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The safety precautions undertaken by the defendant in this mountain bike race were sufficient to defeat the plaintiff’s claims of gross negligence in this Utah mountain bike fatality.

Tour of the Canyonlands was an 18-mile mountain bike race near Moab, Utah. Six miles of the course were on roads. The course was an open course meaning, there might be automobile traffic on the roads; the roads would not be closed to traffic.
Two plaintiffs’ struck a truck on the road, killing one of the mountain bikers.

Milne v. USA Cycling Inc., et. al., 575 F.3d 1120; 2009 U.S. App. LEXIS 17822

State: Utah, United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit

Plaintiff: Robert J. Milne, an individual; Timothy K. Sorrow, individually and as personal representative on behalf of his deceased son, Samuel B. Hall,

Defendant: USA Cycling Inc., a Colorado corporation, d/b/a National Off-road Bicycle Association; Cycle Cyndicate Inc.,

Plaintiff Claims: negligence, gross negligence, and wrongful death

Defendant Defenses: release, failure to state a claim to prove gross negligence

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2009

This is an attempt to recover damages by parents for the injuries they suffer when a son is hurt or dies. It probably involves as many emotional issues as it does legal ones such as how and why did my son die, why didn’t they do more to keep my son alive and possibly even some desire to protect others from the same
fate.

Two mountain bikers entered the Tour of the Canyonlands mountain bike race. Both had entered the race before and were classified as expert racers. They both signed a release prior to the race and had been told the first six miles of the course would be an open course.

An “open course” is one that is not closed to automobile traffic. Cycling on an “open course,” whether on a mountain bike or road bike, you will be encountering cars and be passed by cars. Approximately 25% of all mountain bike races are open course and a majority of road bike races in the US.

The race organizers had put up signs before the racing telling motorists that there was going to be a race. The organizers had volunteers along the route and first aid people to assist riders. They had made the effort to notify all campers on the race route about the race. The defendant driving the truck involved in the collision stated he was not notified about the race, but other people camping with him stated they had been notified.

The accident occurred when one racer attempted to pass another racer on the open part of the course while passing the automobile coming from the opposite direction. The automobile was a Ford Excursion pulling a 30’ trailer. The mountain bikers tangled, and one of the plaintiffs’s crashed into the truck.

Mr. Konitshek testified that, when he saw the oncoming bikers, he veered as far right in his lane of travel as possible, and remained on the right side of the road the entire time. He was going about 5 miles per hour when one of the bikers hit his left sideview mirror, causing it to bang into his window and shatter.

Mr. Hall had attempted to pass both himself and Mr. Milne. Mr. Byrd was immediately behind Mr. Milne, so Mr. Hall passed him first. Mr. Byrd testified that Mr. Hall passed very closely and, because of his proximity and his speed–Mr. Hall was riding about 25 miles per hour at that time–Mr. Casey could feel the wind coming off him as he passed. Then, as Mr. Hall began to pass Mr. Milne, their handlebars locked together, causing them to veer left and strike Mr. Konitshek’s camper. It is not entirely clear what happened next, but at least one racer testified that he saw the trailer run over Mr. Hall.

The release stopped the claims based on simple negligence and wrongful death of the plaintiffs. That left the claims for gross negligence. The Federal District Court (trial court) dismissed the plaintiff’s claims because the plaintiff had not pled any facts to prove their claim of gross negligence.

On the plaintiff’s gross negligence claims, the court determined that the undisputed facts showed that defendants had taken a number of steps to protect the racers’ safety, and even if those steps were taken negligently, they were not grossly negligent.

There was also an issue of the plaintiff’s expert witness whom the trial court had prevented from testifying because the trial court found him to not have any experience as a mountain bike race expert.

The plaintiff’s appealed the trial court’s decision.

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

The appellate court had a long discussion on the courts process to dismiss cases based on motions for summary judgment. The court then started into the analysis of the facts in this case and how they applied to the law.

Gross negligence in Utah is a failure on the part of the defendant to observe even slight care. “Under Utah law, “[g]ross negligence is the failure to observe even slight care; it is carelessness or recklessness to a degree that shows utter indifference to the consequences that may result.” The plaintiff to prove the defendant was grossly negligent must proof “conduct substantially more distant from the appropriate standard of care than does ordinary negligence.”

The facts argued by the plaintiff can then only be interpreted in one way for a court to determine gross negligence cannot be proved. However, even if there are different ways of viewing the facts, gross negligence claims can be beat if there is evidence the defendant did show care or was not lacking care.

However, appeals courts have affirmed grants of summary judgment on gross negligence claims where the undisputed evidence showed that the defendants took precautionary measures and did not ignore known and obvious risks.

In this case, the court could point out numerous instances where the defendant was not careless. “… the plaintiffs have fallen short of producing evidence upon which a jury could conclude that the defendants failed to exercise “even slight care” in organizing and administering this race.

The court also looked at the knowledge of the racers and the fact they assumed the risk of the sport and injuries they encountered.

Mountain bike racing is an inherently dangerous sport, so the defendants cannot be considered grossly negligent merely because they organized a race that placed the racers at risk of injury and even death. Rather, the court must look at the specific steps the defendants took to ensure the racers’ safety in order to determine whether a jury could decide that they
were grossly negligent.

Although the issue of assumption of the risk was reviewed by the court and it obviously factored into the court’s analysis, it was not stated by the court as a reason for its decision.

The plaintiff argued the driver’s statements showed the defendant not done anything. However, the court seemed to discount the driver’s statements and found everyone else did know about the race. A defendant in the case looking not to lose a lawsuit would be more inclined to state he had not been notified.

Mr. Konitshek claimed that the organizers’ efforts to warn people in the area of the upcoming race were ineffective, because he did not know about the race until moments before the accident. Mr. Konitshek’s complaints about the sufficiency of the race organizers’ warnings do not rise to the level of creating a material issue of fact with regard to gross
negligence for two reasons. First, even if the race organizers’ warnings were imperfect, that does not negate the fact that they made rather substantial efforts to warn people, and their failure to reach every person in the area is insufficient to show gross negligence. Second, although Mr. Konitshek testified that he would have changed his plans if he had known about the race in advance, the plaintiffs presented no reason for this court to think that most drivers would change their plans to avoid a bicycle race on a 6-mile stretch of open road.

Utah requires a high disregard of safety issues to constitute gross negligence. Since automobile accidents were rare in mountain bike racing, this being the only one in the ten years of running this event, automobile accidents were not considered a serious threat to the participants. The issues were brought up by the plaintiff’s expert witness whom the court dismissed in one paragraph.

Thus, the organizers’ failure to shut down the road, mark and enforce a center line on the road, more closely monitor vehicular traffic, or more thoroughly warn other area drivers of the upcoming race cannot, as a matter of law, amount to gross negligence in light of the other safety steps taken by the organizers of this race.

Nor is gross negligence proved by 20/20 hindsight.

An examination of cases in other jurisdictions shows that courts have been reluctant to find that race organizers have been grossly negligent for failing to take every precaution that 20/20 hind-sight might counsel.

The court found the plaintiff’s had not presented evidence that could prove to a jury that the race organizers were grossly negligent and the actions of the race organizers in attending to the safety issues discounted or eliminated the plaintiff’s gross negligence claim.

We therefore agree with the district court’s determination that the plaintiffs in this case have failed to provide evidence upon which a reasonable jury could conclude that the race organizers were grossly negligent.

The court then went on to support the trial courts exclusion of the plaintiff’s expert witness because the expert witness did not have sufficient experience in mountain bike racing. 

There was a concurring opinion in this case. A concurring opinion is one where a justice sitting on the appeal agrees with the outcome of the decision but for a different reason than the majority of the justices. In this case, the concurring judge felt the plaintiff’s expert witness statements were enough to beat the gross negligence claim.

In this case, he would have excluded the plaintiff’s expert witness testimony, but would have used his testimony where he stated the defendants exercised some degree of care for the participants as a reason to dismiss the gross negligence claim.

The dismissal of the claims of the plaintiff by the trial court was upheld.

So Now What?

I am seeing case after case where gross negligence claims are made to defeat a release. Twenty years ago, few cases pleaded a claim for gross negligence, and now every case does. As such part of your preparation for any activity, trip or program is to make sure you do not do anything that could support a gross negligence claim.

Gross negligence claims rarely proved at trial, extremely rare. As such their main reason they are pled is to get passed the motion for summary judgment, which increases the cost of continuing the case substantially. Therefore, any settlement offer will be increased significantly. A gross negligence claim hanging over the head of a defendant is also a real threat as some insurance companies will not pay to defend such a claim judgment based on gross negligence are not dischargeable in Bankruptcy.

Planning what safety precautions you should undertake should first start with understanding what your industry does. Know how other races are put on and what precaution to take is the first step. Then looking at your course, your participants or your ability to respond, you should modify the safety program to meet those differences. 

Finally, have a release and fully inform every one of the risks. Most importantly inform them of all risks, maybe even repeatedly, that are different from everyone else or that substantially increase the risk. Assumption of the Risk is the second most-used defense to negligence claims in recreation cases after a release. Always use both.

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

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Milne v. USA Cycling Inc., et. al., 575 F.3d 1120; 2009 U.S. App. LEXIS 17822

Milne v. USA Cycling Inc., et. al., 575 F.3d 1120; 2009 U.S. App. LEXIS 17822

Robert J. Milne, an individual; Timothy K. Sorrow, individually and as personal representative on behalf of his deceased son, Samuel B. Hall, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. USA Cycling Inc., a Colorado corporation, d/b/a National Off-road Bicycle Association; Cycle Cyndicate Inc., a Colorado Corporation; Eric Jean, an individual, Defendants-Appellees.

No. 07-4247

UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE TENTH CIRCUIT

575 F.3d 1120; 2009 U.S. App. LEXIS 17822

August 10, 2009, Filed

PRIOR HISTORY: [**1]

Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Utah. (D.C. No. 2:05-CV-00675-TS).

Milne v. USA Cycling, Inc., 489 F. Supp. 2d 1283, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 42579 (D. Utah, 2007)

COUNSEL: Steve Russell (Jordan Kendall with him on the briefs) of Eisenberg & Gilchrist, Salt Lake City, Utah, for Plaintiffs-Appellants.

Allan L. Larson (Richard A. Vazquez with him on the briefs) of Snow, Christensen, & Martineau, Salt Lake City, Utah, for Defendants-Appellees.

JUDGES: Before McCONNELL, EBEL, and GORSUCH, Circuit Judges. GORSUCH, Circuit Judge, concurring in part and concurring in the judgment.

OPINION BY: EBEL

OPINION

[*1122] EBEL, Circuit Judge.

This diversity jurisdiction case involves Utah state law claims of negligence, gross negligence, and wrongful death based on a tragic accident that occurred during a bicycle race called the “Tour of Canyonlands” near Moab, Utah. During the race, one or more of the racers collided with an SUV and trailer driving in the opposite direction. One racer was killed, and another was badly injured. The injured rider and the decedent’s mother–in her own capacity and on behalf of her son’s estate–filed suit against the race’s organizers and the entities responsible for promoting and overseeing the race.

The district court granted defendants’ motion to strike plaintiffs’ expert’s second [**2] affidavit, and granted summary judgment for the defendants on all claims. On appeal, the plaintiffs only challenge the district court’s decision to exclude their expert’s opinion and to grant summary judgment for the defendants on the plaintiffs’ claims of gross negligence.

Exercising jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291, we AFFIRM.

I. BACKGROUND 1

1 Because this case comes to us on defendants’ motion for summary judgment, we construe all facts in plaintiffs’ favor. See Beardsley v. Farmland Co-Op, Inc., 530 F.3d 1309, 1313 (10th Cir. 2008) ( [HN1] “This court reviews the district court’s summary judgment decision de novo, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party . . . .” (quoting Herrera v. Lufkin Indus., Inc., 474 F.3d 675, 679-80 (10th Cir. 2007)) (ellipses in original).

The “Tour of the Canyonlands” (“TOC”) is a cross-country mountain bike race [*1123] through the canyons outside Moab, Utah. The race begins on six miles of an “open course” dirt road, where racers share the road with automobile traffic, and continues for another nineteen miles on rugged off-road paths. On April 25, 2005, two racers–Samuel B. Hall and Robert J. Milne–were racing the TOC when they [**3] struck a Ford Excursion SUV, and the trailer it was pulling, on the six-mile open course portion of the race. Mr. Hall died at the scene from severe head trauma. Mr. Milne was seriously injured, but survived the accident.

Following the accident, Plaintiff-Appellant Timothy Sorrow brought negligence, gross negligence, and wrongful deaths claims personally and on behalf of the estate of her deceased son, Mr. Hall, against the people and entities responsible for organizing the race. Plaintiff-Appellant Robert J. Milne brought claims of negligence and gross negligence on his own behalf against the same defendants.

The three Defendants-Appellees were responsible for organizing, promoting, and overseeing the TOC race on April 25, 2005. U.S.A. Cycling Inc., d/b/a the National Off-Road Bicycle Association (“NORBA”), oversaw the race and drafted the rules governing the race, Cycle Cyndicate organized and promoted the race, and Eric Jean–the president and CEO of Cycle Cyndicate–played a large role in administering and supervising the race.

A. Open Course Mountain Bike Racing

Although a portion of this race took place on an open road, the race was governed exclusively by the mountain bike racing [**4] rules developed by NORBA. These rules differ significantly from road racing rules. For example, road racers must obey a “center-line rule,” and may be disqualified if they cross over the line painted in the middle of the road. Mountain bike racers, on the other hand, will not be disqualified for crossing the center-line. This distinction is based at least in part on the fact that, unlike the roads used for road racing, open-course mountain bike races often take place on dirt roads that do not have a clearly marked center line. Thus, a center-line rule would be difficult, if not impossible, to enforce.

Despite the fact that a mountain bike racer may not be disqualified for crossing the center line, there was evidence that the race organizers told the racers to obey a center-line rule. Even where no center-line rule is in effect, however, racers are expected to be aware of their surroundings, and to veer right if they see oncoming traffic.

Open-course bicycle races are apparently not uncommon in the mountain bike racing world and are especially common in Utah. Mr. Milne testified that about 25% of the mountain bike races he participated in were “open course” races. The TOC itself has taken [**5] place in part on an open course since at least 1998.

Automobile-bicycle accidents are very uncommon at TOC. Mr. Jean stated that throughout the more than ten-year history of the race, with races in many of those years having nearly 500 participants, he is aware of only one accident involving a bicyclist and an automobile–the accident that led to this case. Perhaps because of the low frequency of vehicular accidents, NORBA has no rules dictating that race organizers must regulate traffic on open-course trails to avoid automobile-bicycle [*1124] collisions. There was some evidence that, despite the fact that NORBA has no such requirement, Mr. Jean requested permission to close the road to traffic on the day of the race. Whether or not he made those efforts, it is clear that the permit obtained for the race stated that the race could not stop traffic for more than 15 minutes at a time. 2

2 The race organizers obtained a permit from the Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”) for [**6] the race. However, the record indicates that there was a conflict at the time between the BLM and some of the County governments regarding who had control over the roads in the area. This court expresses no opinion on that conflict.

B. The Racers

Both Mr. Hall and Mr. Milne were classified as “expert” racers, and had extensive mountain bike racing experience. They had raced the TOC before, and were familiar with the course. Before each of these races, they knowingly signed liability release forms, which provided that the parties had waived all claims against the race organizers, including claims premised on the organizers’ negligence. The releases also specifically mentioned that racers were assuming the risk of collision with vehicles. Those warnings, in combination with the race organizers’ pre-race announcements that the first six miles would be on an open course shared with other vehicles, make it clear that Mr. Hall and Mr. Milne knew they could encounter vehicles during their race.

C. Safety Precautions Taken by the Race Organizers

The race organizers took a number of safety precautions both before and during the race. For example, the race organizers posted a sign warning people [**7] in the area of the upcoming race, although that sign had been knocked down at least once during the week the leading up to the race.

On the day of the race, the organizers posted, about a mile and half from the starting line, some attendants whose job it was to warn drivers that a race was taking place, that they might encounter some temporary road closures, and that they would be sharing the road with hundreds of cyclists. Some race organizers also testified that they approached people camped in the area to warn them that a race would be taking place that day. Mr. Konitshek, the driver of the SUV involved in the accident, testified that no one ever came to his campground to warn of the race that morning, despite the fact that his campground was clearly visible from the road. However, the other members of his party testified that the race organizers warned them about the race as they drove away from their campground.

The race organizers also arranged for 25 “course marshals” to help supervise the race. Some of those marshals were posted near intersections or sharp turns in order to mitigate some of the risks associated with the automobile traffic the racers might encounter. However, [**8] no one was assigned to the area right near the accident site, which was relatively straight and wide. Further, even though some course marshals had been assigned to areas between the starting line and the place of the accident, some witnesses testified that they did not notice anyone directing traffic in that area. In addition to the course marshals, Mr. Jean had a few people available to administer first aid to injured riders. Mr. Jean himself also carried a backpack with some medical equipment.

Finally, the race organizers made significant efforts to inform the racers that they might encounter vehicles during the race. In order to ride, race participants had to sign a liability release waiver that specifically mentioned the potential for vehicular [*1125] accidents. Further, before the race began, the race organizers announced that the TOC was an open course race, and that racers might encounter automobile traffic.

D. The Accident

Mr. Konitshek was driving a 2001 Ford Excursion with a 30-foot trailer about five miles from the starting line when he noticed that a group of bikers were approaching his car from the opposite direction. The bikers were spread out too wide for their lane of travel. [**9] That portion of the road was relatively wide, open, and fast. The visibility there was also relatively good. Although the view was partially blocked by some rocks, Mr. Konitshek’s SUV and trailer were visible to racers from at least 150 feet away. Mr. Konitshek testified that, when he saw the oncoming bikers, he veered as far right in his lane of travel as possible, and remained on the right side of the road the entire time. 3 He was going about 5 miles per hour when one of the bikers hit his left sideview mirror, causing it to bang into his window and shatter.

3 There was conflicting evidence on whether Mr. Konitshek or the racers had crossed the center line of the road. Mr. Konitshek was adamant that he had remained on his side. However, one of the riders witnessing the accident testified that the riders remained on their side of the road, although he then recanted his testimony to some extent, stating that it was hard to tell whether the riders and/or the truck had remained on their respective sides of the road. Another rider testified at his deposition that he was certain that Mr. Konitshek’s SUV extended beyond the center line. Still another testified that the SUV certainly remained [**10] on its side of the road the entire time. For purposes of this appeal, we will assume the facts most favorable to Plaintiffs’ argument.

Casey Byrd, a rider who was just behind Mr. Hall and Mr. Milne when the accident occurred, testified that right before the accident, Mr. Hall had attempted to pass both himself and Mr. Milne. Mr. Byrd was immediately behind Mr. Milne, so Mr. Hall passed him first. Mr. Byrd testified that Mr. Hall passed very closely and, because of his proximity and his speed–Mr. Hall was riding about 25 miles per hour at that time–Mr. Casey could feel the wind coming off him as he passed. Then, as Mr. Hall began to pass Mr. Milne, their handlebars locked together, causing them to veer left and strike Mr. Konitshek’s camper. It is not entirely clear what happened next, but at least one racer testified that he saw the trailer run over Mr. Hall.

E. The District Court’s Decision

The district court granted summary judgment for the defendants on all claims. On the plaintiff’s gross negligence claims, the court determined that the undisputed facts showed that defendants had taken a number of steps to protect the racers’ safety, and even if those steps were taken negligently, [**11] they were not grossly negligent. The district court also struck plaintiffs’ expert’s second affidavit, finding that plaintiffs’ witness was not qualified to testify as an expert on mountain bike races. This appeal, challenging the district court’s grant of summary judgment on plaintiffs’ gross negligence claims and the court’s decision to strike plaintiffs’ expert, timely followed.

II. Discussion

A. Federal Law Dictates Summary Judgment Standard

Before turning to the facts of this case, this court must address whether Utah’s summary judgment rules preclude this court from upholding the district court’s grant of summary judgment. [HN2] Under federal law, a defendant may be granted summary judgment whenever plaintiffs fail adequately to “support one of the elements of [*1126] their claim upon which they ha[ve] the burden of proof.” Jensen v. Kimble, 1 F.3d 1073, 1079 (10th Cir. 1993).

[HN3] Utah’s approach to summary judgment is generally parallel to the federal courts’ approach. See, e.g., Burns v. Cannondale Bicycle Co., 876 P.2d 415, 418-20 (Utah Ct. App. 1994) (affirming summary judgment for defendants because plaintiff failed to bring evidence supporting one of the elements regarding which it had the burden [**12] of proof). However, Utah has a special rule for summary judgment in negligence cases that differs significantly from federal law. Under Utah law, “[s]ummary judgment in negligence cases, including gross negligence cases, is inappropriate unless the applicable standard of care is fixed by law.” Pearce v. Utah Athletic Foundation, 2008 UT 13, 179 P.3d 760, 767 (Utah 2008) (emphasis added) (internal quotation omitted). In other words, Utah courts would prevent either party to a negligence dispute from obtaining summary judgment where the standard of care applicable to that dispute has not been “fixed by law.” See Berry v. Greater Park City Co., 2007 UT 87, 171 P.3d 442, 449 (Utah 2007) (explaining that Utah courts will not grant summary judgment in a gross negligence case where the applicable standard of care has not been fixed by law because “[i]dentification of the proper standard of care is a necessary precondition to assessing the degree to which conduct deviates, if at all, from the standard of care–the core test in any claim of gross negligence”); but see RJW Media, Inc. v. CIT Group/Consumer Finance, Inc., 202 P.3d 291, 296, 2008 UT App 476 (Utah Ct. App. 2008) (affirming grant of summary judgment for defendant in a [**13] negligence case where the standard of care had not been “fixed by law” but the defendant had presented uncontested evidence of the appropriate standard of care).

In Pearce, 2008 UT 13, 179 P.3d 760, the most recent Utah Supreme Court case to consider this issue, the plaintiff brought gross negligence claims arising out of injuries that occurred during a bobsled ride. The Utah court reversed the lower court’s grant of summary judgment for the defendants, concluding that summary judgment was inappropriate because the applicable standard of care had not been “fixed by law.” The court held that the generally applicable “reasonably prudent person” standard was insufficiently specific to constitute a standard of care “fixed by law.” Id. at 768 n.2. Rather, for the standard of care in that case to be “fixed by law,” a statute or judicial precedent must articulate “specific standards for designing, constructing, and testing a bobsled run for the public or for operating a public bobsled ride.” Id.; see also Berry, 171 P.3d at 449 (denying motion for summary judgment in negligence case involving a skiercross course because the applicable standard of care was not “fixed by law”); Wycalis v. Guardian Title of Utah, 780 P.2d 821, 825 (Utah. Ct. App. 1989) [**14] (stating that “the applicable standard of care in a given case may be established, as a matter of law, by legislative enactment or prior judicial decision”). Since no statute or precedent provided a standard of care for bobsled rides, the Utah court denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment. Pearce, 179 P.3d at 768.

Applying Utah law to this case would probably require that we reverse the district court’s grant of summary judgment. It is undisputed that no Utah precedent or legislative enactment specifically establishes the standard of care for running mixed-course bicycle races. Thus, under Utah law, the standard of care in this case is not “fixed by law,” and summary judgment would be inappropriate.

[HN4] Under federal law, on the other hand, a defendant need not establish that the standard of care specific to the factual [*1127] context of the case has been “fixed by law” in order to be granted summary judgment. See Gans v. Mundy, 762 F.2d 338, 342 (3rd Cir. 1985) (holding that defendant moving for summary judgment in a legal malpractice claim need not present expert testimony establishing a standard of care even though a plaintiff in that position would need to do so, because the case [**15] law establishing the plaintiff’s duty to provide expert testimony “cannot fairly be characterized as applying to a defendant’s motion under Rule 56″) (emphasis in original); see also id. at 343 (“[T]he party moving for summary judgment has the ultimate burden of showing the absence of a genuine issue as to any material fact. But once the appellees averred facts and alleged that their conduct was not negligent, a burden of production shifted to the appellant to proffer evidence that would create a genuine issue of material fact as to the standard of care.”) (citations omitted); see generally Young v. United Auto. Workers Labor Employment and Training Corp., 95 F.3d 992, 996 (10th Cir. 1996) (“A party who moves for summary judgment under Rule 56 is not required to provide evidence negating an opponent’s claim. Rather, the burden is on the nonmovant, who must present affirmative evidence in order to defeat a properly supported motion for summary judgment.”) (citations and quotations omitted).

On the contrary, [HN5] federal courts will sometimes grant summary judgment to defendants on negligence claims precisely because of the plaintiff’s failure to present evidence establishing a standard of [**16] care as part of its burden of proof on an element of plaintiff’s case. See, e.g., Briggs v. Washington Metro. Area Transit Auth., 481 F.3d 839, 841, 375 U.S. App. D.C. 343 (D.C. Cir. 2007) (affirming grant of summary judgment for defendants on a negligence claim where plaintiff, who under state law had the burden to provide expert testimony on the standard of care, failed to “offer creditable evidence sufficient to establish a controlling standard of care”); Keller v. Albright, 1 F. Supp. 2d 1279, 1281-82 (D. Utah 1997) (granting defendant’s motion for summary judgment on plaintiff’s legal malpractice claim asserted under Utah law because the plaintiff failed to provide expert testimony regarding the standard of care, and the case did not involve circumstances “within the common knowledge and experience of lay jurors”) (citation and quotation omitted), aff’d, No. 97-4205, 1998 U.S. App. LEXIS 7134, 1998 WL 163363 (10th Cir. Apr. 8, 1998) (unpublished) (affirming “for substantially those reasons set out in the district court’s [opinion]”). Thus, even when Utah substantive law was involved, the federal district court of Utah and the Tenth Circuit have held that the federal courts may grant a defendant summary judgment on a negligence [**17] claim even if the parameters of the standard of care in the relevant industry have not been previously established by precedent or statute. 4 See also Noel v. Martin, No. 00-1532, 21 Fed. Appx. 828, 836 *7 (10th Cir. Oct. 19, 2001) (unpublished) (upholding summary judgment for defendants in a legal malpractice case where the district court properly dismissed plaintiff’s only expert on the issue of the standard of care).

4 Admittedly, there is no indication in Keller v. Albright, 1 F. Supp. 2d 1279, that the plaintiff there argued that the Utah standard for granting summary judgment in a negligence claim should apply.

In Foster v. Alliedsignal, Inc., 293 F.3d 1187 (10th Cir. 2002), this court addressed a closely analogous set of facts involving a conflict between federal and state law standards for granting summary judgment. Foster involved a retaliatory discharge case brought pursuant to Kansas law. Id. at 1190-91. Under Kansas law, a plaintiff can prevail at trial if she establishes [*1128] her case with “clear and convincing evidence.” Id. at 1194 (internal quotation omitted). However, Kansas law provides that “a plaintiff in a retaliation case . . . . can successfully oppose a motion for summary [**18] judgment by a preponderance of the evidence.” Id. at 1194 (internal quotation and citation omitted). In Foster, this court rejected the plaintiff’s efforts to have that lower evidentiary standard apply at the summary judgment stage in federal court. Id. at 1194-95. Instead, this court held that the Supreme Court’s opinion in Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986), [HN6] required that courts “view the evidence through the prism of the substantive evidentiary burden.” Id. at 254; see also Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee Corp., 769 F.2d 1451, 1454-55 (10th Cir. 1985) (stating, in the context of a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, that “the question of the sufficiency of the evidence needed to go to the jury in a diversity case is a matter of federal law”); Bank of Cali., N.A. v. Opie, 663 F.2d 977, 979 (9th Cir. 1981) (“[F]ederal law alone governs whether evidence is sufficient to raise a question for the trier-of-fact.”). Applying that standard to the case before it, this court in Foster held that, at summary judgment, the plaintiff “must set forth evidence of a clear and convincing nature that, if believed by the ultimate factfinder, would establish that plaintiff was [**19] more likely than not the victim of illegal retaliation by her employer.” Foster, 293 F.3d at 1195. See also Conrad v. Bd. of Johnson County Comm’rs, 237 F. Supp. 2d 1204, 1266-67 (D. Kan. 2002) (holding that, for state law retaliatory discharge claims, the “clear and convincing standard is applied at the summary judgment stage–at least when the claim is brought in a federal court sitting in diversity”). Thus, although the state law dictated that a plaintiff alleging retaliatory discharge could avoid summary judgment under a preponderance of the evidence standard, [HN7] federal law required that the substantive standard applied at trial (i.e., clear and convincing evidence) governs summary judgment determinations. See Hanna v. Plumer, 380 U.S. 460, 85 S. Ct. 1136, 14 L. Ed. 2d 8 (1965); McEwen v. Delta Air Lines, Inc., 919 F.2d 58, 60 (7th Cir. 1990) (“Federal courts may grant summary judgment under Rule 56 on concluding that no reasonable jury could return a verdict for the party opposing the motion, even if the state would require the judge to submit an identical case to the jury.”); 10A Charles Alan Wright, Arthur R. Miller, and Mary Kay Kane, Federal Practice and Procedure § 2712 (3d ed. 1998) (“[I]n diversity-of-citizenship [**20] actions questions relating to the availability of summary judgment, such as whether there is a disputed issue of fact that is sufficient to defeat the motion, are procedural and therefore governed by Rule 56, rather than by state law.”).

The circumstances of this case are very similar to what we addressed in Foster. Like the evidentiary rule in Foster, [HN8] Utah’s rule foreclosing summary judgment in cases where the standard of care has not been fixed by law applies exclusively at summary judgment. This is clear because Utah law provides that, at trial, the plaintiff has the burden of demonstrating the appropriate standard of care. See Webb v. Univ. of Utah, 2005 UT 80, 125 P.3d 906, 909 (Utah 2005) (“To establish a claim of negligence, the plaintiff must establish . . . that the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty [and] that the defendant breached that duty . . . .”) (citations and quotations omitted); Sohm v. Dixie Eye Ctr., 166 P.3d 614, 619, 2007 UT App 235 (Utah Ct. App. 2007) (“To sustain a medical malpractice action, a plaintiff must demonstrate . . . the standard of care by which the [physician’s] conduct is to be measured . . . .” (quoting Jensen v. IHC Hosps., Inc., [*1129] 2003 UT 51, 82 P.3d 1076, 1095-96 (Utah 2003)) (alteration [**21] in original)); see also Model Utah Jury Instructions, Second Edition, CV301B (2009), http://www.utcourts.gov/resources/muji/ (stating that “to establish medical malpractice” a plaintiff “has the burden of proving,” inter alia, “what the standard of care is”); id. at CV302 (putting the same burden of proof on a plaintiff attempting to prove nursing negligence). By allowing the plaintiff to avoid summary judgment in cases where the standard of care has not been fixed by law, Utah has created a rule very similar to Kansas’s rule allowing plaintiffs to avoid summary judgment under a lesser standard of proof than they would carry at trial. We are, therefore, bound to treat Utah’s unique summary judgment rule in the same way that we treated the rule in Foster, and conclude that, although we will look to Utah law to determine what elements the plaintiffs must prove at trial to prevail on their claims, see Oja v. Howmedica, Inc., 111 F.3d 782, 792 (10th Cir. 1997) (stating that “in a diversity action we examine the evidence in terms of the underlying burden of proof as dictated by state law”), we will look exclusively to federal law to determine whether plaintiffs have provided enough evidence [**22] on each of those elements to withstand summary judgment. 5 As we discuss in the following section, this approach leads us to concur with the district court’s decision granting summary judgment for the defendants.

5 Even if the defendants have some burden to establish that the race was run in accordance with the standard of care in order to be granted summary judgment, they have met that burden controlling. The defendants put on evidence from a number of experienced biking participants that this race was carefully run in accordance with the standard of care they have come to expect in mountain-bike races. Once the testimony of plaintiffs’ expert Sean Collinsworth is excluded, as we hold later was appropriate, plaintiffs put on no conflicting evidence from any witness qualified to articulate a proper standard of care for a mountain bike race. Further, under Utah law, it would probably be unnecessary for defendants to present expert testimony to establish compliance with the standard of care in this case. Compare Collins v. Utah State Dev. Ctr., 992 P.2d 492, 494-95, 1999 UT App 336 (Utah Ct. App. 1999) (holding that expert testimony was not necessary in case involving claim that a center working with the [**23] developmentally disabled was negligent for allowing a resident to ride a swing without any safety devices designed to ensure that she would not fall off), and Schreiter v. Wasatch Manor, Inc., 871 P.2d 570, 574-75 (Utah Ct. App. 1994) (holding that expert testimony was not necessary in a case involving allegations that a senior living center was negligent for failing to install a fire sprinkler system), with Macintosh v. Staker Paving and Const. Co., 2009 UT App 96, 2009 WL 953712, *1 (Utah Ct. App. 2009) (unpublished) (holding that expert testimony was needed to establish the standard of care in a case involving traffic control at a construction site because of the complex rules governing traffic control in that context); see generally Preston & Chambers, P.C. v. Koller, 943 P.2d 260, 263 (Utah Ct. App. 1997) (“Expert testimony is required where the average person has little understanding of the duties owed by particular trades or professions, as in cases involving medical doctors, architects, and engineers.”) (citations and quotations omitted). In any event, plaintiffs have cited no law establishing that Utah would require an expert in this case, and have not addressed this question in their [**24] briefs, so this issue is not before us on appeal. Thus, even if the defendants have the burden at summary judgment to establish that there is no genuine dispute of fact that their conduct satisfied the applicable standard of care, we hold that on this summary judgment record, defendants satisfied that burden.

B. Plaintiffs Failed to Provide Evidence of Gross Negligence

1. Standard of Review

[HN9] “This court reviews the district court’s summary judgment decision de novo, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party . . . .” Beardsley v. Farmland Co-Op, Inc., 530 F.3d 1309, 1313 (10th Cir. 2008) (quoting Herrera v. Lufkin Indus., Inc., 474 F.3d 675, 679-80 [*1130] (10th Cir. 2007)) (ellipses in original). “Summary judgment is appropriate if the record evidence shows there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Praseuth v. Rubbermaid, Inc., 406 F.3d 1245, 1255 (10th Cir. 2005) (citing Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)). This court will grant summary judgment for a defendant if the plaintiff fails adequately “to support one of the elements of their claim upon which they ha[ve] the burden of proof.” Jensen, 1 F.3d at 1079. [**25] A plaintiff “cannot avoid summary judgment merely by presenting a scintilla of evidence to support her claim; she must proffer facts such that a reasonable jury could find in her favor.” Turner v. Public Serv. Co. of Colo., 563 F.3d 1136, 1142 (10th Cir. 2009) (citation omitted).

2. Analysis

The parties agree that, under Utah law, the liability releases signed by Mr. Milne and Mr. Hall preclude the plaintiffs from bringing ordinary negligence claims against the defendants. See Pearce, 179 P.3d at 765 (stating that [HN10] “people may contract away their rights to recover in tort for damages caused by the ordinary negligence of others”); see also id. at 766 (holding that “recreational activities do not constitute a public interest and that, therefore, preinjury releases for recreational activities cannot be invalidated under the public interest exception”). However, the plaintiffs argue–and, on appeal, the defendants do not contest–that, under Utah law, a liability release will not prevent a plaintiff from bringing claims of gross negligence. Cf. Hawkins ex rel. Hawkins v. Peart, 2001 UT 94, 37 P.3d 1062, 1065 (Utah 2001) (stating in dicta that a liability release “is always invalid if it applies to harm [**26] wilfully inflicted or caused by gross or wanton negligence”) (quoting 6A Arthur L. Corbin, Corbin on Contracts, § 1472, at 596-97 (1962)). Thus, the only merits issue raised on appeal is whether plaintiffs have offered enough evidence in support of their claims of gross negligence to withstand a motion for summary judgment. 6

6 Aside from her negligence and gross negligence claims, Plaintiff Sorrow also brought wrongful death claims relating to Mr. Hall’s death. However, the appellants have not adequately addressed those claims on appeal, so they will be deemed to have been waived. See United States v. Abdenbi, 361 F.3d 1282, 1289 (10th Cir. 2004) ( [HN11] “The failure to raise an issue in an opening brief waives that issue.”).

[HN12] Under Utah law, “[g]ross negligence is the failure to observe even slight care; it is carelessness or recklessness to a degree that shows utter indifference to the consequences that may result.” Moon Lake Elec. Ass’n, Inc. v. Ultrasystems W. Constructors, Inc., 767 P.2d 125, 129 (Utah Ct. App. 1988) (quoting Atkin Wright & Miles v. Mountain States Tel. & Tel. Co., 709 P.2d 330, 335 (Utah 1985)) (emphasis added); see also Pearce, 179 P.3d at 767 (same). Thus, “the task [**27] confronting a plaintiff who claims injury due to a defendant’s gross negligence is markedly greater than that of a plaintiff who traces his injury to ordinary negligence. Gross negligence requires proof of conduct substantially more distant from the appropriate standard of care than does ordinary negligence.” Berry, 171 P.3d at 449.

[HN13] “Whether an actor’s conduct constitutes negligence is generally a factual question left to a jury. The question should only be answered by the court in rare cases where the evidence is susceptible to only one possible inference.” Roberts v. Printup, 422 F.3d 1211, 1218 (10th Cir. 2005) (citations and quotations omitted). However, appeals courts have affirmed grants of summary judgment on gross negligence claims where the undisputed evidence showed that the defendants [*1131] took precautionary measures and did not ignore known and obvious risks. Cf. Milligan v. Big Valley Corp., 754 P.2d 1063, 1069 (Wyo. 1988) (affirming summary judgment for defendants on “willful and wanton misconduct” claim, holding that the defendants “did not act in utter disregard of” plaintiffs’ safety in organizing a ski race where the race organizers had taken a number of safety precautions, [**28] plaintiffs presented no evidence that there was a preexisting requirement to take additional precautions, and the racers had been notified in advance of the dangers of the race); Santho v. Boy Scouts of Am., 168 Ohio App. 3d 27, 2006 Ohio 3656, 857 N.E.2d 1255, 1262-63 (Ohio Ct. App. 2006) (affirming directed verdict on claim of recklessness arising from an ice skating race in part because race organizers took some safety precautions and there was no evidence that organizer had knowingly disregarded any specific dangers or contravened any industry standards).

Moon Lake Elec. Ass’n, Inc., 767 P.2d at 129. In this case, the plaintiffs have fallen short of producing evidence upon which a jury could conclude that the defendants failed to exercise “even slight care” in organizing and administering this race.

Mountain bike racing is an inherently dangerous sport, so the defendants cannot be considered grossly negligent merely because they organized a race that placed the racers at risk of injury and even death. Rather, the court must look at the specific steps the defendants took to ensure the racers’ safety in order to determine whether a jury could decide that they were grossly negligent.

As discussed above, the undisputed evidence [**29] shows that the race organizers took a number of steps to warn of, and protect against, the risk of an automobile accident during the race. The race organizers posted a sign warning people in the area of the upcoming race, posted attendants near the starting line to warn drivers about the race taking place that day, and approached people camped in the area to warn them that the road would be clogged with bikers that morning.

The race organizers also provided 25 course marshals, some of which were assigned to areas like intersections and sharp turns specifically because of the unique risks of automobile traffic in those areas. No one was assigned to the area right near the accident, but that choice was not grossly negligent in light of the fact that the stretch of road where the accident occurred was relatively straight and wide. The race organizers also had some first aid personnel standing by, in addition to Mr. Jean, who carried a backpack with some medical supplies.

Finally, the racers were warned–both in writing and verbally–that they might encounter traffic during the race. The racers’ decision to compete on a course that they knew they would be sharing with automobiles strongly [**30] undercuts their ability to claim after the fact that it was grossly negligent for the race organizers to conduct an open course race. Cf. Walton v. Oz Bicycle Club of Wichita, No. 90-1597-K, 1991 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 17655, 1991 WL 257088, *4 (D. Kan. Nov. 22, 1991) (granting defendants summary judgment on negligence claim arising from plaintiff striking an automobile during a bicycle race organized by the defendants in part because “the fact that the course was open to normal traffic was explicitly made known to the participants”).

Mr. Konitshek claimed that the organizers’ efforts to warn people in the area of the upcoming race were ineffective, because he did not know about the race until moments before the accident. Mr. Konitshek’s complaints about the sufficiency of the race organizers’ warnings do not rise to the level of creating a material issue of [*1132] fact with regard to gross negligence for two reasons. First, even if the race organizers’ warnings were imperfect, that does not negate the fact that they made rather substantial efforts to warn people, and their failure to reach every person in the area is insufficient to show gross negligence. Second, although Mr. Konitshek testified that he would have changed [**31] his plans if he had known about the race in advance, the plaintiffs presented no reason for this court to think that most drivers would change their plans to avoid a bicycle race on a 6-mile stretch of open road.

[HN14] Utah requires a very high level of disregard for safety in order to constitute gross negligence. See Pearce, 179 P.3d at 767; Atkin Wright & Miles, 709 P.2d at 335; Moon Lake Elec. Ass’n, Inc., 767 P.2d at 129. The undisputed steps that defendants took to enhance the safety of the TOC would prevent any reasonable juror from finding gross negligence under Utah substantive law. Many of the precautions discussed above were specifically designed to prevent accidents with automobiles. Further, there was no evidence that automobile accidents posed a particularly serious risk in this case. On the contrary, the race had been conducted on an open course for over a decade, and this is the first instance of an accident involving a racer and a vehicle. Thus, the organizers’ failure to shut down the road, mark and enforce a center line on the road, more closely monitor vehicular traffic, or more thoroughly warn other area drivers of the upcoming race cannot, as a matter of law, amount to [**32] gross negligence in light of the other safety steps taken by the organizers of this race. Cf. Holzer v. Dakota Speedway, Inc., 2000 SD 65, 610 N.W.2d 787, 793-94 (S.D. 2000) (affirming summary judgment for defendants on reckless conduct claim relating to harm caused to a pit crew member during an automobile race in part because the allegedly reckless conduct that led to the harm in that case had been present during races for three years prior to this accident, and had never before caused anyone any harm).

An examination of cases in other jurisdictions shows that [HN15] courts have been reluctant to find that race organizers have been grossly negligent for failing to take every precaution that 20/20 hindsight might counsel. See Milligan, 754 P.2d at 1069 (affirming summary judgment for defendants on “willful and wanton misconduct” claim arising out of a ski race where the race organizers had taken a number of safety precautions, plaintiffs presented no evidence that there was a preexisting requirement to take additional precautions, and the racers had been notified in advance of the dangers of the race); Santho, 857 N.E.2d at 1262-63 (affirming directed verdict on claim of recklessness arising from an [**33] ice skating race in part because race organizers took some safety precautions and there was no evidence that organizer had knowingly disregarded any specific dangers or contravened any industry standards); Holzer, 610 N.W.2d at 793-94 (affirming summary judgment for defendants on reckless conduct claim relating to harm caused to a pit crew member during an automobile race in part because plaintiff failed to show that, at the time of the accident, the defendants “knew or had reason to know of an unreasonable risk of harm” to the defendant); Walton, 1991 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 17655, 1991 WL 257088 at *4 (granting defendants summary judgment on negligence claim arising from plaintiff striking an automobile during a bicycle race organized by the defendants in part because “the fact that the course was open to normal traffic was explicitly made known to the participants”).

We therefore agree with the district court’s determination that the plaintiffs in this case have failed to provide evidence upon which a reasonable jury could conclude [*1133] that the race organizers were grossly negligent. 7 See Turner, 563 F.3d at 1142 (stating that, [HN16] to avoid summary judgment, a plaintiff “must proffer facts such that a reasonable jury could [**34] find in her favor”).

7 Because we decide this case on the grounds that plaintiffs have failed to present evidence of gross negligence, we do not reach the defendants’ separate argument that, even if they were grossly negligent, their negligence could not have proximately caused the harms complained of in this case.

C. District Court did not Abuse its Discretion by Excluding Plaintiffs’ Expert

1. Standard of Review

[HN17] “Like other evidentiary rulings, [the court] review[s] a district court’s decision to exclude evidence at the summary judgment stage for abuse of discretion.” Sports Racing Servs. v. Sports Car Club of Am.., 131 F.3d 874, 894 (10th Cir. 1997) (citations omitted). “[A] district court abuses its discretion when it renders an arbitrary, capricious, whimsical, or manifestly unreasonable judgment.” Atlantic Richfield Co. v. Farm Credit Bank of Wichita, 226 F.3d 1138, 1163 (10th Cir. 2000) (citations and quotations omitted).

[HN18] When testing the admissibility of expert testimony, courts must first determine whether an expert is “qualified by ‘knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education’ to render an opinion.” Ralston v. Smith & Nephew Richards, Inc., 275 F.3d 965, 969 (10th Cir. 2001) [**35] (quoting Fed. R. Evid. 702). Second, if the court determines that a witness is qualified, it must then “determine whether her opinions [a]re ‘reliable.'” Id.

The district court struck the second affidavit of plaintiffs’ expert Sean Collinsworth, concluding that he was “not sufficiently qualified to render expert testimony on the applicable standards of care for mountain bike racing, particularly regarding the TOC[, and] that any such testimony would be speculative and not sufficiently reliable . . . .” (Appx. at 9.)

2. Analysis

Plaintiffs rely heavily on their expert’s testimony to support their claim that the race organizers were grossly negligent. However, plaintiffs’ expert, Sean Collinsworth, admittedly had no experience in organizing, supervising, or studying mountain bike races and, therefore, was not qualified to offer expert testimony on the standard of care for mountain bike races. At his deposition, Mr. Collinsworth was asked, “As a matter of fact–just so we’re clear, you’re not an expert on mountain bike racing . . . Is that a fair statement?” (Appx. at 641.) He answered, “Yes, it is.” (Id.) Nor was he even an experienced mountain bike rider. He had only participated in one [**36] or two mountain bike races, and those were more than 15 years ago. He had never published any articles about bicycle racing of any sort, let alone mountain bike racing. He testified that, as a police officer, he investigated hundreds of vehicle-bicycle collisions, but there was no indication that any of those took place on a dirt road or in the course of a race.

Although Mr. Collinsworth had experience organizing and supervising paved road bike races, the district court reasonably concluded that his experience was insufficient to qualify him to testify about mountain bike races. The facts of this case make it clear that the rules and practices that prevail at mountain bike races–even the on-the-road portion of mountain bike races–are different from the rules and practices that prevail at traditional road races. Most importantly, road racers are always required to obey a center-line [*1134] rule, while mountain bikers racing on dirt roads will generally cross the center-line when there is no oncoming traffic, but are expected to veer right if they see any traffic approaching. Furthermore, the conditions of a road race on paved streets with clearly marked center lines differ significantly from [**37] the conditions of the open-course portion of the TOC, which took place on a dirt road with no clearly marked center line. Given the differences between road races and mountain bike races, we conclude that the district court’s finding that Mr. Collinsworth was unqualified to offer expert testimony on the standard of care for mountain bike races was not “arbitrary, capricious, whimsical, or manifestly unreasonable.” Atlantic Richfield Co., 226 F.3d at 1163; cf. Ralston, 275 F.3d at 970-71 (upholding district court’s determination that a board certified orthopaedic surgeon was not qualified to testify about an orthopaedic device that she had never worked with or studied); Bertotti v. Charlotte Motor Speedway, Inc., 893 F. Supp. 565, 569-70 (W.D.N.C. 1995) (striking expert testimony regarding design of go-kart track where expert had experience in automobile racing, but not go-kart racing).

Even if Mr. Collinsworth was qualified to offer an expert opinion on the standard of care for mountain bike races, the district court correctly determined that his testimony in this case was unreliable. [HN19] “To determine whether an expert opinion is admissible, the district court performs a two-step analysis. [**38] First, the court must determine whether the expert is qualified by ‘knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education’ to render an opinion. See Fed. R. Evid. 702. Second, if the expert is sufficiently qualified, the court must determine whether the expert’s opinion is reliable . . . .” 103 Investors I, L.P. v. Square D Co., 470 F.3d 985, 990 (10th Cir. 2006). “In reviewing whether an expert’s testimony is reliable, the trial court must assess the reasoning and methodology underlying the expert’s opinion.” United States v. Rodriguez-Felix, 450 F.3d 1117, 1123 (10th Cir. 2006) (citations and quotations omitted). Mr. Collinsworth’s opinions in this case were not based on a study of other similar races, an analysis of precautionary measures used in mountain bike races and the risks and benefits of such measures, or any other empirical or quantitative studies. Instead, he relied almost exclusively on his experience in paved road racing–experience that the district court reasonably determined was inapplicable to the context of mountain bike racing–to form his conclusions about the standard of care that should have been used in this case. Mr. Collinsworth’s conclusions about the safety [**39] precautions that should have been taken in this case are, therefore, mere speculation, and [HN20] “[i]t is axiomatic that an expert, no matter how good his credentials, is not permitted to speculate.” Goebel v. Denver and Rio Grande Western R.R. Co., 215 F.3d 1083, 1088 (10th Cir. 2000). Without their expert’s testimony, the plaintiffs’ claims fall apart. See Bertotti, 893 F. Supp. at 570 (granting summary judgment for defendants on plaintiffs’ claim that defendants were grossly negligent in designing and maintaining a go-kart track where the only evidence plaintiffs provided in support of their claims of gross negligence was inadmissible expert testimony). 8

8 The district court’s holding on this matter was limited to Mr. Collinsworth’s second affidavit because the defendants did not also move to strike plaintiffs’ expert’s initial report or his deposition testimony. However, the district court’s ruling clearly indicated that it would not allow this expert to testify as an expert on any of the issues in this case. Therefore, we do not consider either of Mr. Collinsworth’s affidavits or his deposition testimony in deciding the merits of plaintiffs’ claims.

[*1135] III. Conclusion

For the foregoing reasons, [**40] we AFFIRM the district court’s decisions to strike the plaintiff’s expert’s second affidavit and to grant summary judgment for the defendants.

CONCUR BY: GORSUCH (In Part)

CONCUR

GORSUCH, Circuit Judge, concurring in part and concurring in the judgment.

I join all but Section II.C of Judge Ebel’s fine opinion. That section concerns the admissibility of testimony by the plaintiffs’ expert, Sean Collinsworth. The majority upholds the district court’s decision to exclude Mr. Collinsworth’s testimony on the ground that he wasn’t an expert in the relevant field. I have my doubts. Mr. Collinsworth may not be a professional mountain bike racer, but he does have substantial experience in organizing and conducting traffic control operations for bicycle racing and similar events — and the adequacy of the defendants’ traffic control operations lie at the heart of this case.

Still, I would affirm the district court’s exclusion of Mr. Collinsworth for a different reason. The only question in this case is gross negligence — namely, whether defendants took any precautions against the accident that took place. See, e.g., Pearce v. Utah Athletic Found., 2008 UT 13, 179 P.3d 760, 767 (Utah 2008) (Gross negligence is “the failure to [**41] observe even slight care; it is carelessness or recklessness to a degree that shows utter indifference to the consequences that may result.”) (emphasis added); cf. Berry v. Greater Park City Co., 2007 UT 87, 171 P.3d 442, 449 (Utah 2007) (“Gross negligence requires proof of conduct substantially more distant from the appropriate standard of care than does ordinary negligence.”). Mr. Collinsworth’s proffered testimony faults the sufficiency of the defendants’ precautions, but doesn’t dispute that the defendants did exercise some degree of care, however slight, in preparing for and managing this race. His testimony, thus, might well have been relevant to a negligence claim, but it doesn’t illuminate the plaintiffs’ gross negligence claim. And a district court is not obliged to entertain evidence, expert or otherwise, irrelevant to the claims before it. See Fed. R. Evid. 402 (“Evidence which is not relevant is not admissible.”). With this minor caveat, I am pleased to join.


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

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

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

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

Plaintiff: Richard J. Moore

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

Plaintiff Claims: negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: for the defendant health club

Year: 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The appellate court upheld the decision of the trial court.

So Now What?

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

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

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law

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

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

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

No. 05-CV-695

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA COURT OF APPEALS

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

June 20, 2006, Argued

August 2, 2007, Decided

PRIOR HISTORY:  [**1]

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

COUNSEL: John P. Fatherree for appellant.

Terrell Waller, Pro se.

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

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

OPINION BY: FISHER

OPINION

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

I.

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

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

Article V – WAIVER AND LIABILITY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Affirmed.

 


Alvarez v LTF Club Operations Company Inc., 2016 Mich. App. LEXIS 2198

Alvarez v LTF Club Operations Company Inc., 2016 Mich. App. LEXIS 2198

David Alvarez and Elena Alvarez, Plaintiff-Appellants, v LTF Club Operations Company Inc., doing business as Lifetime Fitness Center, and Defendant-Appellee, Jane Doe, Defendant. David Alvarez and Elena Alvarez, Plaintiff-Appellees, v LTF Club Operations Company Inc., doing business as Lifetime Fitness Center, and Defendant-Appellant, Jane Doe, Defendant.

No. 328221, No. 328985

COURT OF APPEALS OF MICHIGAN

2016 Mich. App. LEXIS 2198

November 29, 2016, Decided

NOTICE: THIS IS AN UNPUBLISHED OPINION. IN ACCORDANCE WITH MICHIGAN COURT OF APPEALS RULES, UNPUBLISHED OPINIONS ARE NOT PRECEDENTIALLY BINDING UNDER THE RULES OF STARE DECISIS.

PRIOR HISTORY:  [*1] Oakland Circuit Court. LC No. 2014-140282-NO. Oakland Circuit Court. LC No. 2014-140282-NO.

CORE TERMS: harness, climbing, gross negligence, rock, climb, belay, incorrectly, backwards, walked, deposition testimony, loop, red, putting, front, genuine issue, material fact, reasonable minds, precautions, favorable, watched, donned, order granting, rock climbing, grossly negligent, adjacent, facing, matter of law, conduct constituted, ordinary negligence, evidence submitted

JUDGES: Before: M. J. KELLY, P.J., and MURRAY and BORRELLO, JJ.

OPINION

Per Curiam.

In Docket No. 328221, plaintiffs, David Alvarez and his wife Elena Alvarez, appeal as of right the trial court’s order granting summary disposition in favor of defendant, LTF Club Operations Company, Inc., doing business as Lifetime Fitness Center (Lifetime). In Docket No. 328985, Lifetime appeals as of right the order denying its request for case evaluation sanctions and for taxation of costs. For the reasons stated herein, we reverse the trial court’s order granting defendant’s motion for summary disposition and remand for further proceedings.

This litigation arises from David’s fall from a rock climbing wall at Lifetime’s facility in Novi. Plaintiffs were at Lifetime, where they are members, with their minor daughter to allow her the opportunity to use the rock climbing wall. Neither the plaintiffs, nor their daughter, had previously attempted to use the rock climbing wall. After David signed the requisite forms, Karina Montes Agredano, a Lifetime employee, provided David with a harness, he climbed to the top of the rock wall, [*2]  and attempted to lower himself back down via the automatic belay system. However, because David’s harness was on backwards and incorrectly hooked to the belay system, it broke and he fell to the ground suffering multiple injuries.

Plaintiffs argued that, as an employee of Lifetime, Agredano was grossly negligent1 in failing to ascertain whether David had properly attached his harness and the belay system before permitting him to climb the rock wall or descend. Defendant filed a motion for summary disposition arguing the assumption of risk and waiver of liability provision within the paperwork David signed barred plaintiffs’ claims because Agredano’s asserted conduct constituted only ordinary negligence and not gross negligence. The trial court granted defendant’s motion for summary disposition finding plaintiffs failed to “present any evidence establishing that defendant was grossly negligent in failing to take precautions for plaintiff’s safety.”

1 Plaintiffs had signed a waiver of any negligence based liability.

Plaintiffs assert that the trial court erred in dismissing their claim of gross negligence against Lifetime, arguing a genuine issue of material fact exists regarding whether Agredano [*3]  was grossly negligent. We agree.

The trial court granted summary disposition in accordance with MCR 2.116(C)(7) and (10). This Court reviews “de novo a trial court’s ruling on a motion for summary disposition.” In re Mardigian Estate, 312 Mich App 553, 557; 879 NW2d 313 (2015). Specifically:

When considering a motion for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(10), a court must view the evidence submitted in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. Summary disposition is appropriate under MCR 2.116(C)(10) if there is no genuine issue regarding any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. A genuine issue of material fact exists when the evidence submitted might permit inferences contrary to the facts as asserted by the movant. When entertaining a summary disposition motion under Subrule (C)(10), the court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, and refrain from making credibility determinations or weighing the evidence. [Id. at 557-558, quoting Dillard v Schlussel, 308 Mich App 429, 444-445; 865 NW2d 648 (2014) (quotation marks omitted).]

In addition:

In determining whether a party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law pursuant to MCR 2.116(C)(7), a court must accept as true a plaintiff’s well-pleaded factual allegations, affidavits, or other [*4]  documentary evidence and construe them in the plaintiff’s favor. Where there are no factual disputes and reasonable minds cannot differ on the legal effect of the facts, the decision regarding whether a plaintiff’s claim is barred by the statute of limitations is a question of law that this Court reviews de novo. [Terrace Land Dev Corp v Seeligson & Jordan, 250 Mich App 452, 455; 647 NW2d 524 (2002) (citation omitted).]

To establish a claim for gross negligence, it is incumbent on a plaintiff to demonstrate that the defendant acted or engaged in “conduct so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury results.” Xu v Gay, 257 Mich App 263, 269; 668 NW2d 166 (2003) (citations omitted). “Evidence of ordinary negligence is insufficient to create a material question of fact regarding the existence of gross negligence.” Woodman v Kera, LLC, 280 Mich App 125, 152; 760 NW2d 641 (2008), aff’d 486 Mich 228 (2010). “The issue of gross negligence may be determined by summary disposition only where reasonable minds could not differ.” Id. “Simply alleging that an actor could have done more is insufficient under Michigan law, because, with the benefit of hindsight, a claim can always be made that extra precautions could have influenced the result.” Tarlea v Crabtree, 263 Mich App 80, 90; 687 NW2d 333 (2004). However, gross negligence will often be exhibited by a “willful disregard of precautions or measures to attend to safety[.]” Id.

As [*5]  evidence of Agredano’s gross negligence, plaintiffs offered their deposition testimony. In his deposition testimony, David indicated that Agredano provided him with a harness and was present as he put it on and prepared to climb the wall:

  1. Q. And where was [Agredano] when you were placing the harness on yourself?
  2. A. She was in front of us. We were here. She was in front of us.
  3. Q. So she’s staring directly at your as you’re putting the harness on?
  4. A. She was, yeah, in front of us. We were here, and she was — I mean, we could show the picture if you want.
  5. Q. But I want to know if she was facing you when you were putting this harness on?
  6. A. Yes.

* * *

  1. Q. How much time elapsed between the time that you had your harness on and began climbing from the time when your wife began climbing?
  2. A. Okay. So they walked over to the wall, and then, as soon as I put on my harness, I walked over to the wall adjacent to [Agredano], and I watched my wife. She was already up the So whatever time it took for her to get up the eight feet, which is probably a couple minutes. I mean, a minute maybe.
  3. Q. All right. And when you walked over to the wall, was [Agredano] standing to your right?
  4. A. When I walked over to [*6] the wall, she was on my right.
  5. Q. And would you say she was within three or four feet of you?
  6. A. I could touch her. She was right there.

Further, David stated that Agredano spoke to him after he had inadvertently placed the harness on backwards and directed him to a climbing area, but did not warn him that the red loop on his harness should be on his front before he began to climb the wall:

  1. Q. When were you told to hook into something between your legs?
  2. A. Sure. So I had trouble putting on the harness, right? They walked over to the I followed . . . . I was next to — adjacent to [Agredano] . . . . As my wife started to come down [the rock wall], I asked — I asked, where should I go climb? [Agredano] pointed me over to the other adjacent valet or belay.
  3. Q. Belay
  4. A. Belay. Then somewhere between there I asked — or I don’t know if I asked, but she said, Hook it between your legs. . . .

David also stated that Agredano was present in the climbing wall area during the whole incident and watched him climb the rock wall while wearing the harness incorrectly:

  1. Q. And was [Agredano] facing you when you began climbing?
  2. A. She was facing both of us.

* * *

  1. Q. What I want to know is were [sic] you and [*7] your wife on the climbing, and she was behind you looking at the two of you?
  2. A. Yeah. She was looking at both of us.

* * *

  1. Q. Was there any point in time, while you were putting on your harness or after you put on your harness, where [Agredano] was inside the wall, through this door?
  2. A. No.
  3. Q. So she was outside in the climbing wall area with you the entire time?
  4. A. Correct.

In Elena’s deposition testimony, she testified that Agredano also spoke to David after he reached the top of the rock wall, gave him instructions regarding how to descend, and instructed David to let go of the wall despite his incorrectly worn harness:

  1. Q. What happened at that point?
  2. A. And he said — he asked her twice how to go down. And he asked her two times, because I remember, like, why he’s asking her? . . . So then, when he asked her two times, she said, just let go, and it will bring you down, the automatically thing will bring you down. And she said, I think, you know, push, let go. She said, just let go. Just let go. . . .

While Agredano claimed that she was not in the room when David incorrectly donned his harness and ascended the wall, we must consider the evidence in the light most favorable to plaintiffs and [*8]  accept their testimony as true. Terrace Land Dev Corp, 250 Mich App at 455. David and Elena’s deposition testimony was that Agredano was present when David donned his harness and ascended the wall, that she had ample opportunity to determine that David had put his harness on incorrectly, but that she failed to correct his mistake. Further, plaintiffs testified that Agredano watched David climb the wall in an unsafe harness, and directed David to let go of the wall to repel back down to the ground despite the red loop on David’s harness indicating that his harness was on backwards. Thus, plaintiffs’ testimony allows the inference that Agredano did not simply have the ability to do more to assure David’s safe climb. Instead, accepting plaintiffs’ testimony as true, evidence exists that Agredano ignored the red loop in David’s harness–a clear visible indication2 that David was climbing the rock wall in an unsafe manner–and took no steps to avoid the known danger associated with climbing the rock wall with an improperly secured harness. Thus, Agredano’s alleged failure to affirmatively instruct David on the proper way to wear the harness before he donned it himself, coupled with her alleged disregard for the red loop warning sign [*9]  that David had his harness on backwards, and instructing him to push off the wall, could demonstrate to a reasonable juror that she “simply did not care about the safety or welfare of” David. Tarlea, 263 Mich App at 90. Accordingly, reasonable minds could differ regarding whether Agredano’s conduct constituted gross negligence. Thus, the trial court erred in granting defendant’s motion for summary disposition.

2 Agredano testified that if someone was standing below a rock climber, that person would be readily able to see if a harness was on backwards.

Because we have concluded that the trial court erred in granting summary disposition to defendant, it is unnecessary for us to address in Docket No. 328985 whether the decision to deny the case evaluation award would otherwise have been appropriate if the grant of summary disposition had been proper.

We reverse the order granting defendant’s motion for summary disposition and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. We do not retain jurisdiction.

/s/ Michael J. Kelly

/s/ Christopher M. Murray

/s/ Stephen L. Borrello

 


New Hampshire does not recognize more than one type of negligence, simple or ordinary negligence. Claims for gross negligence, say to void a release, do not exist.

Supreme Court outlines requirements for releases. to be successful including public policy and failure to read the release requirements.

Barnes & a. v. New Hampshire Karting Association, Inc, 128 N.H. 102; 509 A.2d 151; 1986 N.H. LEXIS 254

State: New Hampshire, Supreme Court of New Hampshire

Plaintiff: John E. and Virginia A. Barnes

Defendant: New Hampshire Karting Association (NHKA), David E. Whitesell, Midway Raceway, Inc. d/b/a Bryar Motorsport Park (Bryar), the World Karting Association (WKA) and International Insurance Company (International)

Plaintiff Claims: negligence and gross negligence

Defendant Defenses: release

Holding: for the defendant

Year: 1986

The plaintiff went to a go kart event. He signed a pit pass which contained a release. While driving he hit another kart on the track that was disabled. There was no indication or warning of the disabled go-kart before the plaintiff hit it.

The plaintiff sued for ordinary and gross negligence. The lower court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims, and the plaintiff appealed.

New Hampshire has three courts; however, the lower two, Circuit and Superior handle different matters. Both the Circuit court and the Superior courts are trial courts so any appeal is to the New Hampshire Supreme Court.

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

The plaintiff claimed the release was barred by public policy; the release was ambiguous and did not apply to the risks, not inherent in the sport. The plaintiff also argued the release did not cover gross negligence.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court first looked at releases in New Hampshire.

Exculpatory agreements call into conflict two tenets of the law.  First, a party should be liable for the consequences of the negligent breach of a duty owed another.  As this court stated in a recent case involving an amusement ride accident, the owner of a place of public amusement “must exercise that degree of care which, under the same or similar circumstances, would be exercised by an ordinarily careful or prudent individual.” Failure to do so will result in liability for injuries proximately caused by the breach of duty.

However, parties may eliminate tort liability by contract.

Contraposed against this basic rule of tort law is the principle that, as a matter of efficiency and freedom of choice, parties should be able to contract freely about their affairs. Under this rule, parties may bargain for various levels of risk and benefit as they see fit. Thus, a plaintiff may agree in advance that the defendant has no legal duty toward him and thereby assume the risk of injury arising from the defendant’s conduct.

Under New Hampshire law, a defendant must show the release does not contravene public policy, that no special relationship existed between the parties and there was no disparity of bargaining power.

A defendant seeking to avoid liability must show that the exculpatory agreement does not contravene public policy; i.e., that no special relationship existed between the parties and that there was no other disparity in bargaining power. Where the defendant is a common carrier, innkeeper or public utility, or is otherwise charged with a duty of public service, the defendant cannot by contract rid itself of its obligation of reasonable care.

Public policy, not identified as such, is held to include common carriers, innkeepers and public utilities. A go-kart operation is not a commercial transport for hire, a place to sleep or a public utility providing gas, electricity or such.

Disparity in bargaining power occurs when the defendant is a monopoly or where the plaintiff has no alternative but to deal with the defendant. “Where there is a disparity in bargaining power, the plaintiff may not be deemed to have freely chosen to enter into the contract; accordingly, courts refuse to enforce the agreement.”

Again, a go-kart facility is not a necessity such that the plaintiff had to negotiate for its life or substance.

Once the public policy argument is out of the way, the issue then becomes whether the plaintiff understood the basics of the agreement.

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.  Furthermore, the plaintiff’s claims must have been within the contemplation of the parties at the time of the execution of the agreement.

This contemplation must not cover the exact issues the plaintiff complains about, but covers a broad range of accidents or injuries the plaintiff may suffer.

Contracts are generally construed against the writer, in the case of a release, construed against the defendant.

…the contract must clearly state that the defendant is not responsible for the consequences of his negligence. As long as the language of the release clearly and specifically indicates the intent to release the defendant from liability for personal injury caused by the defendant’s negligence, the agreement will be upheld.

The plaintiff argued he did not read the entire release; however, that does not invalidate the release. The court found he could have if he wanted, therefore, his argument failed based on his own actions.

There was no evidence, however, that Barnes was denied the opportunity to read the body of the release.  “[H]aving failed to avail himself of that opportunity, yet gaining the admission to which his signature was a condition precedent, he cannot now complain that he had no notice of the import of the paper . . . he signed.”

Summing up the public policy argument made by the plaintiff failed as stated by the court

With these principles in mind, we now consider whether the release bars the plaintiff’s claims in this case.  The first question is whether the release is contrary to public policy. The defendants do not fall within any of the commonly-recognized classes of persons charged with a duty of public service. The record indicates that the 1981 Enduro kart races at Bryar were organized by the NHKA, which is associated with the WKA and which manages its races in accordance with WKA rules and regulations.  Although the defendants serve a segment of the public, we cannot say that Enduro kart racing is affected with a public interest.  Provision of racing facilities is not a service of great importance to the public, nor is racing a matter of practical necessity.

Moreover, there was no substantial disparity in bargaining power among the parties, despite the fact that Barnes was required to sign the release in order to use the racetrack. The plaintiff was under no physical or economic compulsion to sign the release.  Since the defendants’ service is not an essential one, the defendants had no advantage of bargaining strength over Barnes or others who sought to participate in Enduro kart racing.

Thus the release was not barred by public policy arguments in New Hampshire.

The plaintiff then argued that the actions against the defendant were grossly negligent and cited cases from other jurisdictions to support its claim. The court simply stated:

These cases are inapposite because New Hampshire law does not distinguish causes of action based on ordinary and gross negligence. “[T]he doctrine of definitive degrees of negligence is not recognized as a part of our common law.

There is only one claim in New Hampshire for negligence no matter egregious the defendants’ actions.

The plaintiff then argued the release was only valid for a restricted area of the facility. However, applying the common meaning to the language in the release the court found the language covered the area where the accident occurred.

We find that participation in practice laps on the racing surface comes within the terms of the release.  The restricted areas are defined in terms of physical spaces, not in terms of function, and the reference to “enter[ing] for any purpose” contemplates that the racing surface is a restricted area during practice runs and during the actual race.  Although the plaintiff testified that he had practiced on occasion without signing a release, he signed the release prior to taking a practice lap on the day in question.  One can contemplate that racers are exposed to a variety of hazards while in the racing arena regardless of whether the actual race is taking place.  We believe that the practice run taken by Barnes in preparation for the race later that day may reasonably be construed as part of “participat[ion] in the event.” We therefore uphold the master’s conclusion that the language of the agreement was not ambiguous and that the release applied to practice laps.

A final argument was made that the release was an “illegal tying arrangement.” Meaning the release and the insurance coverage were illegally tied together the plaintiff could not take one without taking the other. The court found this was not the case because no evidence was presented that insurance was a separate charge after admissions.

The trial court decision was affirmed.

So Now What?

New Hampshire law is fairly standard on how it looks at release law, even though the particular language used might vary. What is significant is the Supreme Court has held that New Hampshire does not recognize gross negligence.

Not being able to plead gross negligence limits the ability of the plaintiff to void a release or argue for greater damages. Normally a jury finding the defendant acted grossly negligent includes greater damages, sometimes punitive damages.

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

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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185 Mile Running Race release was clear and under Washington, law was sufficient to beat a Public Policy & ambiguous argument by plaintiff

Decision clearly sets forth the requirements for the plaintiff to prove her claims which she failed to do.

Johnson et al., v. Spokane to Sandpoint, LLC, et al., 176 Wn. App. 453; 309 P.3d 528; 2013 Wash. App. LEXIS 1696

State: Washington, Court of Appeals of Washington, Division Three

Plaintiff: Robin Johnson and Craig Johnson

Defendant: Spokane to Sandpoint, LLC, et al.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence & Gross Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: for the defendant

Year: 2013

The plaintiff, an attorney signed up for the Spokane to Sandpoint race. The race is a team race run over two days and nights. The race is 185 miles long and an open course, meaning there is traffic on the course.

Spokane to Sandpoint promotes a long-distance relay race from the Spokane area to Sandpoint, Idaho, involving teams running a 185-mile course over two days, day and night. The course is open, meaning it is not closed to public traffic.

The racers sign up online and sign an electronic release. The racers also receive a race handbook. The handbook explains the race and includes sections on crossing roads, highways and train tracks.

The plaintiff was crossing a highway, and she was hit by a car. The driver of the car stated the plaintiff walked out in front of her without looking. The plaintiff settled with the driver before this appeal.

As Ms. Johnson was crossing U.S. Route 2, Madilyn Young was driving about 63 miles per hour southbound in the outside lane on U.S. Route 2, approaching the Colbert Road intersection. Ac-cording to Ms. Young’s statement to the police, she saw Ms. Johnson crossing the northbound lanes of U.S. Route 2 and saw her continue into the southbound lanes without looking for cars. Ms. Young was unable to stop in time to avoid a collision. Ms. Johnson suffered severe injuries.

The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, which was granted and this appeal followed.

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

The appellate court first looked at the requirements for the plaintiff to survive and proceed to trial.

To prevail on a negligence claim against Spokane to Sandpoint, the Johnsons must establish Spokane to Sandpoint owed them a duty. Whether such a duty exists is a question of law. Id. The parties may, subject to certain exceptions, expressly agree in advance that one party is under no obligation of care to the other, and shall not be held liable for ordinary negligence.

The court then looked at the requirements for releases to be valid under Washington’s law. (Of note, the court calls the exculpatory clause a waiver clause. However, the court refers to the agreement as a release.)

The function of a waiver provision is “to deny an injured party the right to recover damages from the person negligently causing the injury.” The general rule in Washington is that a waiver provision is enforceable unless (1) it violates public policy, (2) the negligent act falls greatly below the legal standard for protection of others, or (3) it is inconspicuous.

Under Washington’s law, releases are valid, unless they violate public policy. There are six different factors identified as attributable to public policy in Washington.

Six factors are considered in determining whether exculpatory agreements violate public policy. The court considers whether (1) the agreement concerns an endeavor of a type generally thought suitable for public regulation; (2) the party seeking exculpation is engaged in performing a service of great importance to the public, which is often a matter of practical necessity for some members of the public; (3) such party holds itself out as willing to perform this service for any member of the public who seeks it, or at least for any member coming within certain established standards; (4) because of the essential nature of the service, in the economic setting of the transaction, the party invoking exculpation possesses a decisive advantage of bargaining strength against any member of the public who seeks the services; (5) in exercising a superior bargaining power, the party confronts the public with a standardized adhesion contract of exculpation, and makes no provision whereby a purchaser may pay additional reasonable fees and obtain protection against negligence; and (6) the person or property of members of the public seeking such services must be placed under the control of the furnisher of the services, subject to the risk of carelessness on the part of the furnisher, its employees, or agents.

The court then went through all six factors and eliminated them all in one paragraph.

First, 185-mile relay races are not regulated; second, Spokane to Sandpoint is not performing an important public service such as a school; third, not all members of the public participate in relay races, unlike schools; fourth, Spokane to Sandpoint had no control over how Ms. Johnson ran or when she decided to cross U.S. Route 2; fifth, there was no inequality of bargaining since Ms. Johnson could have easily chosen not to participate and could have selected a different event; and sixth, while Spokane to Sandpoint set up the course, it did not control in what manner Ms. Johnson ran the race.

Generally, Washington law looks at whether the issues that identify a public policy issue are those that affect the majority of the public in Washington. The court also found that other Washington decisions have found that recreational activities were not a public interest.

The second issue was the plaintiff’s claim the defendant was grossly negligent. Like most states, a release in Washington will not stop a claim for gross negligence. Gross negligence is greater than ordinary negligence and is care appreciably less than care required in an ordinary negligence claim.

“Gross negligence” is “negligence substantially and appreciably greater than ordinary negligence,” i.e., “care substantially or appreciably less than the quantum of care inhering in ordinary negligence.” (“gross negligence” is “the failure to exercise slight care”). A plaintiff seeking to overcome an exculpatory clause by proving gross negligence must supply “substantial evidence” that the defendant’s act or omission represented care appreciably less than the care inherent in ordinary negligence. To meet this burden of proof on summary judgment, the plaintiff must offer something more substantial than mere argument that the defendant’s breach of care rises to the level of gross negligence.

The court then went through the facts and found that nothing required the defendant to do more than what the defendant did. Consequently, since there was no duty to do more, there was no breach of a duty, let alone acts, which were substantially below the duty.

The final argument the plaintiff argued was the release was ambiguous and not conspicuous. Here again, Washington’s law set forth the requirements for ambiguous and conspicuous quite clearly.

Factors in deciding whether a waiver and release provision is conspicuous include whether the waiver is set apart or hidden within other provisions, whether the heading is clear, whether the waiver is set off in capital letters or in bold type, whether there is a signature line below the waiver provision, what the language says above the signature line, and whether it is clear that the signature is related to the waiver.

The requirements basically require the release to be seen by the signor and not hidden. The exculpatory provisions must be evident, conspicuous and not hidden. The language must stand out so it is easily recognized with capital letters and/or bold type and there must be a signature line below the exculpatory provisions so that you can see your signature is related to the exculpatory provisions.

In this case, the release provisions were found not to be ambiguous. Additionally, the plaintiff admitted in her deposition that she understood from a legal perspective that the release would release her from claiming damages for any injuries.

The appellate court agreed with the trial court and affirmed the decision.

So Now What?

This decision is refreshing because it clearly sets out the requirements needed to prove a release valid and invalid. The definition of gross negligence also easily defined to that you can understand your duties and a substantial breach of your duties leading to a gross negligence claim.

Also of note, which the court pointed out was the information provided to the plaintiff and other racers in the racer handbook. Although not an express assumption of risk agreement, the handbook was still proof, the plaintiff assumed the risk, even though that issue was not argued. The risks of the race were set forth as well as the steps taken by the defendant to protect the runners in the handbook.

Again, the more information you provide to your clients, the more information you give them the better your chances of winning if your release fails.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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