-feet wide with an approximately one-and-a-half foot gap between them. Both barricades bore orange and white stripes and “do not enter” signs.

2 See, e.g., Holcomb v. Long, 329 Ga. App. 515, 517 (765 SE2d 687) (2014).

The SMMA major stationed at these barricades manned the post for a few minutes after they were erected, but he left suddenly when [*468] overcome by an urgent need to use the restroom. While the major was in the restroom, the SMMA captain–who was stationed at a separate traffic-control post–saw two bicyclists maneuver around the barricades at the major’s post. Then, six or seven minutes later, Martin Amestoy was observed riding his bicycle toward the barricades at what a witness believed was a “safe, normal speed”; however, Amestoy’s head was down. Amestoy then traveled between the barricades, striking the inside corner of the lefthand barricade with his handlebar, and was thrown forward off of his bike.3 Although he was wearing a helmet, Amestoy suffered severe head trauma and died later that day.

3 Nancy Amestoy alleges that her husband may [***3] have been attempting to avoid a collision with the barricades by trying to ride between them. Officers could not speak to Martin after the collision to ascertain his version of events because he was unconscious. But Nancy’s expert opined that “once [Martin] was aware of [the barricades,] his only path of travel was between the two barricades.”

Thereafter, Nancy Amestoy filed suit against SMMA in her capacity as surviving spouse and on behalf of Martin’s estate. In doing so, she asserted that SMMA (1) was liable for Martin’s death due to its failure to warn of the allegedly dangerous condition of the barricades, (2) had actual knowledge that the barricades posed a risk of serious bodily injury or death, and (3) willfully failed to warn of the alleged danger (despite knowing of the risk posed by the barricades). SMMA responded and filed a motion for summary judgment, contending that it was immune [**112] from suit under the RPA. The trial court ultimately denied SMMA’s motion when it concluded that genuine issues of material fact remained as to whether (1) the barricades were a dangerous condition and (2) SMMA had actual knowledge that this condition was dangerous. The trial court did, however, [***4] certify the denial of SMMA’s motion for immediate review, and this Court granted SMMA’s application for interlocutory appeal. This appeal follows.

At the outset, we note that [HN2] on appeal from the denial of a motion for summary judgment, we conduct a de novo review of the record.4 [HN3] To prevail on a motion for summary judgment, the moving party must demonstrate that there is no genuine issue of material fact, and that the undisputed facts, viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmovant, entitle the moving party to judgment as a matter of law.5 A defendant may do this by showing the trial court that the record [*469] reveals no evidence sufficient to create a jury issue on at least one essential element of the plaintiff’s case.6 Indeed, if there is no evidence sufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact as to “any essential element of the plaintiff’s claim, that claim tumbles like a house of cards.”7 With these guiding principles in mind, we turn now to SMMA’s arguments on appeal.

4 See Gayle v. Frank Callen Boys & Girls Club, 322 Ga. App. 412, 412 (745 SE2d 695) (2013) (“A de novo standard of review applies to an appeal from a grant [or denial] of summary judgment[.]” (punctuation omitted)).

5 See id. [HN4] (“Summary judgment is proper when there is no genuine issue of material [***5] fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” (punctuation omitted)).

6 See Farris v. First Fin. Bank, 313 Ga. App. 460, 462 (722 SE2d 89) (2011) [HN5] (“This burden is met by a defendant when the court is shown that the documents, affidavits, depositions and other evidence in the record reveal that there is no evidence sufficient to create a jury issue on at least one essential element of the plaintiff’s case.” (punctuation omitted)).

7 La Quinta Inns, Inc. v. Leech, 289 Ga. App. 812, 812 (658 SE2d 637) (2008) (punctuation omitted).

SMMA argues that the trial court erred in denying its motion for summary judgment based upon immunity under the RPA because (1) there was no evidence that it had actual knowledge of a dangerous condition, (2) the allegedly dangerous condition was open and obvious as a matter of law, and (3) there was no evidence that it willfully failed to warn of the allegedly dangerous condition. Because the allegedly dangerous condition–i.e., the barricades blocking the southbound lanes of Robert E. Lee Boulevard–was open and obvious as a matter of law, SMMA was entitled to summary judgment.

[HN6] In enacting the RPA, the General Assembly sought to “encourage property owners to make their property available to the public for recreational purposes by limiting the owners’ liability.”8 In this regard, OCGA § 51-3-22 provides [***6] that “an owner of land owes no duty of care to keep the premises safe for entry or use by others for recreational purposes or to give any warning of a dangerous condition, use, structure, or activity on the premises to persons entering for recreational purposes.”

8 Gayle, 322 Ga. App. at 413 (punctuation omitted). [HN7] The RPA applies when the property is “open to the public for recreational purposes and the owner does not charge an admission fee.” Id. at 414. It is undisputed between the parties that Stone Mountain Park is open to the public for recreational purposes and does not charge an admission fee. See OCGA § 51-3-21 (a) (” ‘Charge’ means the admission price or fee asked in return for invitation or permission to enter or go upon the land.”); see also Hogue v. Stone Mtn. Mem. Ass’n, 183 Ga. App. 378, 380 (1) (358 SE2d 852) (1987) (holding that initial motor-vehicle fee was “a permit for the use of a vehicle in the park” and that “the trial court was authorized to conclude as a matter of law that this fee did not constitute a charge for the recreational use of the parkland itself”).

[HN8] Notwithstanding the RPA’s general provision for immunity from liability, there is an exception “[f]or willful or malicious failure to guard or warn against a dangerous condition, use, structure, or activity.”9 But as we have previously held, [***7] “willful failure” involves “a conscious, knowing, voluntary, intentional failure, rather than a mere inadvertent, accidental, involuntary, inattentive, inert, or passive [*470] [**113] omission.”10 And malice requires either “an actual intent to cause the particular harm produced or the wanton and [willful] doing of the act with an awareness of the plain and strong likelihood that harm may result.”11 Thus, in order for the “willful or malicious failure” exception to apply, Nancy Amestoy must show that the property owner (SMMA) had actual knowledge that (1) the property was being used for recreational purposes;12 (2) a condition existed involving unreasonable risk of death or serious bodily harm; (3) the condition was not apparent to those using the property; and (4) having the foregoing knowledge, the property owner chose not to warn users in disregard of the possible consequences.13 Constructive knowledge is insufficient to meet this burden of proof, and the property owner has no duty to inspect the property.14 Importantly, the plaintiff must satisfy each prong of this four-part test to succeed against a recreational property owner under this exception.15

9 OCGA § 51-3-25 (1); see also Gayle, 322 Ga. App. at 415.

10 Collins v. City of Summerville, 284 Ga. App. 54, 56 (643 SE2d 305) (2007) (punctuation omitted); accord Cooley v. City of Carrollton, 249 Ga. App. 387, 388 (547 SE2d 689) (2001); Spivey v. City of Baxley, 210 Ga. App. 772, 773 (437 SE2d 623) (1993).

11 Collins, 284 Ga. App. at 56 (punctuation [***8] omitted); accord Gayle, 322 Ga. App. at 415.

12 The parties do not dispute that the first prong of this test is satisfied.

13 See Gayle, 322 Ga. App. at 415 (listing the four requirements); Collins, 284 Ga. App. at 56 (same); Spivey, 210 Ga. App. at 773 (same); Quick v. Stone Mtn. Mem. Ass’n, 204 Ga. App. 598, 599 (420 SE2d 36) (1992) (same); see also Edmondson v. Brooks Cty. Bd. of Educ., 205 Ga. App. 662, 663 (423 SE2d 413) (1992) (noting that, in the fourth prong, ” ‘[t]his knowledge’ refers to the three previously listed facts of which the owner must have actual knowledge in order to be liable for ‘choosing not to guard or warn’ ” (punctuation omitted)).

14 See Collins, 284 Ga. App. at 56 (“Constructive knowledge is not sufficient, and no duty to inspect is imposed on the property owner.”); Ga. Dep’t of Transp. v. Thompson, 270 Ga. App. 265, 269 (2) (a) (606 SE2d 323) (2004) (“This test excludes either constructive knowledge or a duty to inspect.” (punctuation omitted)).

15 See, e.g., Lee v. Dep’t of Nat’l Res., 263 Ga. App. 491, 493-94 (3) (588 SE2d 260) (2003) (holding that, despite uncontroverted satisfaction of first prong, failure to satisfy other prongs was fatal to claim); Edmondson, 205 Ga. App. at 663 (noting that, in holding that RPA immunized defendant from liability, the issue of liability under the RPA is “resolved by a four-part test” and the defendants “rel[ied] on the absence of the third prong of the test”).

At the outset, [HN9] we reject any suggestion that the four-part test does not require actual knowledge as to each prong. Although we have not always been precise in our recitation of the analytical framework,16 the notion that actual knowledge is not required by the foregoing [***9] four-part test is belied by the plain language of the test adopted by this Court in McGruder v. Georgia Power Co.,17 by our [*471] explanation and application of the test in subsequent cases,18 and even by other jurisdictions that have construed the test employed in Georgia.19 (1) And here, Nancy [**114] Amestoy failed to produce any evidence to create a jury question as to the third prong of the test–that is, that SMMA had actual knowledge that the barricades were not apparent to those using the property.20 As the trial court noted in its order, the road leading up to the barricades is straight and open. Indeed, witnesses observed two other cyclists negotiate their bicycles around the barricades only minutes before Martin Amestoy’s accident. Additionally, not only does the photographic evidence demonstrate that the barricades were highly visible, but testimony by numerous SMMA public-safety personnel established that they believed this to be the case.

16 See Gayle, 322 Ga. App. at 415; Collins, 284 Ga. App. at 56; Norton v. Cobb Cty., 284 Ga. App. 303, 307 (3) (643 SE2d 803) (2007) (physical precedent only).

17 126 Ga. App. 562, 563-64 (1) (191 SE2d 305) (1972) (“In the context of the whole statute, it would seem that a wilful failure to guard or warn would require actual knowledge of the owner that its property is being used for recreational purposes; that a condition exists involving [***10] an unreasonable risk of death or serious bodily harm; that the condition is not apparent to those using the property; and that having this knowledge, the owner chooses not to guard or warn, in disregard of the possible consequences.”), reversed on other grounds by 229 Ga. 811 (194 SE2d 440) (1972); see also Ga. Marble Co. v. Warren, 183 Ga. App. 866, 867 (1) (360 SE2d 286) (1987) (adopting the four-part test as previously set forth in McGruder v. Ga. Power Co., and noting that “[a]lthough the test was turned into dicta by the Supreme Court’s ruling that the RPA was not applicable in that case, it is sound”).

18 See Ray v. Ga. Dep’t of Nat’l Res., 296 Ga. App. 700, 702 (1) (675 SE2d 585) (2009); Lee, 263 Ga. App. at 493-94 (3); Thompson, 270 Ga. App. at 269 (2) (a); S. Gwinnett Athletic Ass’n v. Nash, 220 Ga. App. 116, 119 (1) (469 SE2d 276) (1996); Spivey, 210 Ga. App. at 773; Quick, 204 Ga. App. at 599; Edmondson, 205 Ga. App. at 663; Warren, 183 Ga. App. at 867 (1).

19 Hendrickson v. Ga. Power Co., 80 FSupp2d 1374, 1379 (III) (B) (M.D. Ga. 2000) (acknowledging that this Court uses a four-part test, and reciting test so as to make clear that defendant must have “actual knowledge” as to the first three prongs); Ex parte City of Geneva, 707 So2d 626, 629 n.2 (Ala. 1997) (construing Alabama’s recreational-use statute and observing that “the four-part ‘actual knowledge’ test of [Ala. Code] § 35-15-24 [(which applies ‘actual knowledge’ to the first three prongs of test)] appears likely to be a codification of the test employed by the state courts of Georgia when determining whether a noncommercial recreational landowner may be liable for ‘willful … failure to guard or warn against a dangerous condition, use, [***11] structure, or activity.’ “).

20 See Ray, 296 Ga. App. at 702 (2) (“The … third prong of this test was not met, because no evidence was presented that appellees had actual knowledge of a condition that was not apparent to persons using the property.”); Nash, 220 Ga. App. at 119 (1) (reversing denial of motion for summary judgment when, inter alia, “even assuming for the sake of argument that the unfinished bleachers presented a dangerous condition, there is no evidence that the [defendant] had any knowledge that this condition was not apparent to people using the property”); Edmondson, 205 Ga. App. at 663 (“[The third] prong requires plaintiffs to show that defendants actually knew that the dangerous condition of the merry-go-round was not apparent to those using the playground.”).

The testimony from SMMA personnel included that of a corporal who assisted in the investigation after the accident, and who testified that (1) the “barricades were plainly visible for quite a distance,” (2) the barricades were visible “for hundreds of feet,” (3) the sun was shining on the morning in question, and (4) there was “a great deal of visibility.” Likewise, an SMMA officer who performed an accident investigation, including taking various measurements to construct a to-scale diagram and [***12] conducting a “conspicuity test,” estimated that [*472] the barricades would have been visible from “a couple hundred yards” up Robert E. Lee Boulevard. More specifically, the major who was stationed at the barricades estimated that the distance at which they were visible would have been 200 to 250 feet, though he did acknowledge that on the morning in question, “[t]he way the sun was up, [a cyclist or motorist] would possibly [have] been looking into the sun.” Lastly, the SMMA captain calculated that the distance from the first line of sight to the barricades was one-tenth of a mile, or 528 feet, concluding that the barricades were “highly visible.” The captain also echoed other testimony that “[i]t was a clear day, the sun was out, [and] visibility was good.”

Finally, Nancy Amestoy’s expert testified that from his position and speed on a bicycle, Martin Amestoy likely would have seen the gap between the barricades when he was approximately fifteen feet away, giving him about one-half of a second to react. But when questioned about the distance from which the barricades themselves would have been visible, the expert testified that he did not “have an answer for that” and that he did not “know how far [***13] back they would have been seen,” though he opined that it would not have been “very far.” He also testified that he had no way of knowing what Martin Amestoy was doing “10, 20, [or] 50 feet prior to the barricades.”

Considering the above testimony, Nancy Amestoy presented no evidence that SMMA had actual knowledge that the barricades were not apparent to park users when they were open and obvious,21 as overwhelmingly [**115] demonstrated by the foregoing testimony and photographic evidence.22 Indeed, as previously noted, there is no evidence [*473] that SMMA officials knew that the barricades were not apparent.23 Although Nancy Amestoy claims that SMMA stationed a major at the barricades to provide warnings to approaching motorists and bicyclists and that this officer had actual knowledge of the need to provide such warnings, there is no evidence to substantiate these assertions. Instead, the major testified that the objective of his post was to “turn the cars around, bicyclists around.” Additionally, the SMMA captain testified that the purpose of the major’s post was “to block the road, to keep cars from going down into that area where the people would be crossing” and “protect the walkers,”24 not to “protect [***14] bicyclists and cars.” And when further asked if there was “any interest in protecting the bicyclists or the vehicles from entering that area,” the captain responded that “[o]ur objective is to protect everybody in the park.” But this diplomatic answer is a far cry from testimony that would create a genuine issue of material fact as to whether SMMA officials had actual knowledge that the barricades themselves were not apparent–or open and obvious–to park users.

21 Cf. Turkett v. Cent. of Ga. Ry. Co., 117 Ga. App. 617, 617 (161 SE2d 362) (1968) (holding that court erred in dismissing petition alleging negligence when plaintiff collided with warning device placed in roadway by defendant while traveling in the dark, in the rain, and under circumstances of poor visibility; and obstruction was unlighted, obscured from plaintiff’s vision by its placement, and could not be seen until within 10 feet); Rogers v. Johnson, 94 Ga. App. 666, 666 (syllabus), 677 (1), 678 (3) (96 SE2d 285) (1956) (sustaining verdict for plaintiff when decedent was traveling roadway at night in car that collided with defendant’s vehicle, which was hauling house-trailer, nearly blocking the entire roadway after making a lefthand turn); Trammell v. Matthews, 84 Ga. App. 332, 338-39 (1) (66 SE2d 183) (1951) (holding that there was a question for the jury as to negligence when plaintiff alleged, inter alia, “that had the defendant placed proper warnings at the [***15] point where the detour went around the place where the bridge was out, the driver of the car … would not have passed the detour and gone through the partial road block and then into the place where the bridge was out,” and when it appeared from the plaintiff’s petition “that the way ahead of the driver of this car was not clear, that it was yet dark, and the road was not straight as one approached this partial road block from the [s]outh; that the detour was the same color as the paved road; [and] that the partial road block was not sufficient and adequate to prevent one from assuming that the road could be used”).

22 See Metro. Atlanta Rapid Transit Auth. v. Fife, 220 Ga. App. 298, 299, 300 (1) (469 SE2d 420) (1996) (noting that photographic evidence showed that allegedly dangerous condition of drainage culvert was “plainly visible to anyone standing at the curb,” and holding that condition was open and obvious); Warren, 183 Ga. App. at 868 (1) (“Photographs of the stream illustrate that even a first time visitor to the stream would perceive that the stream’s bed was or at least was likely to be rocky. … The rocky condition of the terrain in and about the stream was open and obvious.”); see also Engleson v. Little Falls Area Chamber of Commerce, No. Civ. 101-102, 2002 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 23093, 2002 WL 31689432, at *3 (3) (D. Minn. 2002) (noting, in case involving a plaintiff who tripped over an orange traffic cone, that “[t]he test for obviousness is an [***16] objective test that examines whether the danger was in fact visible, rather than whether the injured party actually saw the danger,” and concluding that not only were traffic cones obvious but that defendants “could not have anticipated harm from the cones because traffic cones are, themselves, warning markers”).

23 See Ray, 296 Ga. App. at 702 (1) (“The … third prong of this test was not met, because no evidence was presented that appellees had actual knowledge of a condition that was not apparent to persons using the property.”); Edmondson, 205 Ga. App. at 663 (“[The third] prong requires plaintiffs to show that defendants actually knew that the dangerous condition of the merry-go-round was not apparent to those using the playground.”).

24 (Emphasis supplied.)

Furthermore, even if we were to assume that Martin Amestoy could not see the barricades from his position and speed on his bicycle or due to the sun’s location at the exact moment of his accident on the morning in question, [HN10] whether a dangerous condition is open and obvious depends on the objective knowledge of a reasonable person, not on the plaintiff’s subjective knowledge.25

25 See Morris v. Clark Equip. Co., 904 FSupp. 1379, 1383 (II) (B) (M.D. Ga. 1995) (“In determining whether a danger was open and obvious to the injured party, the court should [***17] use an objective point of view, as opposed to subjective, since the user’s perceptions are irrelevant.”); see also Weatherby v. Honda Motor Co., 195 Ga. App. 169, 171 (393 SE2d 64) (1990) (“In determining, under the ‘open and obvious rule,’ whether the peril from which an injury results is latent or patent, the decision is made on the basis of an objective view … , and the subjective perceptions of the user or injured party are irrelevant.”), overruled on other grounds by Ogletree v. Navistar Intern. Transp. Corp., 269 Ga. 443, 443-44 (500 SE2d 570) (1998) (holding that “open and obvious danger” rule is not applicable in cases of alleged design defect). See generally 62A Am. Jur. 2d Premises Liability § 713 (2016) [HN11] (“Whether a condition is open and obvious, for premises liability purposes, depends on the objective knowledge of a reasonable person, not the plaintiff’s subjective knowledge. The test for what constitutes an ‘obvious’ danger is an objective test: the question is not whether the injured party actually saw the danger, but whether it was in fact visible.” (footnotes omitted)).

[*474] [**116] In light of the foregoing, we must reverse the trial court’s denial of SMMA’s motion for summary judgment.26

26 See Nash, 220 Ga. App. at 119 (1) (reversing denial of motion for summary judgment when, inter alia, “even assuming for the sake of argument that the unfinished bleachers presented a dangerous condition, there is no [***18] evidence that the [defendant] had any knowledge that this condition was not apparent to people using the property”).

Judgment reversed. Phipps, P. J., and Peterson, J., concur.


Connecticut court rejects motion for summary judgment because plaintiff claimed he did not have enough time to read the release before he signed it

Plaintiff successfully argued he did not have enough time to read the release before he signed it. The court bought it.

DeWitt, Jr. v. Felt Racing, LLC et al., 2017 Conn. Super. LEXIS 235

State: Connecticut, Superior Court of Connecticut, Judicial District of New Haven at New Haven

Plaintiff: Guy DeWitt, Jr.

Defendant: Felt Racing, LLC and Pedal Power, LLC 

Plaintiff Claims: no time to read the release, not told he needed to sign a release

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: for the plaintiff 

Year: 2017 

Summary

This case looks at demoing a bike in Connecticut. The rider/plaintiff argued that he did not have enough time to read the release, and the bike shop was chaotic creating confusing for him. He was injured when the handlebars broke causing him to fall. 

Facts

The plaintiff participated in the Wednesday night right put on by Pedal Power, LLC, one of the defendants. That night Pedal Power made arrangements for people to demo Felt Bicycles. Most people did so and sent their information to Felt Racing so the bikes were fit and ready to go when they arrived.

The plaintiff arrived with his own bike. However, once he got there he decided to demo a felt bicycle. While the bike was being fitted for him, he was handed a release to sign. The plaintiff stated the place was chaotic, and he did not have time to read the release

During the ride, the handlebar failed or cracked causing the plaintiff to fall and hit a tree.

What is disputed is whether the plaintiff was given sufficient time to read and consider the Release and Waiver. The plaintiff claims that he did not read it because there wasn’t time to do so. “Everything was very chaotic and rushed there What is disputed is whether the plaintiff was given sufficient time to read and consider the Release and Waiver. The plaintiff claims that he did not read it because there wasn’t time to do so. “Everything was very chaotic and rushed there to make the ride. I just did not have the time to read that . . .” Further, the plaintiff claims that there was no mention of it until his bike was taken, and the Felt employees had begun custom fitting the Felt bike to him. The defendants, on the other hand, denied during oral argument that the scene was “chaotic” or that the plaintiff was coerced into riding the Felt bike because he had his own personal bike that he could ride. to make the ride. I just did not have the time to read that . . .” Further, the plaintiff claims that there was no mention of it until his bike was taken, and the Felt employees had begun custom fitting the Felt bike to him. The defendants, on the other hand, denied during oral argument that the scene was “chaotic” or that the plaintiff was coerced into riding the Felt bike because he had his own personal bike that he could ride.

 The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, and this was the analysis of the motion by the court. 

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

Each state has its own requirements for when a court can grant a motion for summary judgment. The court in this case set forth those requirements before starting an analysis of the facts as they applied to the law.

“A motion for summary judgment is designed to eliminate the delay and expense of litigating an issue when there is no real issue to be tried. Practice Book section 17-49 provides that summary judgment shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, affidavits and any other proof submitted 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. In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the trial court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.”

Most states apply similar standards to deciding motions for summary judgment. The major point is there is no genuine issue of fact’s material to the case. Meaning no matter how you look at the facts, the motion is going to win because the law is clear.

Additional statements in the case indicated the court was not inclined to grant any motion for summary judgment.

“Summary judgment is particularly ‘ill-adapted to negligence cases, where . . . the ultimate issue in contention involves a mixed question of fact and law . . . [T]he conclusion of negligence is necessarily one of fact . . .”

“The courts hold the movant to a strict standard. To satisfy [their] burden the movant[s] must make a showing that it is clear what the truth is, and that excludes any real doubt as to the existence of any genuine issue of material fact, the nonmoving party has no  obligation to submit documents establishing the existence of such an issue . . . Once the moving party has met its burden, however, the opposing party must present evidence that demonstrates the existence of some disputed factual issue.”

The court then analyzed the entire issue of why summary judgments are rarely granted in this judge’s opinion.

“[T]he fundamental policy purposes of the tort compensation system [are] compensation of innocent parties, shifting the loss to responsible parties or distributing it among appropriate entities, and deterrence of wrongful conduct . . . It is sometimes said that compensation for losses is the primary function of tort law . . . [but it] is perhaps more accurate to describe the primary function as one of determining when tort system is the prophylactic factor of preventing future harm . . . The courts are concerned not only with compensation of the victim, but with admonition of the wrongdoer.” “Thus, it is consistent with public policy ‘to posit the risk of negligence upon the actor’ and, if this policy is to be abandoned, ‘it has generally been to allow or require that the risk shift to another party better or equally able to bear it, not shift the risk to the weak bargainer.’

The writing on the wall, or in the opinion, makes it pretty clear this judge was not inclined to grant motions for summary judgment in tort cases when the risk of the injury would transfer to the plaintiff.

The court then reviewed the requirements of what is required in a release under Connecticut law. 

…requirements for an enforceable agreement as well as the elements which demonstrate that an agreement violates public policy and renders the agreement unenforceable: the agreement concerns a business of a type suitable for regulation; the party seeking to enforce the agreement is engaged in performing a service of great importance to the public; the party holds itself out as willing to perform a service for any member of the public; there is an economic component to the transaction; the agreement is an adhesive contract; and as a result of the transaction, the plaintiff is placed under the control of the seller. 

Nowhere in the requirements does it state a requirement that the plaintiff have enough time to read the release, even if did go ahead and sign the release. 

The language quoted sounds like similar language found in other decisions in other states regarding releases. 

Connecticut also requires “that in order for an exculpatory clause to validly release the defendant, it must be clear and contain specific reference to the term “negligence.” 

In this release, the term negligence is only found once. 

The plaintiff argued that he did not have time to sign the release, and the place was chaotic. This was enough for the court to say there were material facts at issue in this case. “If the plaintiff was not afforded the opportunity to read and consider the Waiver and Release, then the agreement cannot be enforced. It is for the trier of fact to determine this.”

The defendants created the conditions under which the plaintiff could participate in the ride on a Felt bicycle. Enforcement of an agreement requiring the plaintiff to assume the risk of the defendants’ actions when there is a question of fact regarding whether the plaintiff had been given sufficient time to read and consider the Waiver and Release, would violate public policy, even if the language of the agreement was explicit and clear. For this reason, this court denies the defendants’ motions for summary judgment.

The motion for summary judgment was denied. 

So Now What? 

This is the first time I have read a decision where the claim there was not enough time to read the release was upheld by a court. Normally, the court states if the release is signed the signor read and agreed to the terms.

This is one more argument that will eliminate releases in Connecticut. There have been several already, and although there are several decisions that support releases, there is a growing list of decisions that are providing opportunities for the courts to throw them out. 

The final issue to be aware of is the language in this case is identical to language in most other release cases. However, here that language was used to throw out a release rather than support it.

Other Connecticut Decisions Involving Releases

Connecticut court works hard to void a release for a cycling event

Poorly written release failing to follow prior state Supreme Court decisions, employee statement, no padding and  spinning hold send climbing wall gym back to trial in Connecticut.

Connecticut court determines that a release will not bar a negligent claim created by statute.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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bike, ride, summary judgment, public policy, relieve,
bicycle, quotation marks omitted, disputed, participating, chaotic, riding,
custom, rider, tort law, moving party, entitled to judgment, nonmoving party,
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Felt Racing, LLC, Pedal Power, LLC, Products Liability, Release,

 

 

 


DeWitt, Jr. v. Felt Racing, LLC et al., 2017 Conn. Super. LEXIS 235

DeWitt, Jr. v. Felt Racing, LLC et al., 2017 Conn. Super. LEXIS 235

Guy DeWitt, Jr. v. Felt Racing, LLC et al.

CV136040482

SUPERIOR COURT OF CONNECTICUT, JUDICIAL DISTRICT OF NEW HAVEN AT NEW HAVEN

2017 Conn. Super. LEXIS 235

February 6, 2017, Decided

February 6, 2017, Filed

NOTICE: THIS DECISION IS UNREPORTED AND MAY BE SUBJECT TO FURTHER APPELLATE REVIEW. COUNSEL IS CAUTIONED TO MAKE AN INDEPENDENT DETERMINATION OF THE STATUS OF THIS CASE.

CORE TERMS: bike, ride, summary judgment, public policy, relieve, bicycle, quotation marks omitted, disputed, participating, chaotic, riding, custom, rider, tort law, moving party, entitled to judgment, nonmoving party, question of fact, primary function, exculpatory, unambiguous, genuine, movant, entities, sufficient time, sponsored, pre-sized, arranged, sponsors, borrow

JUDGES: [*1] Angela C. Robinson, J.

OPINION BY: Angela C. Robinson

OPINION

MEMORANDUM OF DECISION RE MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENTS #149 AND #150

Guy DeWitt, Jr., the plaintiff, claims that on June 18, 2013, he was injured as a direct result of the negligence and/or actions of the defendants, Felt Racing, LLC and Pedal Power, LLC, in violation of the products liability statute. At the time of the incident, the plaintiff was participating in a group ride of bicyclists that was sponsored by Pedal Power. During the ride, at the time he was injured, the plaintiff was riding a bike he borrowed from Felt Racing. Prior to participating in the ride, and before he was allowed to borrow the Felt bike, the plaintiff signed a Waiver and Release.

The defendants both now move for summary judgment based upon the Waiver and Release, which they argue releases them from all liability. The plaintiff objects to the defendants’ motion claiming that the language of the Release and Waiver does not sufficiently relieve the defendants of liability; and that it violates public policy.

Most of the facts pertinent to the resolution of the motion are not in dispute. Pedal Power sponsored a group ride in Middletown, Connecticut. Felt Racing arranged [*2] to have a Felt bicycle demonstration at the Pedal Power store, and brought 35 Felt bikes to loan out for the ride. The plaintiff had brought his own bike to ride during the activity, but decided to try a Felt bike. The plaintiff was provided with a Felt AR2, which was selected and custom fit to him by a Felt employee. He had not arranged to ride the bike ahead of time. According to Mr. Rudzinsky, Certified USA Cycling Professional Mechanic and agent of Felt Racing, the plaintiff was not one of “the guys that was pre-sized . . .” Rather, “he showed up late.” (Rudzinsky Depo p. 57.) In order to borrow the bike, the plaintiff signed a Waiver, provided a copy of his driver’s license and left his personal bike as collateral. As the plaintiff was riding the Felt AR2 eastbound on Livingston Street in Middletown, Connecticut the right side of the handle bars failed and/or cracked, ejecting him off the bike and causing him to violently hit the ground and collide with a tree.

What is disputed is whether the plaintiff was given sufficient time to read and consider the Release and Waiver. The plaintiff claims that he did not read it because there wasn’t time to do so. “Everything was very chaotic [*3] and rushed there to make the ride. I just did not have the time to read that . . .” (Deposition of Plaintiff attached to Plaintiff’s Objection.) Further, the plaintiff claims that there was no mention of it until his bike was taken, and the Felt employees had begun custom fitting the Felt bike to him. The defendants, on the other hand, denied during oral argument that the scene was “chaotic” or that the plaintiff was coerced into riding the Felt bike because he had his own personal bike that he could ride.

The defendants request that judgment enter in their favor on the plaintiff’s complaint based upon the Release and Waiver.

“A motion for summary judgment is designed to eliminate the delay and expense of litigating an issue when there is no real issue to be tried. Wilson v. New Haven, 213 Conn. 277, 279, 567 A.2d 829 (1989). Practice Book section 17-49 provides that summary judgment shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, affidavits and any other proof submitted 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. In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the trial court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Webster Bank v. Oakley, 265 Conn. 539, 545, 830 A.2d 139 (2003).

“Summary [*4] judgment is particularly ‘ill-adapted to negligence cases, where . . . the ultimate issue in contention involves a mixed question of fact and law . . . [T]he conclusion of negligence is necessarily one of fact . . .” Michaud v Gurney, 168 Conn. 431, 434, 362 A.2d 857 (1975).

“The courts hold the movant to a strict standard. To satisfy [their] burden the movant[s] must make a showing that it is clear what the truth is, and that excludes any real doubt as to the existence of any genuine issue of material fact, the nonmoving party has no obligation to submit documents establishing the existence of such an issue . . . Once the moving party has met its burden, however, the opposing party must present evidence that demonstrates the existence of some disputed factual issue.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Zielinski v Kotsoris, 279 Conn. 312, 318-9, 901 A.2d 1207 (2006).

The defendants claim to be entitled to judgment because the Waiver contains language transferring all the risks of participating in the group ride from Felt Bicycles, and sponsors of the ride to the participant rider borrowing the Felt bike. Specifically, the Waiver provides:

I HEREBY WAIVE, RELEASE, DISCHARGE, AND COVENANT NOT TO SUE Felt Bicycles, Felt Racing, or its . . . agents . . . members, volunteers and employees, and/or other participants, sponsors [*5] . . . and/or where applicable, owners and lessors or (Sic) premises on which the Event takes place . . . from liability, claims, demands, losses or damages.

Though term “negligence” appears only once in the waiver, in paragraph 1, the defendants maintain that this is not determinative of their motion regarding the negligence claims. Further, the defendants argue that the language of the waiver sufficiently covers the actions of the agents and/or employees of Felt, LLC and Pedal Power, LLC, as well as the legal entities, themselves.

To support their arguments, both the defendants and the plaintiff rely primarily upon Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corp., 276 Conn. 314, 885 A.2d 734, (2005). The plaintiff also cites and relies upon Hyson v. White Water Mountain Resorts of Connecticut, 265 Conn. 636, 829 A.2d 827 (2003); Lewis v. Habitat for Humanity of Greater New Haven, Superior Court, Judicial District of New Haven, docket no. CV 095030268 (January 9, 2012, Frechette, J.) [53 Conn. L. Rptr. 512, 2012 Conn. Super. LEXIS 146]; Kelly v. Deere & Co, 627 F.Sup. 564 (D.C. 1986).

In Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant, Corp, the