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

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

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

No. 328221, No. 328985

COURT OF APPEALS OF MICHIGAN

2016 Mich. App. LEXIS 2198

November 29, 2016, Decided

NOTICE: THIS IS AN UNPUBLISHED OPINION. IN ACCORDANCE WITH MICHIGAN COURT OF APPEALS RULES, UNPUBLISHED OPINIONS ARE NOT PRECEDENTIALLY BINDING UNDER THE RULES OF STARE DECISIS.

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

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

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

OPINION

Per Curiam.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In addition:

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

/s/ Michael J. Kelly

/s/ Christopher M. Murray

/s/ Stephen L. Borrello

 

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University climbing wall release along with Texas Recreational Use Act and Texas Tort Claims Act defeat injured climber’s lawsuit

Court looks at whether a release will defeat a claim for gross negligence but does not decide the case on that issue. Case is confusing, because court discussed defenses that were not applicable. Plaintiff waived all but the gross negligence claims.

Benavidez v. The University of Texas — Pan American, 2014 Tex. App. LEXIS 11940

State: Texas, Court of Appeals

Plaintiff: Rolando Benavidez

Defendant: The University of Texas — Pan American

Plaintiff Claims: failure to properly use the climbing equipment and properly supervise [Benavidez] during the climb, Under the theory of respondeat superior, Benavidez claimed that his injuries were caused by the negligence and gross negligence of UTPA (University of Texas– Pan American), negligent use of tangible personal property in that UTPA breached its “legal duty to [Benavidez] to provide supervision of [Benavidez], use safe equipment with [Benavidez], and to properly secure [Benavidez’s] harness prior to climbing.” negligent use or condition of real property in that UTPA breached its duty to provide a safe climbing wall for Benavidez and failed to use ordinary care to protect Benavidez from an unreasonably dangerous condition. UTPA had subjective awareness of a high degree of risk and acted with “conscious indifference to the rights, safety, or welfare of [Benavidez] or others similarly situated.

Defendant Defenses: Release, Recreational Use Statute and the Texas Tort Claims Act

Holding: For the defendant

Year: 2014

The plaintiff was climbing at the university’s climbing wall. He signed a release to climb. On the back of the release was a set of rules about climbing that the plaintiff also had to sign. i.e. Two legal documents on one sheet of paper.

The plaintiff argued the rules on the backside of the agreement were part of the contract. Because the climbing wall had not followed the rules, the release was no longer valid and the defendant had acted negligently and gross negligently.

While climbing the plaintiff reached the top of the wall and was told to lean back while he was lowered. The plaintiff fell 33’ suffering injuries. Based on witness statements of other employees of the wall, it appeared the figure 8 (knot) used to tie the plaintiff’s harness to the rope had been tied incorrectly.

The trial court dismissed the case, awarded costs against the plaintiff based on the Texas Tort Claims Act, and the plaintiff appealed.

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

The court first looked at the Texas Tort Claim Act and its application to the case.

As a governmental unit, UTPA is immune from both suit and liability unless the Tort Claims Act has waived that immunity. Section 101.021 of the Tort Claims Act has been interpreted as waiving sovereign immunity in three general areas: “use of publicly owned automobiles, premises defects, and injuries arising out of conditions or use of property.”

The court then brought in the Texas Recreational Use Statute. Under the Texas Recreational Use Statute, a state landowner (governmental entity) can only be liable for gross negligence.

When injury or death results on state-owned, recreational land, the recreational use statute limits the state’s duty even further to that owed by a landowner to a trespasser, which means that the State only waives immunity for conduct that rises to the level of gross negligence.

The university is state land, and the climbing wall is on the land. It was used for recreation and probably as a student for free, although this was not discussed in the case. Consequently, the Texas Recreational Use Act protected the university from negligence claims.

With the ordinary negligence claims gone, the court turned to the gross negligence claims and looked at the release. Under Texas law to be valid, a release must:

(1) provide fair notice by being conspicuous, and (2) comply with the express negligence doctrine. To be conspicuous, a release must be written, displayed, or presented such that a reasonable person against whom it is to operate ought to have noticed it. A release satisfies the express negligence doctrine if it expresses the intent of the parties to exculpate a party for its own negligence.

The burden is on the defendant, the person relying on the defense of release, to prove the validity of the release and the requirements set forth by the court.

The court then looked at whether the release then barred the claim for gross negligence. The court reviewed several Texas cases; however, the court did not decide whether a release in this situation barred a claim for gross negligence. The court found the gross negligence claim was not raised on the appeal.

For a legal argument to be argued in the court, there are two basic components that must be met before any argument can be made. The argument must be made in the trial court and in many cases an objection to the court’s ruling made. Second the issue must be argued in the statements (pleadings) at the appellate court also. Here, although argued in the trial court the issue was not argued or probably raised at the appellate court.

The court then went back to the release to see if the release was still valid. The plaintiff claimed the defendant violated the release because it failed to follow the rules on the reverse side of the release. Because the rules were on the document called the release the plaintiff argued they were part of the release. Those rules set forth how the climbers and allegedly the gym was supposed to act. One of the rules required all knots to be checked by specific persons at the gym, which was not done in this case, and allegedly not done at all until after the plaintiff’s injury.

Arguing the rules and release were one document, the plaintiff stated the failure to follow the rules was a material breach of the contract. A material breach or avoidance of the contract voids it.

Under Texas law, a release is a contract and is subject to avoidance just like any other contract. When construing a contract, the court’s primary concern is to give effect to the written expression of the parties’ intent. This court is bound to read all parts of a contract together to ascertain the agreement of the parties. The contract must be considered as a whole. Moreover, each part of the contract should be given full effect.

A prior material breach one that occurs before the execution of the contract discharges the parties from the contractual obligations. “Under the theory of prior material breach, a party is discharged from its contractual obligations based on the other party’s material breach of the contract.”

Execution of the contract means the contract by its terms has not been completed. Meaning there is part so the contract that have not been complied with by one or more parties. Here the failure of the gym to check the plaintiff’s knot was prior to the climbing of the plaintiff. “Under the theory of prior material breach, a party is discharged from its contractual obligations based on the other party’s material breach of the contract.”

Under Texas law for a court to determine if a prior material breach to occur the court must determine the following:

(1) the extent to which the injured party will be deprived of the benefit which he reasonably expected;

(2) the extent to which the injured party can be adequately compensated for the part of that benefit of which he will be deprived;

(3) the extent to which the party failing to perform or to offer performance will suffer forfeiture;

(4) the likelihood that the party failing to perform or to offer to perform will cure his failure, taking account of all the circumstances including any reasonable assurances; and

(5) the extent to which the behavior of the party failing to perform or to offer to perform comports with standards of good faith and fair dealing.

This court also examined whether or not checking the knot was a condition precedent. A condition precedent requires one thing to occur before the rest of the contract must be done.

Alternatively, a condition precedent is an event that must occur or act that must be per-formed before rights can accrue to enforce an obligation. Ordinarily, terms such as “if,” “provided that,” “on condition that,” or similar conditional language indicate the intent to create a condition precedent. Conditions precedent, which can cause forfeiture of a contractual right, are not favored under the law, and we will not construe a contract provision as a condition precedent unless we are compelled to do so by language that may be construed in no other way.

However, the court found that the language of the safety rules did not relate to the language of the release. The safety rules, overall, were simply rules the plaintiff was to follow and was not part of the contract. “…the safety policy’s side of the document, by its clear language, does not indicate that UTPA promised to comply with the policies or that compliance with the policies by UTPA…

However, reading the safety policies document as a whole, we find that the language of the agreement placed the sole responsibility on the climber to ensure that the procedures in the safety polices were followed.

Because we find that, by its clear language, the waiver and release form did not express the intent of either party to condition the release from liability on any performance by UTPA and did not include a promise by UTPA to follow the safety policies as consideration for the contract, we conclude that UTPA did not breach or fail to satisfy a condition of the release contract.

The remaining issues before the court were dismissed because without a negligence claim, they were also decided. The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims and the award of costs under the Texas rules of civil procedure.

Costs are not attorney fees. Costs are the cost of going to trial, the filing fee, witness fees, possibly deposition costs, etc. Most states allow the winning side to recover costs of a trial.

So Now What?

This was close. It was obvious by the amount of time the court spend discussing the issue of a material breach that the language on the back of the release was an issue for the court. Always remember a release is a contract. You don’t buy a house with a laundry list on the back. You don’t rent an apartment with state driving laws on the back. Releases are contracts, and you need to make sure there is no issue that the document you are having your guests sign. A Release must be a contract and nothing else.

The university, because it was a state college was subject to broader and more protective statutes that provided defenses, than a private commercial gym or a private college. A state’s tort claims act provides a broad range for protection.

Whether or not a state’s recreational use statute provides protection for governmental agencies is different in each state. If you are in this position, you should check with counsel to see what protection any state statutes may provide.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Sometimes you get screwed; here Petzl was shafted by the court.

In this product liability case, improper use of a climbing harness at a climbing wall led to a lawsuit. The injured climber was climbing at the gym and helped by an untrained employee. In this case, when a judge wants you to pay, you are going to suffer.

In this case, a manufacturer (Petzl) sold climbing harnesses to a climbing wall builder (Sport Rock International, Inc.) who sold a harness to a New York- climbing gym. A gym employee attached a beginner climber to the harness using a gear loop rather than the normal tie in points. The employee had little training and knew not to tie into the gear loop but accidentally did so. The beginning climber fell thirty feet when the gear loop ripped and was injured.

Anaya v Town Sports International, Inc., et al., 2007 NY Slip Op 7875; 2007 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 10819

Plaintiff: Joseph Anaya

Defendant: Town Sports International, Inc., et al., Sport Rock International, Inc., et al. (et al in this case means and others, including Petzl America, Inc.)

Plaintiff Claims: negligence and strict products liability (defectively designed and insufficient warnings)

Defendant Defenses:

Holding: mostly for the plaintiff

The plaintiff sued under theories of negligence and strict product’s liability. The strict product’s liability claims were for defective design of the harness and insufficient warnings on the harness. The warning issue was specifically for failure to warn of where the correct tie in point on the harness was located.

The climbing wall was also sued for negligence and product liability. The climbing wall settled with the injured plaintiff and was not part of this lawsuit. In this case, the climbing wall was a retailer because the harness, although not technically sold to a consumer, was moved into the consumer market by the climbing gym. In a product liability lawsuit, all entities in the chain of sale from the manufacturer to the consumer are brought into court.

The climbing wall and manufacturer filed separate motions for summary judgment, and the trial court granted the motions. The plaintiff appealed, and the appellate court reversed the decision of the trial court and sent the case back down for trial.

Summary of the case

To prove a case for product liability based on defective design in New York the plaintiff must prove “the product was not reasonably safe and that the defective design was a substantial factor in causing plaintiff’s injury….” This argument is similar to the proximate causation argument for a simple negligence claim; however, it is reversed. The plaintiff must prove he was injured first and that the cause of his injury was substantially caused by the design flaws of the product.

With respect to the first element — whether the product was not reasonably safe — the proper inquiry is “whether it is a product which, if the design defect were known at the time of manufacture, a reasonable person would conclude that the utility of the product did not outweigh the risk inherent in marketing a product designed in that manner”

In balancing the product’s risks against its utility and cost, the following factors must be considered: “(1) the utility of the product to the public as a whole and to the individual user; (2) the nature of the product – that is, the likelihood that it will cause injury; (3) the availability of a safer design; (4) the potential for designing and manufacturing the product so that it is safer but remains functional and reasonably priced; (5) the ability of the plaintiff to have avoided injury by careful use of the product; (6) the degree of awareness of the potential danger of the product which reasonably can be attributed to the plaintiff; and (7) the manufacturer’s ability to spread any cost related to improving the safety of the design”

This test is a little more reversed than you first might think about it. The reasonable man test is not that of the manufacturer but of someone in the community with the average knowledge and experience of a person in the community. For those things, we all know and understand such as driving, eating at a restaurant or going to a movie, the test makes sense. We understand how everything works and what we believe is best because we have experienced it.

However, for those activities or actions only practiced or experienced by a few, that test creates an education problem. You must educate the judge and the jury and convince them that the standard you are arguing is reasonable. This is difficult when they may have no idea what you are talking about.

This is a no-win test for the harness manufacturer because attempting to argue that more warnings would either defeat the use of the harness, defeat the ability to use the harness, or cost too much to create and attach to the harness is simply impossible to do. That means the test is comparing the cost of adding additional labels that warn of the risk of tying into a gear loop versus the potential for injury. The potential for injury is almost absolute, thus the manufacturer is going to fail that test 99 times out of 100 if not all the time.

For rock climbing, it is impossible to meet the test in most situations because so few people understand rock climbing. They have no experience in tying into a harness and climbing a wall. To many the whole concept is alien and scary.

While a few people who are not climbers may understand how a harness works, it is likely that knowledge will be based on work harnesses, which have no gear loops and can only be used one way. This difference alone leads to confusion and misunderstanding. If the government, OSHA, does not allow or require gear loops why did the climbing wall manufacturer have them on its harness. The harness is only seen as safety item, not as a way to haul gear and a chalk bag….as well as catch a fall.

The court made this conclusion.

Since the harness was undoubtedly meant to bear the weight of a climber, it was reasonably foreseeable that a climber might attempt to attach a safety line to various parts thereof and expect those parts to bear his weight.

Simple statement for the court to make. The harness is meant to catch the wear in a fall; therefore, all parts of the harness should be able to catch the wearer in a fall.

The manufacturers of climbing harnesses make the gear loops appear flimsy so that a climber would know not to tie into a gear loop. Whether this is an effective way to warn people that a gear loop is not meant to catch a fall was determined by the court to be a question of law to be determined by the jury. Consequently, the court had issues and did not reverse the trial court and sending the case back for trial.

The failure to warn argument was then reviewed by the court. The test of failure to warn is “A manufacturer has a duty to warn against latent dangers resulting from foreseeable uses of its product of which it knew or should have known.”

Petzl warned about the gear loop in the manual. There was also a small label with a skull and crossbones on it, which directed the user to read the manual. The flaw in this situation is the harness had been sold to a climbing wall where it would be used by dozens of climbers, none the owner of the harness and none having access to the manual.

An expert witness for the plaintiff testified that the skull and crossbones label was insufficient to give rise to notice to the consumer of the risk of tying into the gear loop. Here again, the question of fact was one that had to be determined by a jury.

What makes this case so difficult to accept is, the gear loops and labels used by Petzl are standard in the industry. We, in the industry are used to the labels and understand them. Again, the test is not of someone in the industry but of a reasonable man walking down any street, in any town USA.

The defendants then argued that the employee of the climbing gym was an intervening person between the defendant’s acts (making and selling the harness) and the injury. However, the judge rejected this argument because the intervening act cannot be a defense if it is foreseeable that someone would tie into a gear loop.

The manufacturer admitted to knowing of other cases in which people tied into the gear loop of harnesses. This knowledge then eliminated the defense that the injury was unreasonably foreseeable. This test looks at whether or not the average person in the community could guess that a person would tie in incorrectly and whether this knowledge should have been known by the manufacture. Since the manufacturer knew of similar situations then it was foreseeable.

One of the issues that jumps out of this case in reading the decision, is the court wanted to use language that assisted the plaintiff or at least was incorrect. A perfect example was calling the belay rope the safety line.

So Now What?

If you are a manufacturer, you must make sure that your warnings are sufficient that people not associated with the industry can understand their meaning. Here the appellate court had probably never worn a harness and could not understand or see the risk the warning label was attempting to identify.

If believe your market is big enough, then selling a harness to beginners (climbing gyms) that is simple and requires no warning labels might work. With no opportunity to tie into anywhere but the one tie point you eliminate this need. However, you have also eliminated part of the market that wants to get a beginning harness that can grow as their experience does. I.e. a harness that has a gear loop.

Another way would be to eliminate the warnings found in the manual and permanently attach them to the harness. A laminated or plastic card could hang from the chalk bag loop and be obvious to any climber. Beginners are not going to worry about 10 grams of weight the warning card would add to the harness. Sell the harness only to climbing gyms or rope’s courses, etc. and supply a dozen cards with each harness. Require the purchaser to put a new card on the harness anytime a harness is found without one.

Another possibility is to create a more direct relationship between the manufacturer and the user. Not the consumer but climbing walls, zip lines, rope’s courses, and guide services, etc. This relationship, if contractual (and in writing) can say that for a discount, the parties will indemnify each other, follow the rules and consider the relationship a commercial transaction, not that of a consumer transaction.

Even though Petzl had the requisite warning label on its harness, and even though it is common knowledge among anyone with any experience as a climber tying into a gear loop is not safe (as the climbing gym employee did), Petzlbecame a party to the lawsuit once an appellate court decided that the warning labels on the harness, which have been used in several other industries, were not adequate to keep the harness manufacture out of court.

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Anaya v Town Sports International, Inc., 2007 NY Slip Op 7875; 44 A.D.3d 485; 843 N.Y.S.2d 599; 2007 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 10819

Anaya v Town Sports International, Inc., 2007 NY Slip Op 7875; 44 A.D.3d 485; 843 N.Y.S.2d 599; 2007 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 10819

Joseph Anaya, Plaintiff-Appellant, v Town Sports International, Inc., et al., Defendants, Sport Rock International, Inc., et al. Defendants-Respondents. Index 101027/03

SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, APPELLATE DIVISION, FIRST DEPARTMENT

2007 NY Slip Op 7875; 44 A.D.3d 485; 843 N.Y.S.2d 599; 2007 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 10819

October 18, 2007, Decided

October 18, 2007, Entered

COUNSEL: Pollack, Pollack, Isaac & De Cicco, New York (Brian J. Isaac of counsel), for appellant.

Callan, Koster, Brady & Brennan, LLP, New York (Marc R. Wilner of counsel), for Sport Rock International, Inc., respondent.

Goldberg Segalla LLP, Mineola (Joanna M. Roberto of counsel), for Petzl America, Inc., respondent.

JUDGES: Friedman, J.P., Nardelli, Sweeny, McGuire, Malone, JJ.

OPINION

[**485] [***600] Order, Supreme Court, New York County (Leland DeGrasse, J.), entered January 24, 2006, which, to the extent appealed from as limited by the briefs, granted the separate motions of defendants Sport Rock International (Sport Rock) and Petzl America, Inc. (Petzl) for summary judgment dismissing the complaint as against them, unanimously modified, on the law, the motions denied with respect to plaintiff’s claims based on design defect and [***601] failure to warn, and otherwise affirmed, without costs.

Plaintiff sustained severe personal injuries when he fell from a height of approximately 30 feet while descending a rock climbing wall that was operated by defendant Town Sports International, Inc. of West Nyack (TSI). The accident occurred because an employee of TSI tied the safety line plaintiff was using to a non-weight bearing gear loop on the harness plaintiff was wearing; the line should have been tied to the “anchor point” of the harness. As plaintiff descended the wall the gear loop tore away from the harness, causing plaintiff’s fall. The harness was sold to TSI by Sport Rock and manufactured by Petzl.

Plaintiff asserts causes of action for, among other things, negligence and strict products liability. Plaintiff asserts that Sport Rock and Petzl are liable for his injuries because the safety harness was defectively designed and insufficient warnings were provided regarding where on the harness the safety line was supposed to be tied. Sport Rock moved for summary judgment dismissing the complaint and all other claims as asserted against it, and Petzl moved separately for similar relief. Plaintiff cross-moved for a special trial preference and to dismiss the affirmative defenses of Sport Rock and Petzl premised on [**486] the alleged absence of personal jurisdiction over those defendants. Supreme Court granted the motions of Sport Rock and Petzl, and denied plaintiff’s cross motion. Plaintiff appeals, as limited by his brief, from those portions [*2] of the order that granted the motions of Sport Rock and Petzl. 1

1 Plaintiff settled this action with TSI.

Petzl’s argument that plaintiff failed to oppose its motion before Supreme Court and that plaintiff therefore lacks standing to maintain this appeal is without merit. Plaintiff expressly opposed the motions of Sport Rock and Petzl for the reasons stated by TSI in its opposition to the motions.

[HN1] To establish a prima facie case for strict products liability based on defective design, the plaintiff must show that “the product was not reasonably safe and that the defective design was a substantial factor in causing plaintiff’s injury” (Voss v Black & Decker Mfg. Co., 59 NY2d 102, 107, 450 N.E.2d 204, 463 N.Y.S.2d 398 [1983]). With respect to the first element — whether the product was not reasonably safe — the proper inquiry is “whether it is a product which, if the design defect were known at the time of manufacture, a reasonable person would conclude that the utility of the product did not outweigh the risk inherent in marketing a product designed in that manner” (id. at 108). In balancing the product’s risks against its utility and cost, the following factors must be considered: “(1) the utility of the product to the public as a whole and to the individual user; (2) the nature of the product – that is, the likelihood that it will cause injury; (3) the availability of a safer design; (4) the potential for designing and manufacturing the product so that it is safer but remains functional and reasonably priced; (5) the ability of the plaintiff to have avoided injury by careful use of the product; (6) the degree of awareness of the potential danger of the product which reasonably can be attributed to the plaintiff; and (7) the manufacturer’s ability to spread any cost related to improving the safety of the design” (id. at 109).

Since the harness was undoubtably meant to bear the weight of a climber, it was reasonably foreseeable that a climber [***602] might attempt to attach a safety line to various parts thereof and expect those parts to bear his weight. In fact, both these defendants admitted that novice climbers had been known to attach safety lines to gear loops and other parts of the harness. Rather than designing the gear loop to be weight bearing, or omitting it from the design, Petzl decided to make it appear flimsy in the expectation that the user would not attempt to attach a line to it. Whether this decision was reasonable in view [**487] of the questionable utility of a gear loop on a harness used for indoor rock climbing and the serious risk posed is a question for the jury (Voss, 59 NY2d at 108-109; see also Denny v Ford Motor Co., 87 NY2d 248, 662 N.E.2d 730, 639 N.Y.S.2d 250 [1995]).

Triable issues of fact also exist regarding plaintiff’s cause of action for strict products liability based on failure to warn. [HN2] “A manufacturer has a duty to warn against latent dangers resulting from foreseeable uses of its product of which it knew or should have known” (Liriano v Hobart Corp., 92 NY2d 232, 237, 700 N.E.2d 303, 677 N.Y.S.2d 764 [1998]). This rule applies with equal force to distributors and retailers (see Godoy v Abamaster of Miami, 302 AD2d 57, 754 N.Y.S.2d 301 [2003]). Foreseeing the potential that harness users might tie safety lines to gear loops, Petzl warned against such conduct. This warning appeared in the manual accompanying the harness and in a technical notice. A small label on the harness contained a “skull and cross-bones” symbol and directed the user to refer to the manual and technical notice. There is expert evidence, however, that these warnings were inadequate because no warning on the harness itself specifically advised against tying a safety line to the gear loop. Thus, the sufficiency of the warnings must be determined by a jury.

Contrary to the assertions of Sport Rock and Petzl, we cannot determine as a matter of law that the conduct of TSI’s employee was a superseding act.

[HN3] Where the acts of a third person intervene between the defendant’s conduct and [*3] the plaintiff’s injury, the causal connection is not automatically severed. In such a case, liability turns upon whether the intervening act is a normal or foreseeable consequence of the situation created by the defendant’s negligence. If the intervening act is extraordinary under the circumstances, not foreseeable in the normal course of events, or independent of or far removed from the defendant’s conduct, it may well be a superseding act which breaks the causal nexus (Derdiarian v Felix Contr. Corp., 51 NY2d 308, 315, 414 N.E.2d 666, 434 N.Y.S.2d 166 [1980]).

Here, TSI’s employee testified that she knew the safety line was not to be tied to the gear loop. However, she did not know what purpose the gear loop served, and accidently tied the safety line to it. While it appears that this employee had minimal training on the proper use of the harness and had not read the manual or technical notice, the record does not permit a finding that the employee’s conduct was unforeseeable as a matter of law. The record is replete with evidence indicating the foreseeability of the risk that novice users of the harness (or for that matter other inexperienced persons such as the employee) might mistakenly tie safety lines to gear loops. Had the harness been [**488] designed without a gear loop or with a weight bearing gear loop, or had clearer warnings been on the harness itself, the accident may have been prevented. Accordingly, triable issues of fact exist regarding whether the alleged defective design [***603] of the harness, the alleged inadequate warnings, or both, was a substantial factor in causing plaintiff’s injuries (see id. [“Because [HN4] questions concerning what is foreseeable and what is normal may be the subject of varying inferences … these issues generally are for the fact finder to resolve”]).

Plaintiff’s remaining contentions are without merit.

THIS CONSTITUTES THE DECISION AND ORDER OF THE SUPREME COURT, APPELLATE DIVISION, FIRST DEPARTMENT.

ENTERED: OCTOBER 18, 2007

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