Illinois upholds release stopping a claim for injury from bouldering at defendant North Wall.

However, defendant climbing wall admitted it had not followed its own procedures or Climbing Wall Association manual with the plaintiff, law in Illinois saved defendant.

Cizek v. North Wall, Inc., 2018 IL App (2d) 170168-U *; 2018 Ill. App. Unpub. LEXIS 320

State: Illinois, Appellate Court of Illinois, Second District

Plaintiff: Patricia Cizek

Defendant: North Wall, Inc., d/b/a North Wall Rock Climbing Gym

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence & Willful & Wanton Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Open & Obvious & Release

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2018

Summary

Plaintiff was boulder for the first time and not given the normal or required introduction at the bouldering gym. She fell off the wall and missed a crash pad breaking her ankle. Court held the release she signed stopped her lawsuit.

Facts

On February 14, 2013, she attended respondent’s gym with Kosinski, a coworker. She characterized Kosinski as a “good climber, experienced.” Kosinski told her climbing was one of his hobbies. She did not think climbing would involve any risk because “[k]ids were doing it.” Further, climbing occurred at a gym, which she viewed as a “safe zone.” Also, based on what she saw on television, she believed she would be using a harness. She and Kosinski did not consume any alcohol prior to arriving at North Wall, and she was not taking any medication at the time.

When they arrived, Kosinski paid the fee. Plaintiff signed and returned a waiver form. Kosinski had climbed at North Wall before. At the time, plaintiff did not know whether Kosinski was a member at North Wall, though she later learned that he had been at the time she was injured. Plaintiff acknowledged that she did, in fact, read and understand the waiver form. She did not look at the back of the form, but she recalled that she was given only one sheet of paper. She was provided with a pair of climbing shoes.

When she first arrived, she observed “children in harnesses with ropers.” There were two large green pads that covered most of the floor. Plaintiff did not recall seeing any bulletin boards or posters. She also did not recall seeing a black line running “continuously around the parameter [sic] of the climbing wall.” At the time of the deposition, she was aware that such a line existed. Beyond signing the waiver when she arrived, she had no further interaction with respondent’s staff. Plaintiff reviewed a number of pictures of the facility and testified that it had changed since her accident. She also identified a photograph taken in October 2013 that showed where she was injured.

She and Kosinski then proceeded to the climbing wall. She asked, “What about my harness?” Kosinski said that harnesses were “more trouble than they were worth.” Plaintiff stated that she “kind of was dumbfounded.” Plaintiff proceeded to climb without a harness. Kosinski went first. He told her to follow some yellow markers, as they were for beginners. While she watched Kosinski, she did not see a black, horizontal line on the wall. Prior to climbing, Kosinski placed a mat below the area in which he intended to climb. Plaintiff found climbing “very difficult,” explaining that “[y]ou use your core.” Plaintiff would “shimmy” down when she got “sore.” She added, “[i]ts tough work getting up there, so I need[ed] to get down.” She would jump down from two to three feet off the ground. Plaintiff made three or four climbs before she was injured.

Large green mats covered almost the entire floor of the gym. There were also smaller black mats that could be placed in different locations by climbers. Kosinski was not near plaintiff when she was injured. Before being injured, plaintiff had moved to a new climbing area. She placed a black mat where she planned on climbing. A green mat also abutted the wall in that area. The black mat was three to six inches away from the wall.

Plaintiff was injured during her third attempt at climbing that day, and she did not feel comfortable climbing. She explained that she was not wearing a harness, but was trying to do her best. There was a part of the floor that was not covered by a green mat in this area, which is where plaintiff landed when she was injured. Plaintiff stated she jumped off the wall and when she landed, her right foot was on a green mat, but her left foot landed on the uncovered floor. She felt pain in her left ankle and could not put weight on it. Kosinski and an employee came over to assist plaintiff. Kosinski got plaintiff some ibuprofen. Plaintiff felt “a little dizzy.” An employee called the paramedics. The paramedics stated that plaintiff’s ankle was broken. They assisted plaintiff to Kosinski’s car, and he drove her to St. Alexius hospital. At the hospital, they x-rayed plaintiff’s ankle and confirmed that it was broken. She was given some sort of narcotic pain killer, and her ankle was placed in a cast. Plaintiff was discharged and told to follow up with an orthopedic surgeon.

She followed up with Dr. Sean Odell. Odell performed a surgery six days after the accident. He installed eight pins and a plate. Plaintiff had broken both leg bones where they intersect at the ankle. She took Norco for months following the surgery. She engaged in physical therapy for years, including what she did at home. The hardware was removed in December 2013. Her ankle continues to be stiff, she has trouble with many activities, and she takes ibuprofen for pain several times per week.

The court also went through a litany of issues the defendant climbing gym did not do with the plaintiff.

Novice climbers were supposed to sign a waiver and view a video. Spencer trained Cipri [gym manager] to go over “any and all safety procedures” with new climbers.

There was no manual on “how to run North Wall,” but there was an “unofficial manual” kept on the front desk. This was comprised of a couple of binders that concerned how to teach climbing, use of the telephone, memberships, employee conduct, and various rules. He did not recall anything specific relating to dealing with novice climbers. There was a copy of the Climbing Wall Association manual in a file-cabinet drawer; however, he never used it for anything. Cipri did not recall Spencer [gym owner] instructing him to use this manual. Spencer did train employees on climbing, particularly new hires. Cipri described Spencer as an “absentee” manager.” He would come in early in the day, and Cipri typically would not see him.

Aside from ascertaining a customer’s age and climbing experience, they did nothing else to assess his or her proficiency. They would show new climbers a video and explain the rules of the gym to them. Cipri could not say whether a copy of a manual shown to him was the manual they were actually using when he worked for respondent. However, he stated various forms shown to him, including one concerning bouldering orientation, were not used when he was there. Spencer never told Cipri to get rid of any document; rather, he was adamant about keeping such material. Weekly inspections of the premises were conducted, but no records documenting them were maintained.

One document stated, “If the facility allows bouldering, the staff provides an orientation before novice climbers are allowed to boulder without assistance or direct supervision.” Cipri testified that this was not generated by respondent, but they followed it. Employees working the counter were trained to have new customers watch a video, instruct them on safety procedures, and assess their abilities. To the left of the front door, posters from the Climbing Wall Association were displayed. There was also one near the back door. Cipri did not remember what they were about beyond that they concerned “stable rules” of the Climbing Wall Association.

On redirect-examination, Cipri agreed that beyond verbal questioning, they did not test new customers. They did not “inspect or observe climbers while they were actually climbing to determine competency.” They did “orientate climbers” and show them the video. Further, new climbers read the waiver forms. Climbers were instructed on general and bouldering safety rules. Cipri was aware of an earlier incident where a young boy cut his head while climbing. Cipri stated that it was arguable that climbing with a rope was more dangerous than bouldering because a person could get tangled in the rope. Cipri did not give plaintiff an orientation, and he had no recollection of anyone giving her one.

Employees were instructed to follow the policies of the Climbing Wall Association. If an employee did not spend time with a new customer “explaining the policies and procedures of bouldering, that would be a violation of company policy.” This is true even if the new customer is accompanied by a more experienced climber.

Obviously, the defendant gym failed to follow its own rules or the rules and ideas of the CWA that the gym, in the court’s mind, had adopted.

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

The court first looked at the issue that falling was an open and obvious risk.

In Illinois, obvious dangers include fire, drowning in water, or falling from a height.”). Thus, for the purpose of resolving this appeal and in the absence of evidence to the contrary, we will presume that plaintiff was aware that falling off the climbing wall presented certain obvious dangers.

The court moved on to review release law in Illinois. Illinois supports the use of releases, unless the contract is between parties with unequal bargaining power, violates public policy or there is a special relationship between the parties.

Absent fraud or willful and wanton negligence, exculpatory agreements of this sort are generally valid. An agreement may be also vitiated by unequal bargaining power, public policy considerations, or some special relationship between the parties; however, such issues are not present here. This court has previously explained that “[a]n exculpatory agreement constitutes an express assumption of risk insofar as the plaintiff has expressly consented to relieve the defendant of an obligation of conduct toward him [or her].

When written the release must be expressed in clear, explicit an unequivocal language. The release must also be written in a way that both parties to the contract intended to apply to the conduct of the defendant which caused the harm to the plaintiff. However, the release must not be written precisely to cover the exact conduct or exact harm.

Thus, an exculpatory agreement will excuse a defendant from liability only where an “injury falls within the scope of possible dangers ordinarily accompanying the activity and, thus, reasonably contemplated by the plaintiff.” The foreseeability of the danger defines the scope of the release.

The court found the language “…arising out of or in any way related to [her] use of the climbing gym, whether that use is supervised or unsupervised, however, the injury or damage is caused.” w sufficient to the injury the plaintiff received based on the conduct (or lack of conduct in this case) of the defendant.

The court held “In sum, the release, here is clear, pertains to use of defendant’s climbing gym, and is broad enough to encompass falling or jumping from the climbing wall.”

The court then reviewed the willful and wanton claims of the plaintiff. The court described willful and wanton as “”Conduct is “willful and wanton” where it involves a deliberate intention to harm or a conscious disregard for the safety of others. It is an “aggravated form of negligence.”

The plaintiff argued that failing to follow the defendant bouldering gym’s own policies or evaluate her abilities was proof of willful and wanton conduct. She also pointed out the defendant failed to tell her not to climb above the bouldering line.

Quickly, the court determined the plaintiff had not pled or provided any facts to support her willful and wanton claims. Even if the defendant had followed its own policies, the plaintiff could not show that would have prevented her injuries. Falling at a height above the bouldering line is an open and obvious risk so failing to tell the plaintiff not to climb high is not relevant.

The risk of falling is open and obvious and none of the arguments made by the plaintiff as to the defendants actions overcame that doctrine.

So Now What?

It is great that Illinois supports the use of releases. Even in a case where the defendant failed to follow its own policies or the “manual” of the trade association it belonged to. Even better the court did not find the CWA manual or the defendant’s failure to follow its policies as an issue that could over come the release.

However, from the court’s writing, it is obvious, that the open and obvious doctrine was the most persuasive in supporting both the release and ignoring the defendant’s actions or lack of action.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Cizek v. North Wall, Inc., 2018 IL App (2d) 170168-U *; 2018 Ill. App. Unpub. LEXIS 320

Cizek v. North Wall, Inc., 2018 IL App (2d) 170168-U *; 2018 Ill. App. Unpub. LEXIS 320

Appellate Court of Illinois, Second District

March 2, 2018, Order Filed

No. 2-17-0168-U

Notice: THIS ORDER WAS FILED UNDER SUPREME COURT RULE 23 AND MAY NOT BE CITED AS PRECEDENT BY ANY PARTY EXCEPT IN THE LIMITED CIRCUMSTANCES ALLOWED UNDER RULE 23(e)(1).

Prior History:
[**1] Appeal from the Circuit Court of McHenry County. No. 15-LA-56. Honorable Thomas A. Meyer, Judge, Presiding.

Disposition: Affirmed.

Judges: PRESIDING JUSTICE HUDSON delivered the judgment of the court. Justices Schostok and Spence concurred in the judgment.

Opinion by: HUDSON

Opinion

PRESIDING JUSTICE HUDSON delivered the judgment of the court.

Justices Schostok and Spence concurred in the judgment.

ORDER

 [*P1] Held: Plaintiff validly waived any cause of action stemming from defendants alleged negligence and failed to identify facts from which willful and wanton conduct could be inferred; therefore, trial courts grant of summary judgment was proper.

 [*P2]
I. INTRODUCTION

 [*P3]
Plaintiff, Patricia Cizek, appeals an order of the circuit court of McHenry County granting summary judgment in favor of defendant, North Wall, Inc. (doing business as North Wall Rock Climbing Gym). For the reasons that follow, we affirm.

 [*P4]
II. BACKGROUND

 [*P5]
Defendant operates an indoor rock climbing gym; plaintiff was a customer at the gym when she was injured. Plaintiff and a friend, Daniel Kosinski, attended the gym. Plaintiff had never been climbing before. At some point, after having been climbing for a while, plaintiff became tired and jumped down or fell from the climbing [**2]
wall. Plaintiffs right foot landed on a mat, but her left foot landed on the floor. Plaintiffs left ankle broke.

 [*P6]
In her deposition (taken December 23, 2015), plaintiff testified as follows. She stated that she had been a member of a health club for 10 years, where she primarily swam and did yoga. Prior to February 14, 2013, plaintiff had no experience rock climbing or bouldering, though she had observed people rock climbing in the past. She agreed that she understood that rock climbing involved being at a height higher than the ground.

 [*P7]
On February 14, 2013, she attended respondents gym with Kosinski, a coworker. She characterized Kosinski as a good climber, experienced. Kosinski told her climbing was one of his hobbies. She did not think climbing would involve any risk because [k]ids were doing it. Further, climbing occurred at a gym, which she viewed as a safe zone. Also, based on what she saw on television, she believed she would be using a harness. She and Kosinski did not consume any alcohol prior to arriving at North Wall, and she was not taking any medication at the time.

 [*P8]
When they arrived, Kosinski paid the fee. Plaintiff signed and returned a waiver form. Kosinski [**3]
had climbed at North Wall before. At the time, plaintiff did not know whether Kosinski was a member at North Wall, though she later learned that he had been at the time she was injured. Plaintiff acknowledged that she did, in fact, read and understand the waiver form. She did not look at the back of the form, but she recalled that she was given only one sheet of paper. She was provided with a pair of climbing shoes.

 [*P9]
When she first arrived, she observed children in harnesses with ropers. There were two large green pads that covered most of the floor. Plaintiff did not recall seeing any bulletin boards or posters. She also did not recall seeing a black line running continuously around the parameter [sic] of the climbing wall. At the time of the deposition, she was aware that such a line existed. Beyond signing the waiver when she arrived, she had no further interaction with respondents staff. Plaintiff reviewed a number of pictures of the facility and testified that it had changed since her accident. She also identified a photograph taken in October 2013 that showed where she was injured.

 [*P10]
She and Kosinski then proceeded to the climbing wall. She asked, What about my harness? Kosinski [**4]
said that harnesses were more trouble than they were worth. Plaintiff stated that she kind of was dumbfounded. Plaintiff proceeded to climb without a harness. Kosinski went first. He told her to follow some yellow markers, as they were for beginners. While she watched Kosinski, she did not see a black, horizontal line on the wall. Prior to climbing, Kosinski placed a mat below the area in which he intended to climb. Plaintiff found climbing very difficult, explaining that [y]ou use your core. Plaintiff would shimmy down when she got sore. She added, [i]ts tough work getting up there, so I need[ed] to get down. She would jump down from two to three feet off the ground. Plaintiff made three or four climbs before she was injured.

 [*P11]
Large green mats covered almost the entire floor of the gym. There were also smaller black mats that could be placed in different locations by climbers. Kosinski was not near plaintiff when she was injured. Before being injured, plaintiff had moved to a new climbing area. She placed a black mat where she planned on climbing. A green mat also abutted the wall in that area. The black mat was three to six inches away from the wall.

 [*P12]
Plaintiff was injured [**5]
during her third attempt at climbing that day, and she did not feel comfortable climbing. She explained that she was not wearing a harness, but was trying to do her best. There was a part of the floor that was not covered by a green mat in this area, which is where plaintiff landed when she was injured. Plaintiff stated she jumped off the wall and when she landed, her right foot was on a green mat, but her left foot landed on the uncovered floor. She felt pain in her left ankle and could not put weight on it. Kosinski and an employee came over to assist plaintiff. Kosinski got plaintiff some ibuprofen. Plaintiff felt a little dizzy. An employee called the paramedics. The paramedics stated that plaintiffs ankle was broken. They assisted plaintiff to Kosinskis car, and he drove her to St. Alexius hospital. At the hospital, they x-rayed plaintiffs ankle and confirmed that it was broken. She was given some sort of narcotic pain killer, and her ankle was placed in a cast. Plaintiff was discharged and told to follow up with an orthopedic surgeon.

 [*P13]
She followed up with Dr. Sean Odell. Odell performed a surgery six days after the accident. He installed eight pins and a plate. Plaintiff [**6]
had broken both leg bones where they intersect at the ankle. She took Norco for months following the surgery. She engaged in physical therapy for years, including what she did at home. The hardware was removed in December 2013. Her ankle continues to be stiff, she has trouble with many activities, and she takes ibuprofen for pain several times per week.

 [*P14]
On cross-examination, plaintiff stated that she read the wavier form before she signed it (though, she added, she did not study it). Other climbers were climbing without ropes, and the only people she saw using ropes were children. She was not offered a rope or harness. Plaintiff still takes prescription pain killers on occasion. However, she does not like to take it due to its side effects.

 [*P15]
A discovery deposition of Daniel Kosinski was also conducted. He testified that he knew plaintiff from work. She was a travel agent that did all the travel arrangements for [his] company. He and plaintiff were friends, though they do not associate outside of work.

 [*P16]
Kosinski stated that rock climbing is one of his hobbies. He started climbing in 2008. He initially climbed at Bloomingdale Lifetime Fitness. They eventually offered him a job, and [**7]
he worked there for four or five years. His title was [r]ock wall instructor. He described bouldering as climbing without a rope. He stated that it is a little more intense. Generally, one climbs at lower levels, and there are mats, as opposed to ropes, for protection. He added that [t]heres not really much instruction [to do] in terms of bouldering. He explained, bouldering, theres just—okay, this is how high you can go and thats pretty much it. There was no bouldering line at Lifetime Fitness. However, they did have a rule that you should not climb above the height of your shoulders. A spotter is not typically required when bouldering.

 [*P17]
He and plaintiff went to North Wall on February 14, 2013. He was a member and had been there multiple times previously. When he first went to North Wall, he signed a waiver and viewed a video recording that concerned safety. Due to height considerations, Kosinski characterized North Wall as pretty much a dedicated bouldering gym. North Wall offers top rope climbing, which Kosinski said was often used for childrens parties.

 [*P18]
Kosinski believed he was aware that plaintiff did not have any climbing experience prior to their trip to North [**8]
Wall. He could not recall whether there were any safety posters displayed. He and plaintiff had a conversation about the risks involved in rock climbing. He also explained to her what bouldering entailed and that a rope was not used. He noted that plaintiff was shaky or nervous on her first climb. Kosinski told plaintiff that if she was not comfortable, she should come down. He did not recall a bouldering line at North Wall and believed it was permissible to climb all the way to the top when bouldering. He did not recall whether plaintiff had been provided with climbing shoes. Plaintiff was in better than average physical condition.

 [*P19]
When plaintiff was injured, she was climbing on a wall called Devils Tower. It was toward the back, right of the facility. During the climb on which plaintiff was injured, Kosinski observed that plaintiff was stuck at one point and could not figure out what to do next. He walked over to assist her. She was four or five feet off the ground. Plaintiffs left foot and hand came off the wall, and her body swung away from the wall (counterclockwise). She then fell and landed on the edge of a mat. Kosinski stated she landed half on the mat and was rotating [**9]
when she landed. After plaintiff landed, Kosinski went over to check on her. Plaintiff said she believed she had broken her ankle. He did not know whether plaintiff had applied chalk to her hands before, nor did he recall what she was wearing. It did not appear that plaintiff had control of herself before she fell off the wall and injured herself. It also did not appear to him that plaintiff was attempting to get down from the wall or that she deliberately jumped.

 [*P20]
Kosinski told an employee of respondents to call the paramedics. Kosinski recalled an employee offering plaintiff ice. Plaintiff declined a ride to the hospital in an ambulance, and Kosinski drove her there instead.

 [*P21]
Kosinski testified that he and plaintiff had never been romantically involved. He recalled that plaintiff used crutches following the injury and took some time off from work. According to Kosinski, she used crutches for quite a while.

 [*P22]
On cross-examination, Kosinski explained that a spotter, unlike a belayer, only has limited control over a climber. A spotter just direct[s] them to fall onto a mat and not hit their head. It would have been possible for plaintiff to use a rope while climbing (assuming one was [**10]
available). Kosinski stated that use of a rope might have prevented plaintiffs injury; however, it might also have caused another injury, such as plaintiff hitting her head on something. Kosinski agreed that he climbed twice a week or about 100 times per year. He did not recall an employee ever advising him about not climbing too high when bouldering. An automatic belayer might have lessened the force with which plaintiff landed and mitigated her injury. It was about 25 to 30 feet from the front desk to the place where plaintiff fell. The safety video new customers had to watch was about two minutes long. He did not observe plaintiff watching the video.

 [*P23]
Prior to climbing, Kosinski told plaintiff that climbing was a dangerous sport and that they would be climbing without ropes. He did not recall any employee of respondent testing plaintiff with regard to her climbing abilities. After refreshing his recollection with various documents, Kosinski testified that they had been climbing for about half an hour when plaintiff was injured. He agreed that plaintiff was an inexperienced climber.

 [*P24]
On redirect-examination, he confirmed that he was not present when plaintiff first checked in at North [**11]
Wall. He had no knowledge of what transpired between plaintiff and respondents employees at that point.

 [*P25]
Jason R. Cipri also testified via discovery deposition. He testified that he had been employed by respondent as a manager for two years, from 2012 to 2014. His immediate supervisor was Randy Spencer (respondents owner). When he was hired in 2012, Cipri was trained on office procedures, logistics, how to deal with the cash register, where to put the mail, and the use of a computer system. He was also trained on dealing with customers. Cipri started climbing in 2000 and had worked for respondent for about a year around the time of plaintiffs injury.

 [*P26]
Novice climbers were supposed to sign a waiver and view a video. Spencer trained Cipri to go over any and all safety procedures with new climbers. Cipri was trained to interact with the customers to decide and figure out their climbing ability. Three types of climbing occurred at North Wall: bouldering, top-rope climbing, and lead climbing (also known as sport climbing). Plaintiff was bouldering when she was injured. Bouldering does not involve the use of ropes. Cipri estimated about 90 percent (or at least the vast majority) of [**12]
the climbing at North Wall is bouldering. Cipri received very specific training regarding how to execute waiver forms. Customers were instructed to read the waiver form.

 [*P27]
There was a bouldering line on the climbing wall. People engaged in bouldering were not supposed to bring their feet above that line. The bouldering line is described in the waiver. However, Cipri explained, having a bouldering line is not common. He added, We all kind of thought it was cute, but it didnt really serve a purpose.

 [*P28]
Cipri was working as a manager on the day plaintiff was injured. He recalled that an employee named Miranda, whom he called a coach, came and told him that someone had been injured. He called the paramedics, as that was what plaintiff wanted. He brought plaintiff some ice. He described Kosinski (whom he initially called Eric) as a pretty novice climber. Cipri did not know whether plaintiff was above the bouldering line when she fell. Plaintiff did not appear intoxicated or smell of alcohol. She did not appear to have any injuries besides the one to her ankle. Plaintiff would not have been allowed to use a rope because you have to be certified and taken through a lesson to use the [**13]
ropes.

 [*P29]
To the left side of the customer-service counter, there were posters addressing safety and such. Cipri filled out an accident report concerning plaintiffs injury. Cipri denied that he was terminated by respondent and that the owner ever accused him of using drugs on the job. There was no manual on how to run North Wall, but there was an unofficial manual kept on the front desk. This was comprised of a couple of binders that concerned how to teach climbing, use of the telephone, memberships, employee conduct, and various rules. He did not recall anything specific relating to dealing with novice climbers. There was a copy of the Climbing Wall Association manual in a file-cabinet drawer; however, he never used it for anything. Cipri did not recall Spencer instructing him to use this manual. Spencer did train employees on climbing, particularly new hires. Cipri described Spencer as an absentee manager. He would come in early in the day, and Cipri typically would not see him.

 [*P30]
Aside from ascertaining a customers age and climbing experience, they did nothing else to assess his or her proficiency. They would show new climbers a video and explain the rules of the gym to them. [**14]
Cipri could not say whether a copy of a manual shown to him was the manual they were actually using when he worked for respondent. However, he stated various forms shown to him, including one concerning bouldering orientation, were not used when he was there. Spencer never told Cipri to get rid of any document; rather, he was adamant about keeping such material. Weekly inspections of the premises were conducted, but no records documenting them were maintained.

 [*P31]
On cross-examination, Cipri stated that his sister had been hired to rewrite the operations manual. One document stated, If the facility allows bouldering, the staff provides an orientation before novice climbers are allowed to boulder without assistance or direct supervision. Cipri testified that this was not generated by respondent, but they followed it. Employees working the counter were trained to have new customers watch a video, instruct them on safety procedures, and assess their abilities. To the left of the front door, posters from the Climbing Wall Association were displayed. There was also one near the back door. Cipri did not remember what they were about beyond that they concerned stable rules of the Climbing [**15]
Wall Association.

 [*P32]
Cipri did not witness plaintiffs accident, and he did not recall being present when she was checked in. He never had rejected a customer previously, but he had the authority to do so. He never encountered a situation where he felt it was necessary.

 [*P33]
On redirect-examination, Cipri agreed that beyond verbal questioning, they did not test new customers. They did not inspect or observe climbers while they were actually climbing to determine competency. They did orientate climbers and show them the video. Further, new climbers read the waiver forms. Climbers were instructed on general and bouldering safety rules. Cipri was aware of an earlier incident where a young boy cut his head while climbing. Cipri stated that it was arguable that climbing with a rope was more dangerous than bouldering because a person could get tangled in the rope. Cipri did not give plaintiff an orientation, and he had no recollection of anyone giving her one.

 [*P34]
Randall Spencer, respondents owner, also testified via discovery deposition. Spencer testified that North Wall is pretty much run by employees and he does not have much of a role anymore. The business is run by a manager, Eric Paul. [**16]
Spencer did not have an independent recollection of plaintiffs accident. Cipri was the manager at the time. There was another manager as well named Chuck Kapayo, who Spencer described as co-managing with Cipri. Anything Spencer knew about plaintiffs accident he learned from Cipri or another employee named Terri Krallitsch. Usually, two people worked at any given time, although, sometimes, only one would be present.

 [*P35]
Spencer identified the waiver form signed by plaintiff. However, he acknowledged that it was not the original. The purpose of the waiver was to inform a customer about the danger involved in rock climbing. Further, employees were trained to talk about the rules and safety items when [customers] first come into the gym. In addition, there were posters, four of which were visible at the entrance. The posters were produced by the Climbing Wall Association as part of their Climb Smart Program. Spencer added that they say [c]limbing is [d]angerous. One says Bouldering is Dangerous Climb Smart. These were the only ways customers were informed of the dangers of rock climbing. Customers are not tested as to their climbing proficiency, and they are not trained unless they [**17]
sign up for a class. Customers were told not to climb above the bouldering line when bouldering.

 [*P36]
Employees were instructed to follow the policies of the Climbing Wall Association. If an employee did not spend time with a new customer explaining the policies and procedures of bouldering, that would be a violation of company policy. This is true even if the new customer is accompanied by a more experienced climber.

 [*P37]
Spencer explained that bouldering is climbing without a rope. The bouldering line is a little bit over three feet from the floor. Climbers were to keep their feet below the bouldering line. The accident report prepared by Cipri states plaintiffs feet were six feet off the floor when she fell. The only equipment provided by respondent to plaintiff was climbing shoes. Respondent could have provided a harness, and plaintiff could have been belayed. They did not provide chalk to plaintiff.

 [*P38]
Spencer testified that the waiver form states that it is not intended to provide a description of all risks and hazards. He explained that this means it is possible to get hurt in a manner not described in the waiver. There was no formal training program for employees. Managers trained [**18]
new employees, and managers themselves came to respondent already having climbing experience. In 2013, respondent had no auto-belay system in place. Spencer testified that he fired Cipri because of suspected drug use.

 [*P39]
The released signed by plaintiff states, in pertinent part, as follows. Initially, it states that plaintiff is giving up any right of actions arising out of use of the facilities of North Wall, Inc. Plaintiff then acknowledged that the sport of rock climbing and the use of the facilities of North Wall, Inc., has inherent risks. It then states that plaintiff has full knowledge of the nature and extent of all the risks associated with rock climbing and the use of the climbing gym, including but not limited to the following:

1. All manner of injury resulting from falling off the climbing gym and hitting rock faces and/or projections, whether permanently or temporarily in place, or on the floor or loose. 2. Rope abrasions, entanglement and other injuries ***. 3. Injuries resulting from falling climbers or dropped items ***. 4. Cuts and abrasions resulting from skin contact with the climbing gym and/or the gyms devices and/or hardware. 5. Failure of ropes, slings, [**19]
harnesses, climbing hardware, anchor points, or any part of the climbing gym structure.

Plaintiff then waived any cause of action arising out of or in any way related to [her] use of the climbing gym whether that use is supervised or unsupervised, however the injury or damage is caused.

 [*P40]
The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of defendant. It noted that case law indicates that a competent adult recognizes the danger of falling from a height. It next observed that the waiver plaintiff signed stated that she was releasing defendant from all manner of injury resulting from falling off the climbing gym. The trial court then rejected plaintiffs argument that this language was too general to be enforced. It further found that plaintiff had set forth no facts from which willful and wanton conduct could be inferred. This appeal followed.

 [*P41]
III. ANALYSIS

 [*P42]
We are confronted with two main issues. First is the effect of the waiver form signed by plaintiff. Second, we must consider whether plaintiffs count alleging willful and wanton conduct survives regardless of the waiver (an exculpatory agreement exempting liability for willful and wanton conduct would violate public policy (Falkner v. Hinckley Parachute Center, Inc., 178 Ill. App. 3d 597, 604, 533 N.E.2d 941, 127 Ill. Dec. 859 (1989))). [**20]
Plaintiffs brief also contains a section addressing proximate cause; however, as we conclude that the waiver bars plaintiffs cause of action, we need not address this argument.

 [*P43]
A. THE WAIVER

 [*P44]
The trial court granted summary judgment on all but the willful and wanton count of plaintiffs complaint based on plaintiffs execution of a waiver. As this case comes to us following a grant of summary judgment, our review is de novo. Bier v. Leanna Lakeside Property Assn, 305 Ill. App. 3d 45, 50, 711 N.E.2d 773, 238 Ill. Dec. 386 (1999). Under the de novo standard of review, we owe no deference to the trial courts decision and may freely substitute our judgment for that of the trial court. Miller v. Hecox, 2012 IL App (2d) 110546, ¶ 29, 969 N.E.2d 914, 360 Ill. Dec. 869. Summary judgment is a drastic method of resolving litigation, so it should be granted only if the movants entitlement to judgment is clear and free from doubt. Bier, 305 Ill. App. 3d at 50. It is appropriate only where the pleadings, affidavits, depositions, and admissions on file, when viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmovant, show that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the movant is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.
Id. Finally, it is axiomatic that we review the result to which the trial court arrived at, rather than its reasoning. In re Marriage of Ackerley, 333 Ill. App. 3d 382, 392, 775 N.E.2d 1045, 266 Ill. Dec. 973 (2002).

 [*P45]
Though we are not bound by the trial courts reasoning, [**21]
we nevertheless find ourselves in agreement with it. Like the trial court, we find great significance in the proposition that the danger of falling from a height is open and obvious to an adult. Ford ex rel. Ford v. Narin, 307 Ill. App. 3d 296, 302, 717 N.E.2d 525, 240 Ill. Dec. 432 (1999); see also Bucheleres v. Chicago Park District, 171 Ill. 2d 435, 448, 665 N.E.2d 826, 216 Ill. Dec. 568 (1996); Mount Zion Bank & Trust v. Consolidated Communications, Inc., 169 Ill. 2d 110, 118, 660 N.E.2d 863, 214 Ill. Dec. 156 (1995) (In Illinois, obvious dangers include fire, drowning in water, or falling from a height.). Thus, for the purpose of resolving this appeal and in the absence of evidence to the contrary, we will presume that plaintiff was aware that falling off the climbing wall presented certain obvious dangers.

 [*P46]
We also note that, in Illinois, parties may contract to limit the liability for negligence. Oelze v. Score Sports Venture, LLC, 401 Ill. App. 3d 110, 117, 927 N.E.2d 137, 339 Ill. Dec. 596 (2010). Absent fraud or willful and wanton negligence, exculpatory agreements of this sort are generally valid. Id. An agreement may be also vitiated by unequal bargaining power, public policy considerations, or some special relationship between the parties (Id.); however, such issues are not present here. This court has previously explained that [a]n exculpatory agreement constitutes an express assumption of risk insofar as the plaintiff has expressly consented to relieve the defendant of an obligation of conduct toward him [or her].
Falkner, 178 Ill. App. 3d at 602.

 [*P47]
Agreements of this nature must be expressed in clear, explicit [**22]
and unequivocal language showing that such was the intent of the parties.
Calarco v. YMCA of Greater Metropolitan Chicago, 149 Ill. App. 3d 1037, 1043, 501 N.E.2d 268, 103 Ill. Dec. 247 (1986). That is, it must
appear that its terms were intended by both parties to apply to the conduct of the defendant which caused the harm.
Id., (quoting Restatement (Second) of Torts, Explanatory Notes
496B, comment d, at 567 (1965)). Nevertheless, “The precise occurrence which results in injury need not have been contemplated by the parties at the time the contract was entered into.
Garrison v. Combined Fitness Centre, Ltd., 201 Ill. App. 3d 581, 585, 559 N.E.2d 187, 147 Ill. Dec. 187 (1990). Thus, an exculpatory agreement will excuse a defendant from liability only where an
injury falls within the scope of possible dangers ordinarily accompanying the activity and, thus, reasonably contemplated by the plaintiff.
Id. The foreseeability of the danger defines the scope of the release. Cox v. U.S. Fitness, LLC, 2013 IL App (1st) 122442, ¶ 14, 377 Ill. Dec. 930, 2 N.E.3d 1211.

 [*P48]
Numerous cases illustrate the degree of specificity required in an exculpatory agreement necessary to limit a defendants liability for negligence. In Garrison, 201 Ill. App. 3d at 583, the plaintiff was injured when a weighted bar rolled off a grooved rest on a bench press and landed on his neck. The plaintiff alleged that the bench press was improperly designed and that the defendant-gym was negligent in providing it when it was not safe for its intended use. Id. [**23]
The plaintiff had signed an exculpatory agreement, which stated, inter alia:

It is further agreed that all exercises including the use of weights, number of repetitions, and use of any and all machinery, equipment, and apparatus designed for exercising shall be at the Members sole risk. Notwithstanding any consultation on exercise programs which may be provided by Center employees it is hereby understood that the selection of exercise programs, methods and types of equipment shall be Members entire responsibility, and COMBINED FITNESS CENTER [sic] shall not be liable to Member for any claims, demands, injuries, damages, or actions arising due to injury to Members person or property arising out of or in connection with the use by Member of the services and facilities of the Center or the premises where the same is located and Member hereby holds the Center, its employees and agents, harmless from all claims which may be brought against them by Member or on Members behalf for any such injuries or claims aforesaid.
Id. at 584.

The plaintiff argued that the agreement did not contemplate a release of liability for the provision of defective equipment. The trial court granted the defendants motion [**24]
for summary judgment based on the exculpatory agreement.

 [*P49]
The reviewing court affirmed. Id. at 586. It explained as follows:

Furthermore, the exculpatory clause could not have been more clear or explicit. It stated that each member bore the sole risk; of injury that might result from the use of weights, equipment or other apparatus provided and that the selection of the type of equipment to be used would be the entire responsibility of the member.
Id. at 585.

It further noted that the defendant was aware of the attendant dangers in the activity and, despite the fact that plaintiff now alleges that the bench press he used was unreasonably unsafe because it lacked a certain safety feature, the injury he sustained clearly falls within the scope of possible dangers ordinarily accompanying the activity of weight-lifting.
Id.

 [*P50]
Similarly, in Falkner, 178 Ill. App. 3d at 603, the court found the following exculpatory clause exempted the defendant from liability following a parachute accident: The Student exempts and releases the [defendant] *** from any and all liability claims *** whatsoever arising out of any damage, loss or injury to the Student or the Students property while upon the premises or aircraft of the [defendant] or while [**25]
participating in any of the activities contemplated by this agreement. The plaintiffs decedent died during a parachute jump. The court placed some significance on the fact that the decedent had been a pilot in the Army Air Corp. Id.

 [*P51]
Another case that provides us with some guidance is Oelze, 401 Ill. App. 3d 110, 927 N.E.2d 137, 339 Ill. Dec. 596. There, the plaintiff had signed an exculpatory agreement stating, I hereby release SCORE Tennis & Fitness and its owners and employees from any and all liability for any damage or injury, which I may receive while utilizing the equipment and facilities and assume all risk for claims arising from the use of said equipment and facilities.
Id. at 118. The plaintiff, who was playing tennis, was injured when she tripped on a piece of equipment that was stored behind a curtain near the tennis court she was using while she was trying to return a lob. Id. at 113. The plaintiff argued that this risk was
unrelated to the game of tennis and thus outside the scope of the release. Id. at 120. However, the court found that the broad language of the release encompassed the risk, relying on the plaintiffs agreement to assume the risk for her use of the clubs equipment and facilities.‘”
Id.

 [*P52]
Finally, we will examine Calarco, 149 Ill. App. 3d 1037, 501 N.E.2d 268, 103 Ill. Dec. 247. In that case, the plaintiff [**26]
was injured when weights from a Universal gym machine fell on her hand. Id. at 1038. The trial court granted summary judgment based on an exculpatory clause. Id. at 1038-39. The clause read:

“‘In consideration of my participation in the activities of the Young Mens Christian Association of Metropolitan Chicago, I do hereby agree to hold free from any and all liability the [defendant] and do hereby for myself, *** waive, release and forever discharge any and all rights and claims for damages which I may have or which may hereafter accrue to me arising out of or connected with my participation in any of the activities of the [defendant].

I hereby do declare myself to be physically sound, having medical approval to participate in the activities of the [defendant].‘”
Id. at 1039.

The reviewing court reversed, finding that the language of the release was not sufficiently explicit to relieve the defendant from liability. Id. at 1043. It explained, The form does not contain a clear and adequate description of covered activities, such as use of the said gymnasium or the facilities and equipment thereof, to clearly indicate that injuries resulting from negligence in maintaining the facilities or equipment would be covered by the release [**27] .” (Emphasis added.) Id.

 [*P53]
In the present case, plaintiff waived any cause of action arising out of or in any way related to [her] use of the climbing gym whether that use is supervised or unsupervised, however the injury or damage is caused. (Emphasis added.) This is remarkably similar to the language, set forth above, that the Calarco court stated would have been sufficient to shield the defendant in that case. Id. Likewise, in Garrison, 201 Ill. App. 3d at 585, the language that was found sufficient to protect the defendant stated that each member bore the sole risk; of injury that might result from the use of weights, equipment or other apparatus provided and that the selection of the type of equipment to be used would be the entire responsibility of the member. Again, identifying the activity involved along with an expressed intent to absolve the defendant from any liability prevailed. Here, the activity was clearly defined and plaintiffs intent to waive any cause related to that activity was clear. Furthermore, plaintiffs injury was of the sort that a participant in that activity could reasonably expect. As Oelze, 401 Ill. App. 3d at 120, indicates, language encompassing assumption of the risk for her use of the clubs equipment and [**28]
facilities‘” is broad and sufficient to cover accidents of the sort that are related to the primary activity. See also Falkner, 178 Ill. App. 3d at 603. Here, falling or jumping off the climbing wall are things a climber can clearly expect to encounter.

 [*P54]
Plaintiff cites Locke v. Life Time Fitness, Inc., 20 F. Supp. 3d 669 (N.D. Ill. 2014), a case from the local federal district court. Such cases merely constitute persuasive authority (Morris v. Union Pac. R.R. Co., 2015 IL App (5th) 140622, ¶ 25, 396 Ill. Dec. 330, 39 N.E.3d 1156); nevertheless, we will comment on it briefly. In that case, the plaintiff suffered a heart attack and died during a basketball game at a gym operated by the defendant. Id. at 671. There was an automatic defibrillator on site, but no employee retrieved it or attempted to use it. Id. The plaintiff had signed a waiver, which included the risk of a heart attack. Id. at 672. However, the waiver did not mention the defendants failure to train its employees in the use of the defibrillator. Id. The Locke court held that by advancing this claim as a failure to train by the defendant, the plaintiff could avoid the effect of the waiver. Id. at 674-75.

 [*P55]
We find Locke unpersuasive. Following the reasoning of Locke, virtually any claim can be recast as a failure to train, supervise, or, in some circumstances, inspect. Allowing such a proposition to defeat an otherwise valid exculpatory agreement [**29]
would effectively write such agreements out of most contracts. See Putnam v. Village of Bensenville, 337 Ill. App. 3d 197, 209, 786 N.E.2d 203, 271 Ill. Dec. 945 (2003) (Limiting the disclaimer in the manner suggested by the plaintiffs would effectively write it out of the contract. Virtually every error in construction by a subcontractor could be recast and advanced against [the defendant] as a failure to supervise or inspect the project.). Here, plaintiff promised to release defendant from any liability resulting from her use of the climbing wall. Moreover, we fail to see how providing additional training to employees would have impacted on plaintiffs perception of an obvious risk. Allowing her to avoid this promise in this manner would be an elevation of form over substance.

 [*P56]
At oral argument, plaintiff relied heavily on the allegation that the spot where she landed was uneven due to the placement of mats in the area. As noted, one of plaintiffs feet landed on a mat and the other landed directly on the floor. According to plaintiff, the risk of landing on an uneven surface was not within the scope of the waiver she executed. This argument is foreclosed by two cases which we cite above. First, in Oelze, 401 Ill. App. 3d at 113, the plaintiff was injured while, during a game of tennis, she tripped on a piece [**30]
of equipment stored behind a curtain near the tennis court. This arguably dangerous condition was found to be within the scope of her waiver. Id. at 121-22. Furthermore, in Garrison, 201 Ill. App. 3d at 584, the plaintiff argued that an alleged defect in gym equipment rendered ineffective an exculpatory agreement which stated that the plaintiff bore the sole risk of injury that might result from the use of weights, equipment or other apparatus provided and that the selection of the type of equipment to be used would be the entire responsibility of the member.
Id. at 585. In this case, assuming arguendo, there was some unevenness in the floor due to the placement of the floor mats, in keeping with Oelze and Garrison, such a defect would not vitiate plaintiff
s waiver.

 [*P57]
In sum, the release here is clear, pertains to use of defendants climbing gym, and is broad enough to encompass falling or jumping from the climbing wall.

 [*P58]
B. WILLFUL AND WANTON CONDUCT

 [*P59]
In an attempt to avoid the effect of the exculpatory agreement, plaintiff also contends that defendant engaged in willful and wanton conduct. Conduct is willful and wanton where it involves a deliberate intention to harm or a conscious disregard for the safety of others. In re Estate of Stewart, 2016 IL App (2d),151117 ¶ 72, 406 Ill. Dec. 345, 60 N.E.3d 896. It is an aggravated [**31]
form of negligence.
Id. Plaintiff contends that defendant should have followed its own policies and evaluated her abilities. However, plaintiff does not explain what such an evaluation would have shown or what sort of action it would have prompted one of defendant
s employees to take that would have protected plaintiff from the injury she suffered. Plaintiff also points to defendants failure to advise her not to climb above the bouldering line. As the trial court observed, the risk of falling from a height is open and obvious to an adult. Ford ex rel. Ford, 307 Ill. App. 3d at 302. Plaintiff cites nothing to substantiate the proposition that failing to warn plaintiff of a risk of which she was presumptively already aware rises to the level of willful and wanton conduct. Indeed, how a defendant could consciously disregard the risk of not advising plaintiff of the dangers of heights when she was presumptively aware of this risk is unclear (plaintiff provides no facts from which an intent to harm could be inferred).

 [*P60]
In short, the conduct identified by plaintiff simply does not show a willful and wanton disregard for her safety.

 [*P61]
IV. CONCLUSION

 [*P62]
In light of the foregoing, the judgment of the circuit court of McHenry County [**32]
is affirmed.

 [*P63]
Affirmed.


Release stops lawsuit by plaintiff thrown from ATV in Pennsylvania.

Release signed 8 months earlier saved defendant.

Scott-Moncrieff v. Lost Trails, LLC, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 146936 *; 2018 WL 4110742

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

Plaintiff: Patrice Scott-Moncrieff

Defendant: The Lost Trails, LLC, d/b/a Lost Trails ATV Adventures

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: for the Defendant

Year: 2018

Summary

Year old release still valid to stop claims. Plaintiff rented ATV and signed a release. Eight months later she rented an ATV from the same defendant again but did not sign another release. The original release was enough to stop her lawsuit.

Facts

On October 20, 2013, Plaintiff visited Defendant’s ATV facility for the first time and, prior to using the facility, executed a waiver of liability. Plaintiff did not read the waiver in its entirety prior to signing it, and claims she was rushed during the process. On June 22, 2014, Plaintiff returned to the facility, at which time she alleged suffered injuries when she was thrown from the ATV she was riding.

The release the plaintiff signed had several places to initial the release which she did.

The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment and this is the response to that motion.

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

The release in this case also had an assumption of the risk clause, which the court found as valid proof the plaintiff assumed of the risk, “…within the waiver, Plaintiff specifically acknowledged that she was assuming all of the risks associated with these activities.”

The plaintiff argued the release was void because:

Plaintiff argues that Plaintiff did not sign a waiver on the date of the accident, and therefore did not waive any liability or assume any risk; that she was rushed and unable to read the original waiver in its entirety; that the waiver is unenforceable as not properly conspicuous; and finally, that because the earlier waiver signed by Plaintiff was “for all time thereafter” it should not be enforced.

The court then reviewed the requirements for a release, an exculpatory clause in a contract in Pennsylvania.

An exculpatory clause is valid if the following conditions are met: 1) the clause does not contravene public policy; 2) the contract is between parties relating entirely to their own private affairs; and 3) the contract is not one of adhesion.

A valid exculpatory clause is only enforceable if “the language of the parties is clear that a person is being relieved of liability for his own acts of negligence.”

A waiver of liability violates public policy only if it involves “a matter of interest to the public or the state. Such matters of interest to the public or the state include the employer-employee relationship, public service, public utilities, common carriers, and hospitals

Under Pennsylvania law, the release did not contravene public policy because it did not affect a matter of interest to the public or the state. Recreation is not a public interest in most states. Also, the release was between private parties and only affecting the rights to the parties to the agreement.

Pennsylvania has a three-prong test to determine if a release violates public policy, the Topp Copy standard.

The exculpatory clause at issue in this case does not contravene public policy because it does not affect a matter of interest to the public or the state. See Kotovsky, 603 A.2d at 665-66 (holding that releases did not violate public policy because “[t]hey were [in] contracts between private parties and pertained only to the parties’ private rights. They did not in any way affect the rights of the public.”). Thus, the exculpatory clause meets the first two prongs of the Topp Copy standard for validity.

The contract meets the third prong of the Topp Copy validity standard because it is not a contract of adhesion. Agreements to participate in “voluntary sporting or recreational activities” are not contracts of adhesion because “[t]he signer is a free agent who can simply walk away without signing the release and participating in the activity, and thus the contract signed under such circumstances is not unconscionable.”

The court went on to define a contract of adhesion is a contract where the signor has no other choice but to sign the agreement.

“The signer is under no compulsion, economic or otherwise, to participate, much less to sign the exculpatory agreement, because it does not relate to essential services, but merely governs a voluntary recreational activity.” The Agreement at issue here is not a contract of adhesion because it is a contract to participate in voluntary recreational activities. The Agreement does not relate to an essential service, and Plaintiff was free to engage in the activity, or not, as she wished. She was under no compulsion to do so.

The court then went on to determine if the release was enforceable under Pennsylvania law, meaning that was the language sufficient to give notice to the parties of what they were doing. The agreement must relieve a party for the liability of their own negligence. To determine if the release was enforceable the court must determine if:

1) the contract language must be construed strictly, since exculpatory language is not favored by the law; 2) the contract must state the intention of the parties with the greatest particularity, beyond doubt by express stipulation, and no inference from words of general import can establish the intent of the parties; 3) the language of the contract must be construed, in cases of ambiguity, against the party seeking immunity from liability; and 4) the burden of establishing the immunity is upon the party invoking protection under the clause.

Here the court found the language was sufficient and the agreement was valid.

The plaintiff then argued that the release should not be held against her because she did not sign the release on the day she was injured. She found the defendant had a policy that all persons must sign the release each time they came to the defendant. This policy was discovered by questioning a maintenance man that had been terminated.

Plaintiff submits that the waiver she executed in October 2013 did not apply to her visit to Defendant on June 22, 2014, because “it is uncontroverted that the Defendant has a policy that dictates all riders must sign a waiver every time they ride an ATV at their park” and Plaintiff did not sign a waiver when she visited the park in June 2014.

The court found the testimony of the maintenance man had no bearing on the case. He was not working for the defendant at the time of the accident, he was not involved in getting releases signed when he did work for the defendant and he did not represent nor was he acting on behalf of the defendant.

The release signed by the plaintiff on her first trip to the defendant’s business was still valid. The release stated it was to remain binding “for all time thereafter.”

The court did not seem to care that even if the policy had been in place it did not matter because the plaintiff signed a release that was still in force.

Here, the language of the waiver form is unequivocal in stating the intent that it is binding for all time thereafter. As the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has stated,

The word “all” needs no definition; it includes everything, and excludes nothing. There is no more comprehensive word in the language, and as used here it is obviously broad enough to cover liability for negligence. If it had been the intention of the parties to exclude negligent acts they would have so written in the agreement. This paragraph of the lease is clear and unambiguous. No rules of construction are required to ascertain the intention of the parties.

The court found the release executive by the plaintiff on her first trip was valid to prevent the lawsuit when she was injured on her second trip.

Then the plaintiff argued she was rushed and unable to read the first release she signed. The court quickly shot that argument down.

One who is about to sign a contract has a duty to read that contract. In the absence of fraud, the failure to read a contract before signing it is “an unavailing excuse or defense and cannot justify an avoidance, modification or nullification of the contract.”

Finally, the plaintiff argued the release not “properly conspicuous.” This was based on language a Pennsylvania court used to void a “release” on the back of a lift ticket because it was not conspicuous. Since this release was found within a contract, signed by the plaintiff that argument also failed.

Even if those conspicuity requirements applied, however the exculpatory clauses in the Waiver Form would still be enforceable. The document is titled, in larger font, bold, underlined, and all capital letters “LOST TRAILS ATV ADVENTURES WAIVER FORM.” The language specifically indicating release and discharge, assumption of the risk, an agreement not to sue, and indemnification, are set of in all capitals in the numbered paragraphs, and were acknowledged by Plaintiff initialing each paragraph.

The release was upheld and the case was dismissed.

So Now What?

This seems like the same old person gets hurt recreating and tries stupid ways to get out of the consequences of signing a release. And to a major extent it is. However, there are a few interesting issues.

Courts are less likely to enforce a release for activities involving motors, unless NASCAR is big in your state. Add an engine to recreation and some courts think differently.

The second is the use of a release signed by the plaintiff prior to the date of her injury. Your release should always be written so there is no date for the agreement to terminate. Having the person sign a release each time they use your facilities is good. Handing the court a dozen releases signed on different dates proves the plaintiff had plenty of time to read and understand the release and assumed the risk of the activity.

But making sure your release is valid for more than that date and time is critical. First a release good for a specific time frame may be out of date when it is needed to stop a lawsuit in court. Second, you never know when someone will slip through the system and not sign the release and get hurt. Finally, you could lose the release you need. Granted there are ways to get lost documents admitted into court, however, it is much easier to present the court with a signed release that covers the incident no matter when the release was signed or the incident occurred.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Scott-Moncrieff v. Lost Trails, LLC, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 146936; 2018 WL 4110742

 

Scott-Moncrieff v. Lost Trails, LLC

 

, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 146936 *; 2018 WL 4110742

United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania

August 29, 2018, Decided; August 29, 2018, Filed

CIVIL ACTION NO. 3:16-CV-1105

Reporter

2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 146936 *; 2018 WL 4110742

PATRICE SCOTT-MONCRIEFF, Plaintiff v. THE LOST TRAILS, LLC, et al, Defendants

Subsequent History: Appeal filed, 09/13/2018

Counsel:  [*1] For Patrice Scott-Moncrieff, Plaintiff: James W. Sutton, III, LEAD ATTORNEY, LAW OFFICES OF VIASAC & SHMARUK, FEASTERVILLE, PA.

For The Lost Trails, LLC, d/b/a Lost Trails ATV Adventures, Defendant, Cross Claimant, Cross Defendant: John T. McGrath, Jr., Marshall, Dennehey, Warner, Coleman & Goggin, Scranton, PA; Michael J. Connolly, Moosic, PA.

Judges: KAROLINE MEHALCHICK, United States Magistrate Judge.

Opinion by: KAROLINE MEHALCHICK

Opinion

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Before the Court is a motion for summary judgment filed by Defendant, The Lost Trails, LLC (“Lost Trails”) in this matter. The motion (Doc. 50) was filed on November 14, 2017, together with a brief in support (Doc. 52), and Statement of Facts (Doc. 53). Plaintiff, Patrice Scott-Moncrieff, filed a brief in opposition (Doc. 54) on November 28, 2017, a reply brief (Doc. 55) was filed on December 6, 2017, and a sur reply brief (Doc. 62) was filed on January 17, 2018. This motion is ripe for disposition. For the following reasons, the Court will grant the motion for summary judgment.

I. Factual Background and Procedural History

The factual background is taken from Defendant’s Statements of Undisputed Material Facts (Doc. 53). Where the parties dispute certain facts, [*2]  those disputes are noted. In addition, the facts have been taken in the light most favorable to the plaintiff as the non-moving party, with all reasonable inferences drawn in her favor. This is in accordance with the Local Rules of this Court, which state, in pertinent part, as follows:

LR 56.1 Motions for Summary Judgment.

A motion for summary judgment filed pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P.56, shall be accompanied by a separate, short and concise statement of the material facts, in numbered paragraphs, as to which the moving party contends there is no genuine issue to be tried.

The papers opposing a motion for summary judgment shall include a separate, short and concise statement of the material facts, responding to the numbered paragraphs set forth in the statement required in the foregoing paragraph, as to which it is contended that there exists a genuine issue to be tried.

Statements of material facts in support of, or in opposition to, a motion shall include references to the parts of the record that support the statements.

All material facts set forth in the statement required to be served by the moving party will be deemed to be admitted unless controverted by the statement required to be served by the opposing [*3]  party.

Local Rule 56.1 (emphasis added).

To comply with Local Rule 56.1, Plaintiff should (1) clearly and unequivocally admit or deny whether each fact contained in Defendant’s statement of facts is undisputed and/or material, (2) set forth the basis for any denial if any fact is not admitted in its entirety, and (3) provide a citation to the record that supports any such denial. Occhipinti v. Bauer, No. 3:13-CV-1875, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 136082, 2016 WL 5844327, at *3 (M.D. Pa. Sept. 30, 2016); Park v. Veasie, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 50682, 2011 WL 1831708, *4 (M.D. Pa. 2011). As such, where Plaintiff disputes a fact set forth by Defendant, but fails to provide a citation to the record supporting their denial, that fact will be deemed to be admitted. “Unsupported assertions, conclusory allegations, or mere suspicions” are insufficient to overcome a motion for summary judgment. Schaar v. Lehigh Valley Health Servs., Inc., 732 F.Supp.2d 490, 493 (E.D.Pa. 2010). In this matter, Plaintiff, though including a statement of fact in her brief in opposition to Defendant’s motion for summary judgment (Doc. 54), does not comply with the local rules and submit a separate statement of material facts in opposition to Defendant’s statement of material facts. Notably, despite being given the opportunity to file a sur-reply brief in this matter, after Defendant raises the issue of Plaintiff’s failure to file a statement of facts in its Reply Brief (Doc. 55), Plaintiff still [*4]  did not file a separate statement of fact. As such, the facts set forth in Defendant’s statement of material facts will be deemed admitted.

On October 20, 2013, Plaintiff visited Defendant’s ATV facility for the first time and, prior to using the facility, executed a waiver of liability. (Doc. 50-2, at 4-5; DOC. 53, AT ¶¶ 5, 9). Plaintiff did not read the waiver in its entirety prior to signing it, and claims she was rushed during the process. (Doc. 53, at ¶ 7; Doc. 50-2, at 71). On June 22, 2014, Plaintiff returned to the facility, at which time she alleged suffered injuries when she was thrown from the ATV she was riding. (Doc. 1).

The release from liability signed by Plaintiff on October 20, 2013 reads, in pertinent part, as follows:

In consideration for the opportunity for event participation and utilization of general admission, all facilities, equipment and premises of Lost Trails, LLC (LT), North American Warhorse Inc, (NAW) Theta Land Corp. (TLC), 1000 Dunham Drive LLC (DD), and their respective affiliates, members, agents, employees, heirs and assigns and other associates in furtherance of the sport of Off-Road Riding, racing and any other activities, scheduled or unscheduled, [*5]  (hereinafter collectively called “Off-Roading.”) This Waiver shall commence on the date first signed and shall remain binding for all time thereafter.

By signing this document, I hereby understand and agree for me and/or my minor child to this Release of Liability, Wavier of Legal rights and Assumption of Risk and to the terms hereof as follows:


2. I hereby RELEASE AND DISCHARGE LT, NAW, TLC, DD and all related parties, event volunteers, company officers, directors, elected officials, agents, employees, and owners of equipment, the land used for Off-Roading activities and any owners of adjourning lands to the premises (hereinafter collectively referred to as “Released parties”) from any and all liability claims, demands or causes of action that I, my minor child or my representatives and my heirs may hereafter have for injuries, loss of life, and all other forms of damages arising out of my voluntary participation in Off-Roading activities.

3. I understand and acknowledge that Off-Road riding and racing activities have inherent dangers that no amount of care, caution, instruction or expertise can eliminate and I EXPRESSLY AND VOLUNTARILY ASSUME ALL RISK OF DEATH OR PERSONAL INJURY [*6]  OR OTHER FORMS OF DAMAGES SUSTAINED WHILE PARTICIPATING IN OFF-ROADING ACTIVITIES WHETHER OR NOT CAUSED BY THE NEGLIGENCE OF THE RELEASE PARTIES.

4. I further agree that I WILL NOT SUE OR OTHERWISE MAKE A CLAIM on behalf of me and/or on behalf of my minor child, against the Released Parties for damages or other losses sustained as a result of my participation in Off-Roading activities.

5. I also agree to INDEMNIFY AND HOLD THE RELEASED PARTIES HARMLESS from all claims, judgments and costs, including attorneys’ fees, incurred in the connection with any action brought against them, jointly or severally, as a result of my or my minor child’s participation in “Off-Roading” activities.

6. I take full responsibility for, and hold harmless Released Parties for any injury, property damage, or death that I or my minor child may suffer or inflict upon others .or their property as a result of my engaging in Off-Roading activities.

7. I further represent that I am at least 18 years of age, or that as the parent or (adult) legal guardian, I waive and release any and all legal rights that may accrue to me, to my minor child or to the minor child for whom I am (adult) legal guardian, as the result of [*7]  any injury or damage that my minor child, the minor child for whom I am (adult) legal guardian, or I may suffer while engaging in Off-Roading activities.

8. I hereby expressly recognize that this Release of Liability, Waiver of Legal Rights and Assumption of Risks is a contract pursuant to which I have released any and all claims against the Released Parties resulting from participation in Off-Roading activities including any claims related to the negligence of the Released Parties by any of the undersigned.

9. I further expressly agree that the foregoing Release of Liability, Waiver of Legal Rights and Assumption of Risks is intended to be as broad and inclusive as is permitted by law of the province or state in which services, materials and/or equipment are provided and the course of business is conducted, and that if any portion thereof is held invalid, it is agreed that the balance shall, notwithstanding, continue in full legal force and effect. I agree that, should any claim or action arise from my participation as described herein, including any issue as to the applicability of this Release or any provision contained within it, proper Jurisdiction and Venue will lie only in Monroe [*8]  County, Pennsylvania and I waive Jurisdiction and Venue anywhere else.

(Doc. 54-1, at 20-21).

Plaintiff initialed all of the above provisions. She did not initial paragraph 10 on the next page, however, which states as follows:

l0. Having had ample time and opportunity to raise any concerns or questions that I may have, and having read and understood the information, I certify my acceptance of the aforementioned provisions by signing below.

I am in good health and physical condition. I am voluntarily participating with knowledge that dangers are involved and agree to assume all risks. I also understand that if I am injured or become ill, I agree that Lost Trails LLC, or any of its employees, volunteers or guests will not be held liable should they render medical assistance to me or my minor child.

(Doc. 54-1, at 21).

Despite not specifically initialing paragraph 10, Plaintiff did sign the agreement, indicating her acceptance and understanding of the exculpatory clauses. (Doc. 54-1).

II. Legal Standard

Under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment should be granted only if “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). A fact is “material” only [*9]  if it might affect the outcome of the case. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986). A dispute of material fact is “genuine” if the evidence “is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. In deciding a summary judgment motion, all inferences “should be drawn in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, and where the non-moving party’s evidence contradicts the movant’s, then the non-movant’s must be taken as true.” Pastore v. Bell Tel. Co. of Pa., 24 F.3d 508, 512 (3d Cir. 1994).

A federal court should grant summary judgment “if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Farrell v. Planters Lifesavers Co., 206 F.3d 271, 278 (3d Cir. 2000). In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the court’s function is not to make credibility determinations, weigh evidence, or draw inferences from the facts. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. Rather, the court must simply “determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249.

The party seeking summary judgment “bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion,” and demonstrating the absence of a genuine dispute of any material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). If the movant makes [*10]  such a showing, the non-movant must go beyond the pleadings with affidavits or declarations, answers to interrogatories or the like in order to demonstrate specific material facts which give rise to a genuine issue. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324. The non-movant must produce evidence to show the existence of every element essential to its case, which it bears the burden of proving at trial, because “a complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the nonmoving party’s case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. Furthermore, mere conclusory allegations and self-serving testimony, whether made in the complaint or a sworn statement, cannot be used to obtain or avoid summary judgment when uncorroborated and contradicted by other evidence of record. See Lujan v. Nat’l Wildlife Fed’n, 497 U.S. 871, 888, 110 S. Ct. 3177, 111 L. Ed. 2d 695 (1990); see also Thomas v. Delaware State Univ., 626 F. App’x 384, 389 n.6 (3d Cir. 2015) (not precedential) (“[U]nsupported deposition testimony, which is contradicted by the record, is insufficient to defeat summary judgment.”); NLRB v. FES, 301 F.3d 83, 95 (3d Cir. 2002) (“[The plaintiff’s] testimony . . . amounts to an unsupported, conclusory assertion, which we have held is inadequate to satisfy the movant’s burden of proof on summary judgment.”).

As this jurisdiction of this Court is sounded in the diversity of the parties pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a), Pennsylvania substantive [*11]  law will apply. Erie R. Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 58 S.Ct. 817, 82 L.Ed. 1188 (1938).

III. Discussion

Defendant submits that it is entitled to judgment in its favor because Plaintiff executed a valid waiver of all liability prior to ever engaging in any recreational activities on Defendant’s property; because such releases and waivers are recognized under Pennsylvania law; and because within the waiver, Plaintiff specifically acknowledged that she was assuming all of the risks associated with these activities. (Doc. 52, at 2). In response, Plaintiff argues that Plaintiff did not sign a waiver on the date of the accident, and therefore did not waive any liability or assume any risk; that she was rushed and unable to read the original waiver in its entirety; that the waiver is unenforceable as not properly conspicuous; and finally, that because the earlier waiver signed by Plaintiff was “for all time thereafter” it should not be enforced. (Doc. 54).

A. The Exculpatory Clause is Valid

An exculpatory clause is valid if the following conditions are met: 1) the clause does not contravene public policy; 2) the contract is between parties relating entirely to their own private affairs; and 3) the contract is not one of adhesion. Evans v. Fitness & Sports Clubs, LLC, No. CV 15-4095, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133490, 2016 WL 5404464, at *3 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 28, 2016); [*12] 
Topp Copy Prods., Inc. v. Singletary, 533 Pa. 468, 626 A.2d 98, 99 (Pa. 1993). A valid exculpatory clause is only enforceable if “the language of the parties is clear that a person is being relieved of liability for his own acts of negligence.” Id. A waiver of liability violates public policy only if it involves “a matter of interest to the public or the state. Such matters of interest to the public or the state include the employer-employee relationship, public service, public utilities, common carriers, and hospitals.” Seaton v. E. Windsor Speedway, Inc., 400 Pa. Super. 134, 582 A.2d 1380, 1382 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1990); see also Kotovsky v. Ski Liberty Operating Corp., 412 Pa. Super. 442, 603 A.2d 663, 665 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1992). The exculpatory clause at issue in this case does not contravene public policy because it does not affect a matter of interest to the public or the state. See Kotovsky, 603 A.2d at 665-66 (holding that releases did not violate public policy because “[t]hey were [in] contracts between private parties and pertained only to the parties’ private rights. They did not in any way affect the rights of the public.”). Thus, the exculpatory clause meets the first two prongs of the Topp Copy standard for validity.

The contract meets the third prong of the Topp Copy validity standard because it is not a contract of adhesion. Agreements to participate in “voluntary sporting or recreational activities” are not contracts of adhesion because “[t]he signer is a free agent [*13]  who can simply walk away without signing the release and participating in the activity, and thus the contract signed under such circumstances is not unconscionable.” Chepkevich v. Hidden Valley Resort, L.P., 607 Pa. 1, 2 A.3d 1174, 1190-91 (Pa. 2010). “The signer is under no compulsion, economic or otherwise, to participate, much less to sign the exculpatory agreement, because it does not relate to essential services, but merely governs a voluntary recreational activity.” Id. The Agreement at issue here is not a contract of adhesion because it is a contract to participate in voluntary recreational activities. The Agreement does not relate to an essential service, and Plaintiff was free to engage in the activity, or not, as she wished. She was under no compulsion to do so. See Chepkevich, supra; see also Hinkal v. Pardoe, 2016 PA Super 11, 133 A.3d 738, 741-2 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2016) (en banc), appeal denied, 636 Pa. 650, 141 A.3d 481 (Pa. 2016) (citing the “thorough and well-reasoned opinion” of the trial court, which held that the plaintiff’s gym membership agreement was not a contract of adhesion because exercising at a gym is a voluntary recreational activity and the plaintiff was under no compulsion to join the gym). The Agreement meets all three prongs of the Topp Copy standard for validity, and thus the exculpatory clause is facially valid.

B. The Exculpatory Clause is Enforceable

Even if an exculpatory clause is [*14]  facially valid, it is enforceable only if it clearly relieves a party of liability for its own negligence. Evans v. Fitness & Sports Clubs, LLC, No. CV 15-4095, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133490, 2016 WL 5404464, at *5 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 28, 2016). The following standards guide a court’s determination of the enforceability of an exculpatory clause:

1) the contract language must be construed strictly, since exculpatory language is not favored by the law; 2) the contract must state the intention of the parties with the greatest particularity, beyond doubt by express stipulation, and no inference from words of general import can establish the intent of the parties; 3) the language of the contract must be construed, in cases of ambiguity, against the party seeking immunity from liability; and 4) the burden of establishing the immunity is upon the party invoking protection under the clause.

Topp Copy, 626 A.2d at 99.

The Court now turns to Plaintiff’s arguments against the enforceability of the exculpatory clause.

1. Plaintiff’s first waiver is enforceable, including the clause “for all time thereafter.”

Plaintiff submits that the waiver she executed in October 2013 did not apply to her visit to Defendant on June 22, 2014, because “it is uncontroverted that the Defendant has a policy that dictates all [*15]  riders must sign a waiver every time they ride an ATV at their park” (Doc. 54, at 4), and Plaintiff did not sign a waiver when she visited the park in June 2014. Defendant counters that Plaintiff is misconstruing the record in making this assertion. (Doc. 55, at 2). Specifically, Defendant submits that the testimony cited by Plaintiff is that of a former maintenance man who has nothing to do with policy or procedure at Defendant’s property, and further, that he neither testifying as a representative of, nor acting on behalf of, Lost Trails, LLC. (Doc. 55-1, at 4). The testimony offered by the Plaintiff on this issue is that of Matthew Anneman, who testified as follows:

Q: Everybody that goes there is supposed sign the waiver before they go out on the trails, is that fair to say?

A: Yes.

Q: Do you know if Miss Moncrieff signed a waiver before she went on the trail that day?

A: Yes. It is imperative that everybody who comes to ride on that mountain is to fill out a waiver.


Q: So every single time somebody comes to the facility, before they go out there, they go in and sign a waiver.

A: Yes.

Q: And you’re not involved in that part of it, the sign in, and the waiver.

A: No, no. Leslie or one [*16]  of her employees would work the front desk.

(Doc. 54-1, at 12; Anneman Dep. at 36).

The Court finds this testimony to have little to no bearing on the validity and applicability of the October 2013 waiver. Even construing the evidence in the record in Plaintiff’s favor, Mr. Anneman’s testimony does not change the fact Plaintiff did sign a waiver in October 2013, one which indicated that it “shall remain binding for all time thereafter.” (Doc. 54-1, at 20) (emphasis added). Nothing in the record before the Court indicates that Mr. Anneman was responsible for either policy at Defendant’s facility, or in any way even involved with the waiver process. Further, the language of the waiver is clear. In interpreting the language of a contract, courts attempt to ascertain the intent of the parties and give it effect. Sycamore Rest. Grp., LLC v. Stampfi Hartke Assocs., LLC, 2017 Pa. Super. 221, 174 A.3d 651, 656 (2017); LJL Transp., Inc. v. Pilot Air Freight Corp., 599 Pa. 546, 962 A.2d 639, 648 (2009). When a writing is clear and unequivocal, its meaning must be determined by its contents alone. Synthes USA Sales, LLC v. Harrison, 2013 Pa. Super. 324, 83 A.3d 242, 250-51 (2013); Murphy v. Duquesne Univ. of the Holy Ghost, 565 Pa. 571, 591, 777 A.2d 418, 429 (2001) (citations and quotation marks omitted). “[I]t is not the function of this Court to re-write it, or to give it a construction in conflict with … the accepted and plain meaning of the language used.” Id.; citing Robert F. Felte, Inc. v. White, 451 Pa. 137, 144, 302 A.2d 347, 351 (1973) (citation omitted). Here, the language of the waiver form (Doc. 54-1, [*17]  at 20) is unequivocal in stating the intent that it is binding for all time thereafter. As the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has stated,

The word “all” needs no definition; it includes everything, and excludes nothing. There is no more comprehensive word in the language, and as used here it is obviously broad enough to cover liability for negligence. If it had been the intention of the parties to exclude negligent acts they would have so written in the agreement. This paragraph of the lease is clear and unambiguous. No rules of construction are required to ascertain the intention of the parties.

Topp Copy Prods. v. Singletary, 533 Pa. 468, 472, 626 A.2d 98, 100 (1993); citing Cannon v. Bresch, 307 Pa. 31, 34, 160 A. 595, 596 (1932).

As such, the Court finds that the October 2013 waiver executed by Plaintiff was in effect during her June 2014 visit to Defendant’s property.1

2. Plaintiff’s argument that she was rushed and unable to read the original waiver in its entirety is without merit.

Plaintiff next argues that, should the Court find that the 2013 waiver was in effect in June 2014, she was rushed and therefore did not have time to read the waiver before signing it. “The law of Pennsylvania is clear. One who is about to sign a contract has a duty to read that contract [*18]  first.” Hinkal v. Pardoe, 2016 Pa. Super. 11, 133 A.3d 738, 743, appeal denied, 636 Pa. 650, 141 A.3d 481 (2016); In re Estate of Boardman, 2013 PA Super 300, 80 A.3d 820, 823 (Pa.Super.2013); citing Schillachi v. Flying Dutchman Motorcycle Club, 751 F.Supp. 1169, 1174 (E.D.Pa.1990) (citations omitted). In the absence of fraud, the failure to read a contract before signing it is “an unavailing excuse or defense and cannot justify an avoidance, modification or nullification of the contract.” Germantown Sav. Bank v. Talacki, 441 Pa.Super. 513, 657 A.2d 1285, 1289 (1995) (citing Standard Venetian Blind Co. v. American Emp. Ins. Co., 503 Pa. 300, 469 A.2d 563, 566 note (1983)); see also Wroblewski v. Ohiopyle Trading Post, Inc., No. CIV.A. 12-0780, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 119206, 2013 WL 4504448, at *7 (W.D. Pa. Aug. 22, 2013) (Under Pennsylvania law, the failure to read a contract does not nullify the contract’s validity.); Arce v. U-Pull-It Auto Parts, Inc., No. 06-5593, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10202, 2008 WL 375159, at *5-9 (E.D.Pa. Feb.11, 2008) (written release found to be enforceable even when the agreement was in English but the plaintiff only read and spoke Spanish, noting that the “[p]laintiff cannot argue that the release language was inconspicuous or somehow hidden from his attention…. Nor did Defendant have an obligation to verify that [p]laintiff had read and fully understood the terms of the document before he signed his name to it.”). In this case, there is no allegation or evidence of fraud, and as such, Plaintiff’s argument is without merit.

3. The waiver is properly conspicuous.

Finally, Plaintiff avers that summary judgment should be denied because the waiver was not properly conspicuous, and relies on the Pennsylvania Superior Court’s decision in Beck-Hummel in making [*19]  this assertion. The Beck-Hummel court addressed the enforceability of a waiver of liability printed on the back of a tubing ticket. The exculpatory language appeared in a font that was “just barely readable,” and smaller than the font used for some other portions of the ticket. Id. at 1274-75. The Beck-Hummel court looked to the conspicuousness of the waiver of liability as a means of establishing whether or not a contract existed, setting forth three factors to consider in determining conspicuousness: 1) the waiver’s placement in the document; 2) the size of the waiver’s font; and 3) whether the waiver was highlighted by being printed in all capital letters or a different font or color from the remainder of the text. Beck-Hummel, 902 A.2d at 1274. After considering these factors, the Beck-Hummel court could not conclude as a matter of law that the exculpatory clause was enforceable because the language of the ticket was not sufficiently conspicuous as to put the purchaser/user on notice of the waiver. Id.at 1275.

However, in a more recent Pennsylvania Superior Court case, the court held that, as in the case presently before this Court, where the exculpatory clause was part of a signed contract between the parties, the requirements of [*20]  conspicuity set forth in Beck-Hummel would not necessarily apply. In Hinkal v. Pardoe, the en banc Superior Court of Pennsylvania examined whether the Beck-Hummel conspicuity requirements for the enforcement of exculpatory clauses applies to signed valid written contracts. Hinkal v. Pardoe, 2016 Pa. Super. 11, 133 A.3d 738, 743-745, appeal denied, 636 Pa. 650, 141 A.3d 481 (2016). In Hinkal, the plaintiff had signed a membership agreement with Gold’s Gym that contained a waiver of liability for negligence claims on the back page. Id. at 741. The Hinkal court found the plaintiff’s comparison of her case to Beck-Hummel “inapposite” because, unlike a waiver printed on the back of a tubing ticket that did not require a signature; the gym waiver was part of a signed agreement. Id. at 744-45. Further, the court noted that conspicuity is generally not required to establish the formation of a contract, but “has been resorted to as a means of proving the existence or lack of a contract,” where it is unclear whether a meeting of the minds occurred, and imposing such a requirement would allow a properly executed contract to be set aside through one party’s failure to do what the law requires – reading a contract. Id. at 745. The Hinkal court concluded that the waiver of liability was valid and enforceable because [*21]  the plaintiff had signed the agreement. Similarly, in Evans v. Fitness & Sports Clubs, LLC, the District Court determined that the exculpatory clauses contained in a fitness club’s membership agreements were valid and enforceable where the plaintiff had signed both a membership and personal training agreement, including an acknowledgement that the plaintiff had read and understood the entire agreement, including the release and waiver of liability, appears directly above the plaintiff’s signature on the first page of each agreement. Evans v. Fitness & Sports Clubs, LLC, No. CV 15-4095, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133490, 2016 WL 5404464, at *6 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 28, 2016).

The Court finds the agreement at issue in this case to be far more in line with the waivers discussed by the Pennsylvania Superior and Eastern District of Pennsylvania courts in Hinkal and Evans. The waiver form in this case was two pages in length, and initialed and signed by Plaintiff. It was not, like the waiver in Beck-Hummel, printed in small font on the back of a tubing ticket. This was a waiver that was reviewed, initialed and signed by Plaintiff. As such, the requirements of conspicuity set forth in Beck-Hummel would not necessarily apply. Hinkal v. Pardoe, 133 A.3d at 743-745.

Even if those conspicuity requirements applied, however [*22]  the exculpatory clauses in the Waiver Form would still be enforceable. The document is titled, in larger font, bold, underlined, and all capital letters “LOST TRAILS ATV ADVENTURES WAIVER FORM.” The language specifically indicating release and discharge, assumption of the risk, an agreement not to sue, and indemnification, are set of in all capitals in the numbered paragraphs, and were acknowledged by Plaintiff initialing each paragraph. (Doc. 54-1, at 20). Immediately above the signature line, in all capital bold letters, the release reads:

I HAVE READ THIS RELEASE OF LIABILITY, WAIVER OF LEGAL RIGHTS AND ASSUMPTIONS OF RISK AND FULLY UNDERSTAND ITS CONTENTS. I SIGN IT WILLINGLY, VOLUNTARILY AND HAVING HAD AMPLE OPPORTUNITY TO RAISE ANY QUESTIONS OR CONCERNS THAT I MAY HAVE, I ACKNOWLEDGE THAT I AM PARTICIPATING VOLUNTARILY WITH KNOWLEDGE THAT DANGERS ARE INVOLVED AND I AGREE TO ASSUME ALL THE RISKS.

(Doc. 54-1, at 21).

These clauses are conspicuously set apart, appearing in capital letters, and in the case of the final paragraph, fully set apart, in all bold and all capitals. Further, the agreement itself is titled “Waiver Form” which notifies the reader of the purpose of the form. [*23]  Plaintiff initialed the paragraphs setting forth the exculpatory clauses,2 and signed the agreement directly underneath the final, most prominent waiver clause. As such, the Court finds that the exculpatory clauses are valid and enforceable. See Evans, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133490, 2016 WL 5404464, at n. 6.

IV. Conclusion

For the reasons set forth above, the undisputed material facts in the record establish that Defendant is entitled to summary judgment. Viewing the record in light most favorable to the Plaintiff, the Court finds that the exculpatory clauses at issue are valid and enforceable. As such, Defendant’s motion will be granted, and judgment will be entered in favor of Defendant.

An appropriate Order follows.

Dated: August 29, 2018

/s/ Karoline Mehalchick

KAROLINE MEHALCHICK

United States Magistrate Judge

ORDER

AND NOW, this 29th day of August, 2018, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that for the reasons set forth in the memorandum filed concurrently with this Order, Defendant’s motion for summary judgment (Doc. 50) is GRANTED, and judgment is entered in favor of Defendant. The Clerk of Court is directed to CLOSE this matter.

BY THE COURT:

Dated: August 29, 2018

/s/ Karoline Mehalchick

KAROLINE MEHALCHICK

United States Magistrate Judge

End of Document


New Jersey holds that if you signed the release, you are held to its terms even if you cannot read English.

There was a ton of issues that in many states might have voided the release, 8 pt font, missing initial and the plaintiff not understanding English were just a few of them.

Citation: Kang v. LA Fitness, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 179934, 2016 WL 7476354

State: New Jersey, United States District Court, D. New Jersey

Plaintiff: Soon Ja Kang

Defendant: LA Fitness, LA Fitness of South Plainfield, John Does 1-5, et al.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: for the Defendant

Year: 2016

Summary

If you sign the membership agreement containing a release in New Jersey, you are held to the terms of the release, even if you can’t speak or read English. Plaintiff could not read or speak English, signed LA Fitness membership agreement and could not sue after she was injured on a piece of equipment.

Facts

Fitness International, LLC d/b/a LA Fitness (incorrectly designated as LA Fitness of South Plainfield) (“LA Fitness”) operates a fitness facility located in Piscataway, NJ. See Final Pretrial Order Stipulation of Facts. On December 30, 2013, plaintiff Soon Ja Kang went to LA Fitness with her husband to sign up for membership.

On December 31, 2013, Kang was injured while working out on a chin/dip assist pull up machine at LA Fitness’s Piscataway location. She filed the instant action on September 29, 2014 in state court, and LA Fitness filed a notice of removal in this Court on November 14, 2014 on the basis of diversity jurisdiction. The complaint alleges that Kang was injured as a result of negligence on the part of LA Fitness. Id. Prior to completion of expert discovery, LA Fitness moved for summary judgment on the issue of whether the waiver and liability provision bars the instant action.

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

The court started its analysis by looking at the release and the injury the plaintiff suffered. The court found the injury fell within the confines of the release.

As her negligence claim for an injury allegedly sustained while using a piece of workout equipment at an LA Fitness facility clearly falls within the ambit of the liability waiver, the issue becomes whether the waiver itself is enforceable against Kang on the facts of this case.

The issue then became whether or not the release applied to someone who did not speak or read English. Releases in New Jersey are enforceable if:

…(1) it does not adversely affect the public interest; (2) the exculpated party is not under a legal duty to perform; (3) it does not involve a public utility or common carrier; or (4) the contract does not grow out of unequal bargaining power or is otherwise unconscionable.

The court throughout the third factor because the defendant was not a public utility or common carrier. The court then reviewed whether the exculpatory clause affected the public interest. The court found it did not.

[W]e are satisfied that, at least with respect to equipment being used at the club in the course of an exercise class or other athletic activity, the exculpatory agreement’s disclaimer of liability for ordinary negligence is reasonable and not offensive to public policy.

There seemed to be somewhat of a limit to the release based on the courts next comment about the reach of the release.

The Court agrees with the analysis in Stelluti and finds that the exculpatory clause here does not adversely affect the public interest, at least to the extent that it purports to exculpate LA Fitness with respect to acts or omissions amounting to ordinary negligence.

The plaintiff then argued the release violates the New Jersey Plain Language Act. N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:12-2. The act requires a consumer contract to be “written in a simple, clear, understandable and easily readable way.”

The plaintiff then argued the act was violated because the print size (font) was 8 points, and the margins of the paper were .5″ “reflecting the intentions of the drafter to squeeze in additional words.”

Reviewing examples of bad language found in the act, the court determined the release did not violate the Plain Language Act.

Reviewing Kang’s membership agreement in light of the above guidelines, the Court finds that the waiver provision does not violate the New Jersey Plain Language Act. The waiver provision does not contain any cross references, nor does it contain any double negatives or exceptions to exceptions. It does not contain words with obsolete meanings, nor is it clouded by the use of Old English, Middle English, Latin or French phrases. And Kang does not argue-nor does the Court find-that the sentences of the waiver provision are set forth in a confusing or illogical order.

The next issue was there any legal duty to perform on the part of the defendant part 2 of the four requirements.

There were no state statutes or regulation’s setting standards for fitness facilities. The plaintiff argued that National Associations had created standards that applied to fitness facilities. However, the court could not find that to be valid. “However, there is no indication that these national standards apply with the force of law in New Jersey so as to constitute public policy of the state.”

The final argument was the release was unconscionable because of unequal bargaining power between the plaintiff and defendant.

Kang argues that the waiver was invalid for lack of mutual assent, based upon the following assertions: (1) Neither Kang nor her husband speaks English; (2) LA Fitness knew as much, as the Kangs’ daughter was present to translate; (3) an LA Fitness employee explained the contract duration and payment terms to the Kangs’ daughter, but did not explain the liability waiver to her; (4) only Kang’s husband was asked to initial next to the waiver provision in his membership agreement, but no one explained to him what he was initialing; and (5) no employee went over the waiver provision with Kang or her daughter.

The court did not agree with any of the plaintiffs’ arguments. And stated in clear language that the plaintiff’s inability to speak English did not stop her from becoming bound to the terms of the release.

As an initial matter, Kang’s inability to speak English does not bar her from becoming contractually bound. Notwithstanding the fact that her daughter was present to translate, New Jersey courts have unequivocally held that in the absence of fraud, one who signs an agreement is conclusively presumed to understand and assent to its terms and legal effect:

The court went on to explain that if you sign the agreement, you are bound to the terms of the agreement, whether or not you understood the agreement.

In the absence of fraud or imposition, when one fails to read a contract before signing it, the provisions are nevertheless binding, and the party is conclusively presumed to understand and assent to its terms and legal effect . . . . Even illiterate individuals have been held bound by a signed contract in the absence of misrepresentation. One who signs a document in those circumstances should know its contents or have it read (or otherwise have the contents made known) to him or her.

The final issue was the missing initial in the document. Because she had signed the agreement, the signature at the bottom of the agreement was all that was needed for the release to be valid.

Finally, the Court is not aware of, nor has Kang cited, any requirement that she must have initialed the waiver provision for that clause to be enforceable against her. While she did not initial the waiver provision, she did sign the membership agreement containing it. In the absence of fraud, that is enough to bind her to its terms.

The plaintiff then argued the release and fitness contract containing the release were unconscionable. The court summed up the plaintiffs’ unconscionable argument as an amalgamation of all of her other arguments. The court found the exculpatory clause did not offend public policy, and the other arguments for unconscionability did not change the release validity.

Kang was a layperson without any specialized knowledge of exculpatory contracts, and the Court gives her the benefit of the inference that LA Fitness did not explain the legal effect of the waiver provision to her. However, also like the defendant in Stelluti, Kang was not under any undue pressure to execute the agreement and she could have sought advice before signing. Indeed, her daughter was present to translate. As noted above, the fact that Kang does not speak English does have any legal effect on the contract’s enforceability. Thus, in accordance with Stelluti, the Court finds that although the LA Fitness membership agreement may have been offered on a “take-it-or-leave-it” basis, it is not void on the basis of unconscionability.

The motion for summary judgment of the defendant was granted the plaintiff’s claims dismissed.

So Now What?

New Jersey is another state that upholds the idea that if you sign a release, you are bound to the terms of the release no matter if you could understand the release, the type was too small; you did not read or speak English, or you just want out of the release.

At the same time, this list from my studies has only two states on it, California being the other state. See Balloon ride in California is not a common carrier, and the release signed by the plaintiff bars the plaintiff’s claims even though she did not read or speak English.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Kang v. LA Fitness, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 179934, 2016 WL 7476354

Kang v. LA Fitness, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 179934, 2016 WL 7476354

Soon Ja Kang Plaintiff,

LA Fitness, LA Fitness of South Plainfield, John Does 1-5, et al., Defendants.

Civil No. 2:14-cv-07147 (KSH) (CLW)

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

December 29, 2016

NOT FOR PUBLICATION

OPINION

Katharine S. Hayden, U.S.D.J.

Before the Court is defendants’ motion for summary judgment as to the validity and enforceability of an exculpatory clause in a fitness center membership agreement with plaintiff. For the reasons set forth below, the Court finds the liability waiver to be valid and enforceable and defendants’ motion is granted.

I. Background

Fitness International, LLC d/b/a LA Fitness (incorrectly designated as LA Fitness of South Plainfield) (“LA Fitness”) operates a fitness facility located in Piscataway, NJ. See Final Pretrial Order Stipulation of Facts (“SOF”) (D.E. 19), at ¶ 1. On December 30, 2013, plaintiff Soon Ja Kang went to LA Fitness with her husband to sign up for membership. Id. at ¶ 2. The membership agreement she signed states in relevant part:

IMPORTANT: RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABILITY AND INDEMNITY. You hereby acknowledge and agree that use by Member and/or Member’s minor children of LA Fitness’ facilities, services, equipment or premises, involves risks of injury to persons and property, including those described below, and Member assumes full responsibility for such risks. In consideration of Member and Member’s minor children being permitted to enter any facility of LA Fitness (a “Club”) for any purpose including, but not limited to, observation, use of facilities, services or equipment, or participation in any way, Member agrees to the following: Member hereby releases and holds LA Fitness, its directors, officers, employees, and agents harmless from all liability to Member, Member’s children and Member’s personal representatives, assigns, heirs, and next of kin for any loss or damage, and forever gives up any claim or demands therefore, on account of injury to Member’s person or property, including injury leading to the death of Member, whether caused by the active or passive negligence of LA Fitness or otherwise, to the fullest extent permitted by law, while Member or Member’s minor children are in, upon, or about LA Fitness’ premises or using any LA Fitness facilities, services or equipment. Member also hereby agrees to indemnify LA Fitness from any loss, liability, damage or cost LA Fitness may incur due to the presence of Member or Member’s children in, upon or about the LA Fitness premises or in any way observing or using any facilities or equipment of LA Fitness whether caused by the negligence of Member(s) or otherwise. You represent (a) that Member and Member’s minor children are in good physical condition and have no disability, illness, or other condition that could prevent Member(s) from exercising without injury or impairment of health, and (b) that Member has consulted a physician concerning an exercise program that will not risk injury to Member or impairment of Member’s health. Such risk of injury includes (but is not limited to): injuries arising from use by Member or others of exercise equipment and machines; injuries arising from participation by Member or others in supervised or unsupervised activities or programs at a Club; injuries and medical disorders arising from exercising at a Club such as heart attacks, strokes, heat stress, sprains, broken bones, and torn muscles and ligaments, among others; and accidental injuries occurring anywhere in Club dressing rooms, showers and other facilities. Member further expressly agrees that the foregoing release, waiver and indemnity agreement is intended to be as broad and inclusive as is permitted by the law of the State of New Jersey and that if any portion thereof is held invalid, it is agreed that the balance shall, notwithstanding, continue in full force and effect. Member has read this release and waiver of liability and indemnity clause, and agrees that no oral representations, statements or inducement apart from this Agreement has been made.

LA Fitness Moving Br., Exh. E (D.E. 22-7).

Kang and her husband do not read or understand English, but their daughter was present to translate for them when they signed up. See SOF, at ¶¶ 4-5. Kang signed a membership agreement. She did not initial next to the waiver and liability provision in her membership agreement; however, her husband was asked to initial next to the same provision in his membership agreement, and he did so. Id. at ¶ 6.

On December 31, 2013, Kang was injured while working out on a chin/dip assist pull up machine at LA Fitness’s Piscataway location. See SOF, at ¶¶ 2, 7. She filed the instant action on September 29, 2014 in state court, and LA Fitness filed a notice of removal in this Court on November 14, 2014 on the basis of diversity jurisdiction (D.E. 1). The complaint alleges that Kang was injured as a result of negligence on the part of LA Fitness. Id. Prior to completion of expert discovery, LA Fitness moved for summary judgment on the issue of whether the waiver and liability provision bars the instant action. The motion was fully briefed. (D.E. 22, 25, 26).

The Court makes its decision on the paper.

II. Discussion

A. Standard

Summary judgment is warranted where the moving party demonstrates that “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a), (c). The parties have conducted discovery on the circumstances surrounding the formation of Kang’s membership agreement and, as set forth in the analysis below, all facts relevant to the enforceability of the waiver provision are essentially undisputed as set forth in the Final Pretrial Order Stipulation of Facts (D.E. 19). In determining whether the waiver provision is enforceable as a matter of law, the Court “view[s] the evidence in the light most favorable to [Kang] and draw[s] all justifiable, reasonable inferences in [her] favor.” Sgro v. Bloomberg L.P., 331 F.Appx. 932, 937 (3d Cir. 2009).

B. Analysis

Pursuant to the release and waiver of liability provision in her membership agreement, Kang released and held LA Fitness harmless for all injuries she might suffer “whether caused by the active or passive negligence of LA Fitness or otherwise, ” while she was “in, upon, or about LA Fitness’ premises or using any LA Fitness facilities, services or equipment.” LA Fitness Moving Br., Exh. E (D.E. 22-7). As her negligence claim for an injury allegedly sustained while using a piece of workout equipment at an LA Fitness facility clearly falls within the ambit of the liability waiver, the issue becomes whether the waiver itself is enforceable against Kang on the facts of this case.

In Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 408 N.J.Super. 435, 454 (App. Div. 2009), aff’d, 203 N.J. 286 (2010), the New Jersey Appellate Division addressed the enforceability of exculpatory releases in fitness center membership agreements:

Such a release is enforceable only if: (1) it does not adversely affect the public interest; (2) the exculpated party is not under a legal duty to perform; (3) it does not involve a public utility or common carrier; or (4) the contract does not grow out of unequal bargaining power or is otherwise unconscionable.

Id. The third factor is inapplicable here, because LA Fitness is not a public utility or common carrier. See Kang Opp. Br., at p. 6. The Court analyzes the remaining Stelluti factors in turn.

1. Does the Exculpatory Clause Adversely Affect the Public Interest?

LA Fitness argues that the exculpatory clause in this case does not adversely affect the public interest because it is “a facility that encourages New Jersey’s public policy promoting physical fitness.” LA Fitness Moving Br., at p. 6. Noting the important policy objective of promoting public health, the Stelutti court held:

[W]e are satisfied that, at least with respect to equipment being used at the club in the course of an exercise class or other athletic activity, the exculpatory agreement’s disclaimer of liability for ordinary negligence is reasonable and not offensive to public policy.

Stelluti, 408 N.J.Super. at 459. The Court agrees with the analysis in Stelluti and finds that the exculpatory clause here does not adversely affect the public interest, at least to the extent that it purports to exculpate LA Fitness with respect to acts or omissions amounting to ordinary negligence.

Kang argues that public policy promoting physical fitness “cannot counteract the other public policy reasons that are in place to protect against improper liability waivers.” Kang Opp. Br., at p. 7. To that end, she argues that the release in this case violates the New Jersey Plain Language Act, which states that “[a] consumer contract entered into on or after the effective date of this amendatory and supplementary act shall be written in a simple, clear, understandable and easily readable way.” N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:12-2. Specifically, Kang argues that the small font size and margins in the contract are such that “[s]omeone who can read and understand English would be substantially confused by this agreement[.]” Kang Opp. Br., at p. 8.

To determine whether the waiver provision violates the Plain Language Act, the Court turns to the plain language of the act itself. Section 56:12-10 provides:

To insure that a consumer contract shall be simple, clear, understandable and easily readable, the following are examples of guidelines that a court . . . may consider in determining whether a consumer contract as a whole complies with this act:

(1) Cross references that are confusing;

(2) Sentences that are of greater length than necessary;

(3) Sentences that contain double negatives and exceptions to exceptions;

(4) Sentences and sections that are in a confusing or illogical order;

(5) The use of words with obsolete meanings or words that differ in their legal meaning from their common ordinary meaning;

(6) Frequent use of Old English and Middle English words and Latin and French phrases.

N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:12-10. Section 56:12-10 further provides:

The following are examples of guidelines that a court . . . may consider in determining whether the consumer contract as a whole complies with this act:

(1) Sections shall be logically divided and captioned;

(2) A table of contents or alphabetical index shall be used for all contracts with more than 3, 000 words;

(3) Conditions and exceptions to the main promise of the agreement shall be given equal prominence with the main promise, and shall be in at least 10 point type.

Id. A Court has discretion as to how much consideration should be given to the above-listed statutory guidelines in finding a violation of the act. See Boddy v. Cigna Prop. & Cas. Companies, 334 N.J.Super. 649, 655 (App. Div. 2000).

Reviewing Kang’s membership agreement in light of the above guidelines, the Court finds that the waiver provision does not violate the New Jersey Plain Language Act. The waiver provision does not contain any cross references, nor does it contain any double negatives or exceptions to exceptions. It does not contain words with obsolete meanings, nor is it clouded by the use of Old English, Middle English, Latin or French phrases. And Kang does not argue-nor does the Court find-that the sentences of the waiver provision are set forth in a confusing or illogical order.

Instead, Kang argues that the waiver provision violates the Plain Language Act because “[t]he size of the font (print) is about size 8, whereas the standard size used in everyday documents is size 12[, ]” and because “[t]he margins on the sides of the pages are about 0.5 inch . . . reflecting the intentions of the drafter to squeeze in additional words.” Kang Opp. Br., at p. 8. However, applying the above guidelines, the Court does not find that the waiver provision in this case is any less prominent that the remainder of the agreement. See N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:12-10b(3). To the contrary, the waiver and liability provision is the only clause in the membership agreement preceded by a title in all caps (“IMPORTANT: RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABILITY AND INDEMNITY”), and it is the only clause that is fully enclosed by a border, creating a visual separation between the waiver and the rest of the agreement.

The Court finds that the waiver provision in this case does not offend public policy under Stelluti and does not otherwise violate the New Jersey Plain Language Act.

2. Is LA Fitness Under a Legal Duty To Perform?

LA Fitness argues that its relationship with Kang does not create any duties prescribed by statute or regulation. See LA Fitness Moving Br., at pp. 6-8. New Jersey courts have found liability waivers to be invalid as against public policy where they conflict with legislatively imposed duties. For example, in Hy-Grade Oil Co. v. New Jersey Bank, 138 N.J.Super. 112, 118 (App. Div. 1975), the court found it against public policy for a bank to exculpate itself from liability or responsibility for negligence in the performance of its function as a night depository service, in part due to the “extensive statutory regulations covering every phase of the banking business[.]” Id. at 118. Similarly, in McCarthy v. Nat’l Ass’n for Stock Car Auto Racing, Inc., 48 N.J. 539, 543 (1967), the New Jersey Supreme Court held a liability waiver invalid as against public policy because it purported to contract away safety requirements prescribed by statute dealing with motor vehicle racing. See id. at 543 (“[t]he prescribed safety requirements may not be contracted away, for if they could be the salient protective purposes of the legislation would largely be nullified”).

Kang argues that “although there are no statutes specific to fitness centers, there are several national associations that have established standards that apply to the fitness industry[.]” Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 8-9. However, there is no indication that these national standards apply with the force of law in New Jersey so as to constitute public policy of the state. Kang further argues that the Stelluti court acknowledged the well-established duties of care that New Jersey business owners owe to patrons that enter their premises. See Kang Opp. Br., at p. 8. However, as noted above in Part B.1. supra, Stelluti expressly held that fitness center liability waivers such as the one at issue here do not violate public policy at least to the extent that they exculpate for ordinary negligence. Stelluti, 408 N.J.Super. at 459. The Court finds that LA Fitness is not under any legal duty that precludes its reliance on the liability waiver in this case.

3. Does the Contract Grow Out of Unequal Bargaining Power or is it Otherwise Unconscionable?

With respect to the final Stelluti factor, Kang argues that the waiver: (1) was not the product of mutual assent; and (2) is unconscionable as a term in a contract of adhesion. See Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 10-14. The Court addresses both arguments in turn.

a. Mutual Assent

Kang argues that the waiver was invalid for lack of mutual assent, based upon the following assertions: (1) Neither Kang nor her husband speaks English; (2) LA Fitness knew as much, as the Kangs’ daughter was present to translate; (3) an LA Fitness employee explained the contract duration and payment terms to the Kangs’ daughter, but did not explain the liability waiver to her; (4) only Kang’s husband was asked to initial next to the waiver provision in his membership agreement, but no one explained to him what he was initialing; and (5) no employee went over the waiver provision with Kang or her daughter. See Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 10-11. Accordingly, Kang argues that she did not “clearly, unequivocally, and decisively surrender[ ] her rights” as is required for a valid waiver. Id. at p. 11.

The Court finds these arguments unavailing. As an initial matter, Kang’s inability to speak English does not bar her from becoming contractually bound. Notwithstanding the fact that her daughter was present to translate, New Jersey courts have unequivocally held that in the absence of fraud, one who signs an agreement is conclusively presumed to understand and assent to its terms and legal effect:

In the absence of fraud or imposition, when one fails to read a contract before signing it, the provisions are nevertheless binding, and the party is conclusively presumed to understand and assent to its terms and legal effect . . . . Even illiterate individuals have been held bound by a signed contract in the absence of misrepresentation. One who signs a document in those circumstances should know its contents or have it read (or otherwise have the contents made known) to him or her.

Statewide Realty Co. v. Fid. Mgmt. & Research Co., 259 N.J.Super. 59, 73 (Law. Div. 1992) (internal citations and quotations omitted); see also Herrera v. Twp. of S. Orange Vill., 270 N.J.Super. 417, 423, 637 (App. Div. 1993) (enforcing release agreement in the absence of fraud, notwithstanding testimony by plaintiff that she did not understand the release because she could not read English).

Under the New Jersey case law cited above, absent allegations of fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation which Kang does not make here, she is conclusively presumed to have understood and assented to the membership agreement’s terms-including the waiver-and legal effect. See Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 203 N.J. 286, 305 (2010) (“Although Stelluti argues that she did not know what she was signing, she does not claim that she signed the waiver form as the result of fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation. Therefore, the trial court was well within reason to presume that she understood the terms of the agreement . . . and the finding to that effect is unassailable.”)

Nor does the fact that LA Fitness may not have explained the waiver to her or her daughter preclude enforcement. See Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 203 N.J. 286, 301- 02 (2010) (enforcing exculpatory clause while giving plaintiff benefit of inference that “Powerhouse may not have explained to Stelluti the legal effect of the contract that released Powerhouse from liability”).

Finally, the Court is not aware of, nor has Kang cited, any requirement that she must have initialed the waiver provision for that clause to be enforceable against her. While she did not initial the waiver provision, she did sign the membership agreement containing it. In the absence of fraud, that is enough to bind her to its terms. See Statewide, 259 N.J.Super. at 73.

b. Unconscionability

Kang also argues that even if the waiver is found to be enforceable, the Court should invalidate it as a contract of adhesion. “[T]he essential nature of a contract of adhesion is that it is presented on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, commonly in a standardized printed form, without the opportunity for the ‘adhering’ party to negotiate except perhaps on a few particulars.” Rudbart v. N. Jersey Dist. Water Supply Comm’n, 127 N.J. 344, 353, 605 A.2d 681, 685 (1992). Kang’s unconscionability argument is essentially an amalgamation of all of her arguments summarized above: that as someone who does not speak English she lacked the sophistication to understand the terms to which she was agreeing, LA Fitness knew that she was in no position to understand those terms, she did not initial next to the waiver provision, the waiver is one-sided and printed on a standard form agreement, and she was not in a position to negotiate the terms of the agreement. Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 12-14.

Notably, not all contracts of adhesion are unenforceable. In Stelluti, the New Jersey Supreme Court held:

Here, Powerhouse’s agreement was a standard pre-printed form presented to Stelluti and other prospective members on a typical ‘take-it-or-leave-it basis.’ No doubt, this agreement was one of adhesion. As for the relative bargaining positions of the parties, . . . we assume that Stelluti was a layperson without any specialized knowledge about contracts generally or exculpatory ones specifically. Giving her the benefit of all inferences from the record, including that Powerhouse may not have explained to Stelluti the legal effect of the contract that released Powerhouse from liability, we nevertheless do not regard her in a classic ‘position of unequal bargaining power’ such that the contract must be voided. As the Appellate Division decision noted, Stelluti could have taken her business to another fitness club, could have found another means of exercise aside from joining a private gym, or could have thought about it and even sought advice before signing up and using the facility’s equipment. No time limitation was imposed on her ability to review and consider whether to sign the agreement. In sum, although the terms of the agreement were presented ‘as is’ to Stelluti, rendering this a fairly typical adhesion contract in its procedural aspects, we hold that the agreement was not void based on any notion of procedural unconscionability.

Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 203 N.J. 286, 301-02 (2010).

Like the defendant in Stelluti, Kang was a layperson without any specialized knowledge of exculpatory contracts, and the Court gives her the benefit of the inference that LA Fitness did not explain the legal effect of the waiver provision to her. However, also like the defendant in Stelluti, Kang was not under any undue pressure to execute the agreement and she could have sought advice before signing. Indeed, her daughter was present to translate. As noted above, the fact that Kang does not speak English does have any legal effect on the contract’s enforceability. Thus, in accordance with Stelluti, the Court finds that although the LA Fitness membership agreement may have been offered on a “take-it-or-leave-it” basis, it is not void on the basis of unconscionability.

Because the exculpatory clause does not offend public policy, the Court finds it to be valid and enforceable. Accordingly, LA Fitness’s motion for summary judgment is granted.

III. Conclusion

For the foregoing reasons, defendants’ motion for summary judgment is granted, and the clerk of the court is direct to close this case. An accompanying Order will be filed.


Kang v. LA Fitness, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 179934, 2016 WL 7476354

Kang v. LA Fitness, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 179934, 2016 WL 7476354

Soon Ja Kang Plaintiff,

LA Fitness, LA Fitness of South Plainfield, John Does 1-5, et al., Defendants.

Civil No. 2:14-cv-07147 (KSH) (CLW)

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

December 29, 2016

NOT FOR PUBLICATION

OPINION

Katharine S. Hayden, U.S.D.J.

Before the Court is defendants’ motion for summary judgment as to the validity and enforceability of an exculpatory clause in a fitness center membership agreement with plaintiff. For the reasons set forth below, the Court finds the liability waiver to be valid and enforceable and defendants’ motion is granted.

I. Background

Fitness International, LLC d/b/a LA Fitness (incorrectly designated as LA Fitness of South Plainfield) (“LA Fitness”) operates a fitness facility located in Piscataway, NJ. See Final Pretrial Order Stipulation of Facts (“SOF”) (D.E. 19), at ¶ 1. On December 30, 2013, plaintiff Soon Ja Kang went to LA Fitness with her husband to sign up for membership. Id. at ¶ 2. The membership agreement she signed states in relevant part:

IMPORTANT: RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABILITY AND INDEMNITY. You hereby acknowledge and agree that use by Member and/or Member’s minor children of LA Fitness’ facilities, services, equipment or premises, involves risks of injury to persons and property, including those described below, and Member assumes full responsibility for such risks. In consideration of Member and Member’s minor children being permitted to enter any facility of LA Fitness (a “Club”) for any purpose including, but not limited to, observation, use of facilities, services or equipment, or participation in any way, Member agrees to the following: Member hereby releases and holds LA Fitness, its directors, officers, employees, and agents harmless from all liability to Member, Member’s children and Member’s personal representatives, assigns, heirs, and next of kin for any loss or damage, and forever gives up any claim or demands therefore, on account of injury to Member’s person or property, including injury leading to the death of Member, whether caused by the active or passive negligence of LA Fitness or otherwise, to the fullest extent permitted by law, while Member or Member’s minor children are in, upon, or about LA Fitness’ premises or using any LA Fitness facilities, services or equipment. Member also hereby agrees to indemnify LA Fitness from any loss, liability, damage or cost LA Fitness may incur due to the presence of Member or Member’s children in, upon or about the LA Fitness premises or in any way observing or using any facilities or equipment of LA Fitness whether caused by the negligence of Member(s) or otherwise. You represent (a) that Member and Member’s minor children are in good physical condition and have no disability, illness, or other condition that could prevent Member(s) from exercising without injury or impairment of health, and (b) that Member has consulted a physician concerning an exercise program that will not risk injury to Member or impairment of Member’s health. Such risk of injury includes (but is not limited to): injuries arising from use by Member or others of exercise equipment and machines; injuries arising from participation by Member or others in supervised or unsupervised activities or programs at a Club; injuries and medical disorders arising from exercising at a Club such as heart attacks, strokes, heat stress, sprains, broken bones, and torn muscles and ligaments, among others; and accidental injuries occurring anywhere in Club dressing rooms, showers and other facilities. Member further expressly agrees that the foregoing release, waiver and indemnity agreement is intended to be as broad and inclusive as is permitted by the law of the State of New Jersey and that if any portion thereof is held invalid, it is agreed that the balance shall, notwithstanding, continue in full force and effect. Member has read this release and waiver of liability and indemnity clause, and agrees that no oral representations, statements or inducement apart from this Agreement has been made.

LA Fitness Moving Br., Exh. E (D.E. 22-7).

Kang and her husband do not read or understand English, but their daughter was present to translate for them when they signed up. See SOF, at ¶¶ 4-5. Kang signed a membership agreement. She did not initial next to the waiver and liability provision in her membership agreement; however, her husband was asked to initial next to the same provision in his membership agreement, and he did so. Id. at ¶ 6.

On December 31, 2013, Kang was injured while working out on a chin/dip assist pull up machine at LA Fitness’s Piscataway location. See SOF, at ¶¶ 2, 7. She filed the instant action on September 29, 2014 in state court, and LA Fitness filed a notice of removal in this Court on November 14, 2014 on the basis of diversity jurisdiction (D.E. 1). The complaint alleges that Kang was injured as a result of negligence on the part of LA Fitness. Id. Prior to completion of expert discovery, LA Fitness moved for summary judgment on the issue of whether the waiver and liability provision bars the instant action. The motion was fully briefed. (D.E. 22, 25, 26).

The Court makes its decision on the paper.

II. Discussion

A. Standard

Summary judgment is warranted where the moving party demonstrates that “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a), (c). The parties have conducted discovery on the circumstances surrounding the formation of Kang’s membership agreement and, as set forth in the analysis below, all facts relevant to the enforceability of the waiver provision are essentially undisputed as set forth in the Final Pretrial Order Stipulation of Facts (D.E. 19). In determining whether the waiver provision is enforceable as a matter of law, the Court “view[s] the evidence in the light most favorable to [Kang] and draw[s] all justifiable, reasonable inferences in [her] favor.” Sgro v. Bloomberg L.P., 331 F.Appx. 932, 937 (3d Cir. 2009).

B. Analysis

Pursuant to the release and waiver of liability provision in her membership agreement, Kang released and held LA Fitness harmless for all injuries she might suffer “whether caused by the active or passive negligence of LA Fitness or otherwise, ” while she was “in, upon, or about LA Fitness’ premises or using any LA Fitness facilities, services or equipment.” LA Fitness Moving Br., Exh. E (D.E. 22-7). As her negligence claim for an injury allegedly sustained while using a piece of workout equipment at an LA Fitness facility clearly falls within the ambit of the liability waiver, the issue becomes whether the waiver itself is enforceable against Kang on the facts of this case.

In Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 408 N.J.Super. 435, 454 (App. Div. 2009), aff’d, 203 N.J. 286 (2010), the New Jersey Appellate Division addressed the enforceability of exculpatory releases in fitness center membership agreements:

Such a release is enforceable only if: (1) it does not adversely affect the public interest; (2) the exculpated party is not under a legal duty to perform; (3) it does not involve a public utility or common carrier; or (4) the contract does not grow out of unequal bargaining power or is otherwise unconscionable.

Id. The third factor is inapplicable here, because LA Fitness is not a public utility or common carrier. See Kang Opp. Br., at p. 6. The Court analyzes the remaining Stelluti factors in turn.

1. Does the Exculpatory Clause Adversely Affect the Public Interest?

LA Fitness argues that the exculpatory clause in this case does not adversely affect the public interest because it is “a facility that encourages New Jersey’s public policy promoting physical fitness.” LA Fitness Moving Br., at p. 6. Noting the important policy objective of promoting public health, the Stelutti court held:

[W]e are satisfied that, at least with respect to equipment being used at the club in the course of an exercise class or other athletic activity, the exculpatory agreement’s disclaimer of liability for ordinary negligence is reasonable and not offensive to public policy.

Stelluti, 408 N.J.Super. at 459. The Court agrees with the analysis in Stelluti and finds that the exculpatory clause here does not adversely affect the public interest, at least to the extent that it purports to exculpate LA Fitness with respect to acts or omissions amounting to ordinary negligence.

Kang argues that public policy promoting physical fitness “cannot counteract the other public policy reasons that are in place to protect against improper liability waivers.” Kang Opp. Br., at p. 7. To that end, she argues that the release in this case violates the New Jersey Plain Language Act, which states that “[a] consumer contract entered into on or after the effective date of this amendatory and supplementary act shall be written in a simple, clear, understandable and easily readable way.” N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:12-2. Specifically, Kang argues that the small font size and margins in the contract are such that “[s]omeone who can read and understand English would be substantially confused by this agreement[.]” Kang Opp. Br., at p. 8.

To determine whether the waiver provision violates the Plain Language Act, the Court turns to the plain language of the act itself. Section 56:12-10 provides:

To insure that a consumer contract shall be simple, clear, understandable and easily readable, the following are examples of guidelines that a court . . . may consider in determining whether a consumer contract as a whole complies with this act:

(1) Cross references that are confusing;

(2) Sentences that are of greater length than necessary;

(3) Sentences that contain double negatives and exceptions to exceptions;

(4) Sentences and sections that are in a confusing or illogical order;

(5) The use of words with obsolete meanings or words that differ in their legal meaning from their common ordinary meaning;

(6) Frequent use of Old English and Middle English words and Latin and French phrases.

N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:12-10. Section 56:12-10 further provides:

The following are examples of guidelines that a court . . . may consider in determining whether the consumer contract as a whole complies with this act:

(1) Sections shall be logically divided and captioned;

(2) A table of contents or alphabetical index shall be used for all contracts with more than 3, 000 words;

(3) Conditions and exceptions to the main promise of the agreement shall be given equal prominence with the main promise, and shall be in at least 10 point type.

Id. A Court has discretion as to how much consideration should be given to the above-listed statutory guidelines in finding a violation of the act. See Boddy v. Cigna Prop. & Cas. Companies, 334 N.J.Super. 649, 655 (App. Div. 2000).

Reviewing Kang’s membership agreement in light of the above guidelines, the Court finds that the waiver provision does not violate the New Jersey Plain Language Act. The waiver provision does not contain any cross references, nor does it contain any double negatives or exceptions to exceptions. It does not contain words with obsolete meanings, nor is it clouded by the use of Old English, Middle English, Latin or French phrases. And Kang does not argue-nor does the Court find-that the sentences of the waiver provision are set forth in a confusing or illogical order.

Instead, Kang argues that the waiver provision violates the Plain Language Act because “[t]he size of the font (print) is about size 8, whereas the standard size used in everyday documents is size 12[, ]” and because “[t]he margins on the sides of the pages are about 0.5 inch . . . reflecting the intentions of the drafter to squeeze in additional words.” Kang Opp. Br., at p. 8. However, applying the above guidelines, the Court does not find that the waiver provision in this case is any less prominent that the remainder of the agreement. See N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:12-10b(3). To the contrary, the waiver and liability provision is the only clause in the membership agreement preceded by a title in all caps (“IMPORTANT: RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABILITY AND INDEMNITY”), and it is the only clause that is fully enclosed by a border, creating a visual separation between the waiver and the rest of the agreement.

The Court finds that the waiver provision in this case does not offend public policy under Stelluti and does not otherwise violate the New Jersey Plain Language Act.

2. Is LA Fitness Under a Legal Duty To Perform?

LA Fitness argues that its relationship with Kang does not create any duties prescribed by statute or regulation. See LA Fitness Moving Br., at pp. 6-8. New Jersey courts have found liability waivers to be invalid as against public policy where they conflict with legislatively imposed duties. For example, in Hy-Grade Oil Co. v. New Jersey Bank, 138 N.J.Super. 112, 118 (App. Div. 1975), the court found it against public policy for a bank to exculpate itself from liability or responsibility for negligence in the performance of its function as a night depository service, in part due to the “extensive statutory regulations covering every phase of the banking business[.]” Id. at 118. Similarly, in McCarthy v. Nat’l Ass’n for Stock Car Auto Racing, Inc., 48 N.J. 539, 543 (1967), the New Jersey Supreme Court held a liability waiver invalid as against public policy because it purported to contract away safety requirements prescribed by statute dealing with motor vehicle racing. See id. at 543 (“[t]he prescribed safety requirements may not be contracted away, for if they could be the salient protective purposes of the legislation would largely be nullified”).

Kang argues that “although there are no statutes specific to fitness centers, there are several national associations that have established standards that apply to the fitness industry[.]” Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 8-9. However, there is no indication that these national standards apply with the force of law in New Jersey so as to constitute public policy of the state. Kang further argues that the Stelluti court acknowledged the well-established duties of care that New Jersey business owners owe to patrons that enter their premises. See Kang Opp. Br., at p. 8. However, as noted above in Part B.1. supra, Stelluti expressly held that fitness center liability waivers such as the one at issue here do not violate public policy at least to the extent that they exculpate for ordinary negligence. Stelluti, 408 N.J.Super. at 459. The Court finds that LA Fitness is not under any legal duty that precludes its reliance on the liability waiver in this case.

3. Does the Contract Grow Out of Unequal Bargaining Power or is it Otherwise Unconscionable?

With respect to the final Stelluti factor, Kang argues that the waiver: (1) was not the product of mutual assent; and (2) is unconscionable as a term in a contract of adhesion. See Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 10-14. The Court addresses both arguments in turn.

a. Mutual Assent

Kang argues that the waiver was invalid for lack of mutual assent, based upon the following assertions: (1) Neither Kang nor her husband speaks English; (2) LA Fitness knew as much, as the Kangs’ daughter was present to translate; (3) an LA Fitness employee explained the contract duration and payment terms to the Kangs’ daughter, but did not explain the liability waiver to her; (4) only Kang’s husband was asked to initial next to the waiver provision in his membership agreement, but no one explained to him what he was initialing; and (5) no employee went over the waiver provision with Kang or her daughter. See Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 10-11. Accordingly, Kang argues that she did not “clearly, unequivocally, and decisively surrender[ ] her rights” as is required for a valid waiver. Id. at p. 11.

The Court finds these arguments unavailing. As an initial matter, Kang’s inability to speak English does not bar her from becoming contractually bound. Notwithstanding the fact that her daughter was present to translate, New Jersey courts have unequivocally held that in the absence of fraud, one who signs an agreement is conclusively presumed to understand and assent to its terms and legal effect:

In the absence of fraud or imposition, when one fails to read a contract before signing it, the provisions are nevertheless binding, and the party is conclusively presumed to understand and assent to its terms and legal effect . . . . Even illiterate individuals have been held bound by a signed contract in the absence of misrepresentation. One who signs a document in those circumstances should know its contents or have it read (or otherwise have the contents made known) to him or her.

Statewide Realty Co. v. Fid. Mgmt. & Research Co., 259 N.J.Super. 59, 73 (Law. Div. 1992) (internal citations and quotations omitted); see also Herrera v. Twp. of S. Orange Vill., 270 N.J.Super. 417, 423, 637 (App. Div. 1993) (enforcing release agreement in the absence of fraud, notwithstanding testimony by plaintiff that she did not understand the release because she could not read English).

Under the New Jersey case law cited above, absent allegations of fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation which Kang does not make here, she is conclusively presumed to have understood and assented to the membership agreement’s terms-including the waiver-and legal effect. See Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 203 N.J. 286, 305 (2010) (“Although Stelluti argues that she did not know what she was signing, she does not claim that she signed the waiver form as the result of fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation. Therefore, the trial court was well within reason to presume that she understood the terms of the agreement . . . and the finding to that effect is unassailable.”)

Nor does the fact that LA Fitness may not have explained the waiver to her or her daughter preclude enforcement. See Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 203 N.J. 286, 301- 02 (2010) (enforcing exculpatory clause while giving plaintiff benefit of inference that “Powerhouse may not have explained to Stelluti the legal effect of the contract that released Powerhouse from liability”).

Finally, the Court is not aware of, nor has Kang cited, any requirement that she must have initialed the waiver provision for that clause to be enforceable against her. While she did not initial the waiver provision, she did sign the membership agreement containing it. In the absence of fraud, that is enough to bind her to its terms. See Statewide, 259 N.J.Super. at 73.

b. Unconscionability

Kang also argues that even if the waiver is found to be enforceable, the Court should invalidate it as a contract of adhesion. “[T]he essential nature of a contract of adhesion is that it is presented on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, commonly in a standardized printed form, without the opportunity for the ‘adhering’ party to negotiate except perhaps on a few particulars.” Rudbart v. N. Jersey Dist. Water Supply Comm’n, 127 N.J. 344, 353, 605 A.2d 681, 685 (1992). Kang’s unconscionability argument is essentially an amalgamation of all of her arguments summarized above: that as someone who does not speak English she lacked the sophistication to understand the terms to which she was agreeing, LA Fitness knew that she was in no position to understand those terms, she did not initial next to the waiver provision, the waiver is one-sided and printed on a standard form agreement, and she was not in a position to negotiate the terms of the agreement. Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 12-14.

Notably, not all contracts of adhesion are unenforceable. In Stelluti, the New Jersey Supreme Court held:

Here, Powerhouse’s agreement was a standard pre-printed form presented to Stelluti and other prospective members on a typical ‘take-it-or-leave-it basis.’ No doubt, this agreement was one of adhesion. As for the relative bargaining positions of the parties, . . . we assume that Stelluti was a layperson without any specialized knowledge about contracts generally or exculpatory ones specifically. Giving her the benefit of all inferences from the record, including that Powerhouse may not have explained to Stelluti the legal effect of the contract that released Powerhouse from liability, we nevertheless do not regard her in a classic ‘position of unequal bargaining power’ such that the contract must be voided. As the Appellate Division decision noted, Stelluti could have taken her business to another fitness club, could have found another means of exercise aside from joining a private gym, or could have thought about it and even sought advice before signing up and using the facility’s equipment. No time limitation was imposed on her ability to review and consider whether to sign the agreement. In sum, although the terms of the agreement were presented ‘as is’ to Stelluti, rendering this a fairly typical adhesion contract in its procedural aspects, we hold that the agreement was not void based on any notion of procedural unconscionability.

Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 203 N.J. 286, 301-02 (2010).

Like the defendant in Stelluti, Kang was a layperson without any specialized knowledge of exculpatory contracts, and the Court gives her the benefit of the inference that LA Fitness did not explain the legal effect of the waiver provision to her. However, also like the defendant in Stelluti, Kang was not under any undue pressure to execute the agreement and she could have sought advice before signing. Indeed, her daughter was present to translate. As noted above, the fact that Kang does not speak English does have any legal effect on the contract’s enforceability. Thus, in accordance with Stelluti, the Court finds that although the LA Fitness membership agreement may have been offered on a “take-it-or-leave-it” basis, it is not void on the basis of unconscionability.

Because the exculpatory clause does not offend public policy, the Court finds it to be valid and enforceable. Accordingly, LA Fitness’s motion for summary judgment is granted.

III. Conclusion

For the foregoing reasons, defendants’ motion for summary judgment is granted, and the clerk of the court is direct to close this case. An accompanying Order will be filed.


Get check boxes and initials out of your release!

If the defendants release did not have a catch all phrase at the bottom of the document the release would be invalid because an initial had not been signed by the plaintiff.

Scott-Moncrieff v. Lost Trails, LLC, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 146936 *; 2018 WL 4110742

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

Plaintiff: Patrice Scott-Moncrieff

Defendant: The Lost Trails, LLC, et al

Plaintiff Claims: Plaintiff argues that Plaintiff did not sign a waiver on the date of the accident, and therefore did not waive any liability or assume any risk; that she was rushed and unable to read the original waiver in its entirety; that the waiver is unenforceable as not properly conspicuous; and finally, that because the earlier waiver signed by Plaintiff was “for all time thereafter” it should not be enforced.

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the defendant

Year: 2018

Summary

The plaintiff did not initial one of the initial boxes on the release she signed. This gave the plaintiff enough of an argument to make an appellate argument. But for a final paragraph that covered the uninitialed box language this release would have failed.

Facts

On October 20, 2013, Plaintiff visited Defendant’s ATV facility for the first time and, prior to using the facility, executed a waiver of liability. Plaintiff did not read the waiver in its entirety prior to signing it, and claims she was rushed during the process. On June 22, 2014, Plaintiff returned to the facility, at which time she alleged suffered injuries when she was thrown from the ATV she was riding.

Plaintiff initialed all of the above provisions. She did not initial paragraph 10 on the next page, however, which states as follows:

l0. Having had ample time and opportunity to raise any concerns or questions that I may have, and having read and understood the information, I certify my acceptance of the aforementioned provisions by signing below.

I am in good health and physical condition. I am voluntarily participating with knowledge that dangers are involved and agree to assume all risks. I also understand that if I am injured or become ill, I agree that Lost Trails LLC, or any of its employees, volunteers or guests will not be held liable should they render medical assistance to me or my minor child.

Despite not specifically initialing paragraph 10, Plaintiff did sign the agreement, indicating her acceptance and understanding of the exculpatory clauses.

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

The court first reviewed the validity of releases under Pennsylvania law. Pennsylvania has a three-part test to determine if releases are valid.

An exculpatory clause is valid if the following conditions are met: 1) the clause does not contravene public policy; 2) the contract is between parties relating entirely to their own private affairs; and 3) the contract is not one of adhesion. A valid exculpatory clause is only enforceable if “the language of the parties is clear that a person is being relieved of liability for his own acts of negligence.”. A waiver of liability violates public policy only if it involves “a matter of interest to the public or the state. Such matters of interest to the public or the state include the employer-employee relationship, public service, public utilities, common carriers, and hospitals.” The exculpatory clause at issue in this case does not contravene public policy because it does not affect a matter of interest to the public or the state.

The three requirements all evolve around the public policy argument. It is against public policy to have someone sign a release for a necessity, where the bargaining power is not equal or if the contract is so nasty it should not be signed by anyone. A release, a contract, to ride an ATV is valid because it is not a necessity, it is between parties of equal bargaining power and it is voluntary.

The contract meets the third prong of the Topp Copy validity standard because it is not a contract of adhesion. Agreements to participate in “voluntary sporting or recreational activities” are not contracts of adhesion because “[t]he signer is a free agent who can simply walk away without signing the release and participating in the activity, and thus the contract signed under such circumstances is not unconscionable.” “The signer is under no compulsion, economic or otherwise, to participate, much less to sign the exculpatory agreement, because it does not relate to essential services, but merely governs a voluntary recreational activity.”

If the release passes the first three tests, it still must be scrutinized by the court to determine if it clearly relieves the defendant of liability. If the language of the agreement sets forth the requirements necessary for the plaintiff to understand she is liable for her injuries.

Even if an exculpatory clause is facially valid, it is enforceable only if it clearly relieves a party of liability for its own negligence. The following standards guide a court’s determination of the enforceability of an exculpatory clause:

1) the contract language must be construed strictly, since exculpatory language is not favored by the law; 2) the contract must state the intention of the parties with the greatest particularity, beyond doubt by express stipulation, and no inference from words of general import can establish the intent of the parties; 3) the language of the contract must be construed, in cases of ambiguity, against the party seeking immunity from liability; and 4) the burden of establishing the immunity is upon the party invoking protection under the clause.

If the release, or any contract under Pennsylvania law meets those tests it is finally reviewed to determine if both parties clearly understood the intent of the agreement. In the case of a release, both parties must understand that the possible plaintiff is giving up his or her right to sue the possible defendant.

Further, the language of the waiver is clear. In interpreting the language of a contract, courts attempt to ascertain the intent of the parties and give it effect. When a writing is clear and unequivocal, its meaning must be determined by its contents alone. “[I]t is not the function of this Court to re-write it, or to give it a construction in conflict with … the accepted and plain meaning of the language used.” Here, the language of the waiver form is unequivocal in stating the intent that it is binding for all time thereafter.

In this case, the court found the release passed all of the tests.

As such, the Court finds that the October 2013 waiver executed by Plaintiff was in effect during her June 2014 visit to Defendant’s property.1

Once the release was found to be valid the next issue was whether or not the plaintiff had signed the release. The plaintiff argued because she had not initialed an initial box, had not read the release in its entirety

One who is about to sign a contract has a duty to read that contract first.” In the absence of fraud, the failure to read a contract before signing it is “an unavailing excuse or defense and cannot justify an avoidance, modification or nullification of the contract.” (Under Pennsylvania law, the failure to read a contract does not nullify the contract’s validity.)

The court did look at situations were the release was enforceable even if the plaintiff did not read the release or could not read the release.

…(written release found to be enforceable even when the agreement was in English but the plaintiff only read and spoke Spanish, noting that the “[p]laintiff cannot argue that the release language was inconspicuous or somehow hidden from his attention…. Nor did Defendant have an obligation to verify that [p]laintiff had read and fully understood the terms of the document before he signed his name to it.”). In this case, there is no allegation or evidence of fraud, and as such, Plaintiff’s argument is without merit.

The plaintiff argued the release was unenforceable because it was inconspicuous. However, the argument seemed to be based on case law that found waivers to be void then the real facts of this case.

The waiver form in this case was two pages in length, and initialed and signed by Plaintiff. It was not, like the waiver in Beck-Hummel, printed in small font on the back of a tubing ticket. This was a waiver that was reviewed, initialed and signed by Plaintiff. As such, the requirements of conspicuity set forth in Beck-Hummel would not necessarily apply.

The saving language of the release that covered the un-initialed section 10 was. Even though paragraph 10 was not initialed, the heading clearly stated what the document was and the intentions of the parties. The language that covered the un-initialed paragraph 10 was:

I HAVE READ THIS RELEASE OF LIABILITY, WAIVER OF LEGAL RIGHTS AND ASSUMPTIONS OF RISK AND FULLY UNDERSTAND ITS CONTENTS. I SIGN IT WILLINGLY, VOLUNTARILY AND HAVING HAD AMPLE OPPORTUNITY TO RAISE ANY QUESTIONS OR CONCERNS THAT I MAY HAVE, I ACKNOWLEDGE THAT I AM PARTICIPATING VOLUNTARILY WITH KNOWLEDGE THAT DANGERS ARE INVOLVED AND I AGREE TO ASSUME ALL THE RISKS.

The court found that the entire agreement was covered by this saving language above. So, the failure to initial one paragraph was not enough to void the release.

The court summarized its reasoning for finding the release valid and upholding the dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims because of the release.

These clauses are conspicuously set apart, appearing in capital letters, and in the case of the final paragraph, fully set apart, in all bold and all capitals. Further, the agreement itself is titled “Waiver Form” which notifies the reader of the purpose of the form. Plaintiff initialed the paragraphs setting forth the exculpatory clauses,2 and signed the agreement directly underneath the final, most prominent waiver clause. As such, the Court finds that the exculpatory clauses are valid and enforceable.

So Now What?

But for language at the bottom of the release which the court found to cover for the language that was not initialed the release would have failed. It is important to note; the court analysis stated the language that was not initialed was not part of the release.

If you have initial boxes, initials, etc., and one box is not initialed, in Pennsylvania that paragraph that is not initialed or initialed is invalid. Dependent upon the language, your release maybe void, if you don’t have the boxes checked or initialed.

Why use them anyway. Here the court explains why they are unnecessary, the language at the bottom of your release should tie everything together. Once you sign you acknowledge that you have read and understood the entire document. The checkboxes or initials can only hurt you in a release, not help you.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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exculpatory clause, parties, enforceable, material fact, summary judgment, conspicuity, activities, minor child, initialed, non-moving, Trails, signing, Sports, waiver form, font, summary judgment motion, recreational activity, assumption of risk, intent of a party, genuine issue, legal right, requirements, membership, adhesion, rushed, ticket, ride, gym, check box, checkbox, initials, The Lost Trails, The Lost Trails LLC, ATV, All Terrain Vehicle, Release, Public Policy


Scott-Moncrieff v. Lost Trails, LLC, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 146936 *; 2018 WL 4110742

Scott-Moncrieff v. Lost Trails, LLC, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 146936 *; 2018 WL 4110742

Scott-Moncrieff v. Lost Trails, LLC

United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania

August 29, 2018, Decided; August 29, 2018, Filed

CIVIL ACTION NO. 3:16-CV-1105

Reporter

2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 146936 *; 2018 WL 4110742

PATRICE SCOTT-MONCRIEFF, Plaintiff v. THE LOST TRAILS, LLC, et al, Defendants

Subsequent History: Appeal filed, 09/13/2018

Core Terms

exculpatory clause, parties, enforceable, material fact, summary judgment, conspicuity, activities, minor child, initialed, non-moving, Trails, signing, Sports, waiver form, font, summary judgment motion, recreational activity, assumption of risk, intent of a party, genuine issue, legal right, requirements, membership, adhesion, rushed, ticket, ride, gym

Counsel: [*1] For Patrice Scott-Moncrieff, Plaintiff: James W. Sutton, III, LEAD ATTORNEY, LAW OFFICES OF VIASAC & SHMARUK, FEASTERVILLE, PA.

For The Lost Trails, LLC, d/b/a Lost Trails ATV Adventures, Defendant, Cross Claimant, Cross Defendant: John T. McGrath, Jr., Marshall, Dennehey, Warner, Coleman & Goggin, Scranton, PA; Michael J. Connolly, Moosic, PA.

Judges: KAROLINE MEHALCHICK, United States Magistrate Judge.

Opinion by: KAROLINE MEHALCHICK

Opinion

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Before the Court is a motion for summary judgment filed by Defendant, The Lost Trails, LLC (“Lost Trails”) in this matter. The motion (Doc. 50) was filed on November 14, 2017, together with a brief in support (Doc. 52), and Statement of Facts (Doc. 53). Plaintiff, Patrice Scott-Moncrieff, filed a brief in opposition (Doc. 54) on November 28, 2017, a reply brief (Doc. 55) was filed on December 6, 2017, and a sur reply brief (Doc. 62) was filed on January 17, 2018. This motion is ripe for disposition. For the following reasons, the Court will grant the motion for summary judgment.

I. Factual Background and Procedural History

The factual background is taken from Defendant’s Statements of Undisputed Material Facts (Doc. 53). Where the parties dispute certain facts, [*2] those disputes are noted. In addition, the facts have been taken in the light most favorable to the plaintiff as the non-moving party, with all reasonable inferences drawn in her favor. This is in accordance with the Local Rules of this Court, which state, in pertinent part, as follows:

LR 56.1 Motions for Summary Judgment.

A motion for summary judgment filed pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P.56, shall be accompanied by a separate, short and concise statement of the material facts, in numbered paragraphs, as to which the moving party contends there is no genuine issue to be tried.

The papers opposing a motion for summary judgment shall include a separate, short and concise statement of the material facts, responding to the numbered paragraphs set forth in the statement required in the foregoing paragraph, as to which it is contended that there exists a genuine issue to be tried.

Statements of material facts in support of, or in opposition to, a motion shall include references to the parts of the record that support the statements.

All material facts set forth in the statement required to be served by the moving party will be deemed to be admitted unless controverted by the statement required to be served by the opposing [*3] party.

Local Rule 56.1 (emphasis added).

To comply with Local Rule 56.1, Plaintiff should (1) clearly and unequivocally admit or deny whether each fact contained in Defendant’s statement of facts is undisputed and/or material, (2) set forth the basis for any denial if any fact is not admitted in its entirety, and (3) provide a citation to the record that supports any such denial. Occhipinti v. Bauer, No. 3:13-CV-1875, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 136082, 2016 WL 5844327, at *3 (M.D. Pa. Sept. 30, 2016); Park v. Veasie, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 50682, 2011 WL 1831708, *4 (M.D. Pa. 2011). As such, where Plaintiff disputes a fact set forth by Defendant, but fails to provide a citation to the record supporting their denial, that fact will be deemed to be admitted. “Unsupported assertions, conclusory allegations, or mere suspicions” are insufficient to overcome a motion for summary judgment. Schaar v. Lehigh Valley Health Servs., Inc., 732 F.Supp.2d 490, 493 (E.D.Pa. 2010). In this matter, Plaintiff, though including a statement of fact in her brief in opposition to Defendant’s motion for summary judgment (Doc. 54), does not comply with the local rules and submit a separate statement of material facts in opposition to Defendant’s statement of material facts. Notably, despite being given the opportunity to file a sur-reply brief in this matter, after Defendant raises the issue of Plaintiff’s failure to file a statement of facts in its Reply Brief (Doc. 55), Plaintiff still [*4] did not file a separate statement of fact. As such, the facts set forth in Defendant’s statement of material facts will be deemed admitted.

On October 20, 2013, Plaintiff visited Defendant’s ATV facility for the first time and, prior to using the facility, executed a waiver of liability. (Doc. 50-2, at 4-5; DOC. 53, AT ¶¶ 5, 9). Plaintiff did not read the waiver in its entirety prior to signing it, and claims she was rushed during the process. (Doc. 53, at ¶ 7; Doc. 50-2, at 71). On June 22, 2014, Plaintiff returned to the facility, at which time she alleged suffered injuries when she was thrown from the ATV she was riding. (Doc. 1).

The release from liability signed by Plaintiff on October 20, 2013 reads, in pertinent part, as follows:

In consideration for the opportunity for event participation and utilization of general admission, all facilities, equipment and premises of Lost Trails, LLC (LT), North American Warhorse Inc, (NAW) Theta Land Corp. (TLC), 1000 Dunham Drive LLC (DD), and their respective affiliates, members, agents, employees, heirs and assigns and other associates in furtherance of the sport of Off-Road Riding, racing and any other activities, scheduled or unscheduled, [*5] (hereinafter collectively called “Off-Roading.”) This Waiver shall commence on the date first signed and shall remain binding for all time thereafter.

By signing this document, I hereby understand and agree for me and/or my minor child to this Release of Liability, Wavier of Legal rights and Assumption of Risk and to the terms hereof as follows:


2. I hereby RELEASE AND DISCHARGE LT, NAW, TLC, DD and all related parties, event volunteers, company officers, directors, elected officials, agents, employees, and owners of equipment, the land used for Off-Roading activities and any owners of adjourning lands to the premises (hereinafter collectively referred to as “Released parties”) from any and all liability claims, demands or causes of action that I, my minor child or my representatives and my heirs may hereafter have for injuries, loss of life, and all other forms of damages arising out of my voluntary participation in Off-Roading activities.

3. I understand and acknowledge that Off-Road riding and racing activities have inherent dangers that no amount of care, caution, instruction or expertise can eliminate and I EXPRESSLY AND VOLUNTARILY ASSUME ALL RISK OF DEATH OR PERSONAL INJURY [*6] OR OTHER FORMS OF DAMAGES SUSTAINED WHILE PARTICIPATING IN OFF-ROADING ACTIVITIES WHETHER OR NOT CAUSED BY THE NEGLIGENCE OF THE RELEASE PARTIES.

4. I further agree that I WILL NOT SUE OR OTHERWISE MAKE A CLAIM on behalf of me and/or on behalf of my minor child, against the Released Parties for damages or other losses sustained as a result of my participation in Off-Roading activities.

5. I also agree to INDEMNIFY AND HOLD THE RELEASED PARTIES HARMLESS from all claims, judgments and costs, including attorneys’ fees, incurred in the connection with any action brought against them, jointly or severally, as a result of my or my minor child’s participation in “Off-Roading” activities.

6. I take full responsibility for, and hold harmless Released Parties for any injury, property damage, or death that I or my minor child may suffer or inflict upon others .or their property as a result of my engaging in Off-Roading activities.

7. I further represent that I am at least 18 years of age, or that as the parent or (adult) legal guardian, I waive and release any and all legal rights that may accrue to me, to my minor child or to the minor child for whom I am (adult) legal guardian, as the result of [*7] any injury or damage that my minor child, the minor child for whom I am (adult) legal guardian, or I may suffer while engaging in Off-Roading activities.

8. I hereby expressly recognize that this Release of Liability, Waiver of Legal Rights and Assumption of Risks is a contract pursuant to which I have released any and all claims against the Released Parties resulting from participation in Off-Roading activities including any claims related to the negligence of the Released Parties by any of the undersigned.

9. I further expressly agree that the foregoing Release of Liability, Waiver of Legal Rights and Assumption of Risks is intended to be as broad and inclusive as is permitted by law of the province or state in which services, materials and/or equipment are provided and the course of business is conducted, and that if any portion thereof is held invalid, it is agreed that the balance shall, notwithstanding, continue in full legal force and effect. I agree that, should any claim or action arise from my participation as described herein, including any issue as to the applicability of this Release or any provision contained within it, proper Jurisdiction and Venue will lie only in Monroe [*8] County, Pennsylvania and I waive Jurisdiction and Venue anywhere else.

(Doc. 54-1, at 20-21).

Plaintiff initialed all of the above provisions. She did not initial paragraph 10 on the next page, however, which states as follows:

l0. Having had ample time and opportunity to raise any concerns or questions that I may have, and having read and understood the information, I certify my acceptance of the aforementioned provisions by signing below.

I am in good health and physical condition. I am voluntarily participating with knowledge that dangers are involved and agree to assume all risks. I also understand that if I am injured or become ill, I agree that Lost Trails LLC, or any of its employees, volunteers or guests will not be held liable should they render medical assistance to me or my minor child.

(Doc. 54-1, at 21).

Despite not specifically initialing paragraph 10, Plaintiff did sign the agreement, indicating her acceptance and understanding of the exculpatory clauses. (Doc. 54-1).

II. Legal Standard

Under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment should be granted only if “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). A fact is “material” only [*9] if it might affect the outcome of the case. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986). A dispute of material fact is “genuine” if the evidence “is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. In deciding a summary judgment motion, all inferences “should be drawn in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, and where the non-moving party’s evidence contradicts the movant’s, then the non-movant’s must be taken as true.” Pastore v. Bell Tel. Co. of Pa., 24 F.3d 508, 512 (3d Cir. 1994).

A federal court should grant summary judgment “if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Farrell v. Planters Lifesavers Co., 206 F.3d 271, 278 (3d Cir. 2000). In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the court’s function is not to make credibility determinations, weigh evidence, or draw inferences from the facts. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. Rather, the court must simply “determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249.

The party seeking summary judgment “bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion,” and demonstrating the absence of a genuine dispute of any material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). If the movant makes [*10] such a showing, the non-movant must go beyond the pleadings with affidavits or declarations, answers to interrogatories or the like in order to demonstrate specific material facts which give rise to a genuine issue. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324. The non-movant must produce evidence to show the existence of every element essential to its case, which it bears the burden of proving at trial, because “a complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the nonmoving party’s case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. Furthermore, mere conclusory allegations and self-serving testimony, whether made in the complaint or a sworn statement, cannot be used to obtain or avoid summary judgment when uncorroborated and contradicted by other evidence of record. See Lujan v. Nat’l Wildlife Fed’n, 497 U.S. 871, 888, 110 S. Ct. 3177, 111 L. Ed. 2d 695 (1990); see also Thomas v. Delaware State Univ., 626 F. App’x 384, 389 n.6 (3d Cir. 2015) (not precedential) (“[U]nsupported deposition testimony, which is contradicted by the record, is insufficient to defeat summary judgment.”); NLRB v. FES, 301 F.3d 83, 95 (3d Cir. 2002) (“[The plaintiff’s] testimony . . . amounts to an unsupported, conclusory assertion, which we have held is inadequate to satisfy the movant’s burden of proof on summary judgment.”).

As this jurisdiction of this Court is sounded in the diversity of the parties pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a), Pennsylvania substantive [*11] law will apply. Erie R. Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 58 S.Ct. 817, 82 L.Ed. 1188 (1938).

III. Discussion

Defendant submits that it is entitled to judgment in its favor because Plaintiff executed a valid waiver of all liability prior to ever engaging in any recreational activities on Defendant’s property; because such releases and waivers are recognized under Pennsylvania law; and because within the waiver, Plaintiff specifically acknowledged that she was assuming all of the risks associated with these activities. (Doc. 52, at 2). In response, Plaintiff argues that Plaintiff did not sign a waiver on the date of the accident, and therefore did not waive any liability or assume any risk; that she was rushed and unable to read the original waiver in its entirety; that the waiver is unenforceable as not properly conspicuous; and finally, that because the earlier waiver signed by Plaintiff was “for all time thereafter” it should not be enforced. (Doc. 54).

A. The Exculpatory Clause is Valid

An exculpatory clause is valid if the following conditions are met: 1) the clause does not contravene public policy; 2) the contract is between parties relating entirely to their own private affairs; and 3) the contract is not one of adhesion. Evans v. Fitness & Sports Clubs, LLC, No. CV 15-4095, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133490, 2016 WL 5404464, at *3 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 28, 2016); [*12] Topp Copy Prods., Inc. v. Singletary, 533 Pa. 468, 626 A.2d 98, 99 (Pa. 1993). A valid exculpatory clause is only enforceable if “the language of the parties is clear that a person is being relieved of liability for his own acts of negligence.” Id. A waiver of liability violates public policy only if it involves “a matter of interest to the public or the state. Such matters of interest to the public or the state include the employer-employee relationship, public service, public utilities, common carriers, and hospitals.” Seaton v. E. Windsor Speedway, Inc., 400 Pa. Super. 134, 582 A.2d 1380, 1382 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1990); see also Kotovsky v. Ski Liberty Operating Corp., 412 Pa. Super. 442, 603 A.2d 663, 665 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1992). The exculpatory clause at issue in this case does not contravene public policy because it does not affect a matter of interest to the public or the state. See Kotovsky, 603 A.2d at 665-66 (holding that releases did not violate public policy because “[t]hey were [in] contracts between private parties and pertained only to the parties’ private rights. They did not in any way affect the rights of the public.”). Thus, the exculpatory clause meets the first two prongs of the Topp Copy standard for validity.

The contract meets the third prong of the Topp Copy validity standard because it is not a contract of adhesion. Agreements to participate in “voluntary sporting or recreational activities” are not contracts of adhesion because “[t]he signer is a free agent [*13] who can simply walk away without signing the release and participating in the activity, and thus the contract signed under such circumstances is not unconscionable.” Chepkevich v. Hidden Valley Resort, L.P., 607 Pa. 1, 2 A.3d 1174, 1190-91 (Pa. 2010). “The signer is under no compulsion, economic or otherwise, to participate, much less to sign the exculpatory agreement, because it does not relate to essential services, but merely governs a voluntary recreational activity.” Id. The Agreement at issue here is not a contract of adhesion because it is a contract to participate in voluntary recreational activities. The Agreement does not relate to an essential service, and Plaintiff was free to engage in the activity, or not, as she wished. She was under no compulsion to do so. See Chepkevich, supra; see also Hinkal v. Pardoe, 2016 PA Super 11, 133 A.3d 738, 741-2 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2016) (en banc), appeal denied, 636 Pa. 650, 141 A.3d 481 (Pa. 2016) (citing the “thorough and well-reasoned opinion” of the trial court, which held that the plaintiff’s gym membership agreement was not a contract of adhesion because exercising at a gym is a voluntary recreational activity and the plaintiff was under no compulsion to join the gym). The Agreement meets all three prongs of the Topp Copy standard for validity, and thus the exculpatory clause is facially valid.

B. The Exculpatory Clause is Enforceable

Even if an exculpatory clause is [*14] facially valid, it is enforceable only if it clearly relieves a party of liability for its own negligence. Evans v. Fitness & Sports Clubs, LLC, No. CV 15-4095, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133490, 2016 WL 5404464, at *5 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 28, 2016). The following standards guide a court’s determination of the enforceability of an exculpatory clause:

1) the contract language must be construed strictly, since exculpatory language is not favored by the law; 2) the contract must state the intention of the parties with the greatest particularity, beyond doubt by express stipulation, and no inference from words of general import can establish the intent of the parties; 3) the language of the contract must be construed, in cases of ambiguity, against the party seeking immunity from liability; and 4) the burden of establishing the immunity is upon the party invoking protection under the clause.

Topp Copy, 626 A.2d at 99.

The Court now turns to Plaintiff’s arguments against the enforceability of the exculpatory clause.

1. Plaintiff’s first waiver is enforceable, including the clause “for all time thereafter.”

Plaintiff submits that the waiver she executed in October 2013 did not apply to her visit to Defendant on June 22, 2014, because “it is uncontroverted that the Defendant has a policy that dictates all [*15] riders must sign a waiver every time they ride an ATV at their park” (Doc. 54, at 4), and Plaintiff did not sign a waiver when she visited the park in June 2014. Defendant counters that Plaintiff is misconstruing the record in making this assertion. (Doc. 55, at 2). Specifically, Defendant submits that the testimony cited by Plaintiff is that of a former maintenance man who has nothing to do with policy or procedure at Defendant’s property, and further, that he neither testifying as a representative of, nor acting on behalf of, Lost Trails, LLC. (Doc. 55-1, at 4). The testimony offered by the Plaintiff on this issue is that of Matthew Anneman, who testified as follows:

Q: Everybody that goes there is supposed sign the waiver before they go out on the trails, is that fair to say?

A: Yes.

Q: Do you know if Miss Moncrieff signed a waiver before she went on the trail that day?

A: Yes. It is imperative that everybody who comes to ride on that mountain is to fill out a waiver.


Q: So every single time somebody comes to the facility, before they go out there, they go in and sign a waiver.

A: Yes.

Q: And you’re not involved in that part of it, the sign in, and the waiver.

A: No, no. Leslie or one [*16] of her employees would work the front desk.

(Doc. 54-1, at 12; Anneman Dep. at 36).

The Court finds this testimony to have little to no bearing on the validity and applicability of the October 2013 waiver. Even construing the evidence in the record in Plaintiff’s favor, Mr. Anneman’s testimony does not change the fact Plaintiff did sign a waiver in October 2013, one which indicated that it “shall remain binding for all time thereafter.” (Doc. 54-1, at 20) (emphasis added). Nothing in the record before the Court indicates that Mr. Anneman was responsible for either policy at Defendant’s facility, or in any way even involved with the waiver process. Further, the language of the waiver is clear. In interpreting the language of a contract, courts attempt to ascertain the intent of the parties and give it effect. Sycamore Rest. Grp., LLC v. Stampfi Hartke Assocs., LLC, 2017 Pa. Super. 221, 174 A.3d 651, 656 (2017); LJL Transp., Inc. v. Pilot Air Freight Corp., 599 Pa. 546, 962 A.2d 639, 648 (2009). When a writing is clear and unequivocal, its meaning must be determined by its contents alone. Synthes USA Sales, LLC v. Harrison, 2013 Pa. Super. 324, 83 A.3d 242, 250-51 (2013); Murphy v. Duquesne Univ. of the Holy Ghost, 565 Pa. 571, 591, 777 A.2d 418, 429 (2001) (citations and quotation marks omitted). “[I]t is not the function of this Court to re-write it, or to give it a construction in conflict with … the accepted and plain meaning of the language used.” Id.; citing Robert F. Felte, Inc. v. White, 451 Pa. 137, 144, 302 A.2d 347, 351 (1973) (citation omitted). Here, the language of the waiver form (Doc. 54-1, [*17] at 20) is unequivocal in stating the intent that it is binding for all time thereafter. As the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has stated,

The word “all” needs no definition; it includes everything, and excludes nothing. There is no more comprehensive word in the language, and as used here it is obviously broad enough to cover liability for negligence. If it had been the intention of the parties to exclude negligent acts they would have so written in the agreement. This paragraph of the lease is clear and unambiguous. No rules of construction are required to ascertain the intention of the parties.

Topp Copy Prods. v. Singletary, 533 Pa. 468, 472, 626 A.2d 98, 100 (1993); citing Cannon v. Bresch, 307 Pa. 31, 34, 160 A. 595, 596 (1932).

As such, the Court finds that the October 2013 waiver executed by Plaintiff was in effect during her June 2014 visit to Defendant’s property.1

2. Plaintiff’s argument that she was rushed and unable to read the original waiver in its entirety is without merit.

Plaintiff next argues that, should the Court find that the 2013 waiver was in effect in June 2014, she was rushed and therefore did not have time to read the waiver before signing it. “The law of Pennsylvania is clear. One who is about to sign a contract has a duty to read that contract [*18] first.” Hinkal v. Pardoe, 2016 Pa. Super. 11, 133 A.3d 738, 743, appeal denied, 636 Pa. 650, 141 A.3d 481 (2016); In re Estate of Boardman, 2013 PA Super 300, 80 A.3d 820, 823 (Pa.Super.2013); citing Schillachi v. Flying Dutchman Motorcycle Club, 751 F.Supp. 1169, 1174 (E.D.Pa.1990) (citations omitted). In the absence of fraud, the failure to read a contract before signing it is “an unavailing excuse or defense and cannot justify an avoidance, modification or nullification of the contract.” Germantown Sav. Bank v. Talacki, 441 Pa.Super. 513, 657 A.2d 1285, 1289 (1995) (citing Standard Venetian Blind Co. v. American Emp. Ins. Co., 503 Pa. 300, 469 A.2d 563, 566 note (1983)); see also Wroblewski v. Ohiopyle Trading Post, Inc., No. CIV.A. 12-0780, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 119206, 2013 WL 4504448, at *7 (W.D. Pa. Aug. 22, 2013) (Under Pennsylvania law, the failure to read a contract does not nullify the contract’s validity.); Arce v. U-Pull-It Auto Parts, Inc., No. 06-5593, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10202, 2008 WL 375159, at *5-9 (E.D.Pa. Feb.11, 2008) (written release found to be enforceable even when the agreement was in English but the plaintiff only read and spoke Spanish, noting that the “[p]laintiff cannot argue that the release language was inconspicuous or somehow hidden from his attention…. Nor did Defendant have an obligation to verify that [p]laintiff had read and fully understood the terms of the document before he signed his name to it.”). In this case, there is no allegation or evidence of fraud, and as such, Plaintiff’s argument is without merit.

3. The waiver is properly conspicuous.

Finally, Plaintiff avers that summary judgment should be denied because the waiver was not properly conspicuous, and relies on the Pennsylvania Superior Court’s decision in Beck-Hummel in making [*19] this assertion. The Beck-Hummel court addressed the enforceability of a waiver of liability printed on the back of a tubing ticket. The exculpatory language appeared in a font that was “just barely readable,” and smaller than the font used for some other portions of the ticket. Id. at 1274-75. The Beck-Hummel court looked to the conspicuousness of the waiver of liability as a means of establishing whether or not a contract existed, setting forth three factors to consider in determining conspicuousness: 1) the waiver’s placement in the document; 2) the size of the waiver’s font; and 3) whether the waiver was highlighted by being printed in all capital letters or a different font or color from the remainder of the text. Beck-Hummel, 902 A.2d at 1274. After considering these factors, the Beck-Hummel court could not conclude as a matter of law that the exculpatory clause was enforceable because the language of the ticket was not sufficiently conspicuous as to put the purchaser/user on notice of the waiver. Id.at 1275.

However, in a more recent Pennsylvania Superior Court case, the court held that, as in the case presently before this Court, where the exculpatory clause was part of a signed contract between the parties, the requirements of [*20] conspicuity set forth in Beck-Hummel would not necessarily apply. In Hinkal v. Pardoe, the en banc Superior Court of Pennsylvania examined whether the Beck-Hummel conspicuity requirements for the enforcement of exculpatory clauses applies to signed valid written contracts. Hinkal v. Pardoe, 2016 Pa. Super. 11, 133 A.3d 738, 743-745, appeal denied, 636 Pa. 650, 141 A.3d 481 (2016). In Hinkal, the plaintiff had signed a membership agreement with Gold’s Gym that contained a waiver of liability for negligence claims on the back page. Id. at 741. The Hinkal court found the plaintiff’s comparison of her case to Beck-Hummel “inapposite” because, unlike a waiver printed on the back of a tubing ticket that did not require a signature; the gym waiver was part of a signed agreement. Id. at 744-45. Further, the court noted that conspicuity is generally not required to establish the formation of a contract, but “has been resorted to as a means of proving the existence or lack of a contract,” where it is unclear whether a meeting of the minds occurred, and imposing such a requirement would allow a properly executed contract to be set aside through one party’s failure to do what the law requires – reading a contract. Id. at 745. The Hinkal court concluded that the waiver of liability was valid and enforceable because [*21] the plaintiff had signed the agreement. Similarly, in Evans v. Fitness & Sports Clubs, LLC, the District Court determined that the exculpatory clauses contained in a fitness club’s membership agreements were valid and enforceable where the plaintiff had signed both a membership and personal training agreement, including an acknowledgement that the plaintiff had read and understood the entire agreement, including the release and waiver of liability, appears directly above the plaintiff’s signature on the first page of each agreement. Evans v. Fitness & Sports Clubs, LLC, No. CV 15-4095, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133490, 2016 WL 5404464, at *6 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 28, 2016).

The Court finds the agreement at issue in this case to be far more in line with the waivers discussed by the Pennsylvania Superior and Eastern District of Pennsylvania courts in Hinkal and Evans. The waiver form in this case was two pages in length, and initialed and signed by Plaintiff. It was not, like the waiver in Beck-Hummel, printed in small font on the back of a tubing ticket. This was a waiver that was reviewed, initialed and signed by Plaintiff. As such, the requirements of conspicuity set forth in Beck-Hummel would not necessarily apply. Hinkal v. Pardoe, 133 A.3d at 743-745.

Even if those conspicuity requirements applied, however [*22] the exculpatory clauses in the Waiver Form would still be enforceable. The document is titled, in larger font, bold, underlined, and all capital letters “LOST TRAILS ATV ADVENTURES WAIVER FORM.” The language specifically indicating release and discharge, assumption of the risk, an agreement not to sue, and indemnification, are set of in all capitals in the numbered paragraphs, and were acknowledged by Plaintiff initialing each paragraph. (Doc. 54-1, at 20). Immediately above the signature line, in all capital bold letters, the release reads:

I HAVE READ THIS RELEASE OF LIABILITY, WAIVER OF LEGAL RIGHTS AND ASSUMPTIONS OF RISK AND FULLY UNDERSTAND ITS CONTENTS. I SIGN IT WILLINGLY, VOLUNTARILY AND HAVING HAD AMPLE OPPORTUNITY TO RAISE ANY QUESTIONS OR CONCERNS THAT I MAY HAVE, I ACKNOWLEDGE THAT I AM PARTICIPATING VOLUNTARILY WITH KNOWLEDGE THAT DANGERS ARE INVOLVED AND I AGREE TO ASSUME ALL THE RISKS.

(Doc. 54-1, at 21).

These clauses are conspicuously set apart, appearing in capital letters, and in the case of the final paragraph, fully set apart, in all bold and all capitals. Further, the agreement itself is titled “Waiver Form” which notifies the reader of the purpose of the form. [*23] Plaintiff initialed the paragraphs setting forth the exculpatory clauses,2 and signed the agreement directly underneath the final, most prominent waiver clause. As such, the Court finds that the exculpatory clauses are valid and enforceable. See Evans, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133490, 2016 WL 5404464, at n. 6.

IV. Conclusion

For the reasons set forth above, the undisputed material facts in the record establish that Defendant is entitled to summary judgment. Viewing the record in light most favorable to the Plaintiff, the Court finds that the exculpatory clauses at issue are valid and enforceable. As such, Defendant’s motion will be granted, and judgment will be entered in favor of Defendant.

An appropriate Order follows.

Dated: August 29, 2018

/s/ Karoline Mehalchick

KAROLINE MEHALCHICK

United States Magistrate Judge

ORDER

AND NOW, this 29th day of August, 2018, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that for the reasons set forth in the memorandum filed concurrently with this Order, Defendant’s motion for summary judgment (Doc. 50) is GRANTED, and judgment is entered in favor of Defendant. The Clerk of Court is directed to CLOSE this matter.

BY THE COURT:

Dated: August 29, 2018

/s/ Karoline Mehalchick

KAROLINE MEHALCHICK

United States Magistrate Judge


Langlois v. Nova River Runners, Inc., 2018 Alas. LEXIS 31

Langlois v. Nova River Runners, Inc., 2018 Alas. LEXIS 31

Vanessa L. Langlois, Personal Representative of the Estate of Stephen J. Morton, Appellant, v. Nova River Runners, Inc., Appellee.

Supreme Court No. S-16422, No. 1669

Supreme Court of Alaska

2018 Alas. LEXIS 31

March 21, 2018, Decided

NOTICE: MEMORANDUM DECISIONS OF THIS COURT DO NOT CREATE LEGAL PRECEDENT. SEE ALASKA APPELLATE GUIDELINES FOR PUBLICATION OF SUPREME COURT DECISIONS. ACCORDINGLY, THIS MEMORANDUM DECISION MAY NOT BE CITED FOR ANY PROPOSITION OF LAW, NOR AS AN EXAMPLE OF THE PROPER RESOLUTION OF ANY ISSUE.

PRIOR HISTORY: [*1] Appeal from the Superior Court of the State of Alaska, Third Judicial District, Anchorage, Pamela Scott Washington, Judge pro tem. Superior Court No. 3AN-15-06866 CI.

CASE SUMMARY

OVERVIEW: HOLDINGS: [1]-A release entitled defendant rafting company to wrongful

COUNSEL: Mara E. Michaletz and David K. Gross, Birch Horton Bittner & Cherot, Anchorage, for Appellant.

Howard A. Lazar, Scott J. Gerlach, and Luba K. Bartnitskaia, Delaney Wiles, Inc., Anchorage, for Appellee.

JUDGES: Before: Stowers, Chief Justice, Winfree, Maassen, Bolger, and Carney, Justices. Winfree, Justice, with whom Carney, Justice, joins, dissenting.

OPINION

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND JUDGMENT*

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – Footnotes – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

* Entered under Alaska Appellate Rule 214.

– – – – – – – – – – – – End Footnotes- – – – – – – – – – – – – –

I. INTRODUCTION

The estate of a man who drowned on a rafting trip challenged the validity of the pre-trip liability release. The superior court granted summary judgment in favor of the rafting company. Because there were no genuine issues of material fact and the release was effective under our precedent, we affirm.

II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

In May 2013 Stephen Morton took part in a whitewater rafting trip on Six Mile Creek near Hope. The trip was conducted by NOVA River Runners (NOVA). This case arises out of Morton’s tragic death by drowning after his raft capsized.

A. The Release

Before embarking on a rafting trip, participants typically receive and sign [*2] NOVA’s liability release (the Release). The Release is provided as a single two-sided document. One side is entitled “Participant’s Acknowledgment of Risks” and begins with a definition of activities: “any adventure, sport or activity associated with the outdoors and/or wilderness and the use or presence of watercraft, including but not limited to kayaks, rafts, oar boats and glacier hiking and ice climbing equipment, including crampons, ski poles, climbing harnesses and associated ice climbing hardware.” The Release then states:

Although the concessionaire has taken reasonable steps to provide you with appropriate equipment and/or skilled guides so you can enjoy an activity for which you may not be skilled, we wish to remind you this activity is not without risk. Certain risks cannot be eliminated without destroying the unique character of the activity.

The Release then provides a list of “some, but not all” of the “inherent risks,” including “[m]y . . . ability to swim . . . and/or follow instructions” and “[l]oss of control of the craft, collision, capsizing, and sinking of the craft, which can result in wetness, injury, . . . and/or drowning.” The Release next asks participants to [*3] affirm that they possess certain qualifications, including physical capability and safety awareness. The last section of the first side purports to waive liability for the negligent acts of NOVA and its employees. There is no designated space for signatures or initials on this side.

At the top of the other side, participants are asked to acknowledge that “[They] have read, understood, and accepted the terms and conditions stated herein” and that the agreement “shall be binding upon [the participant] . . . and [their] estate.” No terms or conditions appear on this side. There are then three signature blocks where up to three participants can sign, with space to include an emergency contact, allergies, and medications.

Brad Cosgrove, NOVA’s “river manager” for this trip, did not recall whether Morton read the Release before signing it, but stated that “[n]obody was rushed into signing” and that he “physically showed each participant” both sides of the Release. Bernd Horsman, who rafted with Morton that day, stated that he recalled “sign[ing] a document that briefly stated that you waive any liability in case something happens” but thought the document only had one side. He did not recall [*4] “someone physically show[ing]” the Release to him, but he wasn’t rushed into signing it. Both Horsman’s and Morton’s signatures appear on the Release.

B. The Rafting Trip

The rafting trip consisted of three canyons. NOVA would routinely give participants the opportunity to disembark after the second canyon, because the third canyon is the most difficult. Morton did not choose to disembark after the second canyon, and his raft capsized in the third canyon. Cosgrove was able to pull him from the river and attempted to resuscitate him. NOVA contacted emergency services and delivered Morton for further care, but he died shortly thereafter.

C. Legal Proceedings

Morton’s widow, Vanessa Langlois, brought suit as the personal representative of Morton’s estate (the Estate) in May 2015 under AS 09.55.580 (wrongful death) and AS 09.55.570 (survival), requesting compensatory damages, plus costs, fees, and interest. The Estate alleged that NOVA was negligent and listed multiple theories primarily based on the employees’ actions or omissions.

NOVA moved for summary judgment in November 2015, arguing that the Release barred the Estate’s claims. NOVA supported its position with the signed Release and affidavits from NOVA’s owner [*5] and Cosgrove. The Estate opposed and filed a cross-motion for summary judgment to preclude NOVA from relying on the Release. The parties then stipulated to stay formal discovery until the court had ruled on these motions but agreed on procedures for conducting discovery in the interim if needed. Pursuant to the stipulation, the parties deposed Horsman and filed supplemental briefing.

In June 2016 the superior court granted NOVA’s motion for summary judgment and denied the Estate’s, reasoning that the Release was valid under our precedent. This appeal followed. The Estate argues that the superior court erred in granting summary judgment because the Release did not satisfy the six elements of our test for a valid waiver.

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

“We review grants of summary judgment de novo, determining whether the record presents any genuine issues of material fact.”1 “If the record fails to reveal a genuine factual dispute and the moving party was entitled to judgment as a matter of law, the trial court’s grant of summary judgment must be affirmed.”2 “Questions of contract interpretation are questions of law that we review de novo . . . .”3

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1 Donahue v. Ledgends, Inc., 331 P.3d 342, 346 (Alaska 2014) (citing Hill v. Giani, 296 P.3d 14, 20 (Alaska 2013)).2 Id. (citing Kelly v. Municipality of Anchorage, 270 P.3d 801, 803 (Alaska 2012)).3 Sengul v. CMS Franklin, Inc., 265 P.3d 320, 324 (Alaska 2011) (citing Norville v. Carr-Gottstein Foods Co., 84 P.3d 996, 1000 n.1 (Alaska 2004)).

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IV. DISCUSSION

Alaska Statute 09.65.290 provides that “[a] person who [*6] participates in a sports or recreational activity assumes the inherent risks in that sports or recreational activity and is legally responsible for . . . death to the person . . . that results from the inherent risks in that sports or recreational activity.” The statute does not apply, however, to “a civil action based on the . . . negligence of a provider if the negligence was the proximate cause of the . . . death.”4 Thus, in order to avoid liability for negligence, recreational companies must supplement the statutory scheme by having participants release them from liability through waivers.

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4 AS 09.65.290(c).

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Extrapolating from principles articulated in three earlier cases,5 we recently adopted, in Donahue v. Ledgends, Inc., a six-element test for finding effective waiver:

(1) the risk being waived must be specifically and clearly set forth (e.g. death, bodily injury, and property damage); (2) a waiver of negligence must be specifically set forth using the word “negligence”; (3) these factors must be brought home to the releasor in clear, emphasized language . . . ; (4) the release must not violate public policy; (5) if a release seeks to exculpate a defendant from liability for acts of negligence unrelated [*7] to inherent risks, the release must suggest an intent to do so; and (6) the release agreement must not represent or insinuate standards of safety or maintenance.6

The Estate argues that NOVA’s release does not satisfy this test. We analyze these six elements in turn and conclude that NOVA’s Release is effective.7

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5 See Donahue, 331 P.3d at 346-48 (discussing Ledgends, Inc. v. Kerr, 91 P.3d 960 (Alaska 2004); Moore v. Hartley Motors, Inc., 36 P.3d 628 (Alaska 2001); and Kissick v. Schmierer, 816 P.2d 188 (Alaska 1991)).6 Id. at 348. In Donahue, a woman sued a rock climbing gym after she broke her tibia by falling a few feet onto a mat at the instruction of an employee, and we concluded that the release barred her negligence claim. Id. at 344-45.7 Our review of the record reveals no genuine issues of material fact with respect to the existence and terms of the Release.

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A. The Release Specifically And Clearly Sets Forth The Risk Being Waived.

The Estate first argues that the Release was not a “conspicuous and unequivocal statement of the risk waived” because the Release was two-sided and the sides did not appear to incorporate each other.8 For support, the Estate cites an “analogous” Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) case from Florida for the proposition that “a disclaimer is likely inconspicuous where ‘there is nothing on the face of the writing to call attention to the back of the instrument.'”9 The Estate points out that the release in Donahue had two separate pages, and the participant initialed the first page and signed the second.10 The Estate also identifies Horsman’s confusion about whether the Release had one or two sides as evidence that the Release was not conspicuous, raising possible issues of material fact about whether Morton [*8] would have been aware of the other side or whether Cosgrove actually showed each participant both sides.11

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8 See Donahue, 331 P.3d at 348.9 The Estate quotes Rudy’s Glass Constr. Co. v. E. F. Johnson Co., 404 So. 2d 1087, 1089 (Fla. Dist. App. 1981) (citing Massey-Ferguson, Inc. v. Utley, 439 S.W.2d 57 (Ky. 1969); Hunt v. Perkins Mach. Co., 352 Mass. 535, 226 N.E.2d 228 (Mass. 1967)).10 See Donahue, 331 P.3d at 345.11 The Estate raises these arguments outside the context of Donahue, but we address them here.

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We note that Participants in a recreational activity need not read a release for it to be binding if the language of the release is available to them.12 We conclude that NOVA’s Release was sufficiently clear, even without an initial block on the first side. The signature page stated, “I have read, understood, and accepted the terms and conditions stated herein,” but no terms and conditions appeared on this side. A reasonable person, after reading the word “herein,” would be on notice that the document had another side.

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12 See Donahue, 331 P.3d at 349 (citing Lauvetz v. Alaska Sales & Serv., 828 P.2d 162, 164-65 (Alaska 1991)).

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The Estate also argues that NOVA’s Release “does not specifically and clearly set forth the risk that the NOVA instructors may have been negligently trained or supervised, or that they may give inadequate warning or instructions.” But NOVA’s Release, like the release in Donahue, “clearly and repeatedly disclosed the risk of the specific injury at issue”13 — here, death by drowning. Like the plaintiff in Donahue, the Estate, “[r]ather than focusing on [the] injury[,] . . . focuses on its alleged cause,”14 i.e., negligent training or instruction. But the [*9] Release covers this risk as well; it indemnifies the “Releasees” in capital letters from liability for injury or death, “whether arising from negligence of the Releasees or otherwise,” and specifically defines “Releasees” to include “employees.” In Donahue, we also observed that “[i]t would not be reasonable to conclude that [the defendant] sought a release only of those claims against it that did not involve the acts or omissions of any of its employees.”15 Thus, the Estate’s argument that NOVA’s Release “does not specifically and clearly set forth the risk that the NOVA instructors may have been negligently trained or supervised” is not persuasive.

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13 Id. at 348.14 Id. at 349.15 Id.

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B. The Release Uses The Word “Negligence.”

Donahue provides that “a waiver of negligence must be specifically set forth using the word ‘negligence.'”16 The Estate argues that the Release’s “references to negligence are inconsistent,” and therefore it does not fulfill our requirement that a release be “clear, explicit[,] and comprehensible in each of its essential details.”17 But we concluded in Donahue that similar language satisfied this element.

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16 Id. at 348.17 Kissick v. Schmierer, 816 P.2d 188, 191 (Alaska 1991) (quoting Ferrell v. S. Nev. Off-Road Enthusiasts, Ltd., 147 Cal. App. 3d 309, 195 Cal. Rptr. 90, 95 (Cal. App. 1983)).

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The release in Donahue provided: “I hereby voluntarily release, forever discharge, and agree to [*10] indemnify and hold harmless the [defendant] from any and all claims, demands, or causes of action, . . . including any such claims which allege negligent acts or omissions of [the defendant].”18 We emphasized that “[t]he phrase ‘any and all claims’ is thus expressly defined to include claims for negligence.”19

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18 Donahue, 331 P.3d at 345.19 Id. at 349.

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Here, the Release reads, in relevant part:

I . . . HEREBY RELEASE NOVA . . . WITH RESPECT TO ANY AND ALL INJURY, DISABILITY, DEATH, or loss, or damage to persons or property incident to my involvement or participation in these programs, WHETHER ARISING FROM NEGLIGENCE OF THE RELEASEES OR OTHERWISE, to the fullest extent permitted by law.

I . . . HEREBY INDEMNIFY AND HOLD HARMLESS all the above Releasees from any and all liabilities incident to my involvement or participation in these programs, EVEN IF ARISING FROM THEIR NEGLIGENCE to the fullest extent permitted by law.

NOVA’s Release uses the word “negligence” twice, and there is no material difference between the “any and all claims” language used in Donahue and the “any and all liabilities” language used here. We therefore conclude that the Release specifically set forth a waiver of negligence.

C. The Release Uses Simple Language And [*11] Emphasized Text.

Donahue provides that The intent of a release to waive liability for negligence “must be brought home to the releasor in clear, emphasized language.”20 The Estate argues that the Release fails to use clear language or adequately define the “activity” it covered and thus does not waive liability for negligence. This argument does not withstand the application of Donahue.

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20 Id. at 348.

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In Donahue, the clauses addressing negligence “[did] not appear to be ‘calculated to conceal'” and were “in a logical place where they [could not] be missed by someone who reads the release.”21 Here, the Release uses capital letters to highlight the clauses waiving negligence. Though the clauses fall near the bottom of the page, they were certainly “in a logical place where they [could not] be missed by someone who reads the release” from start to finish, and thus under Donahue they were not “calculated to conceal.” And though these clauses contain some legalese, ” releases should be read ‘as a whole’ in order to decide whether they ‘clearly notify the prospective releasor . . . of the effect of signing the agreement.'”22 The list of inherent risks uses very simple language: “cold weather,” “[m]y sense of balance,” [*12] “drowning,” “[a]ccidents or illnesses,” and “[f]atigue, chill and/or dizziness.”

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21 Id. at 350.22 Id. at 351 (quoting Kissick, 816 P.2d at 191).

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The Release extends to other activities such as “glacier hiking and ice climbing,” but any ambiguity is cleared up by the explicit list of inherent risks relating to whitewater rafting. We therefore conclude that the Release brings home to the reader its intent to waive liability for negligence using simple language and emphasized text.

D. The Release Does Not Violate Public Policy.

Donahue requires that “the release must not violate public policy.”23 Citing no legal authority, the Estate asserts that NOVA’s waiver “unquestionably violates public policy due to its vast scope.”

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23 Id. at 348.

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“Alaska recognizes that recreational releases from liability for negligence are not void as a matter of public policy, because to hold otherwise would impose unreasonable burdens on businesses whose patrons want to engage in high-risk physical activities.”24 In evaluating public policy arguments in the context of liability waivers, we have previously considered “[o]f particular relevance . . . the type of service performed and whether the party seeking exculpation has a decisive advantage in bargaining strength because of the essential nature [*13] of the service.”25 The type of service likely to inspire additional scrutiny on public policy grounds is “a service of great importance to the public, which is often a matter of practical necessity for some members of the public.'”26 Using this analysis, we deemed an all-terrain vehicle safety course “not an essential service,” meaning that “the class providers did not have a ‘decisive advantage of bargaining strength’ in requiring the release for participation in the class.”27

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24 Id. at 348 n.34 (citing Kissick, 816 P.2d at 191).25 Moore v. Hartley Motors, Inc., 36 P.3d 628, 631 (Alaska 2001) (citing Municipality of Anchorage v. Locker, 723 P.2d 1261, 1265 (Alaska 1986)).26 Id. (quoting Locker, 723 P.2d at 1265).27 Id. at 631-32 (citing Locker, 723 P.2d at 1265).

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Similarly, here, whitewater rafting, far from being a matter of practical necessity, is an optional activity, meaning that under Moore v. Hartley Motors, Inc., NOVA did not have an advantage in bargaining strength. We therefore conclude that the Release does not violate public policy.

E. The Release Suggests An Intent To Exculpate NOVA From Liability For Employee Negligence.

Donahue provides that “if a release seeks to exculpate a defendant from liability for acts of negligence unrelated to inherent risks, the release must suggest an intent to do so.”28 But regardless of whether acts of negligence are related to inherent risks, this requirement is met when “the injury and its alleged causes are all expressly covered [*14] in the release.”29 The Estate argues that the Release does not suggest an intent to exculpate NOVA from liability for employee negligence. We disagree.

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28 Donahue, 331 P.3d at 348.29 Id. at 352.

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As we have explained, the Release specifically covered employee negligence by including “employees” in the clause releasing NOVA from liability for negligence. Because the injury — death by drowning — and its alleged cause — employee negligence — are expressly included in the Release, it satisfies this Donahue element.30

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30 We further observe that the Release’s list of inherent risks tracks some of the Estate’s allegations about employee negligence. For example, the Estate alleged that NOVA “fail[ed] to preclude those participants who were not qualified to handle the rafting trip,” but the Release discloses that a participant’s “ability to swim . . . and/or follow instructions” was an inherent risk of the trip.

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The Estate correctly notes that the Donahue release specifically covered the risk of “inadequate warnings or instructions” from employees, unlike the general reference to employee negligence here.31 Ideally NOVA’s Release would include a more detailed description of the types of negligence it covers, such as “employee negligence” and “negligent training.” But doing so is not a requirement under Donahue. We therefore conclude that the Release suggests an intent to exculpate NOVA from liability for acts of employee negligence.32

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31 Donahue, 331 P.3d at 352.32 We therefore do not reach the question whether employee negligence is unrelated to inherent risks of guided whitewater rafting. See id. at 348.

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F. The Release Does Not Represent Or Insinuate Standards Of Safety Or Maintenance.

Donahue provides that “the release agreement must not represent or insinuate standards of safety or maintenance.”33 The [*15] Estate argues that the Release violates this element with the following statement: “the concessionaire has taken reasonable steps to provide you with appropriate equipment and/or skilled guides so you can enjoy an activity for which you may not be skilled.” But this statement is introduced by the word “[a]lthough” and falls within the same sentence as the disclosure that “this activity is not without risk.” This sentence is immediately followed by a sentence indicating that “[c]ertain risks cannot be eliminated without destroying the unique character of the activity.” And the Release goes on to list 11 risks inherent in whitewater rafting. Reading the Release as a whole, we cannot conclude that it represented or insinuated standards of safety or maintenance.

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33 Id.

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We noted that the release in Donahue “highlight[ed] the fallibility of [the defendant’s] employees, equipment, and facilities.”34 Here, though the Release does not — and was not required to under the Donahue elements — go that far, it does list as inherent risks “[l]oss of control of the craft” and “sinking of the craft,” raising the possibility of human error, fallible equipment, and adverse forces of nature. The Release also [*16] makes various references to the isolated, outdoor nature of the activity — listing “[c]hanging water flow,” “inclement weather,” and the “remote” location as inherent risks.

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34 Id. at 352.

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The Estate cites Ledgends, Inc. v. Kerr35 in support of its argument that the Release impermissibly both represents a standard of maintenance and tries to disclaim liability for failing to adhere to it. In Kerr, we concluded that a release that contained statements such as “[w]hile we try to make the [premises] safe” and “[w]hile we strive to provide appropriate equipment for people of all abilities and to keep the equipment in good condition” was invalid because, read as a whole, it did “not conspicuously and unequivocally alert” participants of its scope.36 We went on to hold that “[t]he representations in the release regarding the [defendant]’s own efforts toward safety suggest that the release was predicated on a presumption that the [defendant] would strive to meet the standards of maintenance and safety mentioned in the release.”37

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35 91 P.3d 960 (Alaska 2004). Like Donahue, Kerr also arose out of an injury at an indoor rock climbing gym. Id. at 961.36 Id. at 963-64.37 Id. at 963.

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But the Release in question here is dissimilar in key ways. Compared to the release in Kerr, which contained language representing safety standards throughout,38 NOVA’s Release [*17] contains only a single half-sentence to that effect, adequately disclaimed: “Although the concessionaire has taken reasonable steps to provide you with appropriate equipment and/or skilled guides so you can enjoy an activity for which you may not be skilled, this activity is not without risk. Certain risks cannot be eliminated without destroying the unique character of the activity.” And the release in Kerr was much broader — promising to “try to make the [premises] safe” — than NOVA’s Release, which promises merely that the company takes “reasonable steps to provide . . . appropriate equipment and/or skilled guides” while acknowledging in context that these precautions could not mitigate all the risks posed by a whitewater rafting trip. The Estate’s reliance on Kerr is thus misplaced, and we conclude that the Release does not represent or insinuate standards of safety or maintenance.

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38 Id. at 963-64.

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Because it satisfies the six Donahue elements, the Release effectively waived NOVA’s liability for negligence.

V. CONCLUSION

For the reasons explained above, we AFFIRM the superior court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of NOVA.

DISSENT BY: WINFREE

DISSENT

WINFREE, Justice, with whom CARNEY, Justice, joins, dissenting.

I respectfully [*18] dissent from the court’s decision affirming summary judgment in this case. I cannot agree with the court’s conclusions that the self-titled “Participant’s Acknowledgement [sic] of Risks”1 form actually is something other than what it calls itself — i.e., a “Release” form — and that it constitutes a valid release barring the Morton estate’s claims against NOVA River Runners.2 I would reverse the superior court’s decision, hold that the purported release is not valid under our precedent, and remand for further proceedings.

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1 The document is referred to by its title throughout, but the spelling has been changed to conform to our preferred style.2 The Participant’s Acknowledgment of Risks form signed by Stephen Morton is Appendix A to this dissent.

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The court’s application of the six factors we approved in Donahue v. Ledgends, Inc.3 ignores our prior case law from which these factors derived. Most salient to the factual situation and document at issue here is Ledgends, Inc. v. Kerr, affirming a superior court decision denying summary judgment based on a release document — titled “Release of Liability — Waiver of Claims” — that was far clearer, and certainly not less clear, than the purported release in this case.4 And although our prior cases about recreational releases have not focused on a document’s title, a title alerts a reader to the document’s purpose. In each case from which the Donahue factors derived, the [*19] document’s title clearly told the signer that the document was a release or that the signer was waiving legal claims. The release in Donahue was titled “Participant Release of Liability, Waiver of Claims, Assumption of Risks, and Indemnity Agreement — Alaska Rock Gym.”5 In Kerr the form was a “Release of Liability — Waiver of Claims.”6 The rider-safety school in Moore v. Hartley Motors, Inc. presented the participant a form that instructed “You Must Read and Sign This Consent Form and Release.”7 Only in Kissick v. Schmierer did the title of the document not contain the word “release,” but that form, provided by the U.S. Air Force, was a “Covenant Not to Sue and Indemnity Agreement”8 — a title giving notice that the signer was surrendering legal rights before participating in the activity. In contrast, an “Acknowledgment of Risks” in no way alerts a reader of the possibility of waiving all negligence related to an activity. A title indicating that a document will release or waive legal liability surely is a useful starting point for evaluating the validity of a recreational release.

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3 331 P.3d 342, 348 (Alaska 2014).4 91 P.3d 960, 961 (Alaska 2004). The release language in Kerr was included as an appendix to our opinion. Id. at 963-64. The rejected release from Kerr is Appendix B to this dissent for ease of comparison with the purported release in this case.5 331 P.3d at 344.6 91 P.3d at 961.7 36 P.3d 628, 632 (Alaska 2001).8 816 P.2d 188, 190 (Alaska 1991).

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Consistent with the principle that the purpose of contract interpretation is to give effect to the [*20] parties’ reasonable expectations,9 our prior cases require us to consider the agreement as a whole10 and to resolve “any ambiguities in pre-recreational exculpatory clauses . . . against the party seeking exculpation.”11 The agreement as a whole “must ‘clearly notify the prospective releasor or indemnitor of the effect of signing the release.'”12 Applying these directives to the Acknowledgment of Risks form, I conclude the document does not clearly apprise participants that they are surrendering all claims for negligence by NOVA, particularly claims based on inadequate training.

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9 See Peterson v. Wirum, 625 P.2d 866, 872 n.10 (Alaska 1981). A release is a type of contract. See Moore, 36 P.3d at 630-31.10 Kerr, 91 P.3d at 962.11 Id. at 961 (citing Kissick, 816 P.2d at 191).12 Id. at 962 (quoting Kissick, 816 P.2d at 191).

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As can be seen in Appendix A, the Acknowledgment of Risks form’s first indication that it might be anything more than what its title suggests appears approximately three-fourths of the way down a densely printed page that, up to that point, has mentioned only “inherent risks.” There the form asks participants for a self-evaluation of their abilities. After a line break, the form asks participants to certify that they are “fully capable of participating in these activities” and will “assume full responsibility for [themselves].” Then, without another line break or any heading to signify that the form is transitioning [*21] into a liability release rather than an acknowledgment of risks, the document sets out “release” language. While parts of this section are in capital letters, they are not in bold or otherwise set off from the dense text surrounding them. In short, considering the document as a whole, the apparent intent is to hide the release language at the very bottom of a dense, one-page document with a title completely unrelated to release of liability.

Additionally, the signature page in no way alerts the reader that operative release language is contained on another page, presumably the back side of that page. The short paragraph at the top, which the court relies on to hold that the form gave participants adequate notice of the release language, says only, “I have read, understood, and accepted the terms and conditions stated herein and acknowledge that this agreement shall be binding upon myself . . . .” While the court concludes that a reasonable person “would be on notice that the document had another side” solely because of the word “herein,” the court fails to explain its conclusion. In fact, Morton’s companion who was an experienced adventure traveler as well, Horsman, remembered the document [*22] consisting of only one page. As he put it, “[T]he way I read it is ‘conditions herein.’ Well, there’s not much herein . . . .”

In addition to the document’s overall structure, the Acknowledgment of Risks form fails to comply with several standards we previously have applied to recreational activity releases. Specifically, the mere inclusion of the word “negligence” in the release language is insufficient to make the Acknowledgment of Risks form a full release of all claims. The release we held invalid in Kerr also used the word “negligence,” but we agreed with the superior court that “[w]hen read as a whole” the purported release did “not clearly and unequivocally express an intent to release the Gym for liability for its own future negligence” with respect to all matters referenced in the release.13

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13 Id. at 963.

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The superior court’s Kerr decision, which we adopted and published as expressing our own view, highlighted the ineffectiveness of a release that did not “clearly alert climbers that they [were] giving up any claims that the Gym failed to meet the standards of maintenance and safety that the Gym specifically indicate[d] in the release that it [would] strive to achieve and upon which the release [*23] [might] have been predicated.”14 This is precisely what the Morton estate agues here: the Acknowledgment of Risks form promised participants that NOVA would provide adequately skilled guides but did not alert participants that they were giving up claims based on NOVA’s negligent failure to provide adequately skilled guides.

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14 Id.

– – – – – – – – – – – – End Footnotes- – – – – – – – – – – – – –

NOVA indicated in its Acknowledgment of Risks form that it had “taken reasonable steps to provide [a participant] with appropriate equipment and/or skilled guides so [the participant] can enjoy an activity for which [he] may not be skilled.” This is a representation that NOVA’s guides were adequately skilled to provide participants an enjoyable trip — not one fraught with danger.15 The Morton estate alleged in its complaint that NOVA’s guides were inadequately trained and did not properly screen participants to preclude those who were unable “to handle the rafting trip” from participating. Both specific allegations related to negligent training or failure to provide guides who were adequately skilled to assist unskilled participants to safely complete the trip. The Acknowledgment of Risks form, like the defective release in Kerr, can hardly be said to give a participants [*24] notice that the participants were surrendering claims related to negligent training or supervision.16

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – Footnotes – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

15 The release could be read as requiring NOVA to provide either “appropriate equipment” or “skilled guides” but not both. But a reasonable person with no skill in rafting would almost certainly infer that NOVA intended to provide both appropriate equipment and skilled guides on a trip with Class V rapids.16 See Kerr, 91 P.3d at 963 (holding that release did not bar negligent maintenance claim because release promised to “strive to achieve” safety standards).

– – – – – – – – – – – – End Footnotes- – – – – – – – – – – – – –

The court concludes otherwise because the express statement that NOVA would provide skilled guides is in a sentence that also says rafting “is not without risk” and the Acknowledgment of Risks form then lists several inherent risks of rafting. But none of the listed risks is in any way related to unskilled guides or negligence in screening other participants.17 To the contrary, the enumerated risks focus on environmental and personal factors and include natural conditions, such as “[c]hanging water flow,” “presence of marine life,” and adverse weather; personal characteristics of the participant like “sense of balance, physical coordination, ability to swim, walk and/or follow instructions” and “[f]atigue, chill and/or dizziness, which may diminish [the participant’s] reaction time and increase the risk of accident”; and the risk of an accident “occurring in remote places where there are no available medical facilities.” The Acknowledgment of Risks form does not include — as the release in Donahue did — risks related to other participants’ “limits”18 or to employees’ “inadequate warnings [*25] or instructions” that might lead to injury.19 In other words, the Acknowledgment of Risks form did not meet the fourth characteristic of a valid release — it did not suggest an intent to release NOVA from liability for negligent acts unrelated to inherent risks.20

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – Footnotes – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

17 In contrast, the valid release we discussed in Donahue explicitly listed in the inherent risks of climbing several types of possible negligence: “improperly maintained equipment,” “displaced pads or safety equipment, belay or anchor or harness failure,” “the negligence of other climbers or spotters or visitors or participants who may be present,” “participants giving or following inappropriate ‘Beta’ or climbing advice or move sequences,” and “others’ failure to follow the rules of the [Rock Gym] . . . .” Donahue v. Ledgends, Inc., 331 P.3d 342, 350 n.46 (Alaska 2014) (alteration in original).18 Id.19 See id. at 352 (holding that release at issue “expressly covered” both the type of injury “and its alleged causes,” namely “‘inadequate warnings or instructions’ from Rock Gym instructors”).20 The court states that it “do[es] not reach the question of whether employee negligence is unrelated to inherent risks of guided whitewater rafting.” It is hard to see how negligent training or providing inadequately skilled guides would ever be related to an inherent risk of guided whitewater rafting.

– – – – – – – – – – – – End Footnotes- – – – – – – – – – – – – –

I also disagree with the court’s holding that a release is necessarily valid when it sets out the risk of a specific injury — death by drowning in this case — but not its specific cause — negligent training and the provision of unskilled guides. In Donahue we rejected the participant’s argument that the release did not specifically and clearly set out the risks being waived because the release not only warned of a risk of falling but also cautioned that instructors and other employees could, through their negligence, cause falls or other types of injury.21 Here the only mention of employee negligence, buried at the bottom of a densely written, single-spaced document, is a description only in the most general terms. This type of general waiver simply does not specifically and clearly set out a waiver of the risk on which the Morton estate’s claim is based. The Morton estate alleges that [*26] Morton’s death by drowning was not due solely to the inherent risks of whitewater rafting the release listed, but rather to the provision of unskilled guides who did not adequately screen other participants. The document’s general language fails to specifically and clearly set out the risk of negligence alleged here.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – Footnotes – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

21 Donahue, 331 P.3d at 348-49.

– – – – – – – – – – – – End Footnotes- – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Today’s decision allows intentionally disguised pre-recreational activity exculpatory releases and effectively lowers the bar for their validity. Because the release does not meet the standards adopted in the precedent Donahue relied on — and because if the “Release” in Kerr was an invalid release, the “Participant’s Acknowledgment of Risks” Morton signed must be an invalid release — I respectfully dissent from the court’s opinion concluding otherwise.


Employee of one New York climbing wall sues another NYC climbing wall for injuries when she fell and her foot went between the mats.

Release thrown out because of New York’s anti-release statute and condition causing plaintiff’s injury was the risk was “un-assumed, concealed or unreasonably increased” eliminating assumption of the risk claim.

McDonald v. Brooklyn Boulders, LLC., 2016 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 5211; 2016 NY Slip Op 32822(U)

State: New York, Supreme Court of New York, Kings County

Plaintiff: Meghan McDonald

Defendant: Brooklyn Boulders, LLC

Plaintiff Claims: negligence,

Defendant Defenses: Release and Assumption of the Risk

Holding: for the Plaintiff

Year: 2016

Summary

Another case where it appears, the court was more on the plaintiff’s side then neutral. However, you must play with the cards you are dealt. Here a person injured at a climbing gym survived a motion for summary judgment because the release violated New York’s release law, and she could not assume the risk of the mats separating because it was not obvious or known to her.

Facts

The plaintiff was an employee of another climbing wall business. She was the coach of the climbing team there. She was at the defendant’s climbing wall business either to coach her team or to climb personally, which were in dispute. While climbing on an overhang she fell and her foot went between the mats causing her injury.

The plaintiff did not pay to climb because the clubs had reciprocal agreements allowing employees to climb at other gyms for free. The mats were Velcroed together. The plaintiff sued. The defendant club filed a motion for summary judgment, and this is the court’s response to that motion.

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

The defendant argued the release should stop the plaintiff’s lawsuit, and she assumed the risk of her injury.

The plaintiff argued New York General Obligations Law (GOL) §5-326 made the release unenforceable.

The legislative intent of the statute is to prevent amusement parks and recreational facilities from enforcing exculpatory clauses printed on admission tickets or membership applications because the public is either unaware of them or not cognizant of their effect

New York General Obligations Law (GOL) §5-326 has been held to not apply to teaching, Lemoine v Cornell University, 2 A.D.3d 1017; 769 N.Y.S.2d 313; 2003 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 13209 (NY 2003). Because the plaintiff was there with students, the defendant argued the statute did not apply.

However, the plaintiff argued she was not teaching, just climbing with friends who were former students.

In support of her position that she was not at Brooklyn Boulders for instructional purposes, but, rather was there for a fun day of climbing, plaintiff points to her testimony that she brought some of the older members of her team to Brooklyn Boulders to climb. She testified that they all worked at The Rock Club so this was an end of summer treat for them to go and climb somewhere else and not have to work.

The other defense to New York General Obligations Law (GOL) §5-326 is there was no fee paid by the plaintiff to climb at the defendant gym. She was there because of the reciprocal program in place with her employer.

The court agreed she was not teaching and found she had paid a fee to climb at the defendant’s gym. Because the program was part of her employment compensation, she had paid a fee by taking advantage of the opportunity as an employee.

In addition, the court finds defendants’s argument that the fact that plaintiff did not pay a fee that day renders GOL §5-326 not applicable is equally unavailing. The reciprocal agreement that was in place between Brooklyn Boulders and The Rock Club, where plaintiff was employed, which allowed such employees to use other bouldering facilities without being charged a fee was a benefit of their employment and thus could be considered compensation.

The final defense was assumption of the risk. The plaintiff said she had never been to that area of the gym before, however, she did scan the area before climbing.

Under NY law, the assumption of risk defense is defined as:

The assumption of the risk defense is based on the proposition that “by engaging in a sport or recreational activity, a participant consents to those commonly appreciated risks which are inherent in and arise out of the nature of the sport generally and flow from such participation”

By engaging in the activity or sport the plaintiff gives consent to the risks and limits the duty owed by the defendant. However, the risks of the activity, according to this court must be “fully comprehended or perfectly obvious.” The court then determined “Stated otherwise, the duty of the defendant is to protect the plaintiff from injuries arising out of unassumed, concealed, or unreasonably increased risks.”

Furthermore, “in assessing whether a defendant has violated a duty of care within the genre of tort-sports activities and their inherent risks, the applicable standard should include whether the conditions caused by the defendants’ negligence are unique and created a dangerous condition over and above the usual dangers that are inherent in the sport’

The Velcro connection holding the mats together was an injury for the jury to determine because the court found the condition was a concealed risk.

So Now What?

It is pretty skanky (legal word) for an employee of one gym, climbing for free, to sue another gym. I suspect the lawsuit was probably a subrogation claim where her health insurance was attempting to recover for her medical bills. However, that is just speculation.

New York General Obligations Law (GOL) §5-326 is read differently by ever judge that reviews it. Some simply say it does not apply and allows the release to prevail. Any court that seems to do an analysis of the law seems to rule on the side of the plaintiff lately. The late is left over from the days when consumers did not know what a release was and were caught off guard when they risked their neck in gyms.

However, the chances of it being repealed are slim, too many plaintiffs use the law so having a recreation business in New York requires more work on the part of the recreation provider to prove assumption of the risk.

Video’s, lengthy assumption of the risk agreements outlining the known and unknown risks and more in-depth classes for beginners and new people at the gym will be required in this jurisdiction.

Can you see this climbing coach being told she must take a one-hour class on climbing because she has never been to the gym before?

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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McDonald v. Brooklyn Boulders, LLC., 2016 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 5211; 2016 NY Slip Op 32822(U)

McDonald v. Brooklyn Boulders, LLC., 2016 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 5211; 2016 NY Slip Op 32822(U)

[**1] Meghan Mcdonald, Plaintiff, – against – Brooklyn Boulders, LLC., Defendant. Index No. 503314/12

503314/12

SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, KINGS COUNTY

2016 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 5211; 2016 NY Slip Op 32822(U)

April 12, 2016, Decided

NOTICE: THIS OPINION IS UNCORRECTED AND WILL NOT BE PUBLISHED IN THE PRINTED OFFICIAL REPORTS.

CORE TERMS: climbing, mat, climb, team, rock climbing, recreational, leave to amend, affirmative defense, risk doctrine, instructional, bouldering, void, appreciated, concealed, teaching, training, wasn’t, amend, sport’, Rock, gym, matting, reciprocal agreement, public policy, dangerous condition, unreasonably, amusement, watching, unaware, advice

JUDGES: [*1] PRESENT: HON. MARK I. PARTNOW, J.S.C.

OPINION BY: MARK I. PARTNOW

OPINION

Upon the foregoing papers, defendant Brooklyn Boulders, LLC (defendant or Brooklyn Boulders) moves for an order: 1) pursuant to CPLR §3212 granting summary judgment and the dismissal of plaintiff Meghan McDonald’s complaint against defendant; and 2) pursuant to CPLR §3025 (b) granting defendant leave to amend its answer to the complaint to include an additional affirmative defense.

[**2] Background

Plaintiff is employed as a program director and head coach of a youth rock climbing team at The Rock Club, an indoor rock climbing gym in New Rochelle, New York and has been so employed since 2006. On September 1, 2011, plaintiff went to Brooklyn Boulders with some of the members of her youth climbing team and other adults. Brooklyn Boulders is an indoor rock climbing and bouldering facility located in Brooklyn, New York. Plaintiff testified that this trip was a treat for her team and that she would be climbing that day too. It is undisputed that plaintiff signed a waiver before she began climbing and that she did not pay an entry fee pursuant to a reciprocal agreement in place between The Rock Club and Brooklyn Boulders as well as other rock climbing facilities. After [*2] approximately one and a half hours of bouldering with her team, plaintiff went to an area of the bouldering wall known as The Beast, which is very challenging in that it becomes nearly horizontal for some distance. It was her first time on the Beast, although she had been to Brooklyn Boulders on prior occasions. Plaintiff testified that she visually inspected the area below the Beast before she began her climb. Lance Pinn, the Chief Marketing Officer, President and founder of Brooklyn Boulders testified that there was foam matting system in place, with matting wall to wall in the area of the Beast. The largest pieces available were 9 feet by 7 feet so the area where the foam pieces met when placed on the ground was covered with Velcro to keep the foam matting pieces flush together.

[**3] Plaintiff finished her upward climb and then climbed down as far as she could and then looked down below to make sure there were no shoes in her way and that her spotter was out of the way. She stated that she knew that there were mats underneath so she jumped down a distance of approximately five feet. Her right foot landed on the mat but her left foot landed on the Velcro strip where two floor mats met. [*3] She testified that her left foot went through the Velcro into a space between the two mats. Plaintiff sustained an ankle fracture as a result and required surgeries and physical therapy.

Brooklyn Boulders’ Motion

Brooklyn Boulders moves for an order: 1) pursuant to CPLR §3212 granting summary judgment and the dismissal of plaintiff’s complaint against defendant; and 2) pursuant to CPLR §3025 (b) granting defendant leave to amend its answer to the complaint to include an additional affirmative defense.

Defendant argues that the liability waiver that plaintiff signed when she entered the facility releases it from liability. Defendant maintains that plaintiff was an expert climber and coach and understood the meaning of the waiver and appreciated the assumption of risk involved in the activity that she was engaged. Defendant also points out that she did not pay a fee to climb that day based upon the reciprocal program in place with other climbing facilities. Defendant claims that plaintiff was instructing her students that day as they observed her climbing and point to her testimony as follows:

[**4] Q: And were you teaching them, you know, what to do and what not to do?

A: I wasn’t teaching them, but if they had a question [*4] they would ask me hey, should I do this or do this or what do you think of this move I always give advice. (Page 30, lines 12-17).

Q. Did you ever teach any or give any instruction there?

A. Just of terms of like in my kids I probably give instruction everywhere I go. There are so many people that climb at Brooklyn Boulders that are total beginners. I’m often spotting brand new people and telling them how to spot one another. (Page 45, lines 5-12).

Defendant notes that although General Obligations Law (GOL) §5-326 renders contract clauses which release certain entities from liability void as against public policy, activities which are “instructional” as opposed to recreational are found to be outside the scope of GOL §5-326. Defendant maintains that here, plaintiff was at Brooklyn Boulders to instruct her team members and thus GOL §5-326 is not applicable. Moreover, defendant argues that the waiver at issue was explicit, comprehensive and expressly provided that Brooklyn Boulders was released from liability for personal injuries arising out of or connected with plaintiff’s participation in rock climbing.

In support of its motion, defendant submits the signed waiver which states, in pertinent part:

I acknowledge [*5] that climbing on an artificial climbing wall entails known and unanticipated risks which could result in physical or emotional injury, paralysis, death, or damage to myself, to property, or third parties. I understand that such risks simply cannot be eliminated without jeopardizing the essential [**5] qualities of the activity. I have examined the Climbing Wall and have full knowledge of the nature and extent of the risks associated with rock climbing and the use of the Climbing Wall, including but not limited to:

a:. All manner of injury resulting from my falling off or from the Climbing Wall and hitting the floor, wall faces, people or rope projections, whether permanently or temporarily in place, loose and/or damaged artificial holds, musculoskeletal injuries and/or overtraining; head injuries; or my own negligence . . . I further acknowledge that the above list is not inclusive of all possible risks associated with the Climbing Wall and related training facilities and I agree that such list in no way limits the extent or reach of this Assumption of Risk, Release and Indemnification . . .

Defendant also argues that since plaintiff did not pay a fee to climb that day that her activity was [*6] outside the scope of GOL §5-326.

Next defendant argues that the assumption of risk doctrine bars plaintiff’s claims because, as a general rule, a plaintiff who voluntarily participates in a sporting or recreational event is held to have consented to those commonly appreciated risks that are inherent in, and arise out of, the nature of the sport generally and flow from participation in such event.

Finally, defendant argues that it should be allowed to amend its answer to assert the affirmative defense of release. Defendant contends that it was unaware of the existence of the release and waiver when it served its answer. Moreover, defendant contends that plaintiff will not be prejudiced because she was, in fact, questioned about the release that she signed during her deposition.

[**6] Plaintiff opposes defendant’s motion arguing that General Obligations Law §5-326 renders the waiver and release that she signed void. She points out that defendant is attempting to circumvent this law by asserting that the activity in which plaintiff was involved was instructional as opposed to recreational and misstates her testimony in an attempt to mislead the court. Plaintiff contends that such behavior should be sanctioned. In support of her position [*7] that she was not at Brooklyn Boulders for instructional purposes, but, rather was there for a fun day of climbing, plaintiff points to her testimony that she brought some of the older members of her team to Brooklyn Boulders to climb. She testified that they all worked at The Rock Club so this was an end of summer treat for them to go and climb somewhere else and not have to work. (Page 62, lines 5-13). She further points to the following testimony:

Q: In September of 2011 when you went there on the date in question what was your purpose of being there?

A: I went there with a handful of kids who are on my climbing team, but it wasn’t a specific training day. Usually when we go it would be for training but this was just like a fun day. I was going to climb with them.

Q: And were they climbing around you.

A: Yeah, they were.(page 29, lines 14-25).

Q: And were you supervising them?

A: I wasn’t their active supervisor. I’m a coach though so I’m always watching what they do. But this was one of the few times that I was actually going to be climbing so it was kind of a treat for them I guess to be able to climb with me.

[**7] Q: Were they watching you?

A: A few of them were watching me yeah.

Q: And were [*8] you teaching them, you know, what to do and what not to do?

A: I wasn’t teaching them, but if they had a question they would ask me hey, should I do this or do this or what do you think of this move I always give advice (page 30, lines 2-17).

Plaintiff also contends that defendant incorrectly argues that GOL §5-326 does not apply because she cannot be classified a user since she did not pay to climb that day. In this regard, plaintiff contends that she is indeed a user and the law is applicable because there was a reciprocal agreement between the gym at which she was employed and Brooklyn Boulders pursuant to which employees were not required to pay a fee to use either gym. Thus, she contends the value of the reciprocity agreement is the compensation.

Next, plaintiff argues that the assumption of risk doctrine is not applicable where the risk was un-assumed, concealed or unreasonably increased. Plaintiff argues that the question of whether the gap in the mats at Brooklyn Boulders is a commonly appreciated risk inherent in the nature of rock climbing necessitates denial of the summary judgment motion. She claims that she did not assume the risk that there would be a gap in the matting that was in [*9] place as protection from a fall. Moreover, plaintiff maintains that defendant fails to proffer any evidence demonstrating when the mats were last inspected prior to plaintiff’s accident.

Plaintiff argues that issues as to whether dangerous or defective conditions exist on property and whether the condition is foreseeable can only be answered by a jury. Thus, she [**8] contends that whether the condition of the mats was dangerous and/or defective is an issue of fact and that defendant has failed to proffer any evidence that the mats were in a reasonably safe condition.

Finally, plaintiff opposes defendant’s request to amend its answer to add the affirmative defense of waiver. Plaintiff argues that the existence of the waiver was known and that it is disingenuous at best to assert otherwise. Plaintiff contends that this request, post note of issue, is highly prejudicial to plaintiff.

In reply, defendant argues that plaintiff’s demand for sanctions lacks merit and that plaintiff’s testimony establishes that she was in fact, instructing her students when her accident occurred. Defendant contends that the waiver applies. Next defendant claims that as far as inspection of its equipment it had a [*10] route setting department that checked its walls and mats and that bouldering climbers were responsible for enuring their own safety when climbing. Finally, defendant argues that the assumption of risk doctrine applies and that plaintiff visually inspected the area before the accident and that the Velcro covers were visible and moreover, she had the option to use additional mats underneath her while climbing. Defendant further contends that the mats did not constitute a dangerous condition. Finally, Brooklyn Boulders reiterates its request for leave to amend its answer to assert the affirmative defense.

[**9] Discussion

Leave to Amend

Generally, in the absence of prejudice or surprise to the opposing party, leave to amend pleadings should be freely granted unless the proposed amendment is palpably insufficient or patently devoid of merit (Yong Soon Oh v Hua Jin, 124 AD3d 639, 640, 1 N.Y.S.3d 307 [2015]; see Jones v LeFrance Leasing Ltd. Partnership, 127 AD3d 819, 821, 7 N.Y.S.3d 352 [2015]; Rodgers v New York City Tr. Auth., 109 AD3d 535, 537, 970 N.Y.S.2d 572 [2013]; Schwartz v Sayah, 83 AD3d 926, 926, 920 N.Y.S.2d 714 [2011]). A motion for leave to amend is committed to the broad discretion of the court (see Ravnikar v Skyline Credit-Ride, Inc., 79 AD3d 1118, 1119, 913 N.Y.S.2d 339 [2010]). However, where amendment is sought after the pleader has filed a note of issue, “a trial court’s discretion to grant a motion to amend should be exercised with caution” (Harris v Jim’s Proclean Serv., Inc., 34 AD3d 1009,1010, 825 N.Y.S.2d 291 [3d Dept 2006]).

Here, while the court is not satisfied with counsel’s explanation that he was unaware of the [*11] existence of the release and waiver signed by plaintiff at the time that the original answer was served, the court notes that plaintiff was questioned about the release and waiver during her May 6, 2014 deposition so the court finds that there is no surprise of prejudice in allowing defendant leave to serve its amended answer and assert the affirmative defense of release and waiver. Accordingly, that branch of defendant’s motion seeking leave to amend its answer to the complaint to include this affirmative defense is granted.

[**10] General Obligations Law §5-326

GOL §5-326 states that:

Every covenant, agreement or understanding in or in connection with, or collateral to, any contract, membership application, ticket of admission or similar writing, entered into between the owner or operator of any pool, gymnasium, place of amusement or recreation, or similar establishment and the user of such facilities, pursuant to which such owner or operator receives a fee or other compensation for the use of such facilities, which exempts the said owner or operator from liability for damages caused by or resulting from the negligence of the owner, operator or person in charge of such establishment, or their agents, servants or employees, shall [*12] be deemed to be void as against public policy and wholly unenforceable.

Such contracts or agreements are void as against public policy unless the entity can show that its facility is used for instructional purposes as opposed to recreational purposes. “The legislative intent of the statute is to prevent amusement parks and recreational facilities from enforcing exculpatory clauses printed on admission tickets or membership applications because the public is either unaware of them or not cognizant of their effect (see Lux v Cox, 32 F.Supp.2d 92, 99 [1998]; McDuffie v Watkins Glen Int’l, 833 F. Supp. 197, 202 [1993] ). Facilities that are places of instruction and training (see e.g. Millan v Brown, 295 AD2d 409, 411, 743 N.Y.S.2d 539 [2002]; Chieco v Paramarketing, Inc., 228 AD2d 462, 463, 643 N.Y.S.2d 668 [1996]; Baschuk v Diver’s Way Scuba, 209 AD2d 369, 370, 618 N.Y.S.2d 428 [1994] ), rather than “amusement or recreation” (see e.g. Meier v Ma-Do Bars, 106 AD2d 143, 145, 484 N.Y.S.2d 719 [1985] ), have been found to be outside the scope of the statute. “In assessing whether a facility is instructional or recreational, courts have [**11] examined, inter alia, the organization’s name, its certificate of incorporation, its statement of purpose and whether the money it charges is tuition or a fee for use of the facility” (Lemoine v Cornell Univ., 2 AD3d 1017, 1019, 769 N.Y.S.2d 313 [2003], lv denied 2 NY3d 701, 810 N.E.2d 912, 778 N.Y.S.2d 459 [2004]). In cases involving a mixed use facility, courts have focused less on a facility’s ostensible purpose and more on whether the person was at the facility for the purpose of receiving instruction (Id. At 1019; see Scrivener v Sky’s the Limit, 68 F Supp 2d 277, 281 [1999]; Lux v Cox, 32 F Supp 2d at 99). Where [*13] a facility “promotes . . . a recreational pursuit, to which instruction is provided as an ancillary service,” General Obligations Law § 5-326 applies even if the injury occurs while receiving instruction (Debell v Wellbridge Club Mgt., Inc., 40 AD3d 248, 249, 835 N.Y.S.2d 170 [2007]; Bacchiocchi v Ranch Parachute Club, 273 AD2d 173, 175, 710 N.Y.S.2d 54 [2000]).

Here, defendant asserts that GOL §5-326 is not applicable because plaintiff was at Brooklyn Boulders to instruct her team members. The court disagrees. Plaintiff’s testimony establishes that she was at Brooklyn Boulders with her team for a day of fun and not to teach them how to climb. Her testimony that she would give advice to the students if they asked does not rise to the level of providing rock climbing instruction on that day. Moreover, the court notes that the cases invloving the exemption for instrctional activities generally involve the person being instructed sustaining an injury and not the person who was providing the instruction. In addition, the court finds defendants’s argument that the fact that plaintiff did not pay a fee that day renders GOL §5-326 not applicable is equally unavailing. The reciprocal agreement that was in place between Brooklyn Boulders and The Rock Club, [**12] where plaintiff was employed, which allowed such employees to use other bouldering facilities without being charged a fee was a benefit of [*14] their employment and thus could be considered compensation. Accordingly, the court finds that the release and waiver signed by plaintiff is void pursuant to GOL §5-326.

Assumption of Risk

The assumption of the risk defense is based on the proposition that “by engaging in a sport or recreational activity, a participant consents to those commonly appreciated risks which are inherent in and arise out of the nature of the sport generally and flow from such participation” (Morgan v State of New York, 90 NY2d 471, 484, 685 N.E.2d 202, 662 N.Y.S.2d 421 [1997]; Paone v County of Suffolk, 251 AD2d 563, 674 N.Y.S.2d 761 [2d Dept 1998]), including the injury-causing events which are the known, apparent, or reasonably foreseeable risks of the participation (see Rosenbaum v Bayis Ne’Emon Inc., 32 AD3d 534, 820 N.Y.S.2d 326 [2d Dept 2006]; Colucci v Nansen Park, Inc., 226 AD2d 336, 640 N.Y.S.2d 578 [2d Dept 1996]). A plaintiff is deemed to have given consent limiting the duty of the defendant who is the proprietor of the sporting facility “to exercise care to make the conditions as safe as they appear to be. If the risks of the activity are fully comprehended or perfectly obvious, plaintiff has consented to them and defendant has performed its duty” (Turcotte v Fell, 68 NY2d 432, 502 N.E.2d 964, 510 N.Y.S.2d 49 [1986]). Stated otherwise, the duty of the defendant is to protect the plaintiff from injuries arising out of unassumed, concealed, or unreasonably increased risks (see Manoly v City of New York, 29 AD3d 649, 816 N.Y.S.2d 499 [2d Dept 2006]; Pascucci v Town of Oyster Bay, 186 AD2d 725, 588 N.Y.S.2d 663 [2d Dept 1992]). It is well settled that “awareness of [**13] risk is not to be determined in a vacuum. It is, rather, to [*15] be assessed against the background of the skill and experience of the particular plaintiff” (Maddox v City of New York, 66 NY2d 270, 278, 487 N.E.2d 553, 496 N.Y.S.2d 726 [1985]; see also Benitez v New York City Bd. of Educ., 73 NY2d 650, 657-658, 541 N.E.2d 29, 543 N.Y.S.2d 29 [1989]; Turcotte v Fell, 68 NY2d 432, 440, 502 N.E.2d 964, 510 N.Y.S.2d 49 [1986]; Latimer v City of New York, 118 AD3d 420, 421, 987 N.Y.S.2d 58 [2014]). When applicable, the assumption of risk doctrine “is not an absolute defense but a measure of the defendant’s duty of care” (Turcotte v Fell, 68 NY2d at 439). Thus, “a gym or athletic facility cannot evade responsibility for negligent behavior ‘by invoking a generalized assumption of risk doctrine as though it was some sort of amulet that confers automatic immunity’ (Jafri v Equinox Holdings, Inc., 2014 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 5330, 4-5 [Sup. Ct, New York County quoting Mellon v Crunch & At Crunch Acquisition, LLC, 32 Misc 3d 1214[A], 934 N.Y.S.2d 35, 2011 NY Slip Op 51289[U] [Sup Ct, Kings County 2011]; Livshitz v United States Tennis Assn. Natl. Tennis Ctr., 196 Misc 2d 460, 466, 761 N.Y.S.2d 825 [Sup Ct, Queens County 2003]).

Furthermore, “in assessing whether a defendant has violated a duty of care within the genre of tort-sports activities and their inherent risks, the applicable standard should include whether the conditions caused by the defendants’ negligence are unique and created a dangerous condition over and above the usual dangers that are inherent in the sport’ (Morgan, 90 NY2d at 485. quoting Owen v R.J.S. Safety Equip., 79 NY2d 967, 970, 591 N.E.2d 1184, 582 N.Y.S.2d 998 [1992]; Georgiades v Nassau Equestrian Ctr. at Old Mill, Inc., 134 AD3d 887, 889, 22 N.Y.S.3d 467 [2d Dept 2015]; Weinberger v Solomon Schechter Sch. of Westchester, 102 AD3d 675, 678, 961 N.Y.S.2d 178 [2d Dept 2013]). Participants, however, do not assume risks which have been unreasonably increased or [**14] concealed over and above the usual dangers inherent in the activity (see Morgan, 90 NY2d at 485; Benitez, 73 NY2d at 657-658; Muniz v Warwick School Dist., 293 AD2d 724, 743 N.Y.S.2d 113 [2002]).

In this regard, the court finds that plaintiff has raised a question of fact regarding whether the condition of the mats, with the Velcro connection, increased the risk in the danger [*16] of the activity and caused a concealed dangerous condition. Thus it cannot be said that plaintiff assumed the particular risk that was present and caused her injuries.

Based upon the foregoing, that branch of Brooklyn Boulders motion seeking summary judgment dismissing plaintiff’s complaint is denied.

The foregoing constitutes the decision and order of the court.

ENTER,

/s/ Mark I Partnow

J. S. C.

HON. MARK I PARTNOW

SUPREME COURT JUSTICE


Release for a health club which had a foam pit included language specific to the injury the plaintiff suffered, which the court used to deny the plaintiff’s claim.

Argument made that the word inherent limited the risks the release covered and as such did not cover the injury the plaintiff received.

Macias, v. Naperville Gymnastics Club, 2015 IL App (2d) 140402-U; 2015 Ill. App. Unpub. LEXIS 448

State: Illinois, Appellate Court of Illinois, Second District

Plaintiff: Kamil Macias

Defendant: Naperville Gymnastics Club

Plaintiff Claims: negligent in its failure to properly supervise the open gym, train participants, and warn participants of hazards and dangers accompanied with activities and use of equipment in the open gym

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2015

Summary

Plaintiff was injured jumping headfirst into a foam pit at the defendant’s gym. The plaintiff had signed a release relieving the defendant of liability, which was upheld by the trial court and the appellate court.

For the first time, the plaintiff argued the release was limited by the language in the release because it used the term inherent in describing the risks. Inherent limits the risks, to those that are part and parcel of the activity and the injury that befell the plaintiff was a freak accident.

Facts

The plaintiff went to the defendant club during open hours when the public could attend with a friend. He paid an admission fee and signed a release. The club had a foam pit. The plaintiff watched other people jump into the pit then tried it himself. He jumped off the springboard and instead of landing feet first he landed head first in the pit.

The plaintiff broke his neck requiring extensive surgery and rehabilitation.

The defendant club filed a motion to dismiss based upon the release signed by the plaintiff. The trial court denied the motion to dismiss because the release was ambiguous.

During discovery, the plaintiff admitted he did not see the rules of the gym but did understand the risks of landing in the pit head first.

Walk around all pits and trampolines,” and he stated that he understood what this meant. The rules also stated: “Do not play on any equipment without proper supervision,” and “Do not do any gymnastics without proper supervision,” and plaintiff stated that he understood what these meant. Plaintiff also stated that he did not see a sign painted on the wall in the gym titled, “Loose foam pit rules.” That sign stated: “Look before you leap,” “No diving or belly flops,” and “Land on feet, bottom or back only.” Plaintiff acknowledged that he understood what these meant

After discovery, the defendant club filed a motion for summary judgment based on the additional information collected during discovery. The trial court granted that motion, and this appeal was dismissed.

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

The appellate court looked at contract law in Illinois.

The primary objective in construing a contract is to give effect to the parties’ intent, and to discover this intent the various contract provisions must be viewed as a whole. Words derive meaning from their context, and contracts must be viewed as a whole by examining each part in light of the other parts. Id. Contract language must not be rejected as meaningless or surplusage; it is presumed that the terms and provisions of a contract are purposely inserted and that the language was not employed idly.

A release is a contract. For the release to be valid and enforceable, it should:

…contain clear, explicit, and unequivocal language referencing the types of activities, circumstances, or situations that it encompasses and for which the plaintiff agrees to relieve the defendant from a duty of care. In this way, the plaintiff will be put on notice of the range of dangers for which he assumes the risk of injury, enabling him to minimize the risks by exercising a greater degree of caution.

The court found the injury suffered by the plaintiff fell within the scope of the possible injuries of the release and contemplated by the plaintiff upon signing the release.

Two clauses in the release stated the plaintiff was in good physical health and had proper physical condition to participate. The plaintiff argued these clauses made the release ambiguous; however, the appellate court did not find that to be true.

Here is the interesting argument in the case.

I have repeatedly stated that releases that limit releases to the inherent risk are limited in their scope. The plaintiff made that argument here.

Plaintiff argues that the use of “inherent risk” language throughout the release creates an ambiguity as to whether the language covers only dangers inherent in gymnastics and not freak accidents. We also reject this argument. As previously stated, the release specifically lists landing on landing surfaces as an inherent risk. Thus, there is no ambiguity as to whether plaintiff’s injury was covered by the release.

The plaintiff also argued his injury was not foreseeable because:

… (1) he lacked specialized knowledge of gymnastics and, in particular, foam pits, to appreciate the danger and foresee the possibility of injury, and (2) his injury was not the type that would ordinarily accompany jumping into a foam pit.

The argument on whether the injury was foreseeable is not whether the plaintiff knew of the risk but:

The relevant inquiry is not whether [the] plaintiff foresaw [the] defendants’ exact act of negligence,” but “whether [the] plaintiff knew or should have known” the accident “was a risk encompassed by his [or her] release.

The court found the injury the plaintiff received was on that was contemplated by the release.

Thus, the issue here is whether plaintiff knew or should have known that the accident was a risk encompassed by the release which he signed. As previously determined, the language of the release in this case was specific enough to put plaintiff on notice. In discussing inherent risks in the sport of gymnastics and use of the accompanying equipment, the release lists injuries resulting from landing on the landing surfaces, which includes injuries to bones, joints, tendons, or death.

The plaintiff also argued the release violated public policy because the release was presented to “opened its gym to the unskilled and inexperienced public” when it opened its gym to the public.

The court struck down this argument because the freedom to contract was greater than the limitation on damages issues.

The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s granting of the summary judgment for the defendant based on the release.

So Now What?

The inherent risk argument here was made but either not effectively argued by the plaintiff or ignored by the court. However, for the first time, the argument that the word inherent is a limiting word, not a word that expands the release was made in an argument.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Macias, v. Naperville Gymnastics Club, 2015 IL App (2d) 140402-U; 2015 Ill. App. Unpub. LEXIS 448

Macias, v. Naperville Gymnastics Club, 2015 IL App (2d) 140402-U; 2015 Ill. App. Unpub. LEXIS 448

Kamil Macias, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Naperville Gymnastics Club, Defendant-Appellee.

No. 2-14-0402

APPELLATE COURT OF ILLINOIS, SECOND DISTRICT

2015 IL App (2d) 140402-U; 2015 Ill. App. Unpub. LEXIS 448

March 10, 2015, Order Filed

NOTICE: THIS ORDER WAS FILED UNDER SUPREME COURT RULE 23 AND MAY NOT BE CITED AS PRECEDENT BY ANY PARTY EXCEPT IN THE LIMITED CIRCUMSTANCES ALLOWED UNDER RULE 23(e)(1).

PRIOR HISTORY: [**1] Appeal from the Circuit Court of Du Page County. No. 11-L-1418. Honorable Judges Hollis L. Webster and John T. Elsner, Judges, Presiding.

DISPOSITION: Affirmed.

CORE TERMS: gym, pit, landing, summary judgment, foam, exculpatory clause, gymnastics, release agreement, surface, inherent risk, jumping, discovery, ambiguity, exculpatory, deposition, injury resulting, public policy, risk of injury, physical condition, releasing, ambiguous, sport, bones, supervision, de novo, springboard, encompassed, notice, undersigned, climbing

JUDGES: JUSTICE BURKE delivered the judgment of the court. Presiding Justice Schostok and Justice Zenoff concurred in the judgment.

OPINION BY: BURKE

OPINION

ORDER


Held: Release agreement for the gym was sufficiently clear, explicit, and unequivocal to show intent to protect facility from liability arising from use of its “foam pit”; it was proper for the gym to raise the issue it had raised in the section 2-619 motion in a summary judgment motion as it alleged new facts which were developed during discovery that affected the validity of the release; affirmed.

[*P2] Plaintiff, Kamil Macias, filed a complaint against defendant, Naperville Gymnastics Club (the Club), for injuries he received after jumping off a springboard and landing head first into a “foam pit.” The trial court denied the Club’s motion to dismiss, pursuant to section 2-619 of the Code of Civil Procedure (Code) (735 ILCS 5/2-619 (West 2010)), but it later granted the Club’s motion for summary judgment based on a liability release agreement signed by plaintiff. Plaintiff raises several issues on appeal concerning the release and the effect of the earlier [**2] section 2-619 motion to dismiss. We affirm.

[*P3] I. BACKGROUND

[*P4] On January 15, 2011, plaintiff came to the Club with his friend. The Club offers “open gym” hours where members of the Club and the general public can attend. Plaintiff, who was not a member of the Club, paid a $10 admission fee and he signed a liability release agreement.

[*P5] A foam pit was located in the gym. After seeing participants jumping into the pit, plaintiff jogged up to a springboard in front of the pit, jumped onto the board and into the pit. While attempting to jump feet first, plaintiff’s body moved in the air, causing him to land head first, striking the bottom of the pit. Plaintiff immediately lost all feeling in his body below the neck. He remained in the pit covered by pieces of foam until he was extracted by the Naperville Fire Department. At the time, plaintiff was 20 years old, about 6 feet tall, and weighed 310 pounds. As a result of the accident, plaintiff suffered a broken neck, requiring extensive surgery and rehabilitation. Plaintiff filed a complaint alleging the Club was negligent in its failure to properly supervise the open gym, train participants, and warn participants of hazards and dangers accompanied with activities [**3] and use of equipment in the open gym.

[*P6] The Club filed a section 2-619(a)(9) motion to dismiss (735 ILCS 5/2-619(a)(9) (West 2010)), alleging that plaintiff signed a two-page liability release agreement that contained an exculpatory clause releasing the Club from liability for any acts of negligence.

[*P7] The trial court found the release ambiguous and denied the section 2-619(a)(9) motion without prejudice. In denying the motion, the judge stated that she felt it was inappropriate to dismiss the suit at that point, that there was case law on both sides of “these exculpatory clauses,” and the judge agreed that it was something that could be developed through discovery. She further stated, “But I think it’s something that is better suited for a summary judgment motion if the facts do bear that out from the defense’s perspective.”

[*P8] During discovery, plaintiff was questioned by defense counsel and testified to the following:

“Q. Okay. That first part of the form it says, ‘To gain admission to the activity areas of [the Club], all parts of this form must be read, understood, and signed.’ Do you see that?

A. Yes.

Q. And did you understand what that means?

A. Yes.

* * *

Q. Did you understand this to be an agreement on January 15th, 2011[,] between you and [the [**4] Club]?

A. Had I read this agreement I would have understood.

* * *

Q. And you understand that [the release] means that when you sign it that you’re agreeing to not bring any lawsuit against [the Club]?

A. Correct.

Q. And if you had read it on January 15th of 2011, that’s what you would have understood it to mean?

A. Correct.

* * *

Q. And you agree that the sport of gymnastics is a risky sport?

A. Correct.

Q: And you would have felt the same on January 15th, 2011[,] before your accident?

A. Yes.”

[*P9] At the entrance to the gym was a closed door with a window pane in it. Plaintiff did not recall seeing a sign on the door entitled, “Rules of the Gym.” Plaintiff reviewed the rules at his deposition and admitted that it said to “Walk around all pits and trampolines,” and he stated that he understood what this meant. The rules also stated: “Do not play on any equipment without proper supervision,” and “Do not do any gymnastics without proper supervision,” and plaintiff stated that he understood what these meant. Plaintiff also stated that he did not see a sign painted on the wall in the gym titled, “Loose foam pit rules.” That sign stated: “Look before you leap,” “No diving or belly flops,” and “Land on [**5] feet, bottom or back only.” Plaintiff acknowledged that he understood what these meant.

[*P10] After discovery, the Club filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that plaintiff’s claim was barred by the exculpatory clause of the release signed by plaintiff. The motion included the deposition testimony and that (1) plaintiff denied being given any verbal instructions and denied seeing the warning signs or rules posted in the gym before he was injured, and (2) plaintiff admitted that he would have understood the terms of the liability release, had he read it. Following argument, the trial court granted the Club’s motion for summary judgment. This timely appeal follows.

[*P11] II. ANALYSIS

[*P12] A. Standard of Review

[*P13] Summary judgment is appropriate “if the pleadings, depositions, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” 735 ILCS 5/2-1005(c) (West 2010). The motion should be denied if there are disputed facts, but also if reasonable people could draw different inferences from the undisputed facts. Wood v. National Liability & Fire Insurance Co., 324 Ill. App. 3d 583, 585, 755 N.E.2d 1044, 258 Ill. Dec. 225 (2001). We review an order granting summary judgment de novo. Pielet v. Pielet, 2012 IL 112064, ¶ 30, 978 N.E.2d 1000, 365 Ill. Dec. 497.

[*P14] We review the parties’ [**6] liability release agreement in accordance with well-established contract principles. Joyce v. Mastri, 371 Ill. App. 3d 64, 74, 861 N.E.2d 1102, 308 Ill. Dec. 537 (2007). The primary objective in construing a contract is to give effect to the parties’ intent, and to discover this intent the various contract provisions must be viewed as a whole. Kerton v. Lutheran Church Extension Fund, 262 Ill. App. 3d 74, 77, 634 N.E.2d 16, 199 Ill. Dec. 416 (1994). Words derive meaning from their context, and contracts must be viewed as a whole by examining each part in light of the other parts. Id. Contract language must not be rejected as meaningless or surplusage; it is presumed that the terms and provisions of a contract are purposely inserted and that the language was not employed idly. Id.

[*P15] In order for an exculpatory clause to be valid and enforceable, it should contain clear, explicit, and unequivocal language referencing the types of activities, circumstances, or situations that it encompasses and for which the plaintiff agrees to relieve the defendant from a duty of care. Calarco v. YMCA, 149 Ill. App. 3d 1037, 1040, 501 N.E.2d 268, 103 Ill. Dec. 247 (1986). In this way, the plaintiff will be put on notice of the range of dangers for which he assumes the risk of injury, enabling him to minimize the risks by exercising a greater degree of caution. Neumann v. Gloria Marshall Figure Salon, 149 Ill. App. 3d 824, 827, 500 N.E.2d 1011, 102 Ill. Dec. 910 (1986). The precise occurrence which results in injury need not have been contemplated by the parties at the time the contract [**7] was entered into. Schlessman v. Henson, 83 Ill. 2d 82, 86, 413 N.E.2d 1252, 46 Ill. Dec. 139 (1980). It should only appear that the injury falls within the scope of possible dangers ordinarily accompanying the activity and, thus, reasonably contemplated by the plaintiff. Garrison v. Combined Fitness Centre, Ltd., 201 Ill. App. 3d 581, 585, 559 N.E.2d 187, 147 Ill. Dec. 187 (1990). Further, when interpreting a contract containing an exculpatory clause, the court must interpret the scope of the exculpatory provision in the “context of the entire agreement.” Shorr Paper Products, Inc. v. Aurora Elevator, Inc., 198 Ill. App. 3d 9, 13, 555 N.E.2d 735, 144 Ill. Dec. 376 (1990). We review the interpretation of an exculpatory agreement or release of liability authorization de novo. Stratman v. Brent, 291 Ill. App. 3d 123, 137, 683 N.E.2d 951, 225 Ill. Dec. 448 (1997).

[*P16] In Garrison, a member of a health club who was injured when lifting weights on a bench press brought suit against the club and the manufacturer of the press. The trial court entered summary judgment in favor of the club, and the plaintiff appealed. The First District Appellate Court held that the exculpatory clause could not have been more clear or explicit, as it stated that each member bore the “sole risk” of injury that might result from the use of weights, equipment, or other apparatus provided and that the selection of the type of equipment to be used would be the “entire responsibility” of the member. The court found that the injury the plaintiff sustained clearly fell within the scope of possible dangers [**8] ordinarily accompanying the activity of weightlifting. Id. at 585. The court observed that the injury was of a type that would normally be contemplated by the parties at the time the contract was made and, therefore, the court held that it clearly fell within the parameters of the exculpatory clause. Id. See also Hussein v. L.A. Fitness International, LLC, 2013 IL App (1st) 121426, 987 N.E.2d 460, 369 Ill. Dec. 833; Neumann v. Gloria Marshall Figure Salon, 149 Ill. App. 3d 824, 500 N.E.2d 1011, 102 Ill. Dec. 910 (1986).

[*P17] Similar to Garrison and the cases cited above, the release agreement in the present case is clear and specific regarding the risks it covers and the release of the Club’s negligence. It specifically references the inherent risk of injury resulting from landing on landing surfaces, and plaintiff acknowledged in his deposition that this phrase includes the foam pit in which he was injured. The agreement also releases the Club from any and all claims, including those caused by its negligence. Furthermore, plaintiff’s signature certified that he recognized the dangers inherent with climbing and jumping activities and that he voluntarily assumed the risks.

[*P18] Nevertheless, plaintiff raises several arguments regarding the validity of the release and the effect of the earlier section 2-619 motion.

[*P19] B. Ambiguity of the Release

[*P20] 1. First Clause

[*P21] The first clause of the release, which is typed in capital letters, states: [**9]

“BY SIGNING THIS DOCUMENT YOU ACKNOWLEDGE THAT UNSUPERVISED USE OF ANY AREA OF FACILITY IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED AND COMPLETELY AT THE RISK OF THE PARTICIPANT AND THAT THE RULES [OF] EACH AREA BEING UTILIZED ARE UNDERSTOOD PRIOR TO PARTICIPATION!”

Plaintiff asserts that this clause is ambiguous as to whether supervision and a full understanding of the rules of the Club is a condition precedent to releasing defendant from liability. We agree that the first clause, standing alone, might be construed as stating that supervision and a full understanding of the rules of the Club is a condition preceding releasing the Club from liability. However, case law teaches that we must review the language of the release in its entirety in order to interpret the parties’ intent.

[*P22] The release contains a “Covenant Not to Sue for Injury or Damages,” which provides, in relevant part:

“Notice: This is a legally binding agreement. By signing this agreement, you waive your right to bring a court action to recover compensation or to obtain any other remedy for any injury to yourself *** however caused arising out of use of the facilities of [the Club].

I hereby acknowledge and agree that the sport of gymnastics [**10] and the use of the accompanying equipment has INHERENT RISKS. I have full knowledge of the nature and extent of all of the risks inherent in gymnastics and the use of the facilities of the gym, including but not limited to:

***

5. Injuries resulting from landing on the landing surfaces; and

6. Injuries to bones, joints, tendons, or death.

[*P23] The section of the release agreement entitled “Release Indemnification Liquidation Damages and Agreement to Arbitrate” states, in relevant part:

“In consideration of my use of the GYM, I the undersigned user, agree to release on behalf of myself *** [the Club] *** including but not limited to a claim of NEGLIGENCE.”

[*P24] The clause of the release immediately preceding plaintiff’s signature provides that “the undersigned recognize[s] the dangers inherent with climbing and jumping activities,” and the undersigned is “assuming the hazard of this risk upon myself because I wish to participate. I realize that I am subject to injury from this activity and that no form of pre-planning can remove all of the danger to which I am exposing myself.”

[*P25] In reading the release in its entirety, it is clear that the first clause of the release cannot be construed as plaintiff argues. The [**11] release contains no such limitations as it covers a number of activities, including “[i]njuries resulting from landing on the landing surfaces” (i.e. the “foam pit”), releasing the Club from negligence, and “the dangers inherent with climbing and jumping activities.”

[*P26] 2. Physical Condition Clause

[*P27] Two clauses of the release request the participant to agree that he or she is in good physical health and proper physical condition to participate. Plaintiff cites Calarco v. YMCA of Greater Metropolitan Chicago, 149 Ill. App. 3d 1037, 501 N.E.2d 268, 103 Ill. Dec. 247 (1986), and Macek v. Schooner’s Inc., 224 Ill. App. 3d 103, 586 N.E.2d 442, 166 Ill. Dec. 484 (1991), for the proposition that these types of clauses render the release ambiguous, as it is unclear whether the release only applies to injuries resulting from a participant’s physical ailments. In other words, the release does not apply to participants without physical ailments.

[*P28] We fail to follow the logic of plaintiff’s argument. However, the cases relied on by plaintiff are readily distinguishable. In Calarco, the plaintiff had been injured when metal weights from an exercise machine fell on her hand, breaking her bones. The plaintiff had agreed “to hold free from any and all liability the [defendant] *** for damages which [the plaintiff] may have or which may hereafter accrue to [the plaintiff] arising out of or connected with [the plaintiff’s] participation [**12] in any of the activities of the [defendant].” We held that the exculpatory clause in the membership application for the defendant’s facility was insufficient to protect the defendant from liability as a matter of law because the clause did not adequately describe the covered activities to clearly indicate that defendant’s negligence would be covered by the release. Calarco, 149 Ill. App. 3d at 1043-44. We further noted that the statement immediately following the alleged exculpatory language contained a declaration of physical health by the signer, and that the combination of the two provisions further complicated the interpretation of the release. Id.

[*P29] In Macek, the plaintiff participated in an arm wrestling contest with a machine that broke his arm. The court held that summary judgment was inappropriate because the release did not specify the covered activities but rather merely indicated that damages for “all injuries suffered” are waived. The court found further that the line immediately following the exculpatory language regarding the signer’s physical condition provided additional ambiguity. Id. at 106.

[*P30] In both Calarco and Marek, the releases did not specify the covered activities and did not specifically cover the defendants’ [**13] negligence. Both courts held that the physical condition clause simply added to the ambiguity of the release. However, contrary to Calarco and Marek, the release in this case clearly covers the activities in question and specifically releases defendant from liability for its negligence.

[*P31] 3. Inherent Risk Language

[*P32] Plaintiff argues that the use of “inherent risk” language throughout the release creates an ambiguity as to whether the language covers only dangers inherent in gymnastics and not freak accidents. We also reject this argument. As previously stated, the release specifically lists landing on landing surfaces as an inherent risk. Thus, there is no ambiguity as to whether plaintiff’s injury was covered by the release.

[*P33] C. Forseeability

[*P34] Plaintiff argues that his injury was not foreseeable because (1) he lacked specialized knowledge of gymnastics and, in particular, foam pits, to appreciate the danger and foresee the possibility of injury, and (2) his injury was not the type that would ordinarily accompany jumping into a foam pit.

[*P35] A plaintiff who expressly consents to relieve a defendant of an obligation of conduct toward the plaintiff assumes the risk of injury as a result of the [**14] defendant’s failure to adhere to the obligation. Larsen v. Vic Tanny International, 130 Ill. App. 3d 574, 576, 474 N.E.2d 729, 85 Ill. Dec. 769 (1984). The doctrine of assumption of risk presupposes, however, that the danger which causes the injury is such that it ordinarily accompanies the activities of the plaintiff, and that the plaintiff knows or should know both the danger and the possibility of injury prior to its occurrence. Id. at 576. The standard is a subjective one geared to a particular plaintiff, and the determination ordinarily will be made by a jury. Id. at 576-77.

[*P36] “The foreseeability of a specific danger defines the scope.” Cox v. U.S. Fitness, LLC, 2013 IL App (1st) 122442, ¶ 14, 377 Ill. Dec. 930, 2 N.E.3d 1211. “The relevant inquiry *** is not whether [the] plaintiff foresaw [the] defendants’ exact act of negligence,” but “whether [the] plaintiff knew or should have known” the accident “was a risk encompassed by his [or her] release.” Hellweg v. Special Events Management, 2011 IL App (1st) 103604, ¶ 7, 956 N.E.2d 954, 353 Ill. Dec. 826.

[*P37] Thus, the issue here is whether plaintiff knew or should have known that the accident was a risk encompassed by the release which he signed. As previously determined, the language of the release in this case was specific enough to put plaintiff on notice. In discussing inherent risks in the sport of gymnastics and use of the accompanying equipment, the release lists injuries resulting from landing on the landing surfaces, which includes [**15] injuries to bones, joints, tendons, or death. Plaintiff agreed that the foam pit was a landing surface and that some of the possible injuries that he could sustain at the gym from gymnastics activities included injuries to his bones, and he admitted at deposition that he had not read the release and that, had he read the release, he would have understood it to mean that he could not sue the gym for any injuries he sustained. Based on these facts, plaintiff should have known the risks of injury associated with the activity of jumping into the foam pit. Plaintiff participated in open gym, which reasonably contemplates participating in the use of the accompanying equipment. Plaintiff could have reasonably presumed that, should he jump from a springboard into the foam pit, he might land on his head. It is entirely foreseeable that, if plaintiff accidently fell on his head, he would be hurt by “landing on the landing surfaces,” a risk encompassed by the release agreement. See Oelze v. Score Sports Venture, 401 Ill. App. 3d 110, 121, 927 N.E.2d 137, 339 Ill. Dec. 596 (2010). Although plaintiff suffered a serious injury, we are bound by the release agreement. Accordingly, we find the trial court properly granted summary judgment on the basis that the release barred plaintiff’s negligence [**16] claim.

[*P38] D. Public Policy

[*P39] Plaintiff next argues that it would be against public policy to enforce the release in this case because the Club opened its gym to the unskilled and inexperienced public. Plaintiff does not cite any cases in support of this argument. In fact, the only case he cites, Hamer v. City Segway Tours of Chicago, LLC, 402 Ill. App. 3d 42, 930 N.E.2d 578, 341 Ill. Dec. 368 (2010), is inapposite to his position.

[*P40] Several cases have rejected plaintiff’s argument in the fitness club setting. See, e.g., Kubisen v. Chicago Health Clubs, 69 Ill. App. 3d 463, 388 N.E.2d 44, 26 Ill. Dec. 420 (1979); Owen v. Vic Tanny’s Enterprises, 48 Ill. App. 2d 344, 199 N.E.2d 280 (1964). Had plaintiff, an adult, read the release and disagreed with it, he could have simply refused to participate in open gym. “While exculpatory or limitation of damages clauses are not favored and must be strictly construed against a benefitting party [citation] the basis for their enforcement is the strong public policy favoring freedom of contract.” Rayner Covering Systems, Inc. v. Danvers Farmers Elevator Co., 226 Ill. App. 3d 507, 512, 589 N.E.2d 1034, 168 Ill. Dec. 634 (1992). There does not seem to be any reason in this case to depart from the strong public policy of allowing parties to freely enter into contracts.

[*P41] E. Section 2-619 Motion to Dismiss

[*P42] The Club filed a section 2-619 motion, alleging that plaintiff signed a two-page liability release that contained an exculpatory clause, which released the Club from liability for any acts of negligence. The trial court found the release was ambiguous and denied the motion. However, [**17] the court recognized that disputed facts might affect the validity of the release and indicated that the Club was free to raise the issue again in a summary judgment motion after facts surrounding the execution of the release were developed in discovery.

[*P43] Citing Makowski v. City of Naperville, 249 Ill. App. 3d 110, 117-18, 617 N.E.2d 1251, 187 Ill. Dec. 530 (1993), plaintiff acknowledges that a trial court may allow a party to reassert a defense after previously ruling on the merits only when new evidence is presented. Plaintiff claims that the summary judgment motion did not allege new facts but simply relied on the language of the release as it did in the Club’s section 2-619 motion. We disagree.

[*P44] The Club did allege additional facts in its summary judgment motion that were developed during discovery that affected the validity of the release. Those facts included plaintiff’s acknowledgment that he understood the meaning of the terms of the release, that he understood the inherent risks, and that he understood that the risk of “landing on landing surfaces” would include the foam pit where he was injured. He also testified that had he read the release he would have understood its language to mean that he could not sue the gym for any injuries he sustained. Since we review a summary judgment motion [**18] de novo (Pielet, 2012 IL 112064, ¶ 30), this evidence tends to defeat plaintiff’s ambiguity arguments.

[*P45] III. CONCLUSION

[*P46] For the reasons stated, we affirm the judgment of the Circuit Court of Du Page County granting the Club’s motion for summary judgment.

[*P47] Affirmed.


Whitewater rafting release upheld by the Alaska Supreme Court.

Language in the release stated the defendant would and had done their best to keep people adequate… that language almost voided the release. Don’t put in a release information that can be used against you!

Langlois v. Nova River Runners, Inc., 2018 Alas. LEXIS 31

State: Alaska, Supreme Court of Alaska

Plaintiff: Vanessa L. Langlois, Personal Representative of the Estate of Stephen J. Morton

Defendant: Nova River Runners, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: Wrongful Death and multiple theories of Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2018

Summary

The deceased died whitewater rafting. Alaska has a six-prong test to determine if a release is valid. Here, the plaintiff argued the release in question failed on every point.

The Alaskan Supreme Court disagreed; however, on a few of the issues, the court struggled to have this release meet the requirements needed.

Facts

The defendant operated whitewater raft trips on Six Mile Creek near Hope, Alaska. The deceased signed a release prior to going rafting. No one could remember if the deceased read both sides of the release, however, ample time was given so the release could have been read.

The release is a 2-sided document. One side is labeled Participants Acknowledgment of Risk. The other side is where the participants acknowledge they have read the release.

The raft trip consists of three canyons. After the first two canyons, the participants are given an opportunity to get off the trip because the third canyon is the hardest. The deceased did not leave the trip. Sometime in the canyon is raft capsized, and the decedent died.

The spouse of the deceased brought his lawsuit on her behalf and as the executor (personal representative) of the estate. The trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims after the defendant filed a motion for summary judgment based on the release signed by the deceased. The plaintiff appealed.

The decision was heard by the Alaska Supreme Court. Alaska does not have an intermediate appellate court so appeals from the trial court go to the Supreme Court.

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

Alaska has a statute, Alaska Statute 09.65.290, that protects recreational defendants from liability from the inherent risks of the activity. The court recognized the statute is weak and stated that business in Alaska must supplement their protection by using a release.

The Alaska Supreme Court decided one prior decision concerning releases Donahue v. Ledgends, Inc., 2014 Alas. LEXIS 153, See Alaskan Supreme Court upholds releases for climbing gym and sets forth requirements on how releases will be upheld in AK. The court relied on its prior decision in Donahue to support its decision here.

In Donahue, the court created a six-part test to test the validity of a release.

…(1) the risk being waived must be specifically and clearly set forth (e.g. death, bodily injury, and property damage); (2) a waiver of negligence must be specifically set forth using the word “negligence”; (3) these factors must be brought home to the releasor in clear, emphasized language . . . ; (4) the release must not violate public policy; (5) if a release seeks to exculpate a defendant from liability for acts of negligence unrelated to inherent risks, the release must suggest an intent to do so; and (6) the release agreement must not represent or insinuate standards of safety or maintenance.

The plaintiff argued the release in this case did not satisfy the requirements set forth in Donahue.

The first argument was the release was not conspicuous and unequivocal because the release was two sided, and the sides did not appear to incorporate or be connected to each other.

The court did not agree with the argument because whether or not it was two different documents and whether or not the deceased read both sides was irrelevant because he signed the document. “We note that Participants in a recreational activity need not read a release for it to be binding if the language of the release is available to them.

The next argument was different.

The Estate also argues that NOVA’s Release “does not specifically and clearly set forth the risk that the NOVA instructors may have been negligently trained or supervised, or that they may give inadequate warning or instructions.”

The court found that the language in the release was broad enough to cover this claim.

However, the Release covers this risk as well; it indemnifies the “Releasees” in capital letters from liability for injury or death, “whether arising from negligence of the Releasees or otherwise,” and specifically defines “Releasees” to include “employees.”

The court also found that in Donahue,

…we also observed that “[i]t would not be reasonable to conclude that [the defendant] sought a release only of those claims against it that did not involve the acts or omissions of any of its employees.”

The plaintiffs then argued that a release must use the word negligence in it. This is a requirement of many states. Here, however, the argument failed because the release did use the term negligence, several times. The plaintiff’s argued that each time the word negligence was used, it was used in a way that was different from the prior ways so the release was not clear and explicit.

Next the plaintiff’s argued the language was not clear and did not adequately define the activity. The court found this release used capital letters to highlight the clauses waiving negligence, and the negligence clause was not concealed from view.

The clause contained some legalese; however, releases should be read “as a whole” to determine whether or not the language in the release “clearly notify the prospective releasor of the effect of signing the agreement.”

The release was a general release in that it also included release language for glacier hiking and ice climbing. However, the inherent risks outlined in the release were the risks of whitewater rafting. With that risk language, the court found the reader would know they were signing a release.

Based on that language it is obvious the release would fail for ice climbing and glacier hiking?

The plaintiff’s argued the release violated public policy. However, the court outlined Alaska’s definition of public policy in relation to recreation activities.

In evaluating public policy arguments in the context of liability waivers, we have previously considered “[o]f particular relevance . . . the type of service performed and whether the party seeking exculpation has a decisive advantage in bargaining strength because of the essential nature of the service.”25 The type of service likely to inspire additional scrutiny on public policy grounds is “a service of great importance to the public, which is often a matter of practical necessity for some members of the public.

A release for recreational activities does not violate public policy in Alaska.

The plaintiffs also argued the “release suggests an intent to exculpate nova from liability for employee negligence.

The court said, yes it does and that is OK. However, the court also specifically identified weaknesses in the release in this area. However, the weaknesses were not enough to void the release.

Ideally NOVA’s Release would include a more detailed description of the types of negligence it covers, such as “employee negligence” and “negligent training.” But doing so is not a requirement under Donahue. We therefore conclude that the Release suggests an intent to exculpate NOVA from liability for acts of employee negligence.

The plaintiffs also argued the defendants violated their own requirements set forth in the release. The release stated:

“…the concessionaire has taken reasonable steps to provide you with appropriate equipment and/or skilled guides so you can enjoy an activity for which you may not be skilled.”

The court worked around this stating the language before and after this [stupid] section defined the risks of the activity, which should have shown the deceased that no matter what steps taken, there were still risks. The court stated, read as a whole, the release outlined numerous risks of whitewater rafting.

The plaintiff argued a case out of Florida, which also had numerous safety standards the defendant promised to meet and had not, should be controlling here. The court had been struggling through four paragraphs eventually concluded.

NOVA’s Release contains only a single half-sentence, to that effect, adequately disclaimed: “Although the concessionaire has taken reasonable steps to provide you with appropriate equipment and/or skilled guides so you can enjoy an activity for which you may not be skilled, this activity is not without risk. Certain risks cannot be eliminated without destroying the unique character of the activity.” And the release in Kerr was much broader — promising to “try to make the [premises] safe” — than NOVA’s Release, which promises merely that the company takes “reasonable steps to provide . . . appropriate equipment and/or skilled guides” while acknowledging in context that these precautions could not mitigate all the risks posed by a whitewater rafting trip. The Estate’s reliance on Kerr is thus misplaced, and we conclude that the Release does not represent or insinuate standards of safety or maintenance.

The court found the release met all the six requirements needed in Alaska to be a release and upheld the trial court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims.

So Now What?

If your release, and I hope, it does, covers more than one page, make sure the pages connect or relate to each other. First, if on just one piece of paper, at the bottom of each page put in the footer, “Please Read Other Side.” If the release is more than two pages, besides the admonition to read the other side include page numbers on the document.

Write the document so it flows. You don’t have to have a heading at the top of each page. The two different headings in this case raised the argument it was two separate and unrelated documents. If the document were two different documents, then the first page should have had a signature line also, which is what the plaintiff argued. With no signature line, the first page of the document was a separate document and could not be held against the deceased.

If the writing flows, the paragraph or idea continues on the next page, then this would have been a non-issue.

Next you have to write your release to cover not only could happen but will happen, and it is all tied back to your employees. Always protect your employees and write the release broadly so it covers all the possible actions or acts an employee could take that may lead to a claim.

Never create in your release in a way for the plaintiff to sue you. Never make promises, never say you operate at a level, never say you use the best or even adequate anything. That language in this release almost was enough to defeat the release, and it was obvious the court struggled to find a very weak argument to beat this part of the plaintiff’s claims.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2018 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

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What happens if you fail to follow the requirements of your insurance policy and do not get a release signed? In New Hampshire, you have no coverage.

You either have to create an absolutely fool proof system or take your release
online. If they don’t sign they don’t climb!

Colony Insurance Company v. Dover Indoor Climbing Gym & a., 158 N.H. 628; 974 A.2d
399; 2009 N.H. LEXIS 51

State: New Hampshire, Supreme Court of New Hampshire

Plaintiff: Colony Insurance Company

Defendant: Dover Indoor Climbing Gym& a.

Plaintiff Claims: There was no insurance coverage because the insured did not get a release signed by the injured claimant

Defendant Defenses: The insurance policy endorsement requiring a release to be signed was ambiguous

Holding: For the Plaintiff Insurance Company

Year: 2009

This is a scary case, yet the outcome is correct. The plaintiff insurance company issued a policy to the defendant climbing gym. An endorsement (an added amendment to the contract) to the policy said there would only be coverage if the gym all customers sign a release.

 An endorsement to the policy stated: “All ‘participants’ shall be required to sign a waiver or release of liability in
your favor prior to engaging in any ‘climbing activity.’ “It further stated: “Failure to conform to this warranty will render this policy null and void as [sic] those claims brought against you.”

A climber came to the gym with a group of friends. The gym asked everyone if they had a release on file, and no one said no. (Yes really stupid procedures!) Bigelow was part of the group and did not have a release on file and had not signed a release. While climbing Bigelow fell and was injured.

Bigelow accompanied friends to the climbing gym, but did not sign a waiver. He testified that he was never asked to sign a waiver; the gym owner’s affidavit stated that the owner asked the group of climbers if they had waivers on file and received no negative answers. It is undisputed; however, that Bigelow did not sign a waiver or release. While climbing, Bigelow fell and sustained serious injuries.

The defendant climbing gym put the plaintiff insurance company on notice of the claim. When the insurance company found out no release was signed, the insurance company filed a declaratory judgment motion. A declaratory judgment is a way to go into a court and say there is no coverage under this policy because there was no release. It is an attempt to be a quick interpretation of the contract so the bigger issue can be resolved quickly.

The gym then put Colony on notice to defend and pay any verdict obtained by Bigelow. In response, Colony filed a petition for declaratory judgment, arguing that the gym’s failure to obtain a release from Bigelow absolved Colony of any duty to defend or indemnify the gym.

Both parties filed motions for summary judgment. The trial court granted the climbing gym’s motion for summary judgment saying the endorsement requiring the signed release was ambiguous. The ambiguity was created because the insurance company had not provided the gym with a sample waiver to use.

The trial court found that Colony’s failure to provide the gym with a sample waiver rendered the endorsement provision ambiguous. The trial court therefore denied Colony’s motion for summary judgment, and granted the defendants’ cross-motion for summary judgment. 

This analysis by the court was absurd. Releases need to be written for the gym, for the gym’s clients and for the state law of the state where it is to be used. A “sample” release is a guaranteed loser in most cases. However, I suspect the court was looking for anyway it could find to provide coverage for the gym.

The trial court’s ruling meant the plaintiff insurance company had to provide coverage to the defendant for any claims made by the injured climber Bigelow.

The insurance company appealed the decision. New Hampshire does not have an intermediary appellate court system so the appeal went to the New Hampshire Supreme Court.

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

Insurance policies are contracts and are interpreted as such. However, because have been written in a specific way and are always offered on a take it or leave it basis, as well as the fact the insurance company has all the cards (money) insurance policies have additional legal interpretations in addition to contract law.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court started its analysis by looking at how insurance policies are interpreted. That means the policy is read as a whole objectively. Terms are given their natural meaning, meaning there is no special interpretation of any term, and if the policy is clear and unambiguous is it enforced. No special reading of the policy is allowed based on any party to the policy’s expectations.

We construe the language of an insurance policy as would a reasonable person in the position of the insured based upon a more than casual reading of the policy as a whole. Policy terms are construed objectively, and where the terms of a policy are clear and unambiguous, we accord the language its natural and ordinary meaning. We need not examine the parties’ reasonable expectations of coverage when a policy is clear and unambiguous; absent ambiguity, our search for the parties’ intent is limited to the words of the policy.

The burden of proving that no insurance coverage exists as defined by the policy rests on the insurance company. That means coverage exists under the policy unless the insurance company can prove no coverage was written.

If an insurance company wants to limit its coverage, it is allowed to do so. However, that limitation must be clear and unambiguous. An ambiguity exists if a reasonable disagreement exists between the insurance company and the policyholder and that disagreement could lead to two or more, interpretations.

Although an insurer has a right to contractually limit the extent of its liability, it must do so “through clear and unambiguous policy language. Ambiguity exists if “reasonable disagreement between contracting parties” leads to at least two interpretations of the language. 

Ambiguities will be examined in the appropriate context and the words construed in their plain, ordinary and popular meaning. If the interpretation of the ambiguity favors the policyholder, then the coverage will favor the insured.

In determining whether an ambiguity exists, we will look to the claimed ambiguity, consider it in its appropriate context, and construe the words used according to their plain, ordinary, and popular definitions. If one of the reasonable meanings of the language favors the policyholder, the ambiguity will be construed against the insurer. 

If, however, the language in the policy is clear, the court will not bend over backward or as written in this case “perform amazing feats of linguistic gymnastics” to find an ambiguity and create coverage.

Where, however, the policy language is clear, this court “will not perform amazing feats of linguistic gymnastics to find a purported ambiguity” simply to construe the policy against the insurer and create coverage where it is clear that none was intended. 

The court then looked at the determination of the trial court which found an ambiguity because the insurance company did not provide a sample insurance policy. The Supreme Court found that was an incorrect interpretation of the policy. Even the defendant climbing gym agreed with the court on this
issue.

Even the gym, however, contends that the trial court “reached the correct result for the wrong reasons.” Thus, the gym does not argue that the endorsement creates an ambiguity by its failure to provide the insured with a sample waiver form, but, rather, that the exclusionary language is ambiguous because it states that participants shall “be required” to sign waivers as opposed to mandating that the gym obtain signed waivers.  

The court then applied to the law of New Hampshire in interpreting insurance policies to the facts of this case. The court found the language requiring a release was clear and that a reasonable person could only read it.

The clear meaning of the policy language is that the gym is required to actually obtain waivers from climbing participants. The gym’s interpretation would lead to the absurd result of requiring coverage even if the gym never actually enforced its waiver policy. A reasonable person reading the policy would not understand that coverage existed in such circumstances. The gym’s interpretation is unreasonably narrow, and is therefore not the type of alternative interpretation that renders policy language ambiguous.

Simply put the policy requires the defendant climbing gym to have everyone sign a release. If no release is signed, there was no coverage for the gym. The trial court was overturned, and the climbing gym faced the claims of the injured climber without insurance coverage.

So Now What?

One of the first cases I was involved with was very similar. A Montana stable was insured by an insurance company with an endorsement just as this one; all riders were required to sign a release. In Montana all guides, including horseback guides had to be licensed by the state. A state employee was checking out the
stable and found the releases. In Montana, you cannot use a release. (See States that do not Support the Use of a Release andMontana Statute Prohibits Use of a Release)

The state employee had the stable quit using the release, or they would lose their license to operate in Montana. A rider was injured and sued the stable, and the insurance company denied coverage. I was contacted by the law firm representing the insurance company and was floored by the facts and how the insurance company could deny coverage when it violated state regulations.

However, in that situation as well as this one, there is not much you can do to get around the situation if the policy clearly states you must have a release signed. In the Montana case, the stable owner should have immediately contacted his insurance company when he was told he could not use a release and pay to have the endorsement removed or found another insurance company to write him a policy.

In this case, a proper procedure should have been put in place to confirm signed releases rather than relying on the honesty of someone walking through the doors to the gym.

When you purchase insurance make sure you and your insurance agent are speaking clearly to each other, and you both understand what you are looking for. When the policy arrives, read the policy or pay a professional to read the policy for you looking for the coverage’s you need as well as looking for problems with the coverage.

If you ask the agent or broker to clarify the coverage you are wanting, to make sure you get that clarification in writing (or an email), so you can take that to court if necessary.

Most importantly create a system to make sure that everyone who comes to your facility, activity or business when you use a release, signs a release.

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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#SummerCamp, #Tourism, #TravelLaw, #YouthCamps, #ZipLineLawyer, gym, ambiguity,
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Colony Insurance Company v. Dover Indoor Climbing Gym, 158 N.H. 628; 974 A.2d 399; 2009 N.H. LEXIS 51

Colony Insurance Company v. Dover Indoor Climbing Gym & a., 158 N.H. 628; 974 A.2d 399; 2009 N.H. LEXIS 51

Colony Insurance Company v. Dover Indoor Climbing Gym & a.

No. 2008-759

SUPREME COURT OF NEW HAMPSHIRE

158 N.H. 628; 974 A.2d 399; 2009 N.H. LEXIS 51

March 18, 2009, Argued

April 24, 2009, Opinion Issued

HEADNOTES NEW HAMPSHIRE OFFICIAL REPORTS HEADNOTES

1. Insurance–Policies–Construction The interpretation of insurance policy language is a question of law for the court to decide. The court construes the language of an insurance policy as would a reasonable person in the position of the insured based upon a more than casual reading of the policy as a whole. Policy terms are construed objectively, and where the terms of a policy are clear and unambiguous, the court accords the language its natural and ordinary meaning. The court need not examine the parties’ reasonable expectations of coverage when a policy is clear and unambiguous; absent ambiguity, the court’s search for the parties’ intent is limited to the words of the policy.

2. Insurance–Proceedings–Burden of Proof The burden of proving that no insurance coverage exists rests squarely with the insurer.

3. Insurance–Policies–Ambiguities Although an insurer has a right to contractually limit the extent of its liability, it must do so through clear and unambiguous policy language. Ambiguity exists if reasonable disagreement between contracting parties leads to at least two interpretations of the language. In determining whether an ambiguity exists, the court will look to the claimed ambiguity, consider it in its appropriate context, and construe the words used according to their plain, ordinary, and popular definitions. If one of the reasonable meanings of the language favors the policyholder, the ambiguity will be construed against the insurer. Where, however, the policy language is clear, the court will not perform amazing feats of linguistic gymnastics to find a purported ambiguity simply to construe the policy against the insurer and create coverage where it is clear that none was intended.

4. Insurance–Policies–Construction When a climbing gym’s insurance policy stated, “All participants shall be required to sign a waiver or release of liability in your favor prior to engaging in any climbing activity,” the clear meaning of the policy language was that the gym was required to actually obtain waivers from climbing participants. The gym’s interpretation that a reasonable person would believe that coverage existed so long as the gym had a policy of requiring waivers regardless of whether it actually obtained waivers would lead to the absurd result of requiring coverage even if the gym never actually enforced its waiver policy. A reasonable person reading the policy would not understand that coverage existed in such circumstances. Because the policy required the gym to obtain waivers from all participants, the failure to do so in the case of an injured climber rendered coverage under the policy inapplicable to his claims.

COUNSEL: Wiggin & Nourie, P.A., of Manchester (Doreen F. Connor on the brief and orally), for the plaintiff.

Mallory & Friedman, PLLC, of Concord (Mark L. Mallory on the brief and orally), for defendant, Dover Indoor Climbing Gym.

Shaheen & Gordon, P.A., of Dover, for defendant, Richard Bigelow, filed no brief.

JUDGES: DUGGAN, J. BRODERICK, C.J., and DALIANIS, J., concurred.

OPINION BY: DUGGAN

OPINION

[**400]   [*629]  Duggan, J. The plaintiff, Colony Insurance Company (Colony), appeals an order of the Superior Court (McHugh, J.) denying its motion for summary judgment and granting that of the defendants, Dover Indoor Climbing Gym (the gym) and Richard Bigelow. We reverse and remand.

The trial court found, or the record supports, the following facts. Colony issued a commercial general liability insurance policy to the gym, which was in effect from January 5, 2007, to January 5, 2008. An endorsement to the policy stated: “All ‘participants’ shall be required to sign a waiver or release of liability in your favor prior to engaging in any ‘climbing activity.’ ” It further stated: “Failure to conform to this warranty will render this policy null and void as [sic] those claims brought against you.”

On August 14, 2007,  [***2] Bigelow accompanied friends to the climbing gym, but did not sign a waiver. He testified that he was never asked to sign a waiver; the gym owner’s affidavit stated that the owner asked the group of climbers if they had waivers on file and received no negative answers. It is undisputed, however, that Bigelow did not sign a waiver or release. While climbing, Bigelow fell and sustained serious injuries. The gym then put Colony on notice to defend and pay any verdict obtained by Bigelow. In response, Colony filed a petition for declaratory judgment, arguing that the gym’s failure to obtain a release from Bigelow absolved Colony of any duty to defend or indemnify the gym.

Both Colony and the defendants filed motions for summary judgment, which the trial court addressed in a written order. The trial court found that Colony’s failure to provide the gym with a sample waiver rendered the endorsement provision ambiguous. The trial court therefore denied Colony’s motion for summary judgment, and granted the defendants’ cross-motion  [**401]  for summary judgment. This appeal followed.

[*630]  On appeal, Colony argues that the trial court erred in finding that the endorsement was ambiguous, and contends that the  [***3] gym’s failure to obtain a waiver from Bigelow renders the policy inapplicable as to his claims. Alternatively, Colony argues that even if the endorsement is ambiguous, the gym is not entitled to coverage because it had actual knowledge of the policy’s waiver requirement.

[HN1] In reviewing the trial court’s grant or denial of summary judgment, we consider the evidence, and all inferences properly drawn from it, in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Everitt v. Gen. Elec. Co., 156 N.H. 202, 208, 932 A.2d 831 (2007); Sintros v. Hamon, 148 N.H. 478, 480, 810 A.2d 553 (2002). If there is no genuine issue of material fact, and if the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, the grant of summary judgment is proper. Everitt, 156 N.H. at 209; Sintros, 148 N.H. at 480. We review the trial court’s application of the law to the facts de novo. Everitt, 156 N.H. at 209; Sintros, 148 N.H. at 480.

[1]  [HN2] The interpretation of insurance policy language is a question of law for this court to decide. Godbout v. Lloyd’s Ins. Syndicates, 150 N.H. 103, 105, 834 A.2d 360 (2003). We construe the language of an insurance policy as would a reasonable person in the position of the insured based upon a more than casual reading  [***4] of the policy as a whole. Id. Policy terms are construed objectively, and where the terms of a policy are clear and unambiguous, we accord the language its natural and ordinary meaning. Id. We need not examine the parties’ reasonable expectations of coverage when a policy is clear and unambiguous; absent ambiguity, our search for the parties’ intent is limited to the words of the policy. Id.

[2, 3] In this case, the gym argues that the policy is ambiguous and Colony maintains that it is not.  [HN3] The burden of proving that no insurance coverage exists rests squarely with the insurer. Curtis v. Guaranty Trust Life Ins. Co., 132 N.H. 337, 340, 566 A.2d 176 (1989); see RSA 491:22-a (1997).  [HN4] Although an insurer has a right to contractually limit the extent of its liability, it must do so “through clear and unambiguous policy language.” Id. (quotation omitted). Ambiguity exists if “reasonable disagreement between contracting parties” leads to at least two interpretations of the language. Int’l Surplus Lines Ins. Co. v. Mfgs. & Merchants Mut. Ins. Co., 140 N.H. 15, 20, 661 A.2d 1192 (1995); Trombly v. Blue Cross/Blue Shield, 120 N.H. 764, 771, 423 A.2d 980 (1980). In determining whether an ambiguity exists, we will look to the claimed ambiguity,  [***5] consider it in its appropriate context, and construe the words used according to their plain, ordinary, and popular definitions. Int’l Surplus, 140 N.H. at 20. If one of the reasonable meanings of the language favors the policyholder, the ambiguity will be construed against the insurer. Id. Where, however, the policy language is clear, this court “will not  [*631]  perform amazing feats of linguistic gymnastics to find a purported ambiguity” simply to construe the policy against the insurer and create coverage where it is clear that none was intended. Hudson v. Farm Family Mut. Ins. Co., 142 N.H. 144, 147, 697 A.2d 501 (1997); Curtis, 132 N.H. at 342.

The trial court found that the endorsement requiring waivers is ambiguous because Colony did not provide the gym with a sample waiver. Even the gym, however, contends that the trial court “reached the  [**402]  correct result for the wrong reasons.” Thus, the gym does not argue that the endorsement creates an ambiguity by its failure to provide the insured with a sample waiver form, but, rather, that the exclusionary language is ambiguous because it states that participants shall “be required” to sign waivers as opposed to mandating that the gym obtain signed waivers.  [***6] Under this interpretation, the gym argues, a reasonable person would believe that coverage exists so long as the gym has a policy of requiring waivers regardless of whether it actually obtained waivers from climbing participants. Colony argues that the policy language is unambiguous. We agree with Colony.

[4] The clear meaning of the policy language is that the gym is required to actually obtain waivers from climbing participants. The gym’s interpretation would lead to the absurd result of requiring coverage even if the gym never actually enforced its waiver policy. A reasonable person reading the policy would not understand that coverage existed in such circumstances. The gym’s interpretation is unreasonably narrow, and is therefore not the type of alternative interpretation that renders policy language ambiguous. See Curtis, 132 N.H. at 342 ( [HN5] refusing to find ambiguity when alternate interpretations would “inevitably lead to absurd results”). To construe the exclusion against the insurer here would create coverage where it is clear that none was intended. We therefore conclude that the policy language is unambiguous and that a reasonable insured would understand that the exclusion would  [***7] apply in this case.

Because the policy requires the gym to obtain waivers from all participants, the failure to do so in the case of Bigelow renders coverage under the policy inapplicable to his claims. In light of our holding, we need not address Colony’s remaining argument. We therefore reverse the order of the trial court granting the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, and hold that Colony is entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law.

Reversed and remanded.

Broderick, C.J., and Dalianis, J., concurred.

 


“Marketing makes promises Risk Management has to pay for” in this case, the marketing eliminated the protection afforded by the warning labels

Cornell and a manufacturer of a piece of equipment used in a gym at Cornell were being sued by an injured student who used the equipment. The court definitely was leaning towards the student; however, the student had come to court prepared, (and backed by a lot of money I’m guessing.)

Duchesneau v. Cornell University, et al., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106412

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

Plaintiff: Randall Duchesneau

Defendant: Cornell University and Tumbltrak

Plaintiff Claims: Product Liability, Failure to Warn, requesting punitive damages

Defendant Defenses:

Holding: No duty, Failure to state a claim, Assumption of Risk & Release?

Year: 2012

This case spent four years getting to this point, and it is obvious the court is a little tired of the litigation. Consequently, the facts are difficult to determine.

It seems the plaintiff was a beginning gymnast and injured himself on a piece of equipment at the Cornell University gym called the Tumbletrak. The extents of his injuries are never clear, but based on the number of experts the plaintiff hired and the lengthy fight; I guess his injuries were extensive.

This case was being heard in a Pennsylvania Federal Court with a Michigan and a New York Defendant. That fact alone is confusing.

The decision is based on motions for summary judgment filed by both Cornell and the manufacturer Tumbletrak.

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

The court first examines the manufacture’s motion for summary judgment. The first issue the manufacturer claimed the plaintiff failed to establish the minimum facts necessary to go to trial; the plaintiff is not entitled to punitive damages, and the plaintiff assumed the risk. The court first looked at what was required to establish a failure to warn case. Meaning a manufacturer has a duty to warn users of the product of the risks and failed to do so.

Under New York law, 2 to establish a prima facie case of failure to warn, a Plaintiff must show that (1) the defendant-manufacturer had a duty to warn; (2) the manufacturer breached such duty and so the product is rendered defective, i.e., reasonably certain to be dangerous; (3) the product’s defect was the proximate cause of the injury to plaintiff; and (4) the plaintiff suffered loss or damage.

The burden is on the plaintiff to prove the failure to warn of the risk by the manufacturer was the cause of the plaintiff’s injury.

This burden includes adducing proof that a user of the product at issue would have read and heeded a warning had one been given. Conversely, failure to warn claims can be decided as a matter of law against an injured party where the injured party was “fully aware of the hazard through general knowledge, observation, or common sense” or where the hazard is “patently dangerous.”

Failure to warn can be denied both by proving the plaintiff read and heeded the risk or knew of the risk prior to using the equipment. The manufacturer argued the risk was open and obvious, which does not require proof because the plaintiff should have seen the risk.

T-Trak contends that Plaintiff cannot establish a prima facie case of failure to warn where (1) the risk of injury was open and obvious and (2) Plaintiff did not actually read the warnings that were on the TTA. First T-Trak argues that “the risk of injury while performing a back flip was open and obvious and readily discernable to Plaintiff.” More specifically, T-Trak opines that general knowledge dictates that “an individual might land on his head if he attempts a back flip on a rebounding

In a footnote at this point, the court states the plaintiff signed a release stating he understood the risks; however, nothing else is mentioned about the release in the rest of the decision.

One way to defend against a motion for summary judgment is to argue there are enough facts or issues that make the facts relied upon by the defendant an issue.  Meaning if enough facts are in dispute, the motion for summary judgement cannot be granted. This is what the plaintiff did through his experts.

Plaintiff has produced the report of warnings expert Dr. William J. Vigilante Jr., which, inter alia, cited numerous deficiencies in the warnings on the TTA: the warnings on the TTA were blurred and could not be read even at a close distance; the warnings were located on either end of the TTA, not in the middle where a user would mount it; and the warnings were located adjacent to a cartoon depicting teddy bears conducting unspotted, unsupervised backflips on the TTA. [Emphasize added]

Here the manufacturer shot his defense down before the product left the assembly plant by confusing risk management and marketing. Teddy bears doing the activities unspotted that the warning allegedly warns against eliminated the warning in the court’s eyes. (And rightfully so!) If the manufacturer shows cartoons doing the act without regard for safety, then the act must be safe, no matter what the warning says. If the warning can be located.

In a scary statement, the court held that failure to read the warnings on the product is not an issue in a failure to warn case.

However, failure to read the TTA’s warnings “does not necessarily sever the causal connection between the alleged inadequacy of those warnings, on the one hand, and the occurrence of the accident, on the other.”

The court based this analysis on the many different statements by witnesses who seemed to go in every direction, but all stated they never saw the warning.

Indeed, there is more than just that fact here. According to the summary judgment record none of the many fact witnesses in this case (including Plaintiff) testified that they ever saw any warning on the TTA. Furthermore, Plaintiff himself has submitted sworn testimony that if he had seen what Dr. Vigiliante characterized as a proper warning, Plaintiff would have heeded the proper warning and either never have attempted a backflip or done so only with the assistance of a qualified coach or spotter.

A warning does not exist unless the consumer can’t miss it. Meaning the warning must be in the consumer’s face every time they go to use a product. On top of that the warning must be in the manual, in some states on the packaging and maybe on a hangtag with the product.

The failure to warn claim was sustained and would be decided at trial.

The court then looked at the assumption of the risk defense brought by the defendant manufacturer. The court started this analysis looking at the requirements to prove a negligence claim in a product case.

To prove a prima facie case of negligence, a plaintiff must establish (1) existence of a duty of the defendant to the plaintiff; (2) breach of the duty; and (3) that the breach of the duty was a proximate cause of the injury to the plaintiff.

However, assumption of the risk in a product’s case is a little more stringent then in a recreation case. “Assumption of risk is frequently applied to claims arising out of participation in sporting events.” In sporting or recreation cases, the risk is clear and understood by all involved and to be effective the risk was not altered or enhanced by the defendant. In a product’s case the requirements are slightly different.

Assumption of risk operates to eliminate the duty of care to a plaintiff, and can therefore be a complete bar to recovery for negligence. To establish assumption of risk, a defendant bears the burden of establishing that the “plaintiff was aware of the defective or dangerous condition and the resultant risk.” This determination depends in part on the openness and obviousness of the risk.

Again, the case goes back to did the plaintiff know of the risks. Where the risks open and obvious or can you prove under the law the plaintiff knew of the risk. Because no one ever saw the warning, the warning had no value. That left it up to a jury to decide if the plaintiff knew the risk of the sport or activity.

The next argument was a motion to eliminate a punitive damages claim by the manufacturer arguing the case should be tried under Michigan’s law because the manufacturer was based in Michigan. Michigan does not allow punitive damages, unless they are expressly authorized by statute.

There has been a prior argument about the jurisdiction and venue of the case decided by a prior judge. (Which is alone confusing since none of the defendants are located in Pennsylvania where the court sits, however, the court is applying New York law?) Because of the prior decision, this court followed it and ruled that New York law would be applied to the facts of the case, and punitive damages were going to be at issue.

Cornell University was then giving a shot at its motions starting with the punitive damages issue. Cornell claimed the plaintiff had not presented any evidence that could support a punitive damages claim. The plaintiff responded arguing facts that could prove a punitive damages claim against the university.

(1) Cornell ran its own gymnasium without rules, standards, coaching, instruction, screening, supervision, and spotting; (2) multiple experts have opined that Cornell’s conduct in that regard was, inter alia, “highly dangerous,” “indefensible,” “outrageous,” “reckless,” and “an accident waiting to happen”; and (3) Cornell violated “every applicable mainstream gymnastics safety standard, [and] systematically allowed a wholly-incompetent individual to supervise the gymnasium.”

The court defined the requirements to prove a punitive damages claim.

As discussed supra, New York law allows a plaintiff to recover punitive damages, so as to punish gross misbehavior for the public good. An award of punitive damages would be proper “where the conduct of the party being held liable evidences a high degree of moral culpability, or where the conduct is so flagrant as to transcend mere carelessness, or where the conduct constitutes willful or wanton negligence or recklessness.”

The court found there was sufficient evidence to support a possible punitive damages claim.

There is substantial evidence of record concerning purported behavior of Cornell that could be found to rise to the level of egregious recklessness and moral culpability necessary to trigger punitive damages. There are major disputes of fact as to whether Cornell failed to exhibit care to such a degree as would amount to wanton behavior or recklessness. Cornell’s argument primarily rests on its self-serving conclusion that — despite evidence offered to the direct contrary — this case just does not involve one of those rare, egregious instances of recklessness that is punishable by punitive damages. That, however, is properly the jury’s decision. Summary judgment is inappropriate, and the claim for punitive damages shall remain.

Cornell next argued that the plaintiff assumed the risk and there was no evidence proving causation. Cornell was arguing a breach of a duty was not related to the injury. There was no causation between the two which is required to prove negligence.

The court found that Cornell’s case law did not apply correctly to the facts of this case. That means the case law facts were sufficiently different from the facts of this case, that the law could not be interpreted the same way. “Cornell’s caselaw presents numerous, distinct factual circumstances, none of which are analogous here.”

On the causation issues the judge found the plaintiff had presented enough evidence that there could be an issue leading to punitive damages against the college.

Nor can I conclude that Cornell is entitled to summary judgment based upon causation. There is extensive, often-conflicting evidence concerning causation. Plaintiff has adduced significant amounts of evidence concerning Cornell’s systemic negligent conduct leading up to the accident. In addition, Plaintiff has offered evidence from multiple experts that goes directly to duty of care and causation (e.g., that the lack of spotting equipment and spotters proximately caused Plaintiff’s injuries; that the lack of warnings failed to notify Plaintiff of the risks associated with the TTA; that Cornell’s “outrageous” conduct in organizing and supervising Plaintiff’s use of the gymnasium directly contributed to Plaintiff’s accident). Cornell may strongly disagree with these experts, but it is not entitled to have them ignored in favor of summary judgment.

Both defendants failed in their motion for summary judgment, and the decision was to allow the case to proceed to trial.

So Now What?

I have not been able to find the outcome of this case. Meaning it probably settled. The entire issue was the warning on the product; it was not clear; it was not visible, and it could not be seen in normal use.

If you manufacture products and your product poses a risk to the user, then you need to notify the consumer as often and as many were possible that you can. User manuals, hangtags, the container or bag the product is shipped in and on the product itself. It is also not enough that you can say the label or warning is there; the user must be able to see the warning……every time.

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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Duchesneau v. Cornell University, et al., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106412

Duchesneau v. Cornell University, et al., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106412

Randall Duchesneau, Plaintiff, v. Cornell University, et al., Defendants.

CIVIL ACTION NO. 08-4856

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA

2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106412

July 31, 2012, Decided

July 31, 2012, Filed

PRIOR HISTORY: Duchesneau v. Cornell Univ., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 135211 (E.D. Pa., Nov. 22, 2011)

CORE TERMS: warning, summary judgment, trampoline’s, assumption of risk, punitive damages, unaware, gymnasium, warn, partial, failure to warn, novice, user, assumed risk, inappropriate, punitive, flip, matter of law, warning label, recklessness, supervision, performing, gymnastic, enhanced, hazard, adduce, facie, causation, choice of law, applicable law, case of failure

COUNSEL:  [*1] For RANDALL DUCHESNEAU, Plaintiff: STEWART J. EISENBERG, LEAD ATTORNEY, DANIEL JECK, DANIEL JOSEPH SHERRY, JR., DINO PRIVITERA, KENNETH MICHAEL ROTHWEILER, EISENBERG, ROTHWEILER, WINKLER, EISENBERG & JECK, P.C., PHILADELPHIA, PA; MICHAEL CHOI, CHOI & ASSOCIATES, ELKINS PARK, PA.

For CORNELL UNIVERSITY, Defendant, Cross Claimant: RICHARD B. WICKERSHAM, JR., LEAD ATTORNEY, POST & SCHELL, P.C., PHILADELPHIA, PA; JOE H. TUCKER, JR., THE TUCKER LAW GROUP, ONE PENN CENTER AT SUBURBAN STATION, PHILADELPHIA, PA.

For TUMBLTRAK, Defendant, Cross Defendant: DANIEL J. MCCARTHY, SUSAN R. ENGLE, LEAD ATTORNEYS, MINTZER, SAROWITZ, ZERIS, LEDVA & MEYERS LLP, PHILADELPHIA, PA.

JUDGES: C. DARNELL JONES, II, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

OPINION BY: C. DARNELL JONES, II

OPINION

Jones, II, U.S.D.J.

MEMORANDUM

Before the Court is Defendant Tumbl Trak’s (“T-Trak”) Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Docket No. 169); Cornell University’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 171); Cornell University’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on Punitive Damages (Docket No. 172); and extensive briefing related thereto. 1

1 This matter has been crawling along, with a stunning amount of motion practice and briefing, for years now. The parties and  [*2] this Court are well aware of the tortured factual and procedural background of this case, and setting it forth at length again here would be a waste of judicial resources. Rather, I limit the discussion herein to specific facts as may be relevant to resolution of the Motion.

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c), summary judgment is appropriate “if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). To defeat a motion for summary judgment, disputes must be both (1) material, meaning concerning facts that will affect the outcome of the issue under substantive law, and (2) genuine, meaning the evidence must be “such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986). Summary judgment is mandated “against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party’s case, and on which  [*3] that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. An issue is genuine if the fact finder could reasonably return a verdict in favor of the nonmoving party with respect to that issue. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. In reviewing a motion for summary judgment, the court does not make credibility determinations and “must view facts and inferences in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion.” Siegel Transfer, Inc. v. Carrier Express, Inc., 54 F.3d 1125, 1127 (3d Cir. 1995).

T-Trak’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment

T-Trak seeks partial summary judgment on three bases: (1) Plaintiff cannot establish a prima facie case of failure to warn; (2) Plaintiff is not entitled to punitive damages; and (3) Plaintiff assumed the risk of serious injury when using the Tumbl Trak apparatus (“TTA”). I address these seriatim.

Failure to Warn

Under New York law, 2 to establish a prima facie case of failure to warn, a Plaintiff must show that (1) the defendant-manufacturer had a duty to warn; (2) the manufacturer breached such duty and so the product is rendered defective, i.e., reasonably certain to be dangerous; (3) the product’s defect was the proximate cause  [*4] of the injury to plaintiff; and (4) the plaintiff suffered loss or damage. Humphrey v. Diamant Boart, Inc., 556 F. Supp. 2d 167, 179 (E.D.N.Y. 2008); McCarthy v. Olin Corp., 119 F.3d 148, 156 (2d Cir. 1997). The duty to warn can be breached by either “the complete absence of warnings as to a particular hazard,” or “the inclusion of warnings which are insufficient.” Johnson v. Johnson Chem. Co., 183 A.D.2d 64, 588 N.Y.S.2d 607, 610 (N.Y. App. Div. 1992). The adequacy of a warning is normally a question of fact to be determined at trial. Nagel v. Bros. Int’l Foods, Inc., 34 A.D.3d 545, 825 N.Y.S.2d 93, 95 (N.Y. App. Div. 2006).

2 On November 23, 2011, U.S. Magistrate Judge Lynne A. Sitarski analyzed choice of law inquiries in this case and determined New York law applies throughout. Additionally, no party disputes the application of New York law to the failure to warn and assumption of risk claims here. Accordingly, I apply New York law to those claims.

Plaintiff has the burden of proving that T-Trak’s failure to warn was a proximate cause of his injury. See Mulhall v. Hannafin, 45 A.D.3d 55, 841 N.Y.S.2d 282, 285 (N.Y. App. Div. 2007). This burden includes adducing proof that a user of the product at issue would have read and heeded  [*5] a warning had one been given. Sosna v. Am. Home Prods., 298 A.D.2d 158, 748 N.Y.S.2d 548, 549 (N.Y. App. Div. 2002). Conversely, failure to warn claims can be decided as a matter of law against an injured party where the injured party was “fully aware of the hazard through general knowledge, observation, or common sense” or where the hazard is “patently dangerous.” Humphrey, 556 F. Supp. 2d at 179-80 (citing Liriano v. Hobart Corp. (Liriano I), 92 N.Y.2d 232, 700 N.E.2d 303, 308, 677 N.Y.S.2d 764 (1998)).

T-Trak contends that Plaintiff cannot establish a prima facie case of failure to warn where (1) the risk of injury was open and obvious and (2) Plaintiff did not actually read the warnings that were on the TTA. First T-Trak argues that “the risk of injury while performing a back flip was open and obvious and readily discernable to Plaintiff.” Def.’s Mot. Part. Summ. J. (hereinafter “Def.’s Br.”) 21. More specifically, T-Trak opines that general knowledge dictates that “an individual might land on his head if he attempts a back flip on a rebounding [TTA].” Id. T-Trak relies on, inter alia, the following record evidence:

o “Plaintiff, educated in physics, knew that what goes up will come down.” Id. 22; see id. Ex. H, at 380-81.

o Plaintiff  [*6] signed a waiver that stated he understood the risks and dangers associated with gymnastics. Id. Ex. F.

o There was a small warning label on the TTA which stated that any activity “creates the possibility of catastrophic injury, including paralysis or even death from falling on the head or neck. Id. Ex. G.

o Plaintiff “was aware of the safety concept of spotting and had done it in high school as a member of the cheerleading squad.” Id. 23; see id. Ex. H, at 432.

 

Based on these facts, T-Trak contends that “common sense” would have informed an individual that he or she was risking landing on their head by using the TTA, and, as such, T-Trak had no legal duty to warn Plaintiff. Id. 24.

However, there are significant disputes of material fact as to which, if any, hazards associated with the TTA were open and obvious (i.e., could be objectively ascertained) by a similarly-situated novice gymnast. Notably, Plaintiff has produced the report of warnings expert Dr. William J. Vigilante Jr., which, inter alia, cited numerous deficiencies in the warnings on the TTA: the warnings on the TTA were blurred and could not be read even at a close distance; the warnings were located on either end of the TTA,  [*7] not in the middle where a user would mount it; and the warnings were located adjacent to a cartoon depicting teddy bears conducting unspotted, unsupervised backflips on the TTA. Pl.’s Resp. Def. T-Trak’s Mot. Part. Summ. J. (hereinafter “Pl.’s Resp. Br.”) Ex. D, at 8-9. Dr. Vigilante’s report clearly suggests there were conflicting messages as to (1) the dangers associated with particular uses of the TTA; (2) how novices should perform backflips off the TTA; and (3) what is the appropriate level of supervision for safety purposes while using the TTA. Dr. Vigilante’s view of the facts is obviously in conflict with that of T-Trak. Cf. Repka v. Arctic Cat, Inc., 20 A.D.3d 916, 798 N.Y.S.2d 629, 631 (N.Y. App. Div. 2005) (triable issue of fact concerning sufficiency of warnings raised through expert).

Apparently as a fallback position, T-Trak also asserts that because Plaintiff never sought to view the warnings prior to his accident, he cannot advance a failure to warn claim. However, failure to read the TTA’s warnings “does not necessarily sever the causal connection between the alleged inadequacy of those warnings, on the one hand, and the occurrence of the accident, on the other.” Johnson, 588 N.Y.S.2d at 611.  [*8] This fact alone is insufficient to secure summary judgment. See Humphrey, 556 F. Supp. 2d at 180-81 (holding plaintiff’s admission that he did not read the warning label or operating instructions on equipment not dispositive under New York law in connection with failure to warn claim). Indeed, there is more than just that fact here. According to the summary judgment record none of the many fact witnesses in this case (including Plaintiff) testified that they ever saw any warning on the TTA. 3 Furthermore, Plaintiff himself has submitted sworn testimony that if he had seen what Dr. Vigiliante characterized as a proper warning, Plaintiff would have heeded the proper warning and either never have attempted a backflip or done so only with the assistance of a qualified coach or spotter. 4 See Pl.’s Resp. Br. Ex. T.

3 This evidence is buttressed by the fact that T-Trak’s own warnings expert testified at his deposition that the warnings on the TTA were deficient, illegible, and violative of relevant industry standards pertaining to size. Pl.’s Resp. Br. Ex. S.

4 I do not find T-Trak’s argument that Plaintiff submitted a “sham affidavit” to be convincing.

In sum, this evidence of record establishes  [*9] sufficient material disputes of fact as to the level of awareness Plaintiff or any other objective, novice gymnast would have had concerning the danger of specific injuries while performing specific maneuvers on the TTA. Moreover, T-Trak has been unable to adduce undisputed evidence that Plaintiff would have disregarded a proper warning. Accordingly, summary judgment on the failure to warn claim is inappropriate.

Assumption of Risk

T-Trak contends it is entitled to summary judgment on Plaintiff’s negligence claim based on the principle of assumption of risk. 5 To prove a prima facie case of negligence, a plaintiff must establish (1) existence of a duty of the defendant to the plaintiff; (2) breach of the duty; and (3) that the breach of the duty was a proximate cause of the injury to the plaintiff. Martinez v Capital One, N.A.,     F. Supp. 2d    , 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 42214, No. 10 Civ. 8028(RJS), 2012 WL 1027571, at *10 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 27, 2012). Assumption of risk operates to eliminate the duty of care to a plaintiff, and can therefore be a complete bar to recovery for negligence. Anderson v. Hedstrom Corp., 76 F. Supp. 2d 422, 431 (S.D.N.Y. 1999); Turcotte v. Fell, 68 N.Y.2d 432, 502 N.E.2d 964, 967-68, 510 N.Y.S.2d 49 (1986). To establish  [*10] assumption of risk, a defendant bears the burden of establishing that the “plaintiff was aware of the defective or dangerous condition and the resultant risk.” Hedstrom, 76 F. Supp. 2d at 432 (citing Lamey v. Foley, 188 A.D.2d 157, 594 N.Y.S.2d 490, 495 (N.Y. App. Div. 1993)). This determination depends in part on the openness and obviousness of the risk. Id.

5 This argument applies only to Plaintiff’s negligence claim, as New York law does not favor an assumption of risk defense to strict liability claims. Auto. Ins. Co. of Hartford v. Electrolux Home Prods., Inc., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 12652, 2011 WL 1434672, at *2 (W.D.N.Y. 2011).

Assumption of risk is frequently applied to claims arising out of participation in sporting events. See, e.g., Goodlett v. Kalishek, 223 F.3d 32, 34 (2d Cir. 2000) (airplane racing); Rochford v. Woodloch Pines, Inc., 824 F. Supp. 2d 343, 349-51 (E.D.N.Y. 2011) (golf); Ducrepin v. United States, 964 F. Supp. 659, 664-65 (E.D.N.Y. 1997) (basketball); Mc Duffie v. Watkins Glen Int’l, Inc., 833 F. Supp. 197, 201-02 (W.D.N.Y. 1993) (auto racing); Morgan v. State, 90 N.Y.2d 471, 481-82, 685 N.E.2d 202, 662 N.Y.S.2d 421 (1997) (bobsledding and karate, but not tennis where facility’s negligence in failing to repair torn net unduly increased  [*11] the risk); Benitez v. N.Y.C. Bd. of Educ., 73 N.Y.2d 650, 541 N.E.2d 29, 33-34, 543 N.Y.S.2d 29 (1989) (football); Joseph v. N.Y. Racing Ass’n, 28 A.D.3d 105, 809 N.Y.S.2d 526, 529 (N.Y. App. Div. 2006) (horseback riding); Hawley v. Binghamton Mets Baseball Club Inc., 262 A.D.2d 729, 691 N.Y.S.2d 626, 627-28 (N.Y. App. Div. 1999) (baseball). It has even been applied in some (but not all) cases involving jumping on a trampoline. 6 However these cases have a unifying theme — clear risks that were known yet disregarded by the plaintiff, with no negligence by the defendant that enhanced the risk. In cases where the plaintiff was unaware of the risk, or where the defendant’s negligence amplified the risk, summary judgment has not been granted. See, e.g., Clarke v. Peek ‘N Peak Recreation, Inc., 551 F. Supp. 2d 159, 163 (W.D.N.Y. 2008) (ski resort owner’s alleged negligence may have enhanced assumed risk); Hedstrom, 76 F. Supp. 2d at 435-36 (beginning trampoline user unaware and not sufficiently warned of risks); Repka, 798 N.Y.S.2d at 632-33 (assumed risk unduly increased by use of defective snowmobile without adequate warnings); Kroll, 764 N.Y.S.2d at 731 (plaintiff unaware of risk of trampoline’s defect). T-Trak argues vociferously that “Plaintiff  [*12] should have been aware of the risk of injury.” Def.’s Br. 31 (emphasis added). While it is true that Plaintiff had some experience with cheerleading and gymnastics, there is evidence he was a novice nonetheless. Additionally, as discussed supra, there is direct testimony that Plaintiff did not view any warnings and thus was not made explicitly aware of the contents thereof. There is further, disputed testimony as to the reasons why Plaintiff was unaware of the warnings, including evidence that the warnings were patently insufficient and no participant saw or became aware of their contents that day. The survey of trampoline cases herein makes it clear that the use of a trampoline has not been deemed inherently risky as a matter of New York law. All of these relevant disputes — namely, as to Plaintiff’s expertise, knowledge, the sufficiency and quality of the warnings, and the obvious nature of the risk to a casual user of the TTA — preclude this Court from absolving T-Trak on the grounds of assumption of risk. T-Trak’s duty to Plaintiff, if any, is properly an issue for trial.

6 Application of assumption of risk is a fact-specific endeavor, including in trampoline cases, which tend to  [*13] be decided depending on whether the plaintiff was aware of and appreciated the risk in using the trampoline. A plaintiff may prevail where he adduces evidence that he was unaware of the risk of using a trampoline and that he used the trampoline in an ordinary fashion. See, e.g., Hedstrom, 76 F. Supp. 2d at 427, 435 (finding no assumption of risk where plaintiff was a total beginner who did not see warning label and who used trampoline in a “fairly typical manner”); Kroll v. Watt, 309 A.D.2d 1265, 764 N.Y.S.2d 731, 731 (N.Y. App. Div. 2000) (affirming denial of summary judgment on assumption of risk where plaintiff’s awareness of risk of trampoline tipping over and thus causing plaintiff’s injury was a triable issue of fact). On the other hand, assumption of risk applies where the risk of the activity is inherent or where the injured party fully understands, appreciates, and voluntarily assumes the risk through participation. Goodlett, 223 F.3d at 36-37. New York courts have barred the recovery of plaintiffs injured while jumping on a trampoline where the plaintiff was aware of the risk or performed a particularly risky maneuver. See, e.g., Yedid v. Gymnastic Ctr., 33 A.D.3d 911, 824 N.Y.S.2d 299, 300 (N.Y. App. Div. 2006)  [*14] (affirming application of assumption of risk where plaintiff failed to provide evidence that he was unaware of risk of performing front flip on trampoline); Koubek v. Denis, 21 A.D.3d 453, 799 N.Y.S.2d 746, 747 (2005) (finding assumption of risk where plaintiff was aware and appreciative of risk of using trampoline and used it nonetheless); Liccione v. Gearing, 252 A.D.2d 956, 675 N.Y.S.2d 728, 728 (N.Y. App. Div. 1998) (holding assumption of risk applicable where plaintiff ignored sign warning against use of trampoline by two or more participants at the same time and then engaged in such activity).

Punitive Damages

U.S. Magistrate Judge Lynne A. Sitarski thoroughly and cogently examined choice of law issues in this case in deciding Defendant Cornell University’s Motion to Establish Applicable Law. See Duchesneau v. Cornell Univ., No. 08-4856, 2011, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 135211, WL 5902155, at *1 (E.D. Pa. Nov. 23, 2011) (order granting applicable law). T-Trak did not participate in the Motion to Establish Applicable Law. Rather, T-Trak asserts in the instant Motion that, while New York law is almost universally applicable in this case, Michigan law operates to bar recovery of punitive damages. In short, T-Trak contends that because it is domiciled  [*15] in Michigan and the alleged punitive conduct (design and labeling of the product) occurred in Michigan, Michigan law should apply to Plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages. Unsurprisingly, Michigan law bars punitive damage awards unless expressly authorized by statute, which is not the case here. See Gilbert v. DaimlerChrysler Corp., 470 Mich. 749, 685 N.W.2d 391, 400 (2004). Plaintiff maintains that New York law properly governs all aspects of this matter, including his punitive damages claim. New York law allows a plaintiff to recover punitive damages, so as to punish gross misbehavior for the public good. Clinton v. Brown & Williamson Holdings, Inc., 498 F. Supp. 2d 639, 653 (S.D.N.Y. 2007).

Judge Sitarski aptly laid out the applicable conflicts of law framework and conducted a thorough analysis of asserted interests, and this Court need not repeat the legal discussion at length here. Judge Sitarski concluded that New York law applied to Plaintiff’s claims against Cornell, including with regard to punitive damages and contributory negligence. I reach the same conclusion as to T-Trak for substantially the same reasons. Here, T-Trak knew the TTA was to be delivered and used in New York, and, indeed,  [*16] the TTA was used continuously in New York for many years prior to the accident. Generally speaking, courts applying the Pennsylvania choice of law contacts analysis to product liability matters have applied the law of the state where the product was used and where the accident occurred. Shields v. Consol. Rail Corp., 810 F.2d 397, 399-400 (3d Cir. 1987); U.S. Airways, Inc. v. Elliott Equip. Co., Inc., 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 76043, 2008 WL 4461847 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 29, 2008). Plaintiff’s accident was non-fortuitous, and therefore great deference is given to New York as to the law which should apply. LeJeune v. Bliss-Salem, Inc., 85 F.3d 1069 (3d Cir. 1996).

Under the contacts analysis, New York has many compelling interests here: (1) the TTA is located in New York; (2) the accident occurred in New York; (3) Cornell contracted to purchase the TTA in New York; (4) Plaintiff was a student in New York; (5) Plaintiff, although a Pennsylvania resident, received treatment for his injuries in New York; and (6) the key Waiver Agreement in this case governs activities in New York and has its validity determined by New York law. The contacts with Michigan are markedly less. T-Trak’s headquarters is in Michigan. Some design and  [*17] testing of the TTA took place in Michigan. However, the TTA and its warnings were designed by a Washington resident, and the component parts of the TTA were manufactured in multiple states other than Michigan (including the pads which containing the warnings). The actual T-Trak dealer who negotiated the New York contract of sale for the TTA with Cornell was based in Georgia. Finally, the TTA was assembled in New York by Cornell from constituent pieces delivered from various locations. 7

7 These circumstances are readily distinguishable from those in Kelly v. Ford Motor Co., 933 F. Supp. 465 (E.D. Pa. 1996), upon which T-Trak heavily relies. In Kelly, much of the design, testing, assembly, and warning label placement occurred in various Michigan locales under the close coordination of Ford. As mentioned above, T-Trak did not even manufacture or assembly any parts of the TTA in Michigan. Kelly is not persuasive.

Accordingly, I conclude New York law applies to the question of punitive damages against T-Trak. Upon review of the record, I find Plaintiff has adduced sufficient evidence to allow the claim for punitive damages to proceed.

Cornell’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on Punitive [*18] Damages

Cornell claims that Plaintiff has failed to adduce any evidence that could justify punitive damages under New York law. Plaintiff responds that “Cornell’s relevant conduct is textbook-appropriate” in terms of punitive damages for multiple reasons: (1) Cornell ran its own gymnasium without rules, standards, coaching, instruction, screening, supervision, and spotting; (2) multiple experts have opined that Cornell’s conduct in that regard was, inter alia, “highly dangerous,” “indefensible,” “outrageous,” “reckless,” and “an accident waiting to happen”; and (3) Cornell violated “every applicable mainstream gymnastics safety standard, [and] systematically allowed a wholly-incompetent individual to supervise the gymnasium.” See Pl.’s Resp. Opp’n Def. Cornell’s Mot. Summ. J. Punit. Damages 2-3.

As discussed supra, New York law allows a plaintiff to recover punitive damages, so as to punish gross misbehavior for the public good. Clinton, 498 F. Supp. 2d at 653. An award of punitive damages would be proper “where the conduct of the party being held liable evidences a high degree of moral culpability, or where the conduct is so flagrant as to transcend mere carelessness, or where the conduct  [*19] constitutes willful or wanton negligence or recklessness.” Buckholz v. Maple Garden Apts., LLC, 38 A.D.3d 584, 832 N.Y.S.2d 255, 256 (N.Y. App. Div. 2007); see also Mahar v. U.S. Xpress Enters., 688 F. Supp. 2d 95, 110 (N.D.N.Y. 2010) (allowing punitive damages in rare cases of egregious and willful conduct that is morally culpable); Black v. George Weston Bakeries, Inc., No. 07-CV-853S, 2008, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 92031, WL 4911791, at *7 (W.D.N.Y. Nov. 13, 2008) (permitting punitive damages where conduct constitutes conscious disregard of others); Bohannon (ex rel. Estate of Dolik) v. Action Carting Envtl. Servs., Inc., No. 06-CV-5689 (JG), 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 40516, 2008 WL 2106143, at *3 (E.D.N.Y. May 20, 2008) (recognizing utter indifference to the safety of others warrants granting punitive damages).

Upon review of the record, I concur with Plaintiff that there is more than enough evidence to allow Plaintiff’s punitive damages claim to proceed. There is substantial evidence of record concerning purported behavior of Cornell that could be found to rise to the level of egregious recklessness and moral culpability necessary to trigger punitive damages. There are major disputes of fact as to whether Cornell failed to exhibit care to such a degree as would  [*20] amount to wanton behavior or recklessness. Cornell’s argument primarily rests on its self-serving conclusion that — despite evidence offered to the direct contrary — this case just does not involve one of those rare, egregious instances of recklessness that is punishable by punitive damages. That, however, is properly the jury’s decision. Summary judgment is inappropriate, and the claim for punitive damages shall remain.

III. Cornell’s Motion for Summary Judgment

Cornell moves for summary judgment on two bases: (1) Plaintiff assumed the risk of using the TTA and Cornell had no duty to supervise the use of gymnastic equipment by novices, and (2) there is no evidence as to causation concerning Cornell. There are so many material disputes of fact between Plaintiff and Cornell that a lengthy explication of them would be a waste of resources. Suffice it to say that, despite occasional rhetoric to the contrary, Plaintiff and Cornell disagree about nearly every major fact or opinion of record that relates to the issues raised in the Motion. 8 Specific to assumption of risk (discussed supra), there are considerable disputes over whether Plaintiff knew or appreciated the risks of the TTA. Cornell’s  [*21] assertions to the contrary appear to be mostly self-serving statements. Because Plaintiff has adduced plentiful evidence (testimony, admissions, experts) in support of the position that he was not aware of the relevant risk and could not be expected to be aware of that risk, summary judgment is obviously inappropriate. 9

8 These two parties have repeatedly filed briefs of excessive length (50-100 pages each), including unnecessary bolded or italicized text for emphasis, in which they highlight disputes of fact ad infinitum.

9 This conclusion is buttressed by the fact that, as discussed supra, there are even disputes of material fact as to whether (1) the risk of harm was obvious, open, or hidden, and (2) the risk of harm was enhanced by Cornell’s own actions.

Cornell’s caselaw presents numerous, distinct factual circumstances, none of which are analogous here. See, e.g., Yedid v. Gymnastic Ctr., 33 A.D.3d 911, 824 N.Y.S.2d 299, 300 (N.Y. App. Div. 2006) (finding experienced gymnast with six years of instruction assumed known risk of performing front flip on trampoline); Koubek v. Denis, 21 A.D.3d 453, 799 N.Y.S.2d 746, 747 (N.Y. App. Div. 2005) (holding plaintiff assumed risk of using trampoline where she failed to  [*22] adduce evidence that she was unaware of the potential for injury); Palozzi v. Priest, 280 A.D.2d 986, 720 N.Y.S.2d 676, 676 (N.Y. App. Div. 2001) (affirming application of assumption of risk to teenager injured while “fake wrestling” on trampoline); Liccione v. Gearing, 252 A.D.2d 956, 675 N.Y.S.2d 728, 729 (N.Y. App. Div. 1998) (noting plaintiff assumed risk of “double jumping” despite warnings on trampoline that were deemed adequate as a matter of law); Williams v. Lombardini, 38 Misc. 2d 146, 238 N.Y.S.2d 63, 64-65 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1963) (determining plaintiff assumed risk where he admitted seeing rule that prohibited “difficult tricks” but attempted front flip on trampoline anyway). As discussed supra, summary judgment based on assumption of risk is inappropriate where there is a question as to appreciation or understanding of risk. 10 See Hedstrom, 76 F. Supp. 2d at 435-36 (recognizing no assumption of risk by beginning trampoline user who was unaware and not sufficiently warned of risks); Kroll, 764 N.Y.S.2d at 731 (deciding plaintiff did not assume risk because she was unaware of trampoline’s defect). Application of assumption of risk at summary judgment is especially inappropriate here because New York law disfavors using the  [*23] doctrine in cases where there are allegations of reckless or intentional conduct, or concealed or unreasonably increased risks. 11 Morgan, 90 N.Y.2d at 485; see, e.g., Charles v. Uniondale Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ., 91 A.D.3d 805, 937 N.Y.S.2d 275, 276-77 (N.Y. App. Div. 2012) (denying summary judgment where issues of fact existed as to whether defendant unreasonably increased risk by failing to provide head and face protection to plaintiff lacrosse player); Miller v. Holiday Valley, Inc., 85 A.D.3d 1706, 925 N.Y.S.2d 785, 788 (N.Y. App. Div. 2011) (rejecting summary judgment because plaintiff submitted evidence that defendant’s negligent failure to stop ski lift caused plaintiff’s injuries); Repka, 798 N.Y.S.2d at 632-33 (dismissing summary judgment motion because lack of adequate warnings may have unduly enhanced snowmobile’s concealed defect). In short, I do not find that Cornell is entitled to judgment as a matter of law based on the assumption of risk doctrine.

10 Cornell argues that the warning notice on the TTA itself establishes total assumption of risk. However, a vast portion of the evidence in this case (almost all of it disputed) is about whether the TTA’s warnings were seen, sufficient, or effective. In  [*24] other words, Cornell relies on a highly disputed factual conclusion concerning the adequacy of the warning to justify summary judgment on assumption of risk grounds. This Court cannot follow.

11 I am completely unpersuaded by Cornell’s argument concerning its total lack of a duty of care to a novice student using equipment in the Teagle Gymnasium. N.Y. Gen. Oblig. Law § 5-326 (McKinney 1976) (voiding gymnasium waivers); Eddy v. Syracuse Univ., 78 A.D.2d 989, 433 N.Y.S.2d 923 (App. Div. 1980) (concluding questions of negligence, foreseeability of injury, and duty to protect gym users are all proper issues for a jury); Lorenzo v. Monroe Comm. Coll., 72 A.D.2d 945, 422 N.Y.S.2d 230 (1979) (finding questions of fact existed as to whether defendant provided adequate supervision in gymnasium). Much of Cornell’s arguments are bootstrapped onto a conclusion of assumption of risk — i.e., because a student assumed the risk, the defendant college owes no duty with respect to the dangers inherent in the activity. As discussed, this Court cannot conclude at this stage that there was any assumption of risk. In addition, this Court will not revisit its previous rulings as to the issue of the prior academic year waiver despite Cornell’s  [*25] apparent invitation.

Nor can I conclude that Cornell is entitled to summary judgment based upon causation. There is extensive, often-conflicting evidence concerning causation. Plaintiff has adduced significant amounts of evidence concerning Cornell’s systemic negligent conduct leading up to the accident. In addition, Plaintiff has offered evidence from multiple experts that goes directly to duty of care and causation (e.g., that the lack of spotting equipment and spotters proximately caused Plaintiff’s injuries; that the lack of warnings failed to notify Plaintiff of the risks associated with the TTA; that Cornell’s “outrageous” conduct in organizing and supervising Plaintiff’s use of the gymnasium directly contributed to Plaintiff’s accident). 12 Cornell may strongly disagree with these experts, but it is not entitled to have them ignored in favor of summary judgment.

12 Cornell spends considerable time “debunking” these experts in briefs, often by reference to the testimony of others. By doing so, Cornell highlights some of the very disputes that preclude summary judgment.

Conclusion

Tumbl Trak maintains that Plaintiff cannot prove it inadequately warned him against use of its product.  [*26] Cornell suggests that this case involves nothing more than a “luckless accident” that resulted from Plaintiff’s voluntary participation in vigorous athletic activity. Plaintiff disagrees. He believes that he was harmed by (1) a device with grossly inadequate warnings, and (2) an institution which engaged in a course of conduct of gymnasium operation and supervision which was reprehensible and reckless. Based on the record before me, Plaintiff is entitled to put these questions to a jury.

An appropriate Order follows.

ORDER

AND NOW, this 31st day of July, 2012, it is hereby ORDERED that:

  1. Defendant Tumbl Trak’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Docket No. 169) is DENIED.
  2. Cornell University’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 171) is DENIED.
  3. Cornell University’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on Punitive Damages (Docket No. 172) is DENIED.
  4. The Case Management Order dated April 20, 2012 remains in force.

In addition, this Court has briefly reviewed the initial pre-trial filings in this matter and noticed that they do not conform with the Chambers Policies and Procedures, available at http://www.paed.uscourts.gov. The rules contained therein are not optional, and are to be followed  [*27] to the letter. No party has ever represented to this Court that they cannot work with their colleagues to fulfill their responsibilities under these procedures. Here, it appears the parties have, at least, failed to properly prepare their joint proposed jury instructions and joint proposed voir dire. Instead, three different versions of each document were separately filed by three different parties — a situation that the Chambers Policies obviously sought to preclude. The parties are specifically directed to review the Chambers Policies and Procedures, Civil Cases, Subsection E, which provide two pages of instructions as to the proper preparation and presentation of these and other pre-trial submissions. 13 It is ORDERED that the parties promptly withdraw any non-conforming filings and submit appropriately-prepared ones by August 31, 2012.

13 Parties are expected to be familiar with all Policies and Procedures by the time of the final pre-trial conference, especially the items concerning exhibits, courtroom operation, and attorney conduct during a trial.

BY THE COURT:

/s/ C. Darnell Jones, II

  1. DARNELL JONES, II, U.S.D.J.

 


Colorado Appellate Court rules that fine print and confusing language found on most health clubs (and some climbing wall) releases is void because of the Colorado Premises Liability Act.

Door swings both ways in the law. Ski areas used the Colorado Premises Liability Act to lower the standard of care and effectively eliminate claims for lift accidents in Colorado. Here the same act is used to rule a release is void for accidents occurring on premises. However, the release was badly written and should have been thrown out.

Stone v. Life Time Fitness, Inc., 2016 Colo. App. LEXIS 1829

State: Colorado, Colorado Court of Appeals

Plaintiff: Wendy Jane Stone

Defendant: Life Time Fitness, Inc., a Minnesota corporation doing business in the State of Colorado, d/b/a Life Time Fitness; Life Time Fitness Foundation; and LTF Club Operations Company, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence and violation of the Colorado Premises Liability Act

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the Plaintiff

Year: 2016

This case is going to change a lot of releases in Colorado, and possibly nationwide. Similar decisions concerning health club releases have occurred in other states for the same or similar reasons. Basically, your have to write a release correctly, or it is void.

Remember the articles about Vail using the Colorado Premises Liability Act to defeat claims for lift accidents? (See Colorado Premises Liability act eliminated common law claims of negligence as well as CO Ski Area Safety Act claims against a landowner and Question answered; Colorado Premises Liability Act supersedes Colorado Ski Area Safety act. Standard of care owed skiers on chairlift’s reasonable man standard?) The same act has been used to void a release in a health club case.

The Colorado Premises Liability Act is a law that tells a landowner (which is broadly defined to include renters as well as landowners indoors and out) how they must treat three types of people on their land or as in this case, a person who is in a health club.

Here the plaintiff had washed her hands in the locker room, and as she was leaving she tripped over the blow dryer cord fracturing her right ankle.

Stone was a member of a Life Time fitness club located in Centennial. According to the complaint, she sustained injuries in the women’s locker room after finishing a workout. Stone alleged that she had washed her hands at a locker room sink and then “turned to leave when she tripped on the blow dryer cord that was, unbeknownst to her, hanging to the floor beneath the sink and vanity counter top.” She caught her foot in the cord and fell to the ground, fracturing her right ankle.

The plaintiff’s injuries arose from her being the land, not for using the benefits of the health club.

The plaintiff sued for negligence and for violation of the Colorado Premises Liability Act. The Colorado Premises Liability Act sets for the duties owed by a landowner to someone on their land based on the relationship between the landowner and the person on the land. Pursuant to an earlier Colorado Supreme Court decision, the Colorado Premises Liability Act provides the sole remedies available to persons injured on the property of another.

The trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims based upon the release used by the health club, and the plaintiff appealed.

This decision is new and there is a possibility that it could be appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court and reversed.

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

The plaintiff filed here a complaint with two claims, negligence and breach of the Colorado Premises Liability Act. The court first looked at the negligence claim. The court found that negligence claim was properly dismissed, but for a different reason that the release stopped the claim. Here, the Colorado Premises Liability Act provides the only legal recourse against a landowner, so the negligence claim has no validity.

The PLA thus provides the sole remedy against landowners for injuries on their property established that the PLA abrogates common law negligence claims against landowners.

Accordingly, albeit for reasons different from those expressed by the trial court, we conclude that Stone could not bring a claim for common law negligence, and the trial court; therefore, correctly ruled against her on that claim.

When a statute as in this case the Colorado Premises Liability Act, states the only way to sue is under this act, the statute bars all other ways or theories to sue.

The plaintiff’s argument then was the release that was written and signed by the plaintiff only covered the activities in the health club and did not provide protection from a suit for simply being on the premises.

As we understand Stone’s contentions, she does not dispute that the exculpatory language in the Agreement would preclude her from asserting claims under the PLA for any injuries she might sustain when working out on a treadmill, stationary bicycle, or other exercise equipment or playing racquetball. We therefore do not address such claims. Instead, Stone argues that the exculpatory clauses do not clearly and unambiguously apply to her injuries incurred after washing her hands in the women’s locker room.

The court then reviewed the general rules surrounding release in Colorado law.

Generally, exculpatory agreements have long been disfavored.” Determining the sufficiency and validity of an exculpatory agreement is a question of law for the court. This analysis requires close scrutiny of the agreement to ensure that the intent of the parties is expressed in clear, unambiguous, and unequivocal language.

Under Colorado law, clear and unambiguously language is reviewed based on the lengthy, the amount of legal jargon and the possibility of confusion.

To determine whether the intent of the parties is clearly and unambiguously expressed, we have previously examined the actual language of the agreement for legal jargon, length and complication, and any likelihood of confusion or failure of a party to recognize the full extent of the release provisions.

Colorado has a four-part test to determine the validity of a release.

Under Jones, a court must consider four factors in determining whether an exculpatory agreement is valid: (1) the existence of a duty to the public; (2) the nature of the service performed; (3) whether the contract was fairly entered into; and (4) whether the intention of the parties was expressed in clear and unambiguous language.

The court quickly ruled that the first three factors were not at issue in this case.

In Colorado, there is no public duty based on recreational services. Recreational services are neither essential nor a matter of practical necessity. The third factor was also met because the defendant did not have any advantage. The plaintiff was free to obtain the services of the defendant someplace else.

The fourth factor provided the issue the case would resolve around, “Whether the intention of the parties was clear and unambiguous.”

The issue is not whether a detailed textual analysis would lead a court to determine that the language, even if ambiguous, ultimately would bar the plaintiff’s claims. Instead, the language must be clear and unambiguous and also “unequivocal” to be enforceable.

The court found eight ways the release in this case failed.

First, the release was very small type, dense fine print.

First, as explained by the New York Court of Appeals, “a provision that would exempt its drafter from any liability occasioned by his fault should not compel resort to a magnifying glass and lexicon.” Here, the Agreement consists of extremely dense fine print, for which a great many people would require a magnifying glass or magnifying reading glasses.

Second, the release was full of confusing legal jargon, including the following terms:

…affiliates, subsidiaries, successors, or assigns”; “assumption of risk”; “inherent risk of injury”; “includes, but is not limited to”; and “I agree to defend, indemnify and hold Life Time Fitness harmless.

This jargon was found to mitigate against the idea the release was clear and simple to understand.

Third, the release, referenced clauses, identified as chapters, which even the attorneys for the defendant found confusing. Nor could anyone explain what the references to chapters referred to.

Fourth the focus of the release was on the use of the exercise equipment. The court pointed out five instances in the release that related to the use of the equipment and none relating to occupation of the premises. Meaning the court found a release must release the claims the plaintiff is complaining of.

The fifth reason was the use of the term “inherent.” (As I’ve stated before and given presentations on, inherent is a limiting term you do not want to use in a release.) The court said the use of this term was only applied under Colorado law to apply to activities that are dangerous or potentially dangerous. A locker room is not inherently dangerous so the term is confusing in this case.

In light of this statutory and case law backdrop, the use of the inherent risk language in the assumption of risk clause, and the Agreement’s focus on the use of exercise equipment and facilities and physical injuries resulting from strenuous exercise, one could reasonably conclude that by signing the Agreement he or she was waiving claims based only on the inherent risks of injury related to fitness activities, as opposed to washing one’s hands.

The sixth issue the court had was the language between the different release terms was “squirrely.” (In 35 years of practicing law, I have used the term a lot, but never in a courtroom, and I’ve never seen it in a decision.) The way the language referred back to other clauses in the release and attempting to identify what injuries were actually covered created ambiguities and confusion. The defense counsel for the health club admitted the language was squirrely.

The seventh issue was the general language of the release used to broaden the release, (after using the narrowing term inherent). The release was full of “but for” or “but is not” type of phrases. It was an attempt to broaden the language in the release, which only made the release more confusing.

Seventh, the exculpatory clauses repeatedly use the phrases “includes, but is not limited to” and “including and without limitation,” as well as simply “including.” The repeated use of these phrases makes the clauses more confusing, and the reader is left to guess whether the phrases have different meanings. The problem is compounded by conflicting views expressed by divisions of this court on whether the similar phrase “including, but not limited to” is expansive or restrictive.

The use of these terms created more ambiguity in the release. Specifically, the language created an expansive versus restrictive flow in the release, none of which referenced the locker room.

Based on the above language the court found the release was not clear, unambiguous and unequivocal.

Based on the foregoing discussion, and after scrutinizing the exculpatory clauses, we conclude that the Agreement uses excessive legal jargon, is unnecessarily complex, and creates a likelihood of confusion or failure of a party to recognize the full extent of the release provisions. Accordingly, the Agreement does not clearly, unambiguously, and unequivocally bar Stone’s PLA claim based on the injuries she alleges she sustained after she washed her hands in the women’s locker room.

The negligence claim was dismissed, and the claim under the Colorado Premises Liability Act was allowed to proceed.

So Now What?

First remember, this case could still be appealed and changed by the Colorado Supreme Court. However, the logic and reasoning behind the Colorado Appellate Court decision is well laid out and clear. I don’t think these are issues the Colorado Supreme Court is going to take on.

Colorado has jumped onto the release bandwagon I’ve been telling people about for 25 years.  Your release has to be written in English, it needs to be understandable, and it needs to cover everything. Most importantly, it needs to be a separate document with no fine print, no legal jargon and easily read. You can no longer hide your release on the back of an agreement using fine print and expect it to protect you from claims.

Colorado has been a state where releases are rarely over-turned. However, this was a crappy piece of paper that had release language on it. The print was too small; the language was so confusing the attorney for the health club did not understand it and the court pointed this fact out.

Your release needs to be well written, needs to be written by an attorney, needs to be written by an attorney who understands what you do and the risks you are presenting to your guests/customers/participants.

If you are interested in having me prepare a release for you, download the information form and agreement here: information-and-agreement-to-write-a-release-for-you-1-1-17

For more articles on this type of releases found in health clubs see:

Sign-in sheet language at Michigan’s health club was not sufficient to create a release.            http://rec-law.us/28J1Cs8

For articles explaining why using the term inherent in a release is bad see:

Here is another reason to write releases carefully. Release used the term inherent to describe the risks which the court concluded made the risk inherently dangerous and voids the release.   http://rec-law.us/1SqHWJW

 

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Two releases, same plaintiff’s, same defendants releases cancel each other out and defendant is left with a lawsuit

The health club had a release in its membership agreement and a separate release. The appellate court said the difference in the language created an ambiguity which canceled both releases.

Lotz et al., v. The Claremont Club et al., 2013 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 5748

State: California, Court of Appeal of California, Second Appellate District, Division Two

Plaintiff: Nicholas Lotz (Nicholas) by and through his guardian ad litem Deborah Lotz (Deborah) and Deborah individually (mother)

Defendant: The Claremont Club (Club) and Adam Qasem

Plaintiff Claims: negligence and gross negligence

Defendant Defenses: execution of a release and express assumption of risk, and according to the assumption of risk doctrine. actions did not rise to the level of gross negligence.

Holding: for the plaintiff

Year: 2013

This case concerns dodgeball. A great game when played by kids, a pretty nasty game when one of the players is 18 and all the other players are ten.

The plaintiff was in the health club’s day-care program. While in the program an employee who was not trained in working in the day-care program, at the suggestion of another kid, allowed the kids to play dodgeball. The game was held in a racquetball court and played with the kids. One of employee’s throws a ball hitting the plaintiff smashing his face into the wall where he suffered injuries.

The court continuously pointed out several facts, to the point of becoming monotonous:

·        No one told the mother that the kids would be playing dodgeball

·        Of course if told, the mother post injury stated, she would not have allowed her son to play dodgeball

·        The defendant who through the fateful ball had never had any training in working in the childcare area called the InZone.

·        The defendant had never worked in the childcare.  

·        The club’s written policies stated only racquetball, handball, squash and wall ball could be played in the racquetball court.

·        The defendant violated the Club’s then unwritten policy that supervisors not participate in dodgeball games with the children.

The parents of the plaintiff signed two forms when they enrolled at the club. The first was the membership agreement. The membership agreement had boxes to check for activities that you might be interested in. Dodgeball was not listed as a possible activity. The second agreement was a release. Both documents contained exculpatory language.

The trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims based on the release(s) and the plaintiff appealed.

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

The court first reviewed the requirements, in its view, for a valid release under California law.

California courts require a high degree of clarity and specificity in a [r]elease in order to find that it relieves a party from liability for its own negligence.” Thus, “to be effective, an agreement which purports to release, indemnify or exculpate the party who prepared it from liability for that party’s own negligence or tortious conduct must be clear, explicit and comprehensible in each of its essential details. Such an agreement, read as a whole, must clearly notify the prospective releaser or indemnitor of the effect of signing the agreement.”

But “a release need not achieve perfection” to be effective. A release is sufficient if it “‘constitutes a clear and unequivocal waiver with specific reference to a defendant’s negligence

The court found the releases were not “crystal clear.” The court then looked at the issue of ambiguity in contracts.

‘An ambiguity exists when a party can identify an alternative, semantically reasonable, candidate of meaning of a writing. An ambiguity can be patent, arising from the face of the writing, or latent, based on extrinsic evidence.’ The circumstances under which a release is executed can give rise to an ambiguity that is not apparent on the face of the release. If an ambiguity as to the scope of the release exists, it should normally be construed against the drafter.

The defendant club had argued that the release was the valid release for the purposes of the discussion. (How you designate one contract over another is beyond me. The “Parol Evidence” rule specifically prohibits this.) However, the plaintiff argued the membership agreement contained the operative language because it stated:

This Agreement constitutes my sole and only agreement respecting release, waiver of liability, assumption of the risk, and indemnity concerning my involvement in The Claremont Club. Any prior written or oral agreements, promises, representations concerning the subject matter contained in this Agreement and not expressly set forth in this Agreement have no force or effect.

Because this created an ambiguity in the language of the contracts and created a question about which contract superseded the other, there was a triable issue of fact that could not be decided by a motion for summary judgment.

The court then looked at the language in the release and stated:

Beyond the issue of whether the Waiver or the Membership Agreement contained the operative release, appellants demonstrated a triable issue of fact as to whether the language of either document contemplated the type of injuries suffered by Nicholas.

Because the release, the rules, the unwritten policies and the parents had never been informed that their son might play dodgeball the court held the language in the release(s) did not cover the injury. The court stated that playing dodgeball was an undisclosed risk which was not covered by the release.

The court then went through every way, the defendant club or the defendant had violated their own policies.

·        Playing dodgeball in the racquetball court

·        On one supervising the game (a player is not a supervisor?)

The court also found that the release only applied to the child care, and the injury occurred in the racquetball court that was outside of the childcare area. Therefore, there was a triable issue of fact of whether the release protected the defendants from lawsuits of this type.

The court concluded this section of its opinion by stating the evidence:

…offered on summary judgment demonstrated that the Membership Agreement and/or the Waiver did not clearly and explicitly release the Club from liability for Nicholas’s injuries. In view of the ambiguities concerning whether the Membership Agreement or the Waiver applied, whether the language in either document was sufficient to cover the Club’s conduct and whether any release violated public policy, a trier of fact could find that the Club was not released from liability.

Having found at least four reasons why neither release was valid or covered the risks that created the injury the court reviewed the gross negligence claim. The trial court found the injury was an inherent risk of the game and assumption of risk barred the claim and also the gross negligence claim. An injury from an inherent risk could not be gross negligence.

The court defined gross negligence under California law as this court interpreted the law.

California courts define “‘gross negligence'” “as either a ‘”‘want of even scant care'”‘ or ‘”‘an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.'”‘ Gross negligence “connotes such a lack of care as may be presumed to indicate a passive and indifferent attitude toward results.” In contrast to willful misconduct, gross negligence does not require an intent to do harm or to act with absolute disregard of the consequences.

Backtracking to the issue of playing dodgeball on a racquetball court the court found the club had a policy that prohibited dodgeball on the racquetball court. However, the court found the club knew that dodgeball had been played on the racquetball court and found: “Consistent with the Club’s failure to acknowledge dodgeball as an ongoing activity, it failed to promulgate rules to ensure the game was played safely.” The club also had a rule which stated that supervisors were not to play dodgeball with children, had no training in child care and used an inflated rubber ball for the game as he played it aggressively gave rise to the possibility the actions of the club were grossly negligent.

The last defense the court eliminated was whether assumption of the risk was a defense to the claims of the plaintiff. The court found that because the 18-year-old supervisor played the game, causing the injury, the risk could not be assumed because the defendant had increased the risk over those inherent in the sport. You cannot assume increased risks caused by the defendant who is arguing the defense.

Thus, even though ‘defendants generally have no legal duty to eliminate (or protect a plaintiff against) risks inherent in the sport itself,’ they may not increase the likelihood of injury above that which is inherent.

The court then stated all the ways the two defendants had increased the risk to the plaintiff.

But appellants’ evidence tended to show that the Club and Qasem increased that risk in a number of ways, including by playing on an enclosed racquetball court which was neither intended nor permitted to be used for dodgeball; by selecting rubber balls for the game; by allowing an adult untrained in childcare not only to participate in the game with the children but also to abdicate any supervisory role over them during the game; and by enabling that adult to play aggressively with the children.

The appellate court reversed the trial court and sent the matter back for trial.

So Now What?

This court worked hard to make sure the case was sent back for trial. However, the two poorly written releases gave the court the opportunity to open the door and kick the case back.

Secondly, the defendant club had created rules which it violated. It also admitted to or had rules, which were unwritten that it violated.  

It is bad enough when some third party creates rules that you are forced to live by. It is just dumb to write your own rules and then violated them. It is the classic you have no one to blame but yourself.

If you have rules, and policies provide leeway to allow your staff to think, nothing in life is ever set in stone. Make sure the rules do not conflict with each other and make sure everyone knows the rules and follows them.

At the same time, remember most people can’t memorize a book, even a pamphlet. Your rules need to be written to cover your program and in a way, your staff can remember them and put them to use. Either that or issue every staff person a tablet and make sure they never answer a question without first checking to see if they are violating a rule.

Finally, have one well written release and do not try to write release language into every document, they may cancel each other out leaving you with no defenses.

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Lotz et al., v. The Claremont Club et al., 2013 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 5748

Lotz et al., v. The Claremont Club et al., 2013 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 5748

Nicholas, a Minor, etc., Plaintiffs and Appellants, Defendants and Respondents.

B242399

COURT OF APPEAL OF CALIFORNIA, SECOND APPELLATE DISTRICT, DIVISION TWO

August 15, 2013, Opinion Filed

NOTICE: NOT TO BE PUBLISHED IN OFFICIAL REPORTS. CALIFORNIA RULES OF COURT, RULE 8.1115(a), PROHIBITS COURTS AND PARTIES FROM CITING OR RELYING ON OPINIONS NOT CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION OR ORDERED PUBLISHED, EXCEPT AS SPECIFIED BY RULE 8.1115(b). THIS OPINION HAS NOT BEEN CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION OR ORDERED PUBLISHED FOR THE PURPOSES OF RULE 8.1115.

PRIOR HISTORY: [*1]

APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, No. KC061412, Peter J. Meeka, Judge.

DISPOSITION: Reversed and remanded.

CORE TERMS: dodgeball, triable, membership, ball, summary judgment, issues of fact, gross negligence, sport, playing, racquetball, played, inherent risk, hit, childcare, assumption of risk, ambiguity, risk of injury, risk of harm, rubber ball, matter of law, participating, aggressively, supervised, training, thrown, riding, player, risk doctrine, risk doctrine, evidence showed

COUNSEL: Magaña, Cathcart & McCarthy and Charles M. Finkel for Plaintiffs and Appellants.

Manning & Kass, Ellrod, Ramirez, Trester, Anthony J. Ellrod and David J. Wilson for Defendants and Respondents.

JUDGES: FERNS, J. *; ASHMANN-GERST, Acting P. J., CHAVEZ, J. concurred.

* Judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court, assigned by the Chief Justice pursuant to article VI, section 6 of the California Constitution.

OPINION BY: FERNS, J.

OPINION

The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of defendants and respondents The Claremont Club (Club) and Adam Qasem (Qasem) on the complaint brought by minor Nicholas Lotz (Nicholas) by and through his guardian ad litem Deborah Lotz (Deborah) and Deborah individually (sometimes collectively appellants). 1 Nicholas was injured in a dodgeball game that took place while he was in the Club’s childcare program. The trial court ruled that a release signed by Nicholas’s father barred appellants’ claims and there was no evidence showing the Club’s conduct amounted to gross negligence beyond the scope of the release. It further ruled the primary assumption of risk doctrine [*2] barred appellants’ claims.

1 We use first names for convenience only; no disrespect is intended.

We reverse. The evidence offered by appellants showed there were triable issues of material fact regarding the scope and application of multiple releases, whether the Club’s and Qasem’s conduct constituted gross negligence and whether their conduct increased the risk of harm inherent in the game of dodgeball.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Club Membership.

In 2001, Thomas Lotz (Thomas) signed The Claremont Club Membership Agreement (Membership Agreement) and completed a membership information form indicating that he was seeking a family membership for himself, Deborah and their two children. On the information form, Thomas put a check mark by some of the specified sports and activities in which he and his family were interested in participating. Dodgeball was not included among the list of activities.

The Membership Agreement included a section entitled “Waiver of Liability” that provided in relevant part: “IT IS EXPRESSLY AGREED THAT USE OF THE CLUB FACILITIES, PARTICIPATION IN CLUB-SPONSORED OUTSIDE ACTIVITIES OR EVENTS AND TRANSPORTATION PROVIDED BY THE CLUB SHALL BE UNDERTAKEN BY A MEMBER [*3] OR GUEST AT HIS/HER SOLE RISK AND THE CLUB SHALL NOT BE LIABLE FOR ANY INJURIES OR ANY DAMAGE TO ANY MEMBER OR GUEST . . . .” The provision further stated that the member voluntarily assumed the risk of personal injury and released the Club and its employees from every demand, claim or liability on account of any personal injury.

On the same day he signed the Membership Agreement, Thomas signed a separate document captioned Waiver of Liability, Assumption of Risk and Indemnity Agreement (Waiver) that contained a provision stating: “This Agreement constitutes my sole and only agreement respecting release, waiver of liability, assumption of the risk, and indemnity concerning my involvement in The Claremont Club.” The Waiver further provided in part: “I, for myself, my spouse, if any, my heirs, personal representative or assigns, and anyone claiming through or under me do hereby release, waive, discharge, and covenant not to sue The Claremont Club . . . for liability from any and all claims including the negligence of the Claremont Club, resulting in damages or personal injury . . . .” The Waiver further identified certain activities provided at the Club–again excluding dodgeball–together [*4] with the risks arising therefrom, and required Thomas to assert that his participation was voluntary and “that I knowingly assume all such risks.” The Waiver’s concluding paragraph provided for Thomas’s understanding “THAT I AM GIVING UP SUBSTANTIAL RIGHTS, INCLUDING MY RIGHT TO SUE.”

Together with a Club attorney, Club president and chief executive officer Mike Alpert helped prepare the Waiver. According to Alpert, only the Waiver–not the waiver of liability contained in the Membership Agreement–was in full force and effect at the time Thomas signed both documents. None of the documents that Thomas and Deborah signed in connection with their Club membership informed them that dodgeball would be played on Club premises.

Nicholas Is Injured in a Dodgeball Game at the Club.

The “InZone” was part of the Club’s childcare department; it provided a clubhouse environment for older children that included ping pong, foosball and video games. In-house sports and a specialized fitness room were also available as part of the InZone. A document provided to parents describing InZone activities identified a number of sports in which a child might participate; it did not mention dodgeball.

On April 13, [*5] 2005, Deborah checked 10-year-old Nicholas into the InZone between 4:30 and 5:00 p.m. No one advised Deborah or Thomas that Nicholas might be playing dodgeball as part of the InZone activities. That day, Club employee Qasem was scheduled to work at the front desk. Eighteen-year-old Qasem had worked part-time at the Club for approximately one year as a lifeguard, weight room attendant and at the front desk. He had never worked in the InZone and the Club had not provided him with any training to work with children.

At some point during his shift, Qasem left the front desk to work in the children’s fitness room. He was the only individual supervising approximately eight to 15 children, including Nicholas. One of the children suggested the group play dodgeball, and Qasem agreed. He took the children to the Club’s racquetball court because he had observed dodgeball being played there once or twice. The Club’s written policies, however, stated “[o]nly racquetball, handball, squash and Wally ball may be played on the racquetball courts.” Qasem had never played dodgeball at the Club, nor had he ever seen any written rules concerning dodgeball.

Though Qasem was uncertain whether he provided the [*6] children with any rules before they began playing the game, he may have told them to throw the ball below their waists. During the game, anywhere from three to six balls were being thrown at one time; each rubber ball was filled with air and was about the size of a soccer ball. About 20 minutes into the game, Qasem threw a ball using a sidearm motion hard and fast toward Nicholas. The ball hit Nicholas’s face and slammed his head into the wall behind him, leaving tooth marks on the wall. Nicholas suffered multiple dental injuries as a result of being hit by the ball.

At the time of the game, Qasem was six feet tall and weighed approximately 145 pounds. According to Nicholas, Qasem had been playing aggressively throughout the game. By playing in the game, Qasem had also violated the Club’s then unwritten policy that supervisors not participate in dodgeball games with the children. No one had previously been injured in a dodgeball game at the Club. After that game, Qasem was disciplined for failing to follow childcare policies and procedures, and one of his superiors instructed him not to play dodgeball at the Club.

Nicholas had previously played dodgeball at school. Though the players [*7] were instructed to not throw the ball at other players’ heads, he understood there was some risk of being hit in the head with the ball. The balls used at school, however, were similar to a Nerf ball and softer than those used at the InZone. Had Thomas and Deborah been advised that Nicholas would be playing dodgeball on a racquetball court with rubber balls, they would not have given their permission for him to do so.

The Intramural Rules of Dodgeball provide the game is one in which players try to hit others with a ball and avoid being hit themselves. “The main objective is to eliminate all members of the opposing team by hitting them with thrown balls, catching a ball thrown by a member of the opposing team, or forcing them outside of the court boundaries.” The National Dodgeball League Rules and Regulations of Play specify that a player committing a “headshot”–hitting another player in the head by a high thrown ball–will be deemed out of the game.

The Pleadings and Summary Judgment.

In June 2011, appellants filed their complaint alleging negligence and gross negligence and seeking general and special damages. They alleged that Nicholas was injured as a result of the Club’s negligently [*8] and recklessly “a. hiring, employing, training, entrusting, instructing, and supervising defendant ADAM QASEM; [¶] b. failing to adequately [] protect children under the care of defendant ADAM QASEM; [¶] c. participating in a game of dodge ball in an unreasonably forceful and dangerous manner so as to endanger the health, safety and welfare of children placed by their parents into the care of defendants.”

In December 2011, the Club and Qasem moved for summary judgment. They argued that appellants’ negligence claims were barred by Thomas’s execution of a release and express assumption of risk, and according to the assumption of risk doctrine. They further argued their actions did not rise to the level of gross negligence. In support of their motion, they submitted the Membership agreement, appellants’ discovery responses, deposition excerpts and Qasem’s declaration. They also sought judicial notice of several principles related to dodgeball rules and manner of play.

Appellants opposed the motion and filed evidentiary objections. They argued that triable issues of material fact existed concerning the scope of the Waiver, whether the Club’s conduct amounted to gross negligence and whether [*9] Nicholas’s injury was the result of an inherent risk of the game of dodgeball. They offered deposition excerpts, Club policies, medical records and several declarations in support of their arguments. Sports and Recreational Consultants president Steve Bernheim opined that the Club “did not take the proper measures to protect the children who were in its care, custody and control during the dodgeball game in which Nicholas Lotz was injured.” More specifically, the children were not provided with game-appropriate rules, the racquetball court was an insufficient space, use of the rubber balls was inappropriate and an adult should not have been playing with the children. He further opined that Qasem acted recklessly and that his conduct, coupled with the other conditions of the game, increased the risks inherent in the game of dodgeball and were outside the range of ordinary activity associated with the sport.

The Club replied and also filed evidentiary objections. At a March 2012 hearing, the trial court granted the motion. Though the trial court edited the proposed judgment to eliminate any reasons for its ruling, at the hearing the trial court first referred to childhood dodgeball experience [*10] as the basis for its decision: “When I went to school, we called it Warball, and we didn’t use Nerf balls because there weren’t any. It was a ball. When it hit you, it stung. And we all knew that. Everybody knew it. And it was just one of those games you played in school, and high school for that matter.” Turning to the evidence, the trial court construed the Waiver to apply to Thomas’s family members as well as Thomas, reasoning that the Club would have expected Thomas to be executing a release on behalf of all family members when he joined. The trial court further explained that even if it were to ignore the Waiver, appellants’ claims would be barred by the assumption of risk doctrine. It further found that the Club’s and Qasem’s conduct did not rise to the level of gross negligence as a matter of law, reasoning there was no evidence that Qasem was trying to injure Nicholas and that such an injury could have occurred in the context of any type of sport. It did not rule on any of the evidentiary objections.

Judgment was entered in June 2012, and this appeal followed.

DISCUSSION

Appellants maintain that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment and assert they offered evidence [*11] sufficient to create triable issues of fact concerning the scope and application of the Waiver, the existence of gross negligence and the application of the assumption of risk defense. We agree that triable issues of fact preclude the granting of summary judgment.

I. Standard of Review.

We review a grant of summary judgment de novo and independently determine whether the facts not subject to triable dispute warrant judgment for the moving party as a matter of law. (Intel Corp. v. Hamidi (2003) 30 Cal.4th 1342, 1348; Aguilar v. Atlantic Richfield Co. (2001) 25 Cal.4th 826, 849-850.) To secure summary judgment, the moving defendant must show that one or more elements of the cause of action cannot be established, or that there is a complete defense to the cause of action, and that it “is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” (Aguilar v. Atlantic Richfield Co., supra, at p. 850.) Once that burden is met, the burden “shifts to the [other party] to show that a triable issue of one or more material facts exists as to that cause of action.” (Code Civ. Proc., § 437c, subd. (p)(2); Aguilar v. Atlantic Richfield Co., supra, at p. 850.)

We assume the role of the trial court and redetermine the [*12] merits of the motion. (Barber v. Marina Sailing, Inc. (1995) 36 Cal.App.4th 558, 562.) “In doing so, we must strictly scrutinize the moving party’s papers. [Citation.] The declarations of the party opposing summary judgment, however, are liberally construed to determine the existence of triable issues of fact. [Citation.] All doubts as to whether any material, triable issues of fact exist are to be resolved in favor of the party opposing summary judgment. [Citation.]” (Ibid.; accord, Hamburg v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (2004) 116 Cal.App.4th 497, 502.) “Because a summary judgment denies the adversary party a trial, it should be granted with caution. [Citation.]” (Acosta v. Glenfed Development Corp. (2005) 128 Cal.App.4th 1278, 1292.) The court’s role is to focus “on issue finding; it does not resolve issues of fact. The court seeks to find contradictions in the evidence, or inferences reasonably deducible from the evidence, which raise a triable issue of material fact.” (Ibid.)

II. Appellants Raised Triable Issues of Fact as to Whether the Waiver Applied to Release Their Claims.

At the hearing on the motion, the trial court indicated that one basis for its ruling was the application of [*13] a written release. It stated: “Here, dad is signing the release on behalf of the family. Mom could have signed the release on behalf of the family and had a check and paid for the membership. And even though there are some slight twists and turns here, I guess nothing is ever completely crystal clear. I think the release really hurts the plaintiff or plaintiffs here.” Though the trial court’s comments fail to demonstrate whether it relied on the Membership Agreement or the Waiver as providing the operative release, the Club argues on appeal that the release contained in the Membership Agreement was clear and unambiguous, and applied to release appellants’ claims.

“California courts require a high degree of clarity and specificity in a [r]elease in order to find that it relieves a party from liability for its own negligence.” (Cohen v. Five Brooks Stable (2008) 159 Cal.App.4th 1476, 1488 (Cohen).) Thus, “to be effective, an agreement which purports to release, indemnify or exculpate the party who prepared it from liability for that party’s own negligence or tortious conduct must be clear, explicit and comprehensible in each of its essential details. Such an agreement, read as a whole, [*14] must clearly notify the prospective releaser or indemnitor of the effect of signing the agreement.” (Ferrell v. Southern Nevada Off-Road Enthusiasts, Ltd. (1983) 147 Cal.App.3d 309, 318.) Waiver and release forms are strictly construed against the defendant. (Lund v. Bally’s Aerobic Plus, Inc. (2000) 78 Cal.App.4th 733, 738.) But “a release need not achieve perfection” to be effective. (National & Internat. Brotherhood of Street Racers, Inc. v. Superior Court (1989) 215 Cal.App.3d 934, 938.) A release is sufficient if it “‘constitutes a clear and unequivocal waiver with specific reference to a defendant’s negligence.'” (Paralift, Inc. v. Superior Court (1993) 23 Cal.App.4th 748, 755.)

Here, Thomas represented in his membership application that he sought Club membership on behalf of his family. The release contained in the Membership Agreement provided that the member and guests assumed the risk of Club activities and released the Club from liability for participation in Club activities. A contract in which a party expressly assumes a risk of injury is, if applicable, a complete defense to a negligence action. (See Knight v. Jewett (1992) 3 Cal.4th 296, 308, fn. 4 (Knight); Sweat v. Big Time Auto Racing, Inc. (2004) 117 Cal.App.4th 1301, 1304.) [*15] Moreover, it is well settled a parent may execute a release on behalf of his or her child. (Aaris v. Las Virgenes Unified School Dist. (1998) 64 Cal.App.4th 1112, 1120 (Aaris); Hohe v. San Diego Unified Sch. Dist. (1990) 224 Cal.App.3d 1559, 1565.) By offering evidence of the Membership Agreement, the Club met its threshold burden to demonstrate a complete defense to appellants’ negligence claims.

In contrast to the trial court, however, we conclude the evidence offered by appellants showing that the release was not “crystal clear” satisfied their burden to demonstrate triable issues of material fact. As summarized in Benedek v. PLC Santa Monica (2002) 104 Cal.App.4th 1351, 1357: “The determination of whether a release contains ambiguities is a matter of contractual construction. [Citation.] ‘An ambiguity exists when a party can identify an alternative, semantically reasonable, candidate of meaning of a writing. [Citations.] An ambiguity can be patent, arising from the face of the writing, or latent, based on extrinsic evidence.’ [Citation.] The circumstances under which a release is executed can give rise to an ambiguity that is not apparent on the face of the release. [Citation.] [*16] If an ambiguity as to the scope of the release exists, it should normally be construed against the drafter. [Citations.]”

Here, appellants demonstrated an ambiguity by offering evidence that the Waiver–not the Membership Agreement–contained the operative release. The Waiver contained language effectively negating any other release, providing: “This Agreement constitutes my sole and only agreement respecting release, waiver of liability, assumption of the risk, and indemnity concerning my involvement in The Claremont Club. Any prior written or oral agreements, promises, representations concerning the subject matter contained in this Agreement and not expressly set forth in this Agreement have no force or effect.” Club president Alpert testified that only the Waiver was the operative agreement at the time Thomas joined the Club. The Waiver, however, inconsistently provided in one paragraph that Thomas was giving up his right to sue on behalf of his spouse and heirs, and in another paragraph that he was relinquishing only his personal right to sue. Other language in the Waiver that “I hereby assert that my participation is voluntary and that I knowingly assume all such risks” likewise [*17] suggested that the Waiver was intended to be personal only. Given appellants’ identification of an “alternative, semantically reasonable” construction of the Waiver, the evidence created a triable issue of fact concerning whether and to what extent the Waiver applied to appellants’ claims. (See Solis v. Kirkwood Resort Co. (2001) 94 Cal.App.4th 354, 360.)

Beyond the issue of whether the Waiver or the Membership Agreement contained the operative release, appellants demonstrated a triable issue of fact as to whether the language of either document contemplated the type of injuries suffered by Nicholas. Both the Membership Agreement and the Waiver released the Club from liability for personal injury from Club activities. “‘Where a participant in an activity has expressly released the defendant from responsibility for the consequences of any act of negligence, “the law imposes no requirement that [the participant] have had a specific knowledge of the particular risk which resulted in his death [or injury.]” . . . Not every possible specific act of negligence by the defendant must be spelled out in the agreement or discussed by the parties. . . . Where a release of all liability for any [*18] act of negligence is given, the release applies to any such negligent act, whatever it may have been. . . . “It is only necessary that the act of negligence, which results in injury to the releasor, be reasonably related to the object or purpose for which the release is given.“‘ [Citation.]” (Leon v. Family Fitness Center (#107), Inc. (1998) 61 Cal.App.4th 1227, 1234-1235 (Leon).) 2

2 The Leon court separately evaluated an assumption of risk provision and a general release in a health club membership agreement. (Leon, supra, 61 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1234, 1235.) It reasoned that for an assumption of the risk provision to be effective, “‘it must also appear that its terms were intended by both parties to apply to the particular conduct of the defendant which has caused the harm.'” (Id. at p. 1234.) We find this analysis sufficiently similar to that required for a general release to engage in a single evaluation.

Appellants offered evidence creating a triable issue of fact as to whether an injury from a child playing dodgeball was sufficiently related to the purpose of the release. Neither Thomas nor Deborah were ever informed that Nicholas would be playing dodgeball at the Club. Dodgeball [*19] was not identified as a Club activity in any of the Club materials. It was not listed as an activity in either the Membership Agreement or the Waiver. It did not appear on the list of Club activities in the membership information form. According to the Club’s written policies, it was not among the activities permitted to be played on the Club’s racquetball courts. Likewise, the Club maintained a policy to preclude supervisors from engaging in dodgeball games with children.

These circumstances are analogous to those in Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th 1476. There, the plaintiff was injured during a horseback ride when the guide unexpectedly caused his horse to gallop, knowing that it would cause the horses following to do the same, and the plaintiff was unable to control her galloping horse. (Id. at p. 1480.) Before riding, the plaintiff had signed a release that described some but not all of the risks inherent in horseback riding and provided that she agreed “‘to assume responsibility for the risks identified herein and those risks not specifically identified.‘ (Italics added.)” (Id. at p. 1486.) Finding this language unambiguous, the trial court granted summary judgment. (Id. at pp. 1482-1483.) [*20] The appellate court reversed, reasoning the exculpatory provision was problematic, as “[t]he ‘risks not specifically identified’ could refer to the risks inherent in horseback riding left unidentified by the phrase ‘some, but not all,’ which seems to us the most reasonable assumption, but it might also refer to risks arising out of respondent’s negligence that increase[] the inherent risks.” (Id. at p. 1486.) Stated another way, the court explained that “[t]he Release presented to appellant clearly does not unambiguously, let alone explicitly, release respondent from liability for injuries caused by its negligence or that of its agents and employees which increase a risk inherent in horseback riding.” (Id. at p. 1488.)

At a minimum, appellants’ evidence that dodgeball was an undisclosed risk and an activity contrary to the Club’s written policies raised a triable issue of fact as to whether it was a risk that was reasonably related to the purpose for which any release was given. Evidence of Qasem’s conduct likewise raised a triable issue of fact as to whether such a risk was encompassed by the Waiver. (See Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th at p. 1489 [“Nothing in the Release clearly, unambiguously, [*21] and explicitly indicates that it applies to risks and dangers attributable to respondent’s negligence or that of an employee that may not be inherent in supervised recreational trail riding,” italics omitted]; see also Sweat v. Big Time Auto Racing, Inc., supra, 117 Cal.App.4th at p. 1308 [release in favor of racetrack owner for injuries suffered while in a racetrack’s restricted area did not apply to injuries sustained after defectively constructed bleachers collapsed]; Leon, supra, 61 Cal.App.4th at p. 1235 [release that allowed the plaintiff to engage in fitness activities at a health club did not apply to injuries from a collapsed sauna bench].)

On the other hand, the circumstances here bear no similarity to those in Aaris, supra, 64 Cal.App.4th 1112, a case on which the Club relies. There, the court found that a high school cheerleader and her family assumed the risk of injuries resulting from cheerleading activities. On the basis of that finding, the court also affirmed summary judgment on the ground that a release of liability for school activities barred any claim for injuries. The court reasoned that the assumption of risk doctrine “embodies the legal conclusion that defendant [*22] owed no duty to protect appellant from the risk of harm inherent in the athletic activity. [Citation.] There being no duty, there was no negligence.” (Id. at p. 1120.) Ignoring that the Aaris court’s holding was based on a finding of no negligence rather than any application of the release, the Club emphasizes that the release applied notwithstanding its failure to specify “cheerleading,” and argues that the Membership Agreement’s and Waiver’s references to Club activities must therefore similarly be construed to encompass dodgeball. But in Aaris, the only reasonable inference to be drawn from the evidence was that the sole purpose of the release was to address injuries resulting from cheerleading. Here, Thomas and Deborah did not even know that Nicholas would be participating in a dodgeball game. Moreover, the trial court in Aaris ruled that the undisputed evidence showed “‘that the instructor did not increase the risk of harm inherent in the activity, the participants received adequate and proper[] training in technique and safety, and they were properly and reasonably supervised.'” (Id. at p. 1117.) In sharp contrast, appellants’ evidence showed that Qasem should not have been playing [*23] dodgeball and played aggressively, he violated the Club’s written policy concerning use of the racquetball court and no one else was supervising the game.

Finally, appellants offered evidence to show that the InZone was part of the Club’s childcare department. On the day of the dodgeball game, Deborah signed Nicholas in to the Club’s InZone program. Club wellness director Denise Johnson testified that she was aware children played dodgeball on the racquetball courts while being supervised under the childcare department. To the extent that the Club’s Membership Agreement or Waiver purported to release it from liability for injuries occurring in its childcare program, appellants raised a triable issue of fact as to whether such an agreement would be void against public policy. (Gavin W. v. YMCA of Metropolitan Los Angeles (2003) 106 Cal.App.4th 662, 676 [“we hold that exculpatory agreements that purport to relieve child care providers of liability for their own negligence are void as against public policy”].)

In sum, the evidence offered on summary judgment demonstrated that the Membership Agreement and/or the Waiver did not clearly and explicitly release the Club from liability for Nicholas’s [*24] injuries. In view of the ambiguities concerning whether the Membership Agreement or the Waiver applied, whether the language in either document was sufficient to cover the Club’s conduct and whether any release violated public policy, a trier of fact could find that the Club was not released from liability. (See Zipusch v. LA Workout, Inc. (2007) 155 Cal.App.4th 1281, 1288 [“if a release is ambiguous, and it is not clear the parties contemplated redistributing the risk causing the plaintiff’s injury, then the contractual ambiguity should be construed against the drafter, voiding the purported release”].) The undisputed evidence failed to show the Club and Qasem were absolved from liability as a matter of law according to the Membership Agreement or the Waiver.

III. Appellants Raised Triable Issues of Fact Whether the Club Was Liable for Gross Negligence.

In City of Santa Barbara v. Superior Court (2007) 41 Cal.4th 747, 751 (Santa Barbara), our State’s highest court held “that an agreement made in the context of sports or recreational programs or services, purporting to release liability for future gross negligence, generally is unenforceable as a matter of public policy.” Relying on Santa [*25] Barbara, appellants opposed the Club’s summary judgment motion on the alternative ground that, even if the Club’s most comprehensive release language was unambiguous, there was a triable issue of fact as to whether the Club’s conduct amounted to gross negligence. The trial court ruled: “It is not gross negligence. He wasn’t trying to injure the child on purpose, any more than a child would be injured playing hockey or soccer, or anything like that.” Again, we disagree.

California courts define “‘gross negligence'” “as either a ‘”‘want of even scant care'”‘ or ‘”‘an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.'”‘ [Citations.]” (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at p. 754; accord, Eriksson v. Nunnink (2011) 191 Cal.App.4th 826, 857.) Gross negligence “connotes such a lack of care as may be presumed to indicate a passive and indifferent attitude toward results.” (Calvillo-Silva v. Home Grocery (1998) 19 Cal.4th 714, 729, disapproved on other grounds in Aguilar v. Atlantic Richfield Co., supra, 25 Cal.4th at p. 853, fn. 19.) In contrast to willful misconduct, gross negligence does not require an intent to do harm or to act with absolute disregard of the consequences. (Meek v. Fowler (1935) 3 Cal.2d 420, 425; [*26] see also Hawaiian Pineapple Co. v. Ind. Acc. Com. (1953) 40 Cal.2d 656, 662 [“While gross negligence may involve an intent to perform the act or omission, wilful misconduct involves the further intent that the performance be harmful or that it be done with a positive, active and absolute disregard of the consequences”].) Though not always, “[g]enerally it is a triable issue of fact whether there has been such a lack of care as to constitute gross negligence. [Citations.]” (Decker v. City of Imperial Beach (1989) 209 Cal.App.3d 349, 358; accord, Santa Barbara, supra, at pp. 767, 781.)

Appellants offered sufficient evidence to create a triable issue of fact as to whether the Club’s and Qasem’s conduct amounted to gross negligence. According to the undisputed evidence, while the Club’s policies prohibited dodgeball being played on the racquetball courts, Club employees–including the childcare director–knew the courts were used for children’s dodgeball games. Nonetheless, none of the Club’s materials identified dodgeball as an available activity. Consistent with the Club’s failure to acknowledge dodgeball as an ongoing activity, it failed to promulgate rules to insure the game was played [*27] safely. When Nicholas was dropped off at the InZone program, no one advised his parents that he might play dodgeball. In this particular instance, children initiated a dodgeball game while being supervised by an 18-year-old front desk clerk who had no childcare training. Qasem selected inflated rubber balls for the game and participated aggressively in the game with the children, even though the Club’s policy was that supervisors not play dodgeball. Nicholas was injured after Qasem threw the ball extremely hard and extremely fast, using a sidearm motion.

On the basis of this evidence, appellants offered Bernheim’s expert opinion that “the injury to Nicholas Lotz occurred during an extreme departure from what must be considered as the ordinary standard of conduct when children are playing dodgeball and are supposed to be . . . supervised.” We agree that appellants’ evidence was sufficient to raise a triable issue of fact as to whether the Club’s and Qasem’s conduct was an extreme departure from ordinary care or, at a minimum, demonstrated passivity and indifference toward results. A trier of fact could find gross negligence on the basis of the Club’s failure to address the repeated violation [*28] of its own policy prohibiting dodgeball play on the racquetball courts, failure to implement rules or policies designed to protect those playing dodgeball and failure to provide any training to individuals assigned to supervise the children in its childcare program. Triable issues existed as to whether the Club’s and Qasem’s conduct was grossly negligent and therefore outside the scope of any release in either the Membership Agreement or the Waiver.

IV. Appellants Raised Triable Issues of Fact Whether the Assumption of Risk Doctrine Barred Liability.

As a further basis for granting summary judgment, the trial court determined that the Club met its burden to show the primary assumption of risk doctrine was a viable defense and that appellants failed to offer any effective rebuttal. It analogized the circumstances here to those in a previous case in which it found the doctrine barred recovery to a high school student injured during a soccer game. We fail to see the analogy.

“Primary assumption of risk occurs where a plaintiff voluntarily participates in a sporting event or activity involving certain inherent risks. For example, an errantly thrown ball in baseball or a carelessly extended [*29] elbow in basketball are considered inherent risks of those respective sports. [Citation.] Primary assumption of risk is a complete bar to recovery. [Citation.] [¶] Primary assumption of risk is merely another way of saying no duty of care is owed as to risks inherent in a given sport or activity. The overriding consideration in the application of this principle is to avoid imposing a duty which might chill vigorous participation in the sport and thereby alter its fundamental nature. [Citation.]” (Wattenbarger v. Cincinnati Reds, Inc. (1994) 28 Cal.App.4th 746, 751-752, citing Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th 296.) “Knight however does not grant unbridled legal immunity to all defendants participating in sporting activity. The Supreme Court has stated that ‘. . . it is well established that defendants generally do have a duty to use due care not to increase the risks to a participant over and above those inherent in the sport.‘ ([Knight, supra,] 3 Cal.4th at pp. 315-316, italics added.) Thus, even though ‘defendants generally have no legal duty to eliminate (or protect a plaintiff against) risks inherent in the sport itself,’ they may not increase the likelihood of injury above that which is [*30] inherent. (Id. at p. 315.)” (Campbell v. Derylo (1999) 75 Cal.App.4th 823, 827.) Thus, “when the plaintiff claims the defendant’s conduct increased the inherent risks of a sport, summary judgment on primary assumption of risk grounds is unavailable unless the defendant disproves the theory or establishes a lack of causation. [Citations.]” (Huff v. Wilkins (2006) 138 Cal.App.4th 732, 740.)

Much of appellants’ evidence that we deemed sufficient to raise a triable issue of fact on the question of gross negligence likewise created a triable issue as to whether the Club and Qasem increased the risk of harm inherent in the game of dodgeball. 3 Certainly, being hit by a ball is one of the objectives of and hence an inherent risk in the game of dodgeball. But appellants’ evidence tended to show that the Club and Qasem increased that risk in a number of ways, including by playing on an enclosed racquetball court which was neither intended nor permitted to be used for dodgeball; by selecting rubber balls for the game; by allowing an adult untrained in childcare not only to participate in the game with the children but also to abdicate any supervisory role over them during the game; and by enabling [*31] that adult to play aggressively with the children. Given the totality of the circumstances, we cannot say, as a matter of law, that Nicholas assumed the risk of being hit in the head with a ball.

3 We acknowledge that the application of the primary assumption of risk doctrine is a question of law. (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 313.) But where a defendant engages in conduct that is not an inherent risk of the sport and the imposition of a duty of care will neither alter the nature of nor chill participation in the sport, the question becomes one of ordinary negligence, with the remaining elements beyond duty to be determined by a trier of fact. (Yancey v. Superior Court (1994) 28 Cal.App.4th 558, 565-567.)

Other courts have similarly reversed a grant of summary judgment where the plaintiff’s evidence raised a triable issue of fact as to whether the defendant’s conduct increased the inherent risks in a sport or other recreational activity. Lowe v. California League of Prof. Baseball (1997) 56 Cal.App.4th 112 is particularly instructive. There, the plaintiff filed suit after he was injured by a foul ball while watching a baseball game, and the trial court granted summary judgment, finding [*32] the doctrine of primary assumption of risk barred his claims. (Id. at p. 120.) In reversing, the appellate court relied on evidence showing the plaintiff was hit when he turned toward a team mascot who had repeatedly tapped his shoulder. (Id. at pp. 117-118, 123.) The court explained that while foul balls represent an inherent risk to spectators attending a baseball game, “we hold that the antics of the mascot are not an essential or integral part of the playing of a baseball game. In short, the game can be played in the absence of such antics. Moreover, whether such antics increased the inherent risk to plaintiff is an issue of fact to be resolved at trial.” (Id. at p. 123; see also Vine v. Bear Valley Ski Co. (2004) 118 Cal.App.4th 577, 591 [though skiers assume the risk of injury from the sport, triable issue of fact existed whether ski resort’s jump design increased the risk of harm]; Morgan v. Fuji Country USA, Inc. (1995) 34 Cal.App.4th 127, 134 [while a golfer assumes the risk of being hit by a golf ball, golf course owner owes a duty to minimize that risk, and the plaintiff raised a triable issue of fact as to whether that duty was breached where evidence showed the design [*33] of certain holes may have increased that risk].)

We find no merit to the Club’s and Qasem’s argument that appellants’ evidence demonstrated merely that their conduct may have increased the severity of Nicholas’s injuries as opposed to increasing the risk of injury. In Calhoon v. Lewis (2000) 81 Cal.App.4th 108, the plaintiff suffered injury when he fell off his skateboard and hit a metal pipe protruding from a planter in the defendants’ driveway. Finding the primary assumption of risk doctrine barred his claims, the court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the concealed metal pipe increased his risk of harm: “[The plaintiff] was injured because he fell. As [he] concedes, falling is an inherent risk of skateboarding, and the presence of the pipe or the planter had nothing to do with his falling down. The fact that [his] injuries were more severe than they would have been if the pipe had not been in the planter does not make the assumption of risk doctrine inapplicable. The Knight exception applies when the defendant increased the risk of injury beyond that inherent in the sport, not when the defendant’s conduct may have increased the severity of the injury suffered.” (Id. at p. 116.) [*34] Here, in contrast, appellants’ evidence showed that the Club and Qasem increased the risk of injury by initiating the dodgeball game in which Nicholas participated. This was not the type of situation where Nicholas would have been playing dodgeball absent the Club’s and Qasem’s involvement. Moreover, the evidence raised a triable issue of fact as to whether the Club and Qasem increased the risk of injury by permitting dodgeball play on the racquetball court, by failing to adopt rules for safe play, by Qasem’s failing to act as a supervisor during the game, by his selecting rubber balls for the game and by his participating aggressively in the game. The Club and Qasem were not entitled to summary judgment on the ground the primary assumption of risk doctrine barred appellants’ claims.

DISPOSITION

The judgment is reversed and the matter is remanded with directions for the trial court to vacate its order granting summary judgment and to enter a new order denying summary judgment. Appellants are entitled to their costs on appeal.

, J. *

* Judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court, assigned by the Chief Justice pursuant to article VI, section 6 of the California Constitution.

FERNS

We concur:

, Acting [*35] P. J. ASHMANN-GERST , J. CHAVEZ


Well written decision from Wyoming defines release law and how releases should be written.

This case is interesting because one of the attempts to remove the release from the decision was a claim the plaintiff was at the defendant gym working out because he was told to by a physician, and the gym was owned by a different physician.

Massengill, v. S.M.A.R.T. Sports Medicine Clinic, P.C., 996 P.2d 1132; 2000 Wyo. LEXIS 21

Plaintiff: James Massengill and Kaylea Massengill

Defendant: S.M.A.R.T. Sports Medicine Clinic, P.C.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence, loss of consortium

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the defendant

The plaintiff was injured when a pin in a lat-pull-down machine that secured the weights came out, and he fell backwards injuring his wrist. The plaintiff sued, and the defendant raised the defense of release.

The plaintiff was told by his physician to exercise more. One day while at a drugstore, he had met an owner of the defendant gym, a physician, who talked to him about the gym.

The plaintiff and his wife went to the gym. They were given a release and told to take it home and read it. Three days later the plaintiff’s came back, signed the release and began to use the facilities.

The plaintiff had not asked for instructions on the lat-pull-down machine and did not ask for any because he had used one previously. He had been using the particular machine for a month and had noticed that the pin did not appear to fit when he was injured.

The trial court ruled the release was valid and barred the claims of the plaintiffs, dismissing the case. The plaintiff’s appealed. This case is based in Wyoming, which only has trial courts and the Wyoming Supreme Court, in intermediate appellate courts.

Summary of the case

The court first looked at the language of the release, to determine if the language was clear and unequivocal.

Our reading of the Agreement and Release convinces us that the intention of S.M.A.R.T., and the Massengills is expressed in clear and unequivocal language. The language clearly assigns the risk to members who agree to be liable for any and all risks. The Agreement and Release continues with an unequivocal statement that S.M.A.R.T. shall not be liable for any injuries or damages to any member or the member’s property, including those caused by the negligence of S.M.A.R.T.

The court found the language was clear and unequivocal as well as broad and specially released the defendant from claims and actions for negligence.

The court then examined the release based on contract law. Releases are contracts and are interpreted using traditional contract principles. The entire document is examined as a whole.

The language of the Agreement and Release is clear in manifesting an intention to release S.M.A.R.T. and those involved with the facility from liability; it specifically states that S.M.A.R.T. will not be held liable for “those damages resulting from acts of negligence on the part of S.M.A.R.T. SPORTS, its officers or agents.”

Wyoming has four factors to examine to determine if a release is valid.

(1) whether a duty to the public exists;

(2) the nature of the service performed;

(3) whether the contract was fairly entered into; and

(4) whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language

The court found the release in question was properly reviewed by the trial court, and the release met all four tests. The court then looked at the plaintiff’s claims the release violated public policy. Under Wyoming law, a duty to the public exists “if the nature of the business or service affects the public interest, and the service performed is considered an essential service.” A release that affecting a public interest giving rise to a duty to the public is one that:

“concerns a business of a type generally thought suitable for public regulation. 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. The party holds himself out as willing to perform this service for any member of the public who seeks it * * *. As a result 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 his services.”

In Wyoming, this list of businesses would be “common carriers, hospitals and doctors, public utilities, innkeepers, public warehousemen, employers, and services involving extra-hazardous activities.”

A health club or gym is recreational in nature and do not meet the requirements and do not qualify as a business suitable for public regulation. A gym or health club is not essential.

The services offered by S.M.A.R.T. to its members were those of a private recreational business which did not qualify as suitable for public regulation because they did not affect the public interest nor could they be considered as necessary or essential….

Then court then looked at the plaintiff’s claims that he was at the gym for medical reasons. However, the court could find no evidence that the plaintiff was at the gym engaging in rehabilitation.

The court then looked at the plaintiff’s claim that there was a disparity of bargaining power between the parties which should void the release. However, this argument also failed.

Since membership in a private recreational facility such as S.M.A.R.T. is purely optional and does not qualify as an essential service, no decisive bargaining advantage exists. “A disparity of bargaining power will be found when a contracting party with little or no bargaining strength has no reasonable alternative to entering the contract at the mercy of the other’s negligence.

The plaintiff’s raised one final argument that claimed the Wyoming Recreational Safety Act, Wyo. Stat. Ann. §§ 1-1-121 to 1-1-123:

…creates a statutory duty on the part of providers of a sport or recreational opportunity because it preserves actions based upon negligence if damage or injury is not the result of an inherent risk of the sport or recreational opportunity.

The court called this a convoluted argument and did not agree with the argument.

The final argument was based on the wife’s claim for loss of consortium. The court held there were two different ways this claim also failed. The first was the wife signed a release at the same time as her husband; the plaintiff and the release stopped her suit. Also because her claim of loss of consortium is derivative, meaning only can exist if the original claim exists, then her claim fails also.

The record reflects that Massengill’s participation was purely recreational and S.M.A.R.T. did not owe him a public duty. S.M.A.R.T. is not engaged in a type of business generally thought suitable for public regulation, and Massengill was engaged in a recreational activity not an activity pursuant to a physician’s order.

The court upheld the trial courts dismissal of the claims.

So Now What?

This is a great decision to assist in writing a release in Wyoming. Of interest was the fact the court pointed out, the plaintiffs were given three days to review the release before signing.

The four requirements for a release are similar to most other states. How you deal with the issue of someone at your facility for health or rehabilitation reasons might present a problem.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Massengill, v. S.M.A.R.T. Sports Medicine Clinic, P.C., 996 P.2d 1132; 2000 Wyo. LEXIS 21

Massengill, v. S.M.A.R.T. Sports Medicine Clinic, P.C., 996 P.2d 1132; 2000 Wyo. LEXIS 21

James Massengill and Kaylea Massengill, Appellants (Plaintiffs), v. S.M.A.R.T. Sports Medicine Clinic, P.C., Appellee (Defendant).

No. 98-150

SUPREME COURT OF WYOMING

996 P.2d 1132; 2000 Wyo. LEXIS 21

February 14, 2000, Decided

PRIOR HISTORY: [**1] Appeal from the District Court of Laramie County. The Honorable Nicholas G. Kalokathis, Judge.

DISPOSITION: Affirmed.

COUNSEL: Representing Appellants: Robert A. Hampe, Cheyenne, Wyoming (Withdrew pursuant to an Order of Suspension Upon Consent entered in the Wyoming Supreme Court on June 18, 1999.)

Representing Appellee: John I. Henley of Vlastos, Brooks, Henley & Drell, P.C., Casper, Wyoming.

JUDGES: Before LEHMAN, C.J., and THOMAS, MACY, GOLDEN, and TAYLOR, * JJ.

* Retired November 2, 1998.

OPINION BY: THOMAS

OPINION

[*1132] THOMAS, Justice.

The only issue in this case is whether a waiver of liability in a contract between S.M.A.R.T. Sports Medicine Clinic, P.C. (S.M.A.R.T.) and James Massengill (Massengill) is enforceable under the standards adopted in Schutkowski v. Carey, 725 P.2d 1057 (Wyo. 1986) and followed in later cases. Massengill was using a lat-pull-down machine at S.M.A.R.T. when a pin used to secure the weights fell out. Apparently the pin did not fit properly in the machine, and when the pin fell out, Massengill fell over backwards injuring his wrist. In various statements of the [*1133] issues, Massengill attacks the validity of the waiver of liability on the grounds [**2] that it violated public policy; the business of S.M.A.R.T. is suitable for public regulation; the use of the premises at the time of injury by Massengill is not material; the question of duty is one that must be determined by a trier of fact; and S.M.A.R.T. owed a statutory duty to Massengill which invalidates the waiver. Our review of the record and legal precedent in Wyoming persuades us that the district court ruled correctly that there is no genuine issue of material fact in this case, and S.M.A.R.T. is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The Order Granting Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment is affirmed.

In the Appellants’ Supreme Court Brief, filed on behalf of James Massengill and Kaylea Massengill (collectively the Massengills), these issues are stated:

Issue I

Did the district court error [sic] in validating the “waiver of liability” in the “sports specific training and advanced rehab agreement and release[“] due to the fact that:

(A) The release violated public policy,

(B) The business operated by appellee is suitable for public regulation, and

(C) Plaintiff J. Massengill was engaged in non therapeutic activities on the premises of [**3] the medical clinic has no bearing on whether the release should be validated or not?

Issue II

Is the duty issue in this case purely a question of law where the basic facts are undisputed or is the duty issue one which can only be determined by the trier of fact?

Issue III

Did appellee owe a statutory duty of care to appellant which would invalidate the waiver incorporated in the sports specific training and advanced rehabilitation agreement & release?

In the Brief of Appellee S.M.A.R.T. Sports Medicine Clinic, P.C., the issues are stated in this way:

Was the waiver of liability executed by the Appellants valid[?]

(i) Was the Appellee’s waiver language inclusive and unambiguous as required by prior Wyoming Supreme Court case law; [or]

(ii) Is the waiver language of the Appellee contrary to public policy[?]

One evening James Massengill engaged in a conversation at a Cheyenne drugstore with the equity owner of S.M.A.R.T., a physician in Cheyenne. Massengill knew that S.M.A.R.T. had a weight room, and had seen recent advertisements to the effect that the facility offered personal trainers to assist members. In the course of a brief [**4] conversation, Massengill mentioned his interest in S.M.A.R.T.’s facilities, and the physician suggested he come over and try it out. A month or two following the conversation, Massengill went to S.M.A.R.T. and toured the facilities. The purpose of his initial visit was to assure himself that the equipment met his need, which was to get in better condition.

After he had been shown the facilities and the equipment, Massengill was given a Sports Specific Training and Advanced Rehabilitation Agreement and Release (Agreement and Release) to take home and review. Three days later, both Massengill and his wife executed the Agreement and Release, and they began using the facilities. Massengill was present at S.M.A.R.T. almost every day, and he had been using the lat-pull-down machine for nearly a month prior to his injury. He had not asked any questions about using the machine because he had used one previously. On March 13, 1996, Massengill was warming up on the machine, and he noticed that the pin holding the weights was shaped like a “T” rather than the longer “I” usually used. When Massengill pulled the bar down, the pin holding the weights popped out, and he fell over backwards, hitting [**5] his left hand and injuring his wrist.

On May 29, 1997, the Massengills filed their Complaint for Negligence and Damages. The first count of the Complaint for Negligence and Damages was couched in terms of alleged negligence causing injury to James Massengill, and the second count was couched in terms of recovery by Kaylea Massengill [*1134] for loss of consortium based upon her husband’s injuries. Various procedural steps, including discovery, followed the Answer by S.M.A.R.T., which included the affirmative defense of waiver and the affirmative defense that Kaylea Massengill’s claims were derivative of James Massengill’s claim. On October 3, 1997, there was filed by facsimile a Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment accompanied by a Memorandum in Support of Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment. Additional procedural steps ensued, and on February 2, 1998, the district court entered an Order Granting Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment.

The district court ruled that the exculpatory clause, including the release and waiver, was not ambiguous and was enforceable. Since the premise for the grant of the summary judgment by the district court was the language contained in the Agreement [**6] and Release, the district court ruled implicitly that any other issues of fact, genuine or not, were not material. The Massengills have appealed from the Order Granting Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment.

In Mercado v. Trujillo, 980 P.2d 824, 825-26 (Wyo. 1999), we summarized our rules with respect to review of summary judgments:

“‘When [HN1] a motion for summary judgment is before the supreme court, we have exactly the same duty as the district judge; and, if there is a complete record before us, we have exactly the same material as did he. We must follow the same standards. The propriety of granting a motion for summary judgment depends upon the correctness of a court’s dual findings that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the prevailing party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. This court looks at the record from the viewpoint most favorable to the party opposing the motion, giving to him all favorable inferences to be drawn from the facts contained in affidavits, depositions and other proper material appearing in the record.'” Reno Livestock Corporation v. Sun Oil Company (Delaware), Wyo., 638 P.2d 147, 150 (1981). [**7] See also, Blackmore v. Davis Oil Company, Wyo., 671 P.2d 334, 336 (1983).

“A [HN2] summary judgment should only be granted where it is clear that there are no issues of material facts involved and that an inquiry into the facts is unnecessary to clarify the application of law. Johnson v. Soulis, Wyo., 542 P.2d 867 (1975). A material fact is one which has legal significance. Johnson v. Soulis, supra. It is a fact which would establish a defense. Wood v. Trenchard, Wyo.[,] 550 P.2d 490 (1976). [HN3] After the movant establishes a prima facie case the burden of proof shifts to the opposing party who must show a genuine issue of material fact, Gennings v. First Nat’l Bank of Thermopolis, Wyo., 654 P.2d 154 (1982), or come forward with competent evidence of specific facts countering the facts presented by the movant. Matter of the Estate of Brosius, Wyo., 683 P.2d 663 (1984). The burden is then on the nonmoving party to show specific facts as opposed to general allegations. 10 Wright & Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure: Civil § 2727, p. 538. The material presented must be admissible evidence [**8] at trial. Conclusory statements are not admissible. Bancroft v. Jagusch, Wyo., 611 P.2d 819 (1980). We give the party defending the motion the benefit of any reasonable doubt.” Roth v. First Security Bank of Rock Springs, Wyoming, Wyo., 684 P.2d 93, 95 (1984).

Nowotny v. L & B Contract Industries, 933 P.2d 452, 455 (Wyo.1997) (quoting Thomas by Thomas v. South Cheyenne Water and Sewer Dist., 702 P.2d 1303, 1304 (Wyo.1985)).

More specifically and succinctly, with respect to this case, when review is sought of a summary judgment this Court must determine that there is no genuine issue of a material fact and the party prevailing in the district court is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Utilization of summary judgment serves the purpose of eliminating formal trials where only questions of law are involved. [HN4] In accomplishing the review of a summary judgment resting upon a question [*1135] of law, our review is de novo and affords no deference to the district court’s ruling on that question. E.g., Roberts v. Klinkosh, 986 P.2d 153, 156 (Wyo. 1999); Gray v. Norwest Bank Wyoming, N.A., 984 P.2d 1088, 1091 (Wyo. 1999); [**9] Ahrenholtz v. Time Ins. Co., 968 P.2d 946, 949 (Wyo. 1998).

Our reading of the Agreement and Release convinces us that the intention of S.M.A.R.T. and the Massengills is expressed in clear and unequivocal language. The language clearly assigns the risk to members who agree to be liable for any and all risks. The Agreement and Release continues with an unequivocal statement that S.M.A.R.T. shall not be liable for any injuries or damages to any member or the member’s property, including those caused by the negligence of S.M.A.R.T. It continues with this language:

1. Any member using S.M.A.R.T. SPORTS facility shall undertake any and all risks. The member shall also be liable for any and all risks. S.M.A.R.T. SPORTS shall not be liable for any injuries or damage to any member, or the property of the member, or be subject to any claim, demand, injury or damages whatsoever, including, without limitation, those damages resulting from acts of negligence on the part of S.M.A.R.T. SPORTS, its officers or agents. The member, for himself/herself and on behalf of his/her executors, administrators, heirs, assigns, and assignees and successors, does hereby expressly forever [**10] waive, release and discharge S.M.A.R.T. SPORTS, its owners, officers, employees, agents, assigners and successors from all such claims, demands, injuries, damages, actions or causes of action.

The language of the Agreement and Release is broad, and specifically releases S.M.A.R.T. from claims and actions for negligence. Indeed, the Massengills do not assert that the agreement does not apply to this action; instead, their contention is that the agreement is not enforceable. In the absence of any genuine issue of a material fact with respect to the language of the Agreement and Release, the issue is a pure question of law with respect to whether the district court invoked and correctly applied the pertinent rules of law.

In Shepard v. Top Hat Land & Cattle Co., 560 P.2d 730, 732 (Wyo. 1977), the applicable rule was summarized:

[HN5] If the language of the contract is plain and unequivocal that language is controlling and the interpretation of the contractual provisions is for the court to make as a matter of law. The meaning of the instrument is to be deduced only from its language if the terms are plain and unambiguous. Mauch v. Ballou, Wyo., 499 P.2d 591 (1972); [**11] Craig v. Gudim, Wyo., 488 P.2d 316 (1971); Chandler-Simpson, Inc. v. Gorrell, Wyo., 464 P.2d 849 (1970); Flora Construction Company v. Bridger Valley Electric Association, Inc., Wyo., 355 P.2d 884 (1960); Barlow v. Makeeff, 74 Wyo. 171, 284 P.2d 1093 (1955).

This rule first was alluded to by this Court in Horvath v. Sheridan-Wyoming Coal Co., 58 Wyo. 211, 230, 131 P.2d 315, 321 (1942), and it has been consistently applied over the years, appearing most recently in Saulcy Land Co. v. Jones, 983 P.2d 1200, 1202 (Wyo. 1999).

[HN6] Exculpatory clauses or releases are contractual in nature, and we interpret them using traditional contract principles and considering the meaning of the document as a whole. Milligan v. Big Valley Corp., 754 P.2d 1063, 1065 (Wyo. 1988); Boehm v. Cody Country Chamber of Commerce, 748 P.2d 704, 712 (Wyo. 1987); Schutkowski, 725 P.2d at 1059; Kelliher v. Herman, 701 P.2d 1157, 1159 (Wyo. 1985). The language of the Agreement and Release is clear in manifesting an intention to release S.M.A. [**12] R.T. and those involved with the facility from liability; it specifically states that S.M.A.R.T. will not be held liable for “those damages resulting from acts of negligence on the part of S.M.A.R.T. SPORTS, its officers or agents.” And, just as in Boehm, 748 P.2d at 712, “[a] plain reading of the language in the context of the entire membership application evidences no other rational purpose for which it could have been intended.”

The Massengills endeavor to avoid the release and waiver articulated in the Agreement and Release by arguing that it is not valid as a matter of public policy because the business of S.M.A.R.T. is appropriate for [*1136] public regulation, and the nature of the use of the equipment by Massengill is not material to the public policy or public regulation determination. We said in Fremont Homes, Inc. v. Elmer, 974 P.2d 952, 956 (Wyo. 1999):

[HN7] In Wyoming, a contract limiting liability for negligence may be enforced only if it does not contravene public policy. Schutkowski v. Carey, 725 P.2d 1057, 1059-60 (Wyo.1986); Boehm v. Cody Country Chamber of Commerce, 748 P.2d 704, 710 (Wyo. 1987); Brittain v. Booth, 601 P.2d 532, 535 (Wyo.1979). [**13]

In Schutkowski, 725 P.2d at 1060, this Court adopted from Colorado a four-part test for evaluating a negligence exculpatory clause. [HN8] The factors the court considers are: “(1) whether a duty to the public exists; (2) the nature of the service performed; (3) whether the contract was fairly entered into; and (4) whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language.” A comparison of Massengill’s claim with these factors leads to the ineluctable conclusion that the district court’s decision was correct as a matter of law.

We said in Milligan, 754 P.2d at 1066, “[ [HN9] a] duty to the public exists if the nature of the business or service affects the public interest and the service performed is considered an essential service.” We then adopted from California [HN10] a definition of a release agreement affecting the public interest, giving rise to a public duty, which is that it

“concerns a business of a type generally thought suitable for public regulation. 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 [**14] some members of the public. The party holds himself out as willing to perform this service for any member of the public who seeks it * * *. As a result 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 his services.” (Emphasis added and footnotes omitted.) Tunkl v. Regents of University of California, 60 Cal. 2d 92, 32 Cal. Rptr. 33, 383 P.2d 441, 445-46, 6 A.L.R.3d 693 (1963).

Milligan, 754 P.2d at 1066. We also adopted a [HN11] list of examples of services which are typically subject to public regulation and which demand a public duty or are considered essential. The list includes common carriers, hospitals and doctors, public utilities, innkeepers, public warehousemen, employers, and services involving extra-hazardous activities. Milligan, 754 P.2d at 1066.

Schutkowski was a case involving a sky diving injury, and we held that [HN12] a private recreational business does not qualify as one that owes a special duty to the public nor are its services of a special, highly [**15] necessary nature. Schutkowski, 725 P.2d at 1060. The services offered by S.M.A.R.T. to its members were those of a private recreational business which did not qualify as suitable for public regulation because they did not affect the public interest nor could they be considered as necessary or essential, and there was no greater duty to the public than existed in Schutkowski, Boehm or Milligan. The district court in its Order Granting Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment cites and relies upon decisions from other jurisdictions which have held that [HN13] exculpatory clauses in health club contracts do not violate public policy. Schlobohm v. Spa Petite, Inc., 326 N.W.2d 920, 926 (Minn. 1982); Shields v. Sta-Fit, Inc., 79 Wn. App. 584, 903 P.2d 525, 528 (1995). We are persuaded that the approach of the courts in Minnesota and Washington is the correct rule.

Massengill further maintains that he joined S.M.A.R.T. pursuant to a doctor’s order, and as such was receiving an essential service; therefore, S.M.A.R.T. owed him a public duty that is subject to regulation. A casual conversation, at a drugstore one evening, with the doctor/equity [**16] owner of the S.M.A.R.T. facility hardly qualifies as a prescription. The doctor was not Massengill’s treating physician nor was he acting in that capacity; he engaged in the conversation as the owner of the facility and not a physician. Moreover, the record is devoid of evidence showing that on the day he was injured, Massengill was engaging in a rehabilitation program. He admitted joining S.M.A.R.T. to [*1137] get into better physical condition. That was the purpose of his membership at S.M.A.R.T., and it qualifies as a recreational activity and not a practical necessity. Based on Massengill’s own testimony, his membership was purely recreational and not pursuant to a doctor’s order. There is no genuine issue of material fact as to the purpose or nature of Massengill’s use of the S.M.A.R.T. facility that needs to be resolved.

The third factor in the Schutkowski test is whether the contract was fairly entered into. Since membership in a private recreational facility such as S.M.A.R.T. is purely optional and does not qualify as an essential service, no decisive bargaining advantage exists. “A disparity of bargaining power will be found when a contracting party with little or no bargaining [**17] strength has no reasonable alternative to entering the contract at the mercy of the other’s negligence.” Milligan, 754 P.2d at 1066. Similar to the releases in Milligan, which involved an optional ski race, and Schutkowski, which involved sky diving, no evidence suggests that Massengill was unfairly pressured into signing the agreement or was deprived of the opportunity to understand its implications. In fact, after Massengill initially toured the facilities, he was given the Agreement and Release to take with him, which he filled out at home and returned three days later.

In determining that the Order Granting Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment should be considered under principles of contract law, we held that the last factor of the Schutkowski test is satisfied in this case. The intent of the parties was clearly expressed in clear and unambiguous language. [HN14] We interpret exculpatory clauses or releases using traditional contract principles, and consider the meaning of the document as a whole. Milligan, 754 P.2d at 1067. Just as in Boehm, 748 P.2d at 712, “[a] plain reading of the language in the context of the [**18] entire membership application evidences no other rational purpose for which it could have been intended.”

In a further effort to avoid the Agreement and Release, the Massengills present an argument that the Recreation Safety Act, Wyo. Stat. Ann. §§ 1-1-121 to 1-1-123 (Lexis 1999), creates a statutory duty on the part of providers of a sport or recreational opportunity because it preserves actions based upon negligence if damage or injury is not the result of an inherent risk of the sport or recreational opportunity. The Massengills rely upon Halpern v. Wheeldon, 890 P.2d 562, 565 (Wyo. 1995), and the distinction drawn in that case between primary assumption of risk and secondary assumption of risk. The thrust of this rather convoluted argument is that, if the conduct of the defendant comes within the category of secondary assumption of risk, a statutory duty is created by the language that preserves actions based on negligence. The Massengills then contend that the Agreement and Release cannot be enforced because it is contrary to the statutory duty. No authority is cited for that precise proposition, and we are satisfied that [HN15] the Recreation Safety Act does not foreclose [**19] the invocation of a contractual release or waiver for negligent conduct that is not released by the assignment of the inherent risk to the person participating in the sport or recreational opportunity under the statute. Indeed, the limited reach of the statute would suggest that a contractual release in addition to the statute would be prudent.

With respect to the claim of Kaylea Massengill for loss of consortium, her cause of action was included in the Order Granting Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment. She executed the same Agreement and Release that James Massengill signed. Furthermore, her claim for loss of consortium was derivative of James Massengill’s claim for injuries, and it fails when his claim fails. Verschoor v. Mountain West Farm Bureau Mut. Ins. Co., 907 P.2d 1293, 1301 (Wyo. 1995); Boehm, 748 P.2d at 708.

The only pertinent issue in this case was whether the exculpatory clause should be held to violate public policy and not enforced for that reason. The record reflects that Massengill’s participation was purely recreational and S.M.A.R.T. did not owe him a public duty. S.M.A.R.T. is not engaged in a type of business generally [**20] thought suitable for public regulation, and Massengill was engaged in a recreational activity not an activity pursuant to a physician’s order. The case [*1138] is correctly resolved as a matter of law under principles relating to contract, and the contractual language being clear and unambiguous, there are no genuine issues of material fact. The case is controlled by Schutkowski and the later cases that followed it. We affirm the district court’s Order Granting Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment.


Wife signed release, husband signed addendum to release and was held to the exculpatory clause in the release

Language of addendum was sufficient to bind husband to contract – but a risky legal move.

Hembree v. Johnson et al., 224 Ga. App. 680; 482 S.E.2d 407; 1997 Ga. App. LEXIS 182; 97 Fulton County D. Rep. 622

Plaintiff: Terrell L. Hembree

Defendant: Gordon Johnson and James Haddle d/b/a Douglasville Health & Athletic Club

Plaintiff Claims: negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: for the defendants

The wife of the plaintiff joined the defendant Douglasville Health & Athletic Club. When she joined she signed the Membership Agreement that was referenced by an Agreement Number (13217). When she completed the agreement. She listed her husband, the plaintiff as a family member. The membership agreement on the front referred to rules and conditions which the signor agreed to that were listed on the back. The rules and conditions on the back included exculpatory (release) language.

Several months after his wife joined, the plaintiff joined the health club. He signed a Membership Addendum which stated, “I herewith modify my original membership agreement No. 13217 dated 4-14-92 as stated herein.”

The plaintiff allegedly slipped and fell while playing racquet ball injuring his knee. The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment based upon the release signed by the spouse of the plaintiff.

Summary of the case

The plaintiff argued the dismissal of his case was improper because there was the existence of a material issue of a disputed fact. That fact was whether he assented to the release when he joined the defendant club.

Under Georgia law the construction of a written contract is a question of law, which can be decided by a court unless an ambiguity exists in the agreement.

Simply put, when the plaintiff signed the Membership Addendum, he assented to all the terms contained in the original agreement signed by his wife.

Even better the court stated, “It was incumbent upon Hembree [plaintiff] to read the contract and apprise himself of the terms to which he assented.”

Another issue raised by the plaintiff was the release violated the Georgia Fair Business Practices Act (O.C.G.A. § 10-1-393.2). The plaintiff failed to preserve the issue for appeal; however, the court did review the issue.

A health club membership does not violate public policy, or violate the Georgia Fair Business Practices Act.

A contracting party may waive or renounce that which the law has established in his favor, provided doing so does not injure others or affect the public interest. O.C.G.A. § 1-3-7. It is well settled that public policy does not prohibit the inclusion of an exculpatory clause, like the one at issue here, in a health club membership.

So Now What?

Normally, a court looks at a release or waiver as a personal contract with a third party. No one can sign away the right to sue of another, unless they are legally allowed to do so through a Power of Attorney or as a guardian.

In this case, the court looked at the relationship between the person who signed the original agreement and the person signing the addendum. The addendum specifically referred to the original agreement by a number.

Do not ever rely on this case to have a non-signor on a release held to a release. Always get a signature. In this case, it would have only taken a few more minutes to hand the plaintiff a release and have him read and sign the document.

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