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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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Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law

Copyright 2017 Recreation Law (720) Edit Law

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

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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.

 


Four releases signed and all of them thrown out because they lacked one simple sentence!

Releases have to be written correctly and they have to be written in conjunction with all of the possible defendants to a suit.
This is a sad case stemming from the death of young man who had traveled from Ohio

Photograph of girls performing synchronized tr...

Photograph of girls performing synchronized trampoline at WAGC in Quebec November 2007. Trampqueen 21:52, 15 November 2007 (UTC) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

to Tennessee to participate in a gymnastic event, the John Macready Flip Fest Invitational in Knoxville. The deceased was an experienced participant on the trampoline. During the event, he fell off the trampoline hitting the concrete floor with his head.

His parents sued the organizer of the event, Top Flight Gymnastics, the sanctioning organizations, USA Gymnastics (USAG) and the United States Gymnastics Federation (USGF). These three defendants, Top Flight, USAG and USGF as well as the booster club for Top Flight had releases that were signed by the deceased and or his mother or father.
The deceased mother stated she signed the release for the event in Kentucky. (No explanation was given why she signed the release in Kentucky.) The USGF and USAG releases were part of membership applications and probably signed in Ohio. It was not stated where the Top Flight release was signed.
The deceased and the plaintiffs lived in Ohio. USAG and USGF were based in Indiana but sanctioned events all over the US. Top Flight was located in Tennessee where the accident occurred.
The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that the release should be reviewed under Ohio’s law. The reason for this is because Ohio upholds a release signed by a parent. (See States that allow a Parent to Sign away a Minor’s right to sue.) The court fist had to determine what law applied, Ohio or Tennessee. No one was arguing for Kentucky or Indiana. Neither of those states allows a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue.
The plaintiffs sued for negligence “in that they sanctioned an event which failed to provide a safe environment, utilized untrained spotters, failed to ensure sufficient floor matting, failed to require experienced and trained spotters, and failed to require sufficient safety matting.”

Summary of the case

This case was brought in Federal District Court as a diversity case. That means that one or more of the parties is located outside of the state of where the lawsuit is filed and the amount being asked for is in excess of $75,000.  
The Federal Court had to decide which law would be applied to the case. This is called a “Choice of Laws” issue, meaning the court has to decide which state law will be used to decide the case. Step one in this decision, is to decide which states have a relationship with the lawsuit. How that decision is made is based on the law of the state where the court is. The case was filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee, so Tennessee’s law was used to decide which state law would be used to the Choice of Law question which then would be used to decide which state law would be applied to the case.
In Tennessee, the test to decide which state law is to be applied is the “the most significant relationship” test.
In an action for wrongful death, the local law of the state where the injury occurred determines the rights and liabilities of the parties unless, with respect to the particular issue, some other state has a more significant relationship under the principles stated in § 6 to the occurrence and the parties, to which event the local law of the other state will be applied.
The court ruled that because the accident occurred in Tennessee, Tennessee had the most significant relationship to the case. The court applied the four-part Tennessee test to make that decision. The court looked at the following questions to determine what state law would be applied:
(1) the place where the injury occurred,
(2) the place where the conduct causing the injury occurred,
(3) the domicile, residence, nationality, place of incorporation and place of business of the parties, and
(4) the place where the relationship, if any, between the parties is centered.
Tennessee was where the injury occurred, the place where the conduct causing the injury occurred. Tennessee “was the only mutual and central contact these parties had with one another.”
The court then looked at Tennessee’s law concerning releases and held all four releases void. Tennessee does not recognize a parent’s right to sign away a minor’s right to sue. Childress v. Madison County, 777 S.W.2d 1 (Tenn.App. 1989). The decision, on what state law to apply, decided the real legal issue in one sentence.
Of the four states in question, Tennessee, Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio, only if the choice of a law’s question had found Ohio, the place where two releases had been signed, would the case end. Simply put, the case would have ended if the court could have applied Ohio’s law to the facts.
The court then took on an interesting turn. The court stated, on its own, that the release also failed because the allegations of the complaint pleaded intentional conduct recklessness or gross negligence. Under Tennessee law gross negligence and reckless conduct are not protected by a release. The court then said, “defendants’ failure to provide a safe environment, failure to utilize trained spotters, and failure to ensure sufficient safety matting, all constitute gross negligence and reckless conduct.”
Rarely do courts look at the facts and then develop claims or defenses for one side or the other. Here, the court did just that. The court created additional claims for the plaintiff. Nowhere else in the decision did the court allude to allegations on the part of the plaintiffs whom any of the defendants acted a grossly negligent way.

So Now What?

I’ve written about it several times before about jurisdiction and venue. See A Recent Colorado Supreme Court Decision lowers the requirements to be brought into the state to defend a lawsuit, The legal relationship created between manufactures and US consumers and Shark Feeding Death triggers debate. Jurisdiction is the term applied to the law that is to be applied to the case. This case is a legal argument over jurisdiction. Venue is the legal term used to describe where, what city and state the court that hears the case will be.
Releases must first have the correct language to make the release effective in barring claims and lawsuits. It must have a well written negligence clause.
However, if your release does not have a jurisdiction and venue clause, just like this case, your release is worthless a lot of the time. If anyone can change the venue to another state, and/or change the jurisdiction to another state you have just wasted paper.
As I repeat over and over again.
1.      Your release must be written by an attorney who is familiar with your activities and the law concerning releases.
2.    Your release must have a well written negligence clause. It must, according to the state law of the jurisdiction you decide, meet the requirements to be upheld.
3.    Your release must have a jurisdiction and venue clause. Period!
If you wrote your release I now it fails the first and second parts of the test. I suspect even if an attorney wrote your release, it might fail the third part of the test.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Bonne, et al., v. Premier Athletics, LLC, et al., 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 77802

Bonne, et al., v. Premier Athletics, LLC, et al., 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 77802

Matthew R. Bonne, et al., Plaintiffs, v. Premier Athletics, LLC, et al., Defendants.

No. 3:04-CV-440

United States District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee

2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 77802

October 23, 2006, Filed

SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Motion granted by, in part, Motion denied by, in part Bonne v. Premier Ath., 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 79956 (E.D. Tenn., Oct. 29, 2007)

CORE TERMS: gymnastic, summary judgment, sanctioned, wrongful death, membership, athlete, guardian, trampoline, booster, choice of law, significant relationship, decedent’s, sibling, place of business, moving party, non-moving, competed, death action, reckless conduct, exculpatory clause, gross negligence, surviving spouse, superior right, deceased, spotters, matting, registration form, paralysis, sponsor, host

COUNSEL: [*1] For Matthew R Bonne, Individually next friend Jordan T Bonne, Shirley K Bonne, Individually, next friend, Jordan T Bonne, next friend, Aaron Bonne, next friend, Brooke Bonne, next friend Trey Bonne, next friend, Andrew Bonne, Plaintiff: Stephen E Yeager, Lowe & Yeager, Knoxville, TN.

For Premier Athletics, LLC, doing business as, Premier Gymnastics and Tumbling Center, Defendant: John W Baker, Jr, Baker, O’Kane, Atkins & Thompson, Knoxville, TN.

For USA Gymnastics, United States Gymnastics Federation, Defendant: Samuel W Rutherford, Stokes & Rutherford, Knoxville, TN.

JUDGES: Thomas W. Phillips, United States District Judge.

OPINION BY: Thomas W. Phillips

OPINION

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

This a wrongful death case involving parties with diversity under 28 U.S.C. § 1332. Defendants, Premier Athletics, LLC, USA Gymnastics and United States Gymnastics Federation, have moved for summary judgment as to plaintiffs’ claims. The parties have filed extensive briefs pertaining to the motion for summary judgment in which they have fully briefed all of the issues and submitted record evidence in support of the parties’ positions. The court has reviewed the briefs and [*2] evidence submitted, and does not feel that oral argument is necessary. For the reasons which follow, the motion will be granted as to the claims of Aaron Bonne, Brooke Bonne, Trey Bonne, and Andrew Bonne. In all other respects, the motion will be denied.

Background

This case involves a tragic accident that occurred on January 17, 2004, during the John Macready Flip Fest Invitational in Knoxville, Tennessee. The plaintiffs’ son, Jordan Bonne, was competing in a trampoline event when he fell off the trampoline, hitting his head on the concrete floor. Jordan died from his injuries two days later.

Defendant, Premier Athletics, was the host organization, sponsor and facilitator of the event, which was sanctioned by USA Gymnastics (USAG). Defendants USAG and the United States Gymnastics Federation (USGF) are the national governing bodies for the sport of gymnastics in the United States. Their principal place of business is in Indiana but they sanction gymnastic events all over the United States. At the time of the accident, Jordan was classified as a junior elite trampolinist according to USAG. Junior elite is the second highest classification in USAG sanctioned competition. [*3] Jordan had competed in numerous local, state and national competitions, and had recently competed internationally in his age group. Jordan competed in both the synchronized and individual trampoline events. The day before the accident, Jordan had competed in synchronized trampoline competition at Flip Fest.

Jordan was a member of the Top Flight Gymnastics Team. Jordan was also a member of USAG. In order for a gymnast to compete in a USAG sanctioned event, USAG requires all participants to be a member of USAG. For membership, USAG requires athletes to complete an “Athlete Member Application” every year. Membership is required to compete in USAG sanctioned events. Section Five of the membership application directs parents to read the reverse side of the application. Paragraph 3 of Section 5 includes the following language:

WAIVER AND RELEASE. I am fully aware of and appreciate the risks, including the risk of catastrophic injury, paralysis, and even death, as well as other damages and losses associated with participation in a gymnastics event. I further agree that USA Gymnastics, the host organization, and sponsor(s) of any USA Gymnastics sanctioned event, along with the [*4] employees, agents, officers and directors of the organization, shall not be liable for any losses or damages occurred as a result of my participation in the event, except for such loss or damage as the result of the intentional or reckless conduct of one of the organizations or individuals identified above.

Section 6 of the Athlete Member Application provides as follows:

All signatures required for acceptance of membership . . .

Required for any athlete who is not yet eighteen years old: As legal parent or guardian of this athlete, I hereby verify by my signature below, that I fully understand and accept each of the conditions listed in the Athlete Membership Agreement as described in Section Five for permitting my child to participate in any USA Gymnastics sanctioned event.

This 2004 membership application was signed by Jordan’s mother, Shirley Bonne in December 2003. Mrs. Bonne stated that she most likely signed the document in Kentucky as it was her habit to do so. In previous years, Shirley Bonne had signed similar forms containing the same waiver and release language. Jordan had also signed forms with identical waiver and release language in the past.

[*5] Top Flight Gymnastics had a similar waiver and release in its registration form. The Top Flight Gymnastics registration form provided:

As legal guardian of Jordan Bonne, I hereby consent to the above person’s participation in Top Flight Gymnastics’ programs, I recognize that potentially severe injuries, including permanent paralysis or death can occur in any activity involving height or motion, including gymnastics and related activities, including tumbling and trampoline.

I understand that it is the express intent of Top Flight Gymnastics to provide for the safety and protection of my child, and, in consideration for allowing my child to use these facilities, I hereby forever release Top Flight Gymnastics, its officers, employees, teachers, and coaches, from all liability for any and all damages and injuries suffered by my child while under the instruction, supervision, or control of Top Flight Gymnastics or its employees.

. . .

This acknowledgment of risk and waiver of liability, having been read thoroughly and understood completely, is signed voluntarily as to its content and intent.

This waiver and release was signed by Shirley Bonne on January 7, 1999.

[*6] Top Flight T&T, a booster club that supported Top Flight Gymnastics required a similar waiver and release for athletes who participated in its programs. This waiver and release stated:

As legal guardian of Jordan Bonne, I hereby consent to the above person’s participation in Top Flight’s T&T Boosters programs. I recognize that potentially severe injuries, including permanent paralysis or death can occur in any activity involving height or motion, including tumbling and trampoline.

I understand that it is the express intent of Top Flight T&T Boosters to provide for the safety and protection of my child, and, in consideration for allowing my child to use these facilities, I hereby forever release the Top Flight T&T Boosters, its officers, employees, teachers and coaches from all liability for any and all damages and injuries sustained by my child while under the instruction, supervision, or control of Top Flight T&T Boosters or its employees.

. . .

This acknowledgment of risk and waiver of liability, having been read thoroughly and understood completely, is signed voluntarily as to its content and intent.

Matthew Bonne, Jordan’s father, had also signed similar [*7] waiver and release forms for Jordan. He testified via deposition that he “probably” signed the Top Flight Registration Form. He acknowledged that he signed the booster club form. In the case of both these forms, he stated that he did not recall whether he read them before signing. Matthew Bonne traveled with his son on several occasions to different gymnastics events, including one that was held in Russia. He also attended several of Jordan’s practices.

As a result of the accident at Flip Fest on January 19, 2004, plaintiffs filed the instant action for the wrongful death of Jordan. The plaintiffs are residents of Ohio. In their complaint, Matthew and Shirley Bonne, individually and as next friends, parents and natural guardians of Jordan, sued Premier, USAG and USGF. Further, the Bonnes, as next friends, parents and guardians of Aaron Bonne, Brooke Bonne, Trey Bonne and Andrew Bonne (Jordan’s siblings) sued defendants contending that USAG and USGF were negligent in that they sanctioned an event which failed to provide a safe environment, utilized untrained spotters, failed to ensure sufficient floor matting, failed to require experienced and trained spotters, and failed to require [*8] sufficient safety matting. As a result of defendants’ alleged negligence, plaintiffs seek damages including parental and sibling consortium, expenses, and the pecuniary value of Jordan’s life.

Defendants USAG and USGF have moved for summary judgment asserting that the releases signed by Shirley and Matthew Bonne bar all claims against defendants. The releases exclude USAG and USGF from any liability resulting from injuries occurring in sanctioned events. As the host organization, sponsor and facilitator of the Flip Fest event, Premier is also expressly excluded from liability.

Analysis

Rule 56(c), Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, provides that summary judgment will be granted by the court only when there is no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The burden is on the moving party to conclusively show that no genuine issue of material fact exists. The court must view the facts and all inferences to be drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587, 106 S. Ct. 1348, 89 L. Ed. 2d 538 (1986); Morris to Crete Carrier Corp., 105 F.3d 279, 280-81 (6th Cir. 1987); [*9] White v. Turfway Park Racing Ass’n, Inc., 909 F.2d 941, 943 (6th Cir. 1990); 60 lvy Street Corp. v. Alexander, 822 F.2d 1432, 1435 (6th Cir. 1987). Once the moving party presents evidence sufficient to support a motion under Rule 56, Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the non-moving party is not entitled to a trial simply on the basis of allegations. The non-moving party is required to come forward with some significant probative evidence which makes it necessary to resolve the factual dispute at trial. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986); White, 909 F.2d at 943-44. The moving party is entitled to summary judgment if the non-moving party fails to make a sufficient showing on an essential element of its case with respect to which it has the burden of proof. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323; Collyer v. Darling, 98 F.3d 211, 220 (6th Cir. 1996).

Choice of Law

Defendants argue that Ohio law should apply to the interpretation of the USAG membership application which contains an exculpatory clause. Plaintiffs, on the other hand, argue that Tennessee [*10] law is the correct choice of law to apply to determine the rights and liabilities of the parties. Plaintiffs further argue that Tennessee public policy prohibits the enforcement of exculpatory clauses by parents on behalf of their minor children and thus, the USAG waiver is void in this case.

The plaintiffs reside in Ohio. Defendants’ motion for summary judgment states that Mrs. Bonne completed and signed Jordan’s USAG member application in Ohio. However, Mrs. Bonne stated in her affidavit, that she most likely signed the application in Kentucky, where the Top Flight gym is located. The application was sent to and received by USAG in Indiana.

A federal court in a diversity case applies the law of the state in which the court sits, including the state’s choice of law rules. Davis v. Sears, Roebuck and Co., 873 F.2d 888, 892 (6th cir. 1989)(citing Erie R.R.Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 58 S. Ct. 817, 82 L. Ed. 1188 (1938). It is not clear from the defendants’ motion whether they dispute that plaintiffs’ tort claims are to be analyzed under applicable Tennessee law. However, they do dispute whether Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, or Tennessee law governs the analysis of the release and [*11] waiver provisions at issue. Defendants assert in their motion that this is a contract dispute which should be analyzed under Tennessee’s choice of law rules related to contract claims. The court disagrees. This is a wrongful death action based upon tort, not contract. As regards the effect of the waiver and release between the parties, it will be determined by the law that governs the substantive tort rights of the parties.

The Tennessee Supreme Court in Hataway v. McKinley, 830 S.W.2d 53 (Tenn. 1992), adopted the “most significant relationship” approach of the Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws, § 175, to determine the rights and liabilities of the parties in a wrongful death case. Section 175 provides:

In an action for wrongful death, the local law of the state where the injury occurred determines the rights and liabilities of the parties unless, with respect to the particular issue, some other state has a more significant relationship under the principles stated in § 6 to the occurrence and the parties, to which event the local law of the other state will be applied.

The accident causing Jordan’s [*12] death occurred at the Flip Fest in Knoxville, Tennessee. Thus, under the “most significant relationship” test, Tennessee law applies unless another state has a more significant relationship. To determine if another state has a more significant relationship, § 145 of the Restatement provides factors to be weighed and balanced. Those factors are (1) the place where the injury occurred, (2) the place where the conduct causing the injury occurred, (3) the domicile, residence, nationality, place of incorporation and place of business of the parties, and (4) the place where the relationship, if any, between the parties is centered.

Applying this test to the instant case, as stated above, Tennessee is where the injury and death occurred. Second, Tennessee is the place where the conduct causing the injury occurred. Third, the plaintiffs are residents of Ohio, USAG and USGF have their principal place of business in Indiana, but they sanction gymnastic events all over the United States. Premier is a Tennessee limited liability company with its principal place of business in Knoxville, Tennessee. Last, the relationship between the parties was centered in Tennessee because Jordan’s death occurred [*13] while he was participating in Flip Fest in Knoxville. The Flip Fest competition in Knoxville was the only mutual and central contact these parties had with one another. Therefore, it is clear that Tennessee is the state that has the “most significant relationship” with the parties in this case. Thus, Tennessee choice of law rules dictate that Tennessee tort law applies.

In a tort action, the effect of a release between the parties is determined by the law that governs the substantive tort rights of the parties. Mackey v. Judy’s Foods, Inc., 867 F.2d 325, 328 (6th Cir. 1989)(citing to Restatement (Second) of Conflicts of Laws, § 170, Comment b). As Tennessee law governs the rights and liabilities of the parties in the tort action, Tennessee law will also be applied to interpret the effect of the release and waiver provisions in the USAG application.

Effect of Waiver & Release

In Childress v. Madison County, 777 S.W.2d 1 (Tenn.App. 1989), the Tennessee Court of Appeals noted that “[t]he general rule is that a guardian may not waive the rights of an infant or an incompetent.” Id. at 6 [*14] (citing 39 Am.Jur.2d Guardian & Ward, § 102 (1968); 42 Am.Jur.2d Infants § 152 (1969)). As in Childress, Jordan’s rights could not be contracted away by his mother in the State of Tennessee. It is Tennessee’s stated public policy to protect minors and prohibit exculpatory releases for them. Mrs. Bonne could not execute a valid release or exculpatory clause as to the rights of her son against USAG, or anyone else, and to the extent the parties to the release attempted and intended to so do, the release is void.

Moreover, exculpatory clauses purporting to contract against liability for intentional conduct, recklessness or gross negligence are unenforceable. See Childress, 777 S.W.2d at 5; Adams v. Roark, 686 S.W.2d 73 (Tenn. 1985). Plaintiffs’ complaint alleges defendants’ failure to provide a safe environment, failure to utilize trained spotters, and failure to ensure sufficient safety matting, all constitute gross negligence and reckless conduct. Defendants have not challenged these allegations in their motion for summary judgment. Thus, accepting plaintiffs’ allegations [*15] as true, the release at issue here would not shield defendants for liability for their gross negligence and reckless conduct. Accordingly, defendants’ motion for summary judgment based on the waiver and release will be denied.

Claims of Jordan’s Siblings

Defendants assert that since both Jordan’s parents are living and are named , as plaintiffs in this actions, no right to sue on Jordan’s behalf has passed to his siblings. Thus, the claims of Aaron Bonne, Brooke Bonne, Trey Bonne and Andrew Bonne, should be dismissed as a matter of law.

The statutes permitting an action for the wrongful death of another create “no right of action existing independently of that which the deceased would have had, had he survived.” Rogers v. Donelson Hermitage Chamber of Commerce, 807 S.W.2d 242, 245 (Tenn.App. 1990); Memphis St. Ry. Co., v. Cooper, 313 S.W.2d 444, 447, 203 Tenn. 425 (1958). Although living beneficiaries of the deceased may seek a limited recovery for their own losses in addition to those of the decedent, see Hill v. City of Germantown, 31 S.W.3d 234, 239 (Tenn. 2000); Jordan v. Baptist Three Rivers Hosp., 984 S.W.2d 593, 598 (Tenn. 1999), [*16] the right of action itself remains one that is “single, entire and indivisible.” See Wheeler v. Burley, 1997 Tenn. App. LEXIS 578, No. 01A01-9701-CV-00006 (Tenn.App. Aug. 27, 1997). Therefore, “there can be but one cause of action for the wrongful death of another.” Matthews v. Mitchell, 705 S.W.2d 657, 660 (Tenn.App. 1985).

Because multiple actions may not be brought to resolve a single wrongful death claim, the statutes carefully prescribe the priority of those who may assert the action on behalf of the decedent and any other beneficiaries. In a dispute between the surviving spouse and the children of the decedent as to who may maintain the action, the surviving spouse clearly has “the prior and superior right above all others.” Foster v. Jeffers, 813 S.W.2d 449, 451 (Tenn.App. 1991); see also Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-5-107. In fact, the children of a deceased may maintain an action only if the decedent is not survived by a spouse or if the surviving spouse has waived his or her right of priority. Id. Applying Tennessee law to the instant case, the court finds that Jordan’s parents have a superior right, as opposed to Jordan’s siblings, [*17] to maintain this cause of action against defendants for the wrongful death of Jordan.

Recognizing that a claim for loss of consortium does not represent a claim for damages separate from the wrongful death action itself, but rather embodies one component of the decedent’s pecuniary value of life, the Tennessee Supreme Court has held that a trial court should dismiss any other pending wrongful death actions upon proper filing of an action by party holding a superior right. See Kline v. Eyrich, 69 S.W.3d 197, 208 (Tenn. 2002). Accordingly, because Jordan’s parents have the superior right to maintain this action, the court will dismiss the claims of Aaron Bonne, Brooke Bonne, Trey Bonne, and Andrew Bonne.

Conclusion

For the reasons stated above, defendants’ joint motion for summary judgment [Doc. 16] is GRANTED IN PART AND DENIED IN PART. The motion is GRANTED as to the claims of Aaron Bonne, Brooke Bonne, Trey Bonne, and Andrew Bonne. In all other respects, the motion is DENIED. The parties will prepare the case for trial.

The parties motions for oral argument on the summary judgment motion [Docs. 28, 33] are DENIED.

ENTER:

[*18] s/ Thomas W. Phillips

United States District Judge

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