California decision imposes three specific requirements for a release to be valid. On requirement is a release must be understood by a person untrained in the law.Posted: September 24, 2018
Lawsuit filed by family of deceased runner who died of cardiac arrest after crossing the finish line of a race. Release and assumption of the risk blocked all claims except the claim for gross negligence.
State: California, Court of Appeal of California, First Appellate District, Division Four
Plaintiff: Eden Gonzalez Hass et al
Defendant: Rhodyco Productions
Plaintiff Claims: negligently organized and planned the Half Marathon; negligently “hired, retained, … supervised, [and] controlled” the medical team; and negligently “managed, trained, supervised and controlled emergency and medical resources.
Defendant Defenses: Release and Primary Assumption of the Risk
Holding: Split decision, however case to continue on issue of gross negligence
This California Appellate decision added some new requirements for releases to be valid in California. Two of those new requirements stem from the requirements of the California wrongful death statute. The other two are simple.
Under California law, inherent is a limiting word when it is used to describe the risks in a release, and a release must be understandable by a non-lawyer.
The deceased, Peter Hass, crossed the finish line of the 2011 Kaiser Permanente San Francisco Half Marathon, suffered a cardiac arrest, collapsed and died. His wife and his two children, referred to as the Hess Family in the opinion, sued the event organizer for negligence.
Before entering the race, the deceased signed a release online.
Having signed a release (Release) in which he agreed, among other things, to “accept the inherent dangers and risks” arising from his participation in the race and to release RhodyCo from “any and all claims” based on injuries he might suffer “at or enroute to and from this event
The race organizer had been putting on events for twenty-five year. This even had approval from the city which approval required providing an emergency management plan. The plan stated that a medical team and ambulance would be at the finish line and stationed on the course. The medical team the family argued was inadequate.
Family highlighted the use of chiropractors rather than medical doctors, the use of chiropractic students rather than EMTs, the lack of ambulance personnel at the finish line, inadequate communication and communication devices, and inadequate AEDs and ambulances.
The Hess family sued. Initially, the trial court granted the defendant RhodyCo’s motion for summary judgment based on the release and assumption of the risk. The family objected and argued in a hearing they should have the right to amend their complaint and bring additional claims. After the hearing, the trial court agreed and granted the Hess family’s motion for a new trial.
Specifically, the court agreed with the Hass Family that primary assumption of the risk was inapplicable on these facts and further determined that the Hass Family should have been allowed to amend the Complaint to plead gross negligence. Although it refused to rule on the existence of a triable issue with respect to gross negligence pending the filing of the amended Complaint, it did reject RhodyCo’s argument that the Hass Family had not moved with diligence in taking the deposition of Dr. Brown.
The defendant RhodyCo filed a notice of appeal, and the Hess family filed a notice of cross appeal bringing the matter to the California Court of Appeals, which issued the opinion here.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
The appellate court first looked at the wrongful-death claim of the plaintiff Hess family. Under California law, a wrongful-death claim is not a derivative claim. Meaning the claim does not arise from a superior claim of the plaintiff. It is a claim, in and of itself, and not a claim of the deceased by a claim of the deceased’s family.
In other words, although a decedent cannot release or waive a subsequent wrongful-death claim by the decedent’s heirs, that decedents “express agreement to waive the defendant’s negligence and assume all risks” acts as a complete defense to such a wrongful-death action.
Consequently, a release must be written differently under California law if it is to be used to stop a wrongful-death claim.
The longstanding rule is that a wrongful death action is a separate and distinct right belonging to the heirs, and it does not arise until the death of the decedent.'” “Because a wrongful death claim is not derivative of the decedent’s claims, an agreement by the decedent to release or waive liability for [his or] her death does not necessarily bar a subsequent wrongful death cause of action
For a release to block a wrongful-death claim, the language in the release, not the law of releases. Looking at the entire document, is it clear the parties expressed the intent to assume the risk, thus blocking the wrongful-death claim.
Under California law for a release to block a claim for wrongful death, it must also be an assumption of risk agreement that on its face shows the parties intended for the deceased to assume the risk.
…in the instant case, we conclude that Hass intended both to assume all risks associated with his participation in the race, up to and including the risk of death, and to release RhodyCo (on behalf of himself and his heirs) from any and all liability with respect to any injuries he might suffer as a result of his participation. This was sufficient to block the Hass Family’s wrongful death claim for ordinary negligence.
The plaintiff Hess family argued the assumption of the risk language was insufficient to make that claim because the release used the term “inherent” to describe the risks. As such the risks that killed the deceased were not covered in the release.
The Hass Family, however, argues that the Release executed by Hass in this case is ineffective as a defense to their wrongful death claim because the express assumption of the risk language is limited solely to risks “inherent” in race participation—I “accept the inherent dangers and risks … that arise from participation in the event”—which does not include any potentially negligent conduct by RhodyCo that may have increased those inherent risks.
Again, the release used terms that limited the scope of the risks the deceased was to assume, which limited the breath of the release.
Use of the term Inherent in describing risks in a release limits the risks that can be assumed by the signor.
The court found that the language in other parts of the release were broad enough to cover the risks the deceased undertook and thus assumed.
Here, reading the Release as a whole—as would an ordinary person untrained in the law—we are convinced it expresses Hass’s intent to assume all risks arising from his participation in the Half Marathon, including any risks related to RhodyCo’s negligence.
California also has a requirement that the “release should be understood as speaking to an ordinary person untrained in the law.” This requirement was argued stated twice in the decision.
A release under California law must be written so that an ordinary person untrained in the law can understand it.
The Hess family then argued the release was void because it violated public policy. The Hess Family claimed the defendants were negligent in providing the medical care that responded, and medical care is a necessity and as such should not be protected by a release.
The Hass Family, however, argues that, even if the Release might otherwise be deemed a valid bar to their negligence claim, it is void as against public policy to the extent it purports to apply to the provision of emergency medical services, as such services implicate the public interest. Civil Code section 1668 provides that “[a]ll contracts which have for their object, directly or indirectly, to exempt anyone from responsibility for his own fraud, or willful injury to the person or property of another, or violation of law, whether willful or negligent, are against the policy of the law.”
California Civil code § 1668 does not allow a release to be sued to stop a claim if the service or the nature of the contract is based on public policy.
All contracts which have for their object, directly or indirectly, to exempt anyone from responsibility for his own fraud, or willful injury to the person or property of another, or violation of law, whether willful or negligent, are against the policy of the law.
There is a six-part test to determine if the agreement is one affecting the public interest. Not all six of the requirements must be met.
“‘ It concerns a business of a type generally thought suitable for public regulation.  The party seeking exculpation is engaged in performing a service of great importance to the public, which is often a matter of practical necessity for some members of the public.  The party holds himself out as willing to perform this service for any member of the public who seeks it, or at least any member coming within certain established standards.  As a result of the essential nature of the service, in the economic setting of the transaction, the party invoking exculpation possesses a decisive advantage of bargaining strength against any member of the public who seeks his services.  In exercising a superior bargaining power the party confronts the public with a standardized adhesion contract of exculpation, and makes no provision whereby a purchaser may pay additional reasonable fees and obtain protection against negligence.  Finally, as a result of the transaction, the person or property of the purchaser is placed under the control of the seller, subject to the risk of carelessness by the seller or his agents.'”
However, courts in California have declined to find releases used for recreational activities as violating the statute and thus being void because of the public interest argument.
Most recreational activities may require first aid or greater medical services. However, people do not engage in the sport or activity because of the first aid or medical issues. The first aid and medical issues are ancillary to the activity and as such not the main purpose for the activity or the release.
Many recreational activities may require the ancillary provision of first aid or emergency medical services by event organizers, but that fact alone does not change such pursuits into anything other than the voluntary leisure pastimes that they are. In particular, with reference to the Tunkl factors, we note that half marathons are not an activity of great importance to the general public and are certainly not a matter of necessity. No racer is required to enter a particular event or to run it in any particular way.
The next issue was the issues of pleading the claim for gross negligence. California like most, if not all, other states do not allow a release to stop a gross negligence claim. If the Hess family is able to argue to the trier of fact that the actions of the defendant, RhodyCo rose to the level of gross negligence the release is not a defense.
Under California law, gross negligence is a want of even scant care.
…”‘[g]ross negligence’ long has been defined in California and other jurisdictions as either a ‘”‘want of even scant care'”‘ or ‘”‘an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.'”‘[G]ross negligence” falls short of a reckless disregard of consequences, and differs from ordinary negligence only in degree, and not in kind.'” In assessing where on the spectrum a particular negligent act falls, “‘[t]he amount of care demanded by the standard of reasonable conduct must be in proportion to the apparent risk. As the danger becomes greater, the actor is required to exercise caution commensurate with it.'”
Normally, to appeal an issue or even argue an issue at the trial court level, you must first include the claim in your complaint or amend your complaint to bring a new issue in. The Hass family did not include any claim in their complaint for gross negligence.
However, the court found that there was no need in California to specifically plead gross negligence as it was part of negligence, sort of. The court never specifically stated why it was reviewing the gross negligence claim, only that other courts had found that it was not necessary to specifically plead gross negligence.
The court then found the plaintiff’s complaint, and arguments had raised enough issues that the plaintiffs might have a claim for gross negligence.
In this case, there are clearly factual and credibility questions that need to be answered regarding exactly what was required under the terms of the EMS Plan. For example, there is conflicting evidence as to whether the “finish line” included the crowded postrace expo area for purposes of compliance with the EMS Plan, and it must also be established exactly what medical personnel and equipment were required to be stationed at the finish line. We will not here catalogue every conceivable argument that the Hass Family could present in an attempt to prove grossly negligent conduct by RhodyCo in this context.
Primary assumption of the risk was the final issue reviewed by the court. Primary assumption of the risk is a complete bar to negligence claims, including gross negligence claims because it removes any duty on the part of the defendant to the plaintiff. Meaning, the defendant cannot be negligent because they have not duty to the plaintiff.
Specifically, our high court distinguished between two different types of assumption of the risk: primary assumption of the risk—”those instances in which the assumption of risk doctrine embodies a legal conclusion that there is ‘no duty’ on the part of the defendant to protect the plaintiff from a particular risk”—and secondary assumption of risk—”those instances in which the defendant does owe a duty of care to the plaintiff but the plaintiff knowingly encounters a risk of injury caused by the defendant’s breach of that duty.”
When applicable, primary assumption of the risk “operate[s] as a complete bar to the plaintiff’s recovery.”
Primary assumption of risk arose out of sports and recreational activities so that the activities could be played with the intensity and vigor so that the reason, and sport of the game was not lost.
The primary assumption of risk doctrine, a rule of limited duty, developed to avoid such a chilling effect. Where the doctrine applies to a recreational activity, operators, instructors and participants in the activity owe other participants only the duty not to act so as to increase the risk of injury over that inherent in the activity.”
The issue then becomes what duty is owed by the defendant to the plaintiff that was not assumed by the plaintiff to the extent that it was then breached by the defendant.
Here, RhodyCo asserts that the primary assumption of the risk doctrine serves as a complete bar to the Hass Family’s negligence claim, and thus the trial court erred in concluding otherwise. Specifically, RhodyCo argues that the risk of cardiac arrest is inherent to the sport of long-distance running and that, since it did nothing to increase Hass’s risk of suffering cardiac arrest in the way it conducted the Half Marathon, it owed no further duty to the Hass Family.
The court then stated that the organizer of the even does not have a duty to decrease the risk of any activity or event. However, there is a duty to minimize extrinsic risks.
While the operator or organizer of a recreational activity has no duty to decrease risks inherent to the sport, it does have a duty to reasonably minimize extrinsic risks so as not to unreasonably expose participants to an increased risk of harm.
The court reasoned this was a necessary departure from the encompassing defense provided by assumption of the risk to keep owners and organizers from avoiding “accountability for their gross negligence in this context, based on the primary assumption of the risk doctrine, would contravene public policy, not support it.”
The court did not point out specific facts or risks that created the issue that the defendant RhodyCo had been grossly negligent.
The case was sent back to trial on the sole issue on whether or not the actions of the defendant were grossly negligent.
So Now What?
At the end of the decision, the court awarded costs to the Hess family. Costs on appeal are awarded to the winner of the appeal, in terms of overall and in terms of the number of claims. The defendant won all but one of the issues on appeal in this case. The only claim the defendant did not win was the plaintiffs did not plead gross negligence in their complaint, so they cannot argue it now.
Yet the court still awarded costs to the plaintiffs. It is only a guess, but does this indicate leaning in favor of the plaintiff’s in this case?
There are three specific takeaways from this decision affecting the law of California and releases.
1. Consequently, a release must be written differently under California law if it is to be used to stop a wrongful-death claim.
2. Under California law for a release to block a claim for wrongful death, it must also be an assumption of risk agreement that on its face shows the parties intended for the deceased to assume the risk.
3. Use of the term Inherent in describing risks in a release limits the risks that can be assumed by the signor.
4. A release under California law must be written so that an ordinary person untrained in the law can understand it.
The final issue to come out of this decision a new back door to defeating the primary assumption of the risk claim. Now if the risk is not enumerated in the release, the plaintiff is going to argue it is extrinsic and therefore, not covered by the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk to defeat the defense.
Copyright 2018 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529
If you like this let your friends know or post it on FB, Twitter or LinkedIn
Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law
Facebook Page: Outdoor Recreation & Adventure Travel Law
By Recreation Law Recfirstname.lastname@example.org James H. Moss
#AdventureTourism, #AdventureTravelLaw, #AdventureTravelLawyer, #AttorneyatLaw, #Backpacking, #BicyclingLaw, #Camps, #ChallengeCourse, #ChallengeCourseLaw, #ChallengeCourseLawyer, #CyclingLaw, #FitnessLaw, #FitnessLawyer, #Hiking, #HumanPowered, #HumanPoweredRecreation, #IceClimbing, #JamesHMoss, #JimMoss, #Law, #Mountaineering, #Negligence, #OutdoorLaw, #OutdoorRecreationLaw, #OutsideLaw, #OutsideLawyer, #RecLaw, #Rec-Law, #RecLawBlog, #Rec-LawBlog, #RecLawyer, #RecreationalLawyer, #RecreationLaw, #RecreationLawBlog, #RecreationLawcom, #Recreation-Lawcom, #Recreation-Law.com, #RiskManagement, #RockClimbing, #RockClimbingLawyer, #RopesCourse, #RopesCourseLawyer, #SkiAreas, #Skiing, #SkiLaw, #Snowboarding, #SummerCamp, #Tourism, #TravelLaw, #YouthCamps, #ZipLineLawyer, #RecreationLaw, #OutdoorLaw, #OutdoorRecreationLaw, #SkiLaw,
Court of Appeal of California, First Appellate District, Division Four
August 13, 2018, Opinion Filed
2018 Cal. App. LEXIS 710 *; 2018 WL 3830002
EDEN GONZALEZ HASS et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants, v. RHODYCO PRODUCTIONS, Defendant and Appellant.
Law Office of Gerald Clausen, Gerald Clausen, Abramson Smith Waldsmith LLP, Robert J. Waldsmith, Jeffrey R. Smith for Defendant and Respondent.
REARDON, J.—After crossing the finish line at the 2011 Kaiser Permanente San Francisco Half Marathon, Peter Hass (Hass) tragically suffered a cardiac arrest, collapsed, and died. Hass’s wife, Eden Gonzalez Hass, and his two minor children (collectively, the Hass Family) consequently filed this wrongful death action, alleging that numerous race-affiliated individuals and entities—including event organizer David Rhody, individually and doing business as RhodyCo Productions (RhodyCo)—were negligent in the organization and management of the race, particularly with respect to the provision of emergency medical services.1 The trial court initially granted RhodyCo’s summary judgment motion in this matter, concluding that the instant action was barred [*2] under theories of primary assumption of the risk and express waiver. However, after the Hass Family filed a motion for new trial, the trial court reversed itself. Specifically, the court found that primary assumption of the risk was inapplicable on these facts and further determined that the Hass Family should have been allowed to amend their complaint to plead gross negligence, conduct falling outside of the scope of the written waiver and release. On appeal, RhodyCo argues that the trial court’s initial grant of summary judgment was correct, even if the issue of gross negligence is considered on its merits. The Hass Family, in contrast, generally champions the court’s new trial order, but argues that the express release in this case was invalid on additional grounds rejected by the trial court and that the court should have concluded on the evidence before it that a triable issue of material fact exists as to RhodyCo’s gross negligence. We agree with the trial court that summary judgment was not warranted in this case based on primary assumption of the risk. However, we believe the trial court erred in requiring amendment of the complaint to plead gross negligence and determine, [*3] based on our independent review of the record before us, that a triable issue of material fact exists on this issue. We therefore affirm in part and reverse in part, with instructions to enter a denial of RhodyCo’s summary judgment motion.
I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
The annual Kaiser Permanente San Francisco Half Marathon & 5K Run in Golden Gate Park (Half Marathon) consists of two different events—a 13.1-mile half marathon and a five-kilometer run. In 2011, the anticipated attendance for the two races was estimated to include 10,000 participants and 600 volunteers. RhodyCo provided event management and production services for the Half Marathon from 2006 through 2011. In order to obtain the necessary temporary street closure permit for the event, RhodyCo was required to submit an emergency medical services plan (EMS Plan) to the City and County of San Francisco (City) for review and approval by the City’s emergency medical services agency (Agency).
The approved EMS Plan for 2011 stated, as it had in previous years, that the medical personnel at the Half Marathon would be provided by Palmer College of Chiropractic-West (PCCW) and American Medical Response (AMR). More specifically, [*4] it asserted that PCCW would “‘provide event trained Medical Personnel for the event, (students are all CPR certified and have taken emergency response class). Med Teams will be located at key areas (Start Line, Finish Lines, Postrace Medical Tent, and mobile units on the course). The head clinician event day, Dr. Hal Rosenberg [phone number], will be onsite at the Postrace Medical Tent. AMR will provide an [emergency medical technician] who will be posted with PCCW Med Team in the postrace Medical Tent at the Finish of the race—AMR is also providing an ALS ambulance to respond [to] medical emergencies—the standby will be posted on Lincoln at the Great Hwy … . The Standby and Medical Team will be equipped with cellphone active Nextel radios with direct communication to the Event Coordinator and each other.'” Other portions of the approved EMS Plan, however, indicated that one M.D., 6+ EMTs, and one automatic external defibrillator (AED) would be located at the finish line.
Having signed a release (Release) in which he agreed, among other things, to “accept the inherent dangers and risks” arising from his participation in the race and to release RhodyCo from “any and all claims” [*5] based on injuries he might suffer “at or enroute to and from this event,” Hass participated in the Half Marathon on February 6, 2011. Almost immediately after crossing the finish line at 10:05:34 a.m., Hass suffered a sudden cardiac arrest and collapsed. Another runner, Dr. Charles Whitehill, crossed the finish line 13 seconds after Hass and heard him fall. Dr. Whitehill—who had significant experience in providing and overseeing resuscitation efforts for patients—began to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) on Hass within 30 to 60 seconds of arriving at Hass’s side. Dr. Whitehill was involved in CPR efforts for five to eight minutes, after which CPR was continued by another bystander who identified himself as an off-duty paramedic. Approximately 11 minutes after Hass collapsed a third bystander brought the AED from the postrace tent, which was located somewhere between 100 and 200 yards beyond the finish line. When the AED was applied, it showed that Hass had no shockable heart rhythm. CPR efforts were then continued until paramedics from the City’s fire department arrived at approximately 10:31 a.m. and took over treatment. Unfortunately, Hass was pronounced dead shortly thereafter [*6] at 10:49 a.m. RhodyCo has provided event management and production services for over 25 years, including at least 400 running, walking, and other events involving over 1.5 million participants. Hass’s tragic death was the only fatality ever experienced at a RhodyCo-managed event.
On May 3, 2012, the Hass Family filed this wrongful death action (Complaint), alleging, among other things, that RhodyCo had negligently organized and planned the Half Marathon; negligently “hired, retained, … supervised, [and] controlled” the medical team; and negligently “managed, trained, supervised and controlled emergency and medical resources.” In particular, the Hass Family highlighted the use of chiropractors rather than medical doctors, the use of chiropractic students rather than EMTs, the lack of ambulance personnel at the finish line, inadequate communication and communication devices, and inadequate AEDs and ambulances. RhodyCo answered, generally denying the Complaint allegations and asserting several affirmative defenses, including primary assumption of the risk and express contractual assumption of the risk and release of liability.
RhodyCo then filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing [*7] that the Hass Family’s wrongful death action was completely barred based on the two aforementioned affirmative defenses. Specifically, RhodyCo claimed that Hass had agreed to be bound by the Release when he registered for the Half Marathon, which included a waiver of liability and assumption of the risk agreement that was binding on his heirs. In addition, RhodyCo asserted that sudden cardiac arrest is an inherent risk of long-distance running and that it had done nothing to increase this risk. Under these circumstances, RhodyCo opined, the Hass Family’s action was barred under the primary assumption of the risk doctrine.
In opposition to the summary judgment motion, the Hass Family argued with respect to the Release that it was void to the extent it purported to cover emergency medical services, as such services implicate the public interest; that it was not a clear and unambiguous waiver of future liability for a wrongful death claim; and that it was ineffective to exempt RhodyCo from liability for gross negligence. With respect to the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk, the Hass Family agreed that cardiac arrest is an inherent risk of long-distance running, but argued that [*8] a sponsoring entity is nevertheless obligated to take reasonable steps to minimize inherent risks to the extent it is able to do so without altering the nature of the sport. They further maintained that RhodyCo had increased the risk of death beyond that inherent in the sport by failing to comply with the EMS Plan.
On the issue of negligence, the Hass Family presented evidence indicating that medical emergencies (including cardiac arrests) are more likely to occur near the finish line of a race because runners tend to push themselves to improve their times, causing an adrenaline rush and an arrhythmia. Moreover, as the City, itself, has recognized: “[C]losing off several major streets at the same time to accommodate a race often causes … potential interference with emergency services.” (San Francisco Transportation Code, § 6.11, subd. (a).) The Hass Family argued that, although RhodyCo’s EMS Plan for the Half Marathon properly identified the finish line as a “‘key area'” and indicated numerous resources would be stationed there—including a medical doctor, AED, and “6+” EMTs—the only medical personnel assigned to the finish line were Dr. Rosenberg (a chiropractor) and the event coordinator (a chiropractic [*9] student), neither of whom were actually at the finish line when Hass collapsed. They further claimed that the AED was in the medical tent located approximately 200 yards away, in the postrace expo area; that no event medical personnel arrived at the scene until 10 minutes after Hass collapsed; and that, when a bystander arrived with the AED at the 11-minute mark, it was too late to help Hass. The Hass Family also found fault with the communications equipment provided by RhodyCo for the Half Marathon. Although the EMS Plan represented that “all event safety personnel” would have “cell phone active radios,” the Hass Family averred that only six or seven radios were provided to the medical team; that no radio was provided to the ambulance or to either chiropractic doctor onsite; and that there was no radio in the medical tent. Finally, the Hass Family presented declarations from several experts indicating that the standard of care for an event like the Half Marathon is to have a competent medical director who is a medical doctor and to follow the medical plan. Moreover, according to one of the Hass Family’s experts, because races like the Half Marathon can disrupt the local 911 system, [*10] the standard of care additionally requires enough onsite ambulances (and/or backfilling of ambulances) to provide for rapid medical care for runners who collapse due to sudden cardiac arrest, particularly near the finish line.2
As stated above, the trial court initially granted RhodyCo’s summary judgment motion, concluding that the Hass Family’s wrongful death action was barred under theories of primary assumption of the risk and express waiver. The Hass Family then filed a motion for new trial, arguing that the trial court had erred in its legal analysis of the primary assumption of the risk doctrine. In addition, they asserted that all of the trial court’s conclusions with respect to the Release were erroneous. In particular, they argued that they were not required to plead gross negligence in the Complaint and that, in any event, it was an abuse of discretion to deny their request to amend the Complaint to cure any such perceived defect. The Hass Family also provided new evidence that they alleged supported finding a triable issue with respect to gross negligence—the deposition testimony of Dr. Brown, the head of the Agency, stating that nothing in the EMS Plan indicated [*11] that chiropractic students would be substituted for EMTs at the finish line and that his discussions with RhodyCo regarding the use of chiropractic students was limited to their use on the mobile teams. Dr. Brown also testified that he had never discussed with RhodyCo the propriety of substituting a chiropractic doctor for a medical doctor as race supervisor. RhodyCo opposed the motion for new trial, arguing that the trial court’s initial decision was correct under the law; that Dr. Brown’s deposition testimony should not be considered as the Hass Family had not acted with diligence in producing it; and that, regardless, the statements from the deposition highlighted by the Hass Family were undercut by other deposition testimony.
After hearing, the trial court granted the Hass Family’s new trial motion. Specifically, the court agreed with the Hass Family that primary assumption of the risk was inapplicable on these facts and further determined that the Hass Family should have been allowed to amend the Complaint to plead gross negligence. Although it refused to rule on the existence of a triable issue with respect to gross negligence pending the filing of the amended Complaint, it did [*12] reject RhodyCo’s argument that the Hass Family had not moved with diligence in taking the deposition of Dr. Brown.
A. Standard of Review
CA(1) (1) As described above, the procedural posture of this case is somewhat convoluted. Although the trial court initially granted RhodyCo’s summary judgment motion, it subsequently reversed itself on one ground (primary assumption of the risk) and then deferred ruling on another ground it had previously rejected (gross negligence) pending amendment of the Complaint, effectively granting a new trial on both issues. HN1 Such an order is appealable. (Aguilar v. Atlantic Richfield Co. (2001) 25 Cal.4th 826, 858 [107 Cal. Rptr. 2d 841, 24 P.3d 493] (Aguilar) [noting, in finding appealability under similar circumstances, that it “makes no difference” that an order granting a new trial following an order granting summary judgment “may operate like an order denying summary judgment, which is nonappealable”].) Further, HN2 although orders granting a new trial are generally examined for abuse of discretion, any determination underlying the new trial order is scrutinized using “the test appropriate for that determination.” (Douglas v. Fidelity National Ins. Co. (2014) 229 Cal.App.4th 392, 407 [177 Cal. Rptr. 3d 271]; see also Aguilar, supra, 25 Cal.4th at pp. 859–860.)
Here, then, [*13] the trial court’s conclusions with respect to the appropriateness of summary judgment are subject to our de novo review. (Aguilar, supra, 25 Cal.4th at p. 860; In re Automobile Antitrust Cases I & II (2016) 1 Cal.App.5th 127, 150 [204 Cal. Rptr. 3d 330] (Automobile Antitrust Cases).) In this regard, we review the trial court’s ruling; not its rationale. (Automobile Antitrust Cases, supra, 1 Cal.App.5th at p. 150.) “Thus, ‘[t]he sole question properly before us on review of the summary judgment [order] is whether the judge reached the right result … whatever path he [or she] might have taken to get there.'” (Id. at pp. 150–151.)
CA(2) (2) Moreover, HN3 the underlying issues implicated by RhodyCo’s summary judgment motion are also subject to our independent review. For instance, HN4 “‘[c]ontract principles apply when interpreting a release, and “normally the meaning of contract language, including a release, is a legal question.” [Citation.] “Where, as here, no conflicting parol evidence is introduced concerning the interpretation of the document, ‘construction of the instrument is a question of law, and the appellate court will independently construe the writing.'”‘” (Cohen v. Five Brooks Stable (2008) 159 Cal.App.4th 1476, 1483 [72 Cal. Rptr. 3d 471] (Cohen); see also Paralift, Inc. v. Superior Court (1993) 23 Cal.App.4th 748, 754–755 [29 Cal. Rptr. 2d 177] (Paralift).) CA(3) (3) Similarly, it has long been recognized that HN5 application of the primary assumption of the risk doctrine is a legal question, to be determined by the courts as a matter of law. (See Kahn, supra, 31 Cal.4th at pp. 1003–1004; see also Honeycutt v. Meridian Sports Club, LLC (2014) 231 Cal.App.4th 251, 257 [179 Cal. Rptr. 3d 473] [“‘[T]he legal question of duty, [*14] and specifically the question of whether a particular risk is an inherent part of a sport, “is necessarily reached from the common knowledge of judges, and not the opinions of experts”‘”].) In our resolution of this matter, then, we are writing on what is essentially a clean slate, bearing in mind that HN6 we should resolve any evidentiary doubts in the Hass Family’s favor, given that they are the party opposing summary judgment. (Automobile Antitrust Cases, supra, 1 Cal.App.5th at p. 151 [“In undertaking our analysis, we ‘”accept as true the facts … in the evidence of the party opposing summary judgment and the reasonable inferences that can be drawn from them.”‘”].)
B. Express Waiver
During the online registration process for the Half Marathon, Hass was presented with the following warning regarding his need to execute the Release: “Please read any waiver carefully. It includes a release of liability and waiver of legal rights and deprives you of the ability to sue certain parties. Do not agree to this document unless you have read and understood it in its entirety. By agreeing electronically, you acknowledge that you have both read and understood all text presented to you as part of the registration process. You also understand and agree [*15] that events carry certain inherent dangers and risks which may not be readily foreseeable, including without limitation personal injury, property damage, or death. Your ability to participate in the event(s) is/are subject to your agreement to the waiver and by agreeing herein, you accept and agree to the terms of the waiver and release agreement.” (Italics added.) The document referenced in this warning—which could either be printed out or read in its entirety online—is entitled “Waivers” and reads in pertinent part as follows: “I understand that by registering I have accepted and agreed to the waiver and release agreement(s) presented to me during registration and that these documents include a release of liability and waiver of legal rights and deprive me of the right to sue certain parties. By agreeing electronically, I have acknowledged that I have both read and understand any waiver and release agreement(s) presented to me as part of the registration process and accept the inherent dangers and risks which may or may not be readily foreseeable, including without limitation personal injury, property damage or death that arise from participation in the event. [¶] In consideration [*16] of your accepting this entry … , I, intending to be legally bound, do hereby for myself, my heirs, executors, and/or administrators, waive and release any and all claims for damages I may accrue against … RhodyCo … any and all contractors, their employees, representatives, agents and heirs from any and all injuries that may be suffered by me at or enroute to or from this event. I attest that I am physically fit and sufficiently trained for this strenuous competition. I will assume my own medical and emergency expenses in the event of an accident or other incapacity or injury resulting from or occurring in my participation. …” (Italics added.)3
As stated above, RhodyCo argued in its summary judgment motion that the Release signed by Hass acted as a complete bar to the instant action. The trial court initially agreed, rejecting the Hass Family’s arguments that the wording of the Release was insufficient to exempt RhodyCo from wrongful death claims and that the Release was void on public policy grounds. In addition, because gross negligence was not specifically alleged in the Complaint, the court refused to consider the Hass Family’s third argument—that RhodyCo [*17] had engaged in gross negligence falling outside of the scope of the Release. However, the trial court later granted a new trial on this issue, stating it would allow the Hass Family to amend its Complaint to cure this defect. The court declined to determine whether a triable issue as to RhodyCo’s alleged gross negligence existed, pending the filing of the amendment. In this appeal and cross-appeal, the parties raise all three of these issues involving the impact of the executed Release as potential grounds either supporting or undermining the trial court’s summary judgment decision. We therefore address each contention in turn.
1. Waiver of Wrongful Death Claim
CA(4) (4) Our high court has explained that HN7 wrongful death claims “are not derivative claims but are independent actions accruing to a decedent’s heirs.” (Ruiz v. Podolsky (2010) 50 Cal.4th 838, 841 [114 Cal. Rptr. 3d 263, 237 P.3d 584]; see also Madison v. Superior Court (1988) 203 Cal.App.3d 589, 596 [250 Cal. Rptr. 299] (Madison) [“‘The longstanding rule is that a wrongful death action is a separate and distinct right belonging to the heirs, and it does not arise until the death of the decedent.'”].) “Because a wrongful death claim is not derivative of the decedent’s claims, an agreement by the decedent to release or waive liability for [his or] her death does not necessarily bar a [*18] subsequent wrongful death cause of action … .” (Eriksson v. Nunnink (2015) 233 Cal.App.4th 708, 725 [183 Cal. Rptr. 3d 234].) Rather, a distinction is made in these circumstances “between the legal ineffectiveness of a decedent’s preinjury release of his [or her] heirs' subsequent wrongful death action and the legal effectiveness of an express release of negligence by a decedent which provides a defendant with ‘a complete defense.‘” (Madison, supra, 203 Cal.App.3d at p. 597.) In other words, although a decedent cannot release or waive a subsequent wrongful death claim by the decedent’s heirs, that decedent’s “express agreement to waive the defendant’s negligence and assume all risks” acts as a complete defense to such a wrongful death action. (Saenz v. Whitewater Voyages, Inc. (1990) 226 Cal.App.3d 758, 763–764 [276 Cal. Rptr. 672] (Saenz); see also Ruiz, supra, 50 Cal.4th at pp. 851–852 [“although an individual involved in a dangerous activity cannot by signing a release extinguish his [or her] heirs’ wrongful death claim, the heirs will be bound by the decedent’s agreement to waive a defendant’s negligence and assume all risk”].) Under such circumstances, the releasor is essentially agreeing not to expect the other party to act carefully, thus eliminating that person’s duty of care. (Coates v. Newhall Land & Farming, Inc. (1987) 191 Cal.App.3d 1, 7 [236 Cal. Rptr. 181] (Coates).)
As an example, in Coates, supra, 191 Cal.App.3d 1, the decedent, a dirtbike rider, signed a release before using the defendant’s motorcycle park. (Id. at pp. 3–4.) After [*19] the decedent was fatally injured, his heirs sued, arguing that the defendant had been negligent in the design and maintenance of the trail on which the decedent was hurt. (Ibid.) The appellate court agreed with the trial court that the decedent’s release barred the subsequent wrongful death action. Specifically, the court noted that, in the first half of the release, the decedent “expressly waived liability for injuries or death which might result from respondents’ ordinary negligence in the future. In the second half, he expressly assumed all risk of injury from dangers inherent in dirtbike riding on respondents’ premises.” (Id. at p. 7; see also id. at p. 4 & fn. 2.) The court concluded that this express assumption of the risk also bound the decedent’s heirs. (Id. at p. 8.) The court additionally opined that whether or not the decedent had “sufficient knowledge of the particular risk which resulted in his death” was irrelevant under the circumstances of the case because “knowledge of a particular risk is unnecessary when there is an express agreement to assume all risk.” (Id. at pp. 8–9.)
CA(5) (5) Our own decision in Saenz, supra, 226 Cal.App.3d 758 is in accord. There, the decedent fell out of a raft on a white-water rafting trip hosted by Whitewater, a commercial rafting [*20] company, and drowned. (Id. at pp. 759, 762.) Prior to this fatal incident, the decedent had signed a release, stating: “‘I am aware that certain risks and dangers may occur on any river trip with Whitewater … . These risks include, but are not limited to, hazards of and injury to person and property while traveling in rafts on the river, accident or illness in remote places without medical facilities, the forces of nature … . [¶] … I hereby assume all of the above risks and, except in the case of gross negligence, will hold Whitewater … harmless from any and all liability, actions, causes of action, debts, claims, and demands of every kind and nature whatsoever which I now have or which may arise out of or in connection with my trip or participation in any activities with Whitewater … .’ The agreement further stated it operated as a release and assumption of risk for his heirs.” (Id. at p. 763, fn. 7, italics added.) Noting that “drafting a legally valid release is no easy task,” we opined that HN8 “‘[t]o be effective, a release need not achieve perfection … . It suffices that a release be clear, unambiguous, and explicit, and that it express an agreement not to hold the released party liable for negligence.'” [*21] (Id. at p. 765.) Given that the plain language of the Saenz release indicated that the decedent consented to assume the risks associated with white-water rafting and release Whitewater from any and all liability arising out of the trip, the fact that the exculpatory sentence did not explicitly state that it covered Whitewater’s negligence and did not specifically mention death or drowning was insufficient to invalidate the otherwise clear release. (Id. at pp. 765–766; see also Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th at p. 1485 [“‘If a release of all liability is given, the release applies to any negligence of the defendant.'” (italics added)].)
Indeed, generally speaking, “‘[w]hether a release bars recovery against a negligent party “turns primarily on contractual interpretation, and it is the intent of the parties as expressed in the agreement that should control.”‘” (Sanchez v. Bally’s Total Fitness Corp. (1998) 68 Cal.App.4th 62, 66–67 [79 Cal. Rptr. 2d 902].) Moreover, in this regard, “‘[o]ur analysis is not based on the mechanical application of some formula. The presence or absence of the words “negligence” or “bodily injury” is not dispositive. We look instead to the intention of the parties as it appears in the release forms before the court.'” (Id. at p. 67; see also Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th at p. 1488
[noting that release should be understood as speaking to an ordinary person untrained in the law].) By [*22] signing the Release in the instant case, we conclude that Hass intended both to assume all risks associated with his participation in the race, up to and including the risk of death, and to release RhodyCo (on behalf of himself and his heirs) from any and all liability with respect to any injuries he might suffer as a result of his participation. This was sufficient to block the Hass Family’s wrongful death claim for ordinary negligence.
The Hass Family, however, argues that the Release executed by Hass in this case is ineffective as a defense to their wrongful death claim because the express assumption of the risk language is limited solely to risks “inherent” in race participation—I “accept the inherent dangers and risks … that arise from participation in the event”—which does not include any potentially negligent conduct by RhodyCo that may have increased those inherent risks. They further contend that the release language contained in the next sentence of the Release is similarly ineffectual in the wrongful death context because it is limited to “any and all claims for damages I [i.e., Hass] may accrue,” thus excluding claims accrued by his heirs. We are not persuaded.
HN9 CA(6) (6) “With [*23] respect to the question of express waiver, the legal issue is not whether the particular risk of injury appellant suffered is inherent in the recreational activity to which the Release applies [citations], but simply the scope of the Release.” (Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th at p. 1484.) Here, reading the Release as a whole—as would an ordinary person untrained in the law—we are convinced it expresses Hass’s intent to assume all risks arising from his participation in the Half Marathon, including any risks related to RhodyCo’s negligence. In particular, and as we remarked in Saenz (also a wrongful death action), we believe that the juxtaposition of the assumption of risk language and the blanket release language conveys the message that Hass assumed all risks related to participation in the Half Marathon while excusing RhodyCo from any liability arising from the race. (See Paralift, supra, 23 Cal.App.4th at pp. 756–757 [considering broad release language as well as assumption language in upholding release in wrongful death action]; Saenz, supra, 226 Cal.App.3d at p. 765 [same]; Coates, supra, 191 Cal.App.3d at pp. 7, 9 & fn. 2 [release valid where decedent waived all liability for injury or death and assumed risk of injury from dangers inherent in riding dirt bike on premises]; see also National & Internat. Brotherhood of Street Racers, Inc. v. Superior Court (1989) 215 Cal.App.3d 934, 937–938, 940 [264 Cal. Rptr. 44] (Street Racers) [in case claiming lack of competent medical [*24] attention/rescue equipment, release is valid even though it included an assumption of “‘all risk inherent in racing'” because it also released “in unqualified terms … all claims arising from plaintiff’s participation in the race”].)4
We similarly reject the Hass Family’s assertion that the assumption of risk language used in the Release—I “accept the inherent dangers and risks … that arise from participation in the event”—is ambiguous as “accept” in this context could reasonably mean “understand” as well as “assume.” (See Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th at p. 1485 [an ambiguity in a release exists when a party can identify an alternative, semantically reasonable, candidate of meaning; an ambiguity “‘should normally be construed against the drafter'” of the release].) The complete sentence at issue reads: “By agreeing electronically, I have acknowledged that I have both read and understand any waiver and release agreement(s) presented to me as part of the registration process and accept the inherent dangers and risks which may or may not be readily foreseeable, including without limitation personal injury, property damage or death that arise from [*25] participation in the event.” (Italics added.) Since the signator, in the first part of the sentence, has already acknowledged understanding the contents of the waiver—which includes the statement that there are risks inherent in participating—it seems unlikely that he or she would be asked to acknowledge such an understanding a second time in the latter part of the sentence. Rather, the much more reasonable interpretation of this second clause is that the signator is agreeing to shoulder—i.e., take on or otherwise assume—the dangers and risks inherent in the activity.
Finally, in construing the Release, we are cognizant of the fact that “[i]n cases arising from hazardous recreational pursuits, to permit released claims to be brought to trial defeats the purpose for which releases are requested and given, regardless of which party ultimately wins the verdict. Defense costs are devastating. Unless courts are willing to dismiss such actions without trial, many popular and lawful recreational activities are destined for extinction.” (Street Racers, supra, 215 Cal.App.3d at p. 938.) While certainly imperfect, we believe that the Release was intended to be, and was accepted as, a comprehensive assumption of all risks associated [*26] with race participation. We therefore agree with the trial court that the Release constitutes a complete defense to a wrongful death action based on ordinary negligence.
2. Public Policy
CA(7) (7) The Hass Family, however, argues that, even if the Release might otherwise be deemed a valid bar to their negligence claim, it is void as against public policy to the extent it purports to apply to the provision of emergency medical services, as such services implicate the public interest. Civil Code section 1668 provides that “[a]ll contracts which have for their object, directly or indirectly, to exempt anyone from responsibility for his own fraud, or willful injury to the person or property of another, or violation of law, whether willful or negligent, are against the policy of the law.”
HN10 A contractual provision exculpating a party from liability is invalid under this statute if it “affects the public interest.” (Tunkl v. Regents of University of California (1963) 60 Cal.2d 92, 96, 98 [32 Cal. Rptr. 33, 383 P.2d 441] (Tunkl).)
CA(8) (8) In Tunkl, supra, 60 Cal.2d 92, HN11 our high court identified six characteristics typical of contracts affecting the public interest: “‘ It concerns a business of a type generally thought suitable for public regulation.  The party seeking exculpation is engaged in performing a service of great importance to the public, which is often [*27] a matter of practical necessity for some members of the public.  The party holds himself out as willing to perform this service for any member of the public who seeks it, or at least any member coming within certain established standards.  As a result of the essential nature of the service, in the economic setting of the transaction, the party invoking exculpation possesses a decisive advantage of bargaining strength against any member of the public who seeks his services.  In exercising a superior bargaining power the party confronts the public with a standardized adhesion contract of exculpation, and makes no provision whereby a purchaser may pay additional reasonable fees and obtain protection against negligence.  Finally, as a result of the transaction, the person or property of the purchaser is placed under the control of the seller, subject to the risk of carelessness by the seller or his agents.'” (Id. at pp. 98–101, fns. omitted.) Not all of these factors need to be present for an exculpatory contract to be voided as affecting the public interest. (Id. at p. 98.) However, in Tunkl, the Supreme Court found all six factors were implicated and, on that basis, concluded that a release from liability [*28] for future negligence imposed as a condition for admission to a charitable research hospital affected the public interest and was thus invalid. (Id. at pp. 94, 101–102.) In making this determination, our high court found “hardly open to question” the fact that “the services of the hospital to those members of the public who are in special need of the particular skill of its staff and facilities constitute a practical and crucial necessity.” (Id. at p. 101.)
In contrast, California courts have consistently declined to apply the Tunkl factors to invalidate exculpatory agreements in the recreational sports context. (See Street Racers, supra, 215 Cal.App.3d 934 [upholding release in case claiming lack of competent medical attention/rescue equipment]; see also Platzer v. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area (2002) 104 Cal.App.4th 1253, 1259 [128 Cal. Rptr. 2d 885] [fall from chairlift during ski lesson]; Randas v. YMCA of Metropolitan Los Angeles (1993) 17 Cal.App.4th 158, 161–162 [21 Cal. Rptr. 2d 245] [swim class]; Paralift, supra, 23 Cal.App.4th at p. 756 [skydiving]; Saenz, supra, 226 Cal.App.3d at p. 764 [commercial river rafting]; Madison, supra, 203 Cal.App.3d at pp. 593, 597–599 [scuba diving]; Okura v. United States Cycling Federation (1986) 186 Cal.App.3d 1462, 1464, 1466–1468 [231 Cal. Rptr. 429] [bicycle race].) Although they acknowledge the current state of California law, the Hass Family invites us to revisit the issue based on an analysis of the Tunkl factors by the Washington Supreme Court in Vodopest v. MacGregor (1996) 128 Wn.2d 840 [913 P.2d 779] (Vodopest). In that case, the plaintiff agreed to join a mountain trek that was designed as a research trip to test the efficacy of a breathing technique used to eliminate high altitude [*29] sickness. (Id. at pp. 843–844.) Portions of the research proposal were submitted to the University of Washington Human Subjects Review Committee (University) for approval. (Id. at p. 845.) Prior to the trek, the plaintiff executed a broad release in researcher MacGregor’s favor. (Ibid.) A similar release which included the University was rejected by the University as invalid because “releases from liability for negligence are not allowed as a part of any approved study, as the federal government does not allow exculpatory language in human subject experimentation.” (Id. at p. 846.) Ultimately, the plaintiff suffered a cerebral edema from altitude sickness on the trek and sued MacGregor for negligence and gross negligence. (Id. at p. 847.)
The sole issue on appeal in Vodopest was whether the release signed by the plaintiff violated public policy and was thus unenforceable. (Vodopest, supra, 128 Wn.2d at p. 848.) The court noted that medical research was a significant component of the trek and that the “critical question” in the case was “whether the alleged conduct giving rise to the cause of action for negligence occurred in the context of the mountain trekking or within the scope of the research project.” (Id. at pp. 850, 852–853.) It concluded—after consideration of the six Tunkl factors—that to [*30] the extent MacGregor attempted to use the release “to release herself as a researcher from negligent acts performed in the furtherance of medical research,” it was unenforceable as violative of public policy. (Id. at p. 853; see id. at pp. 853–862.) In particular, the court opined that “there are critical public policy reasons to maintain the usual standard of care in settings where one person is using another as a medical research subject.” (Id. at p. 856.)
CA(9) (9) Vodopest is obviously distinguishable on its facts and we reject the Hass Family’s invitation to depart from long-existing California precedent based on this Washington decision. HN12 Many recreational activities may require the ancillary provision of first aid or emergency medical services by event organizers, but that fact alone does not change such pursuits into anything other than the voluntary leisure pastimes that they are. In particular, with reference to the Tunkl factors, we note that half marathons are not an activity of great importance to the general public and are certainly not a matter of necessity. No racer is required to enter a particular event or to run it in any particular way. (Cf. Okura, supra, 186 Cal.App.3d at p. 1468 [bicycle race participant retains complete control and can drop out of the race or [*31] adjust his pace at any time; organizers have no control over how the participant approaches the race].) The Tunkl court, itself, made clear that such private, voluntary exculpatory contracts are permissible: “While obviously no public policy opposes private, voluntary transactions in which one party, for a consideration, agrees to shoulder a risk which the law would otherwise have placed upon the other party, the above circumstances [admission to research hospital] pose a different situation. In this situation the releasing party does not really acquiesce voluntarily in the contractual shifting of the risk, nor can we be reasonably certain that he receives an adequate consideration for the transfer.” (Tunkl, supra, 60 Cal.2d at p. 101.) Here, Hass was permitted to make the voluntary decision, in return for being allowed to participate in the race, to shoulder the risk of RhodyCo’s potential negligence. “‘”‘The power of the courts to declare a contract void for being in contravention of sound public policy is a very delicate and undefined power, and … should be exercised only in cases free from doubt.'”‘” (City of Santa Barbara v. Superior Court (2007) 41 Cal.4th 747, 777, fn. 53 [62 Cal. Rptr. 3d 527, 161 P.3d 1095] (Santa Barbara).) We decline to exercise it here.
3. Gross Negligence
CA(10) (10) The final issue with respect to the impact [*32] of the Release in this matter is whether the Hass Family has raised a triable issue of material fact as to whether RhodyCo acted with gross negligence in its management of the Half Marathon. Even if the Release was sufficient to block a claim for ordinary negligence—as we have held—HN13 it is insufficient, as a matter of public policy, to preclude liability for gross negligence. (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at p. 751 [“an agreement made in the context of sports or recreational programs or services, purporting to release liability for future gross negligence, generally is unenforceable as a matter of public policy”].) For purposes of this distinction, ordinary negligence “consists of a failure to exercise the degree of care in a given situation that a reasonable person under similar circumstances would employ to protect others from harm.” (Id. at pp. 753–754.) “‘[M]ere nonfeasance, such as the failure to discover a dangerous condition or to perform a duty,'” amounts to ordinary negligence. (Frittelli, Inc. v. 350 North Canon Drive, LP (2011) 202 Cal.App.4th 35, 48 [135 Cal.Rptr. 761].) In contrast, “‘[g]ross negligence‘ long has been defined in California and other jurisdictions as either a ‘”‘want of even scant care'”‘ or ‘”‘an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.'”‘” (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at p. 754.) “‘“[G]ross negligence” falls short of a reckless disregard of consequences, [*33] and differs from ordinary negligence only in degree, and not in kind.‘” (Gore v. Board of Medical Quality Assurance (1980) 110 Cal.App.3d 184, 197 [167 Cal. Rptr. 881]; see also Anderson v. Fitness Internat., LLC (2016) 4 Cal.App.5th 867, 881 [208 Cal. Rptr. 3d 792].) In assessing where on the spectrum a particular negligent act falls, “‘[t]he amount of care demanded by the standard of reasonable conduct must be in proportion to the apparent risk. As the danger becomes greater, the actor is required to exercise caution commensurate with it.'” (Gore, supra, 110 Cal.App.3d at p. 198.)
CA(11) (11) In the present case, we agree with both parties that the trial court erred by refusing to consider the Hass Family’s claim of gross negligence because they had not pled gross negligence in their Complaint. Several appellate courts have opined that California does not recognize a separate cause of action for gross negligence. (Saenz, supra, 226 Cal.App.3d at p. 766, fn. 9; Ordway v. Superior Court (1988) 198 Cal.App.3d 98, 108, fn. 5 [243 Cal. Rptr. 536], disapproved on other grounds in Knight v. Jewett (1992) 3 Cal.4th 296, 306–309 [11 Cal. Rptr. 2d 2, 834 P.2d 696] (Knight).) In Santa Barbara, the Supreme Court did not definitively resolve this issue, commenting only that it did not view its holding invalidating releases for future gross negligence “as recognizing a cause of action for gross negligence.” (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at pp. 779–780.) Instead, as is more relevant here, the high court went on to declare: “Our holding simply imposes a limitation on the defense that is provided by a release. HN14 A plaintiff is not required to anticipate such a defense [citation]; [*34] instead, the defendant bears the burden of raising the defense and establishing the validity of a release as applied to the case at hand.” (Id. at 780, fn. 58.) Thus, regardless of whether gross negligence can be a separate cause of action, and/or the Hass Family could have alleged gross negligence in the Complaint in anticipation of RhodyCo’s likely defense, they were not required to do so. The consequences of this pleading decision in the context of a summary judgment motion were summarized in Westlye v. Look Sports, Inc. (1993) 17 Cal.App.4th 1715 [22 Cal.Rptr.2d 781]—which involved alleged negligence by a ski rental company in the adjustment of ski bindings—as follows: “Had plaintiff anticipated the defense of the release agreement in his complaint and alleged facts suggesting [its invalidity], the matter would have been a material issue which defendants would have had to refute in order to obtain summary adjudication.” (Id. at pp. 1723–1724, 1739–1740; see also id. at p. 1740 [“‘If … the plaintiff pleads several theories or anticipates affirmative defenses by a show of excusing events or conditions, the challenge to the opponent is made by the complaint, requiring the moving defendant to affirmatively react to each theory and excusing or justifying event, or condition which supports a theory, if the motion is [*35] to be successful'”].) In contrast, “[s]ince plaintiff’s complaint said nothing about the agreement, the matter of [its validity] was not a material issue for purposes of defendants’ initial showing on its motion for summary adjudication. [The defendant] met its initial burden by adducing evidence of the … agreement and plaintiff’s execution. The burden thereafter shifted to plaintiff to raise a triable issue of material fact.” (Id. at p. 1740.)
Similarly, here, although the Hass Family set forth certain facts in the Complaint which could be viewed as supporting a claim of gross negligence, it cannot be said that the Complaint—which does not even mention the Release—anticipated the Release defense or raised gross negligence as a material issue which RhodyCo was required to refute in order to succeed on summary judgment. Instead, RhodyCo met its initial burden by producing evidence of the existence of the Release and its execution by Hass. The burden then shifted to the Hass Family to raise a triable issue of material fact as to gross negligence.
CA(12) (12) Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the Hass Family, we believe they have met their burden in this case, making summary judgment inappropriate. [*36] 5
It is true that HN15 summary judgment on the issue of gross negligence may be warranted where the facts fail to establish an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of care as a matter of law. However, “[g]enerally it is a triable issue of fact whether there has been such a lack of care as to constitute gross negligence.” (Decker v. City of Imperial Beach (1989) 209 Cal.App.3d 349, 358 [257 Cal. Rptr. 356].) In this case, there are clearly factual and credibility questions that need to be answered regarding exactly what was required under the terms of the EMS Plan. For example, there is conflicting evidence as to whether the “finish line” included the crowded postrace expo area for purposes of compliance with the EMS Plan, and it must also be established exactly what medical personnel and equipment were required to be stationed at the finish line. We will not here catalogue every conceivable argument that the Hass Family could present in an attempt to prove grossly negligent conduct by RhodyCo in this context. We conclude only that, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to them, it is possible that the Hass Family could establish that, despite the potential for grave risk of harm in the sport of long-distance running, RhodyCo failed to implement the EMS Plan in several [*37] material ways and that its management of the Half Marathon—in particular with respect to the allocation of medical resources to the finish line and communication among race personnel—constituted an extreme departure from the standard of care for events of its type. This is sufficient to raise a triable issue of fact with respect to gross negligence.6
In sum, we have concluded that the Release is not void on public policy grounds and that it is adequate to bar the Hass Family’s action for ordinary negligence. However, since we have additionally determined that a triable issue of material fact exists as to whether RhodyCo’s provision of emergency medical services was grossly negligent, the trial court’s new trial order reversing its initial grant of summary judgment was appropriate, unless the Hass Family’s negligence action is completely barred by the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk. We therefore turn finally to that question.
C. Primary Assumption of the Risk
CA(13) (13) In Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th 296, the Supreme Court considered the continued applicability of the assumption of the risk doctrine in light of the court’s prior adoption of comparative fault principles. (Id. at pp. 299–300.) Specifically, [*38] HN16 our high court distinguished between two different types of assumption of the risk: primary assumption of the risk—”those instances in which the assumption of risk doctrine embodies a legal conclusion that there is ‘no duty’ on the part of the defendant to protect the plaintiff from a particular risk”—and secondary assumption of
risk—”those instances in which the defendant does owe a duty of care to the plaintiff but the plaintiff knowingly encounters a risk of injury caused by the defendant’s breach of that duty.” (Id. at p. 308.) When applicable, primary assumption of the risk “operate[s] as a complete bar to the plaintiff’s recovery.” (Id. at p. 315.) In contrast, secondary assumption of the risk “is merged into the comparative fault scheme, and the trier of fact, in apportioning the loss resulting from the injury, may consider the relative responsibility of the parties.” (Ibid.; id. at p. 314 [“a jury in a ‘secondary assumption of risk’ case would be entitled to take into consideration a plaintiff’s voluntary action in choosing to engage in an unusually risky sport … in determining whether the plaintiff properly should bear some share of responsibility for the injuries he or she suffered”]; see also Kahn, supra, 31 Cal.4th at p. 1003 [in a secondary assumption [*39] of the risk case, “the plaintiff’s knowing and voluntary acceptance of the risk functions as a form of contributory negligence“].)
CA(14) (14) The Supreme Court further concluded in Knight that HN17 “the question whether the defendant owed a legal duty to protect the plaintiff from a particular risk of harm … [turns] on the nature of the activity or sport in which the defendant is engaged and the relationship of the defendant and the plaintiff to that activity or sport.” (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 309.) Although Knight dealt with the duty owed by a coparticipant in recreational activity (an informal touch football game on Super Bowl Sunday), it also discussed the potential liability here at issue, that of operators and organizers of recreational events. (Id. at pp. 300–301, 315–317.) For instance, the Knight court opined: “In the sports setting … conditions or conduct that otherwise might be viewed as dangerous often are an integral part of the sport itself. Thus, although moguls on a ski run pose a risk of harm to skiers that might not exist were these configurations removed, the challenge and risks posed by the moguls are part of the sport of skiing, and a ski resort has no duty to eliminate them. [Citation.] … [¶] Although defendants generally [*40] have no legal duty to eliminate (or protect a plaintiff against) risks inherent in the sport itself, it is well established that defendants generally do have a duty to use due care not to increase the risks to a participant over and above those inherent in the sport. Thus, although a ski resort has no duty to remove moguls from a ski run, it clearly does have a duty to use due care to maintain its towropes in a safe, working condition so as not to expose skiers to an increased risk of harm. The cases establish that the latter type of risk, posed by a ski resort’s negligence, clearly is not a risk (inherent in the sport) that is assumed by a participant.” (Id. at pp. 315–316, italics added.) The high court also cited with approval a case involving an injury from a thrown baseball bat in which the jury returned a verdict in favor of the baseball player (since throwing bats is inherent in the game), but implicitly recognized “the duty of the stadium owner to provide a reasonably safe stadium with regard to the relatively common (but particularly dangerous) hazard of a thrown bat.” (Id. at p. 317.) Finally, Knight acknowledged a line of cases in which the duty of an operator is defined “by reference to the steps the [*41] sponsoring business entity reasonably should be obligated to take in order to minimize the risks without altering the nature of the sport.” (Id. at p. 317.)
CA(15) (15) Twenty years later, in Nalwa v. Cedar Fair, L.P. (2012) 55 Cal.4th 1148 [150 Cal. Rptr. 3d 551, 290 P.3d 1158] (Nalwa), the Supreme Court revisited the scope of the primary assumption of the risk doctrine in the specific context of the duty owed by an operator/organizer. The Nalwa court summarized the doctrine as follows: HN18 “‘Although persons generally owe a duty of due care not to cause an unreasonable risk of harm to others (Civ. Code, § 1714, subd. (a)), some activities—and, specifically, many sports—are inherently dangerous. Imposing a duty to mitigate those inherent dangers could alter the nature of the activity or inhibit vigorous participation.’ [Citation.] The primary assumption of risk doctrine, a rule of limited duty, developed to avoid such a chilling effect. [Citations.] Where the doctrine applies to a recreational activity, operators, instructors and participants in the activity owe other participants only the duty not to act so as to increase the risk of injury over that inherent in the activity.” (Id. at p. 1154.) Applying this analytical framework to the case at hand, the high court concluded that the operator of a bumper car ride at an amusement park had [*42] no duty to protect the plaintiff from the collision which fractured her wrist. (Id. at pp. 1152, 1157–1158, 1162–1163.) Rather, “[l]ow-speed collisions between the padded, independently operated cars are inherent in—are the whole point of—a bumper car ride.” (Id. at p. 1157.) Thus, “‘[i]mposing liability would have the likely effect of the amusement park either eliminating the ride altogether or altering its character to such a degree—by, for example, significantly decreasing the speed at which the minicars could operate—that the fun of bumping would be eliminated, thereby discouraging patrons from riding.'” (Id. at pp. 1157–1158.)
Here, RhodyCo asserts that the primary assumption of the risk doctrine serves as a complete bar to the Hass Family’s negligence claim, and thus the trial court erred in concluding otherwise. Specifically, RhodyCo argues that the risk of cardiac arrest is inherent to the sport of long-distance running and that, since it did nothing to increase Hass’s risk of suffering cardiac arrest in the way it conducted the Half Marathon, it owed no further duty to the Hass Family. In particular, according to RhodyCo—under the test articulated in Nalwa—it had no duty to minimize Hass’s risk of death from cardiac arrest. Or, put another way, it had no duty to [*43] reduce the natural consequences of Hass’s cardiac arrest or increase his chances of recovery.
In taking this position, RhodyCo acknowledges that the appellate court in Saffro v. Elite Racing, Inc. (2002) 98 Cal.App.4th 173 [119 Cal. Rptr. 2d 497] (Saffro) held that a race producer has a duty to conduct a “reasonably safe event,” which “requires it to take reasonable steps to ‘minimize the risks without altering the nature of the sport.'” (Id. at p. 175.) In Saffro, a marathon runner suffered a grand mal seizure after a race and was diagnosed with severe hyponatremia, likely caused by his inability to consume adequate amounts of water and fluids containing electrolytes (such as Gatorade) during the race. (Id. at p. 176.) Although the race organizer sent written materials to participants prior to the event indicating that such liquids would be provided in sufficient quantities, the evidence suggested that they were not. (Id. at pp. 176–177.) The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the race organizer, concluding that hyponatremia is an inherent risk of running a marathon. (Id. at pp. 177–178.) The appellate court reversed, stating that a race organizer’s duty to conduct a reasonably safe event includes “the obligation to minimize the risks of dehydration and hyponatremia by providing adequate water and electrolyte [*44] fluids,” especially where the race organizer had made representations to the participants that such fluids would be available. (Id. at p. 179.) Since Saffro had presented sufficient evidence to create a triable issue of fact as to whether the race organizer had breached this duty, summary judgment was improper. (Id. at pp. 179–181; see also Rosencrans, supra, 192 Cal.App.4th 1072, 1079, 1082–1083 [although collisions with coparticipants are an inherent risk of motocross, operator of a motocross track has a duty to minimize this risk without altering the nature of the sport by providing a warning system, such as caution flaggers; triable issue of fact existed as to whether failure to provide a caution flagger constituted gross negligence].) RhodyCo claims that Saffro is inapplicable both because it is a secondary assumption of the risk case and because the “duty to minimize risk” language from Knight that Saffro and other cases have “latched onto” is dictum which has been abrogated by the Supreme Court’s subsequent decision in Nalwa.
We disagree with RhodyCo that the Nalwa court’s formulation of the primary assumption of the risk doctrine somehow supplanted the high court’s earlier discussion of the matter in Knight, particularly with respect to the Supreme Court’s statements [*45] regarding an organizer/operator’s duty “to minimize the risks without altering the nature of the sport.” (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 317.) Rather, Nalwa—far from disagreeing with Knight—referenced it as the “seminal decision explicating and applying primary assumption of risk in the recreational context.” (Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 1155.) Moreover, Nalwa‘s formulation of the limited duty existing in a primary assumption of the risk case—”the duty not to act so as to increase the risk of injury over that inherent in the activity”—comes directly from Knight. (Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at pp. 1154–1155, 1162–1163.) Finally, and most importantly for our purposes, Nalwa did not reject cases such as Saffro and Rosencrans which concluded, based on language found in Knight, that operators/organizers have a duty to minimize risks without altering the nature of the sport. (Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 1163 & fn. 7.) Instead, it characterized them as “decisions addressing the duty to reduce extrinsic risks of an activity” and found them distinguishable in that particular case because it concluded that the risk of injury from bumping—at any angle—was not an extrinsic risk, but was instead a risk inherent to riding bumper cars. (Id. at pp. 1157–1158, 1163.)
CA(16) (16) Indeed, Nalwa expressly states that “[t]he operator of a bumper car ride might violate its ‘duty to use due care not to [*46] increase the risks to a participant over and above those inherent’ in the activity (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 316) by failing to provide routine safety measures such as seatbelts, functioning bumpers and appropriate speed control.” (Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 1163.) Thus, Nalwa actually reaffirms Knight‘s conclusions regarding the duties owed to participants by operators/organizers of recreational activities. In short, HN19 such operators and organizers have two distinct duties: the limited duty not to increase the inherent risks of an activity under the primary assumption of the risk doctrine and the ordinary duty of due care with respect to the extrinsic risks of the activity, which should reasonably be minimized to the extent possible without altering the nature of the activity. Nalwa explains the interplay between these two types of duties by confirming that an operator’s or organizer’s negligence with respect to extrinsic risks “might violate its ‘duty to use due care not to increase the risks to a participant over and above those inherent’ in the activity.” (Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 1163.)
In the present case, both parties acknowledge that cardiac arrest is an inherent risk of the sport of long-distance running. Further, it is not suggested on these facts that RhodyCo did [*47] anything that increased the risk that Hass would have a heart attack.7 Moreover, requiring runners to slow down or take breaks in order to decrease this inherent risk would alter the character of racing to such a degree that it would likely discourage runners from participating. However, as both Knight and Nalwa teach us, this is not the end of the inquiry. While the operator or organizer of a recreational activity has no duty to decrease risks inherent to the sport, it does have a duty to reasonably minimize extrinsic risks so as not to unreasonably expose participants to an increased risk of harm. (Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 1163 [while risk of injury from bumping bumper cars is generally low, an operator could violate its duty not to increase this inherent risk by failing to provide routine safety measures]; Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at pp. 315–316 [negligent maintenance of towropes by ski resort could violate duty not to expose skiers to increased risk of harm]; Grotheer v. Escape Adventures, Inc. (2017) 14 Cal.App.5th 1283, 1297–1302 [222 Cal. Rptr. 3d 633] [crash landings caused by failure to safely pilot a hot air balloon are an inherent risk of hot air ballooning, but an operator has a duty not to increase that risk by failing to instruct participants on safe landing procedures, a customary practice in the ballooning industry]; Jimenez v. Roseville City School Dist. (2016) 247 Cal.App.4th 594, 610–611 [202 Cal. Rptr. 3d 536] [although [*48] contact with the floor is an inherent risk in dancing, school may have increased student’s risk of harm through failure to properly disseminate its no-flip policy]; Rosencrans, supra, 192 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1083–1086 [negligent failure to provide collision warning system in motocross]; Saffro, supra, 98 Cal.App.4th at pp. 175, 179–181 [duty not to increase risk of dehydration and hyponatremia by unreasonably failing to provide adequate fluids]; Solis v. Kirkwood Resort Co. (2001) 94 Cal.App.4th 354, 364–367 [114 Cal. Rptr. 2d 265] [although falling is an inherent risk of skiing, failure to mark off race area containing jumps which an ordinary skier would not expect to encounter may breach duty not to increase inherent risk]; Morgan v. Fuji Country USA, Inc. (1995) 34 Cal.App.4th 127 [40 Cal. Rptr. 2d 249] [although being hit by a golf ball is an inherent risk of golfing, golf course owner had a duty to design course to minimize the risk of being hit where possible without altering the nature of golf].) As the Fourth District recently opined in Grotheer, “[w]hat the primary assumption of risk doctrine does not do … is absolve operators of any obligation to protect the safety of their customers. (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at pp. 317–318.) As a general rule, where an operator can take a measure that would increase safety and minimize the risks of the activity without also altering the nature of the activity, the operator is required to do so.” (Grotheer, supra, 14 Cal.App.5th at p. 1300.) And, in Solis, the appellate court succinctly [*49] illustrated the issue raised by these cases as follows: “[F]alling off a horse is an inherent risk of horseback riding. But if a person put a barrel in the middle of the Churchill Downs racetrack, causing a collision and fall, we would not say that person owed no duty to the injured riders, because falling is an inherent risk of horseback riding.” (Solis, supra, 94 Cal.App.4th at p. 365.)
When viewed under this analytical framework, Rotolo v. San Jose Sports & Entertainment, LLC (2007) 151 Cal.App.4th 307 [59 Cal. Rptr. 3d 770], disapproved on another ground as stated in Verdugo v. Target Corp. (2014) 59 Cal.4th 312, 327 [173 Cal. Rptr. 3d 662, 327 P.3d 774], and Connelly v. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area (1995) 39 Cal.App.4th 8 [45 Cal. Rptr. 2d 855]—two cases relied upon by RhodyCo—are not inconsistent. In Rotolo, parents of a teenager who died as a result of sudden cardiac arrest while playing ice hockey sued the ice hockey facility for wrongful death, claiming that the facility had a duty to notify facility users of the existence and location of the facility’s AED. (Rotolo, supra, 151 Cal.App.4th at p. 313.) The appellate court disagreed, noting that sudden cardiac arrest is a risk inherent in playing strenuous sports and that the facility had done nothing to increase this risk. (Id. at p. 334.) During the course of its analysis, the Rotolo court stated: “We have found no authority for the proposition that a sports facility operator has a duty to reduce the effects of an injury that is an inherent risk in the sport, or to increase [*50] the chances of full recovery of a participant who has suffered such a sports-related injury, or to give notice regarding any first aid equipment that may be available for such a purpose.” (Id. at pp. 334–335.) In making this determination, however, the Rotolo court searched exhaustively for a duty that the facility could have breached in this context and could not find one. (Id. at pp. 319–339.) In particular, it noted that the facility had not breached its duties to keep the property in a reasonably safe condition or to summon emergency medical aid.8 (Rotolo, at pp. 316–317, 332–334.) Since the sports facility had not acted negligently with respect to any risks extrinsic to the sport of hockey, thereby increasing its inherent risks, the primary assumption of the risk doctrine barred recovery. (Id. at pp. 334–335.) Similarly, in Connelly, the plaintiff argued that the ski resort had insufficiently padded a ski lift tower, thereby causing him serious injury when he collided with it. (Connelly, supra, 39 Cal.App.4th at pp. 10–11.) The appellate court concluded that colliding with a ski lift tower is an inherent risk of skiing and that the ski resort had done nothing to increase this risk by padding the towers, which the resort had no duty to do in the first place. (Id. at pp. 12–13.) In essence, the court concluded that the ski [*51] resort had not breached its underlying duty to provide a reasonably safe ski resort and thus the primary assumption of the risk doctrine barred the plaintiff’s negligence action. (See id. at pp. 11–14.)
CA(17) (17) It is undisputed in this case that RhodyCo has provided event management and production services for “high profile” running and walking events for over 25 years and that, while these events involved over 1.5 million participants, Hass was the first fatality. Thus, while death from cardiac arrest is undeniably a risk associated with long-distance running, it appears from RhodyCo’s own facts to be a slight one. The question therefore remains whether RhodyCo, as the organizer of the Half Marathon, acted negligently in its provision of emergency medical services—a risk extrinsic to the sport of long-distance running—in such a way that it exposed Hass to an increased risk of harm over and above that generally inherent in the activity itself. Since we have previously concluded that the Hass Family has raised a triable issue of fact as to whether RhodyCo was grossly negligent in this regard, the primary assumption of the risk doctrine does not act as a complete bar to the present negligence action. [*52] 9 The trial court’s decision to reverse itself on this ground and allow the case to continue was therefore not error.
CA(18) (18) As a final matter, we note that HN20 imposing a duty of due care with respect to “extrinsic” risks for operators and organizers of recreational activities makes sense based on the policies underlying the primary assumption of the risk doctrine. As stated above and as articulated in Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at pages 1156–1157: “The primary assumption of risk doctrine rests on a straightforward policy foundation: the need to avoid chilling vigorous participation in or sponsorship of recreational activities by imposing a tort duty to eliminate or reduce the risks of harm inherent in those activities. It operates on the premise that imposing such a legal duty ‘would work a basic alteration—or cause abandonment’ of the activity. … [¶] … Allowing voluntary participants in an active recreational pursuit to sue other participants or sponsors for failing to eliminate or mitigate the activity’s inherent risks would threaten the activity’s very existence and nature.” (Id. at pp. 1156–1157.) Moreover, “active recreation, because it involves physical activity and is not essential to daily life, is particularly vulnerable to the chilling effects [*53] of potential tort liability for ordinary negligence.” (Id. at p. 1157.) The Nalwa court counseled that the doctrine’s parameters should be drawn according to this underlying policy goal. (Ibid.) Obviously, requiring an operator or organizer of recreational activities to provide a reasonably safe event, reasonably maintained attractions, and/or customary safety warnings—far from chilling vigorous participation in such activities—would almost certainly increase their attractiveness to potential participants. Moreover, an owner or event organizer is still protected from liability with respect to the inherent risks of these activities. And, given that participation in these recreational pursuits is almost always contingent on the signing of a release, such owners and organizers are generally also relieved of the consequences of their ordinary negligence. Allowing owners and organizers to avoid accountability for their gross negligence in this context, based on the primary assumption of the risk doctrine, would contravene public policy, not support it. (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at pp. 750–751; see also id. at pp. 767–776 [rejecting as unsupported by empirical evidence the assertion that refusing to uphold agreements releasing liability for future gross negligence [*54] will lead to the extinction of many popular and lawful recreational activities].)
The judgment is affirmed in part and reversed in part, and the matter remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. In particular, the trial court is instructed to enter an order denying RhodyCo’s motion for summary judgment. The Hass Family is entitled to its costs on appeal.
Petitioners: Ruby D. Stockdale; Clara Cardwell, individually and as personal representative of Kenneth Ray Cardwell; Jennifer Lynn Lake; and Patricia Ann Rider Jones, a/k/a Patricia Ann Jones, v. Respondent: Chester J. Ellsworth. and Concerning: XTO Energy, Inc.
Supreme Court Case No. 16SC798
SUPREME COURT OF COLORADO
2017 CO 109; 2017 Colo. LEXIS 1092
December 18, 2017, Decided
THIS OPINION IS NOT THE FINAL VERSION AND SUBJECT TO REVISION UPON FINAL PUBLICATION
PRIOR HISTORY: [**1] Certiorari to the Colorado Court of Appeals. Court of Appeals Case No. 15CA1114.
DISPOSITION: Judgment Reversed.
CORE TERMS: heirs, alter ego, corporate veil, attorneys’ fees, joinder, piercing, shareholder, mineral deeds, entity, corporate entity, personal jurisdiction, jointly, notice, individual liability, severally liable, personal liability, individually liable, post-judgment, interpleader, frivolous, pierce, join, oil, substituted service, opportunity to contest, final judgment, properly joined, checking account, equitable, joined
Stockdale v. Ellsworth–Corporations–Piercing the Corporate Veil–Attorneys’ Fees–Joinder
The supreme court reverses the court of appeals’ opinion vacating the trial court’s judgment awarding attorneys’ fees. The supreme court holds that the trial court properly pierced the corporate veil to impose joint and several liability on a limited liability company’s managing member for attorneys’ fees. The supreme court also holds that the managing member was properly joined as a party to the litigation, and that imposing such liability did not violate the managing member’s due process rights under the circumstances of this case.
COUNSEL: For Petitioners Ruby D. Stockdale, Clara Cardwell and Patricia Ann Jones: Law Office of John C. Seibert, LLC, John Seibert, Durango, Colorado.
For Petitioner Jennifer Lynn Lake: Law Office of David Liberman, LLC, David Liberman, Durango, Colorado.
No appearance on behalf of Respondent.
JUDGES: JUSTICE MÁRQUEZ delivered the Opinion of the Court.
OPINION BY: MÁRQUEZ
JUSTICE MÁRQUEZ delivered the Opinion of the Court.
[*1] In 2009, XTO Energy, Inc., filed an interpleader action, seeking to resolve [**2] competing claims to oil and gas proceeds held by XTO. XTO named several potential claimants as defendants in the interpleader action, including Seawatch Royalty Partners, LLC (managed by Chester J. Ellsworth) and several alleged heirs of the record owner of the relevant oil and gas interests. After a bench trial, the court concluded that a group of individuals–deemed the true heirs of the record owner–were entitled to the proceeds. Pertinent here, the trial court also ruled that Seawatch’s claims and defenses were frivolous; that Seawatch was an alter ego of Ellsworth; and that Seawatch and Ellsworth were jointly and severally liable for any future award of attorneys’ fees. Ellsworth was subsequently joined as a party under C.R.C.P. 21 and served via substituted service. The post-judgment sanctions proceedings continued for another several years. During that time, Ellsworth contested his individual liability, arguing that the court lacked personal jurisdiction over him; that he had been improperly served; and that Seawatch was not, in fact, his alter ego. The trial court rejected these arguments and entered judgment jointly and severally against Seawatch and Ellsworth for approximately $1 million [**3] in attorneys’ fees. Ellsworth appealed pro se.
[*2] In an unpublished opinion, the court of appeals vacated the judgment against Ellsworth, holding that the district court lacked jurisdiction to hold him jointly and severally liable for the attorneys’ fee award because, as a nonparty, Ellsworth did not have notice and opportunity to contest his individual liability. XTO Energy, Inc. v. Ellsworth, No. 15CA1114, 2016 Colo. App. LEXIS 1205, slip op. at 1 (Colo. App. Aug. 25, 2016). Because we conclude that Ellsworth had adequate notice and opportunity to challenge the alter ego findings that established his individual liability, we reverse the judgment of the court of appeals.
I. Facts and Procedural History
[*3] In 2009, XTO Energy, Inc., a producer of oil and natural gas, filed an interpleader action to determine the rights to certain oil and gas proceeds held by XTO. At the time of filing, XTO operated two natural gas wells that were extracting gas from an area of pooled mineral interests in the Fruitland Formation in La Plata County. One of the record owners of a mineral interest within the pooled area was Roy P. Cardwell, who had recorded his title in 1938. Because Cardwell and his heirs could not be located in the 1990s when the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation [**4] Commission authorized the pooling of interests in the area, the proceeds attributable to Cardwell’s interest were held in suspense as the natural gas wells were developed. When XTO filed the interpleader action in 2009, the proceeds attributable to Cardwell’s interest totaled approximately $2.7 million.
[*4] In its interpleader complaint, XTO sought a declaratory judgment as to who should receive the proceeds of Cardwell’s interest. XTO identified as potential claimants the heirs of a Roy P. Cardwell who died in California in 1971 (“California Heirs”); the heirs of a Roy P. Cardwell who died in Kansas in 1980 (“Kansas Heirs”); and two business entities managed by Chester Ellsworth: CEMPCO, Inc. and Seawatch Royalty Partners, LLC. CEMPCO and the Kansas Heirs withdrew their claims to the proceeds prior to trial, and the remaining parties–Seawatch and the California Heirs–stipulated that the California Heirs were the true heirs of the record owner. Seawatch claimed that it was entitled to the proceeds because it had obtained mineral deeds from the California Heirs. The California Heirs, however, claimed that they were entitled to the proceeds because Seawatch had obtained the mineral deeds [**5] from them through fraud or deceit.
[*5] After a seven-day bench trial, the trial court (Judge Dickinson) issued its Findings, Order, and Judgment on November 10, 2011. The trial court granted the California Heirs’ claims for rescission of the mineral deeds and assignments to Seawatch, concluding that Ellsworth had obtained them on behalf of Seawatch through fraud and misrepresentation. Specifically, Ellsworth told the California Heirs that there was no oil and gas production in the Cardwell interest and that there may be no minerals to extract, even though Ellsworth (or entities he controlled) had already received over $1 million in proceeds from mineral interests in adjoining lands. Ellsworth also falsely represented to the California Heirs that they could be liable for any costs of production or accidents associated with their interests.
[*6] The trial court found that Seawatch failed to produce any credible evidence to support its assertion that Ellsworth did not make material misstatements or unjustifiably conceal material facts; the court therefore ruled that Seawatch’s claims and defenses were frivolous and groundless. Pertinent here, the trial court also concluded that “Seawatch was at [**6] all material times an alter ego of Ellsworth,” thus piercing the corporate veil and rendering Seawatch and Ellsworth jointly and severally liable for attorneys’ fees incurred by XTO and the California Heirs in responding to Seawatch’s frivolous claims and defenses.
[*7] Seawatch appealed, raising several arguments. During this first appeal, Seawatch argued, among other things, that the trial court’s order holding Ellsworth individually liable for attorneys’ fees must be vacated because the court did not have personal jurisdiction over Ellsworth. The court of appeals affirmed the judgment against Seawatch in a unanimous, unpublished decision, but did not address the argument regarding Ellsworth because the trial court had not yet entered final judgment on attorneys’ fees. We denied certiorari review. XTO Energy, Inc. v. Seawatch Royalty Partners LLC, Nos. 11CA2388 & 12CA1159, 2013 Colo. App. LEXIS 312, (Colo. App. March 7, 2013), cert. denied, No. 13SC453 (Feb. 18, 2014).
[*8] While that appeal was pending, XTO and the California Heirs filed motions seeking attorneys’ fees and costs from Seawatch and Ellsworth. XTO and the California Heirs also filed a joint motion to join Ellsworth to the post-judgment proceedings pursuant [**7] to C.R.C.P. 21. The trial court granted the motion to join Ellsworth as a party “as authorized by C.R.C.P. 21 and City of Aurora v. Colorado State Engineer, 105 P.3d 595 (Colo. 2005).” After unsuccessful attempts to serve Ellsworth personally, XTO and the California Heirs moved for an order authorizing substituted service, which the trial court granted.
[*9] In 2013, Ellsworth, making what he called a “limited appearance,” filed numerous objections and motions in which he argued that the court lacked personal jurisdiction over him and that substituted service had been improper.
[*10] In an order dated April 10, 2014, the trial court denied several pending motions, including Ellsworth’s motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction. Judge Herringer, who presided over the case following Judge Dickinson’s retirement, held that Judge Dickinson’s corporate veil-piercing findings in his November 10, 2011 ruling were “law of the case.” Judge Herringer therefore incorporated the earlier findings into the April 2014 order–specifically, that “Seawatch was at all material times an alter ego of Ellsworth”; that Ellsworth, as Seawatch’s agent, “engaged in civil conspiracy” and “made material omission[s]”; and that Ellsworth’s statements “constitute[d] fraud.” The court articulated several [**8] additional findings relevant to whether piercing the corporate veil was necessary to achieve an equitable result. The court found, for example, that Seawatch’s sole business function was to acquire the mineral deeds from the California Heirs for Ellsworth’s benefit; that Seawatch had no business dealings outside the facts that gave rise to this litigation and was controlled entirely by Ellsworth; that Seawatch was apparently insolvent and had no assets, such that limiting liability to Seawatch would foreclose any meaningful opportunity for injured parties to recover for conduct for which Ellsworth was responsible; and that there was no indication that Seawatch’s litigation strategy was controlled by anyone other than Ellsworth.
[*11] Ultimately, the court held that Ellsworth was liable for attorneys’ fees after concluding that “[t]he only respect in which Ellsworth has treated Seawatch as a corporate entity, independent of him personally, is as a barrier to his personal liability.” As a result, “[t]o the extent that Seawatch advanced frivolous argument and made groundless claims,” the court ruled, “Ellsworth is the person who should ultimately be held responsible for that conduct.”
[*12] About [**9] a year later, in an April 8, 2015 order, the trial court awarded fees and costs to XTO and the California Heirs under section 13-17-102, C.R.S. (2017), holding Ellsworth and Seawatch jointly and severally liable. The court instructed XTO and the California Heirs to prepare proposed judgments consistent with its order. Notice of the proposed final judgments was served on Ellsworth. Ellsworth did not file any objections. The court entered separate judgments for XTO and the California Heirs in May 2015.
[*13] Ellsworth appealed pro se, arguing, in relevant part, that when Judge Dickinson initially determined that Seawatch was an alter ego of Ellsworth, he had not been made a party to the case, and therefore, to hold him jointly and severally liable for attorneys’ fees violated his right to due process. In a unanimous, unpublished opinion, the court of appeals agreed with Ellsworth and vacated the attorneys’ fee judgment with respect to him. XTO Energy, Inc. v. Ellsworth, No. 15CA1114, 2016 Colo. App. LEXIS 1205 (Colo. App. Aug. 25, 2016).
[*14] Despite his victory in the court of appeals, Ellsworth filed a petition for a writ of certiorari with this court, seeking “relief of manifest injustice to include $200,000,000 in exemplary damages pursuant to [**10] § 13-17-101 [C.R.S. (2017)] to punish the trial court’s and Respondent’s acts of frivolous, groundless and vexatious litigation in [the underlying cases] and the appellate courts [sic] acts of applying an incorrect standard of review and failure to order as adjudicated.”
[*15] XTO filed an opposition to Ellsworth’s petition, and the California Heirs filed a cross-petition for certiorari review, arguing that Ellsworth had been properly joined in the litigation under this court’s decision in City of Aurora ex rel. Utility Enterprise v. Colo. State Engineer, 105 P.3d 595 (Colo. 2005). Ellsworth subsequently filed several documents on behalf of Seawatch and CEMPCO, which this court struck under section 13-1-127(2), C.R.S. (2017). Finally, Ellsworth filed a “Motion to Declare . . . C.R.S. § 13-1-127 . . . Unconstitutional,” which this court denied.
[*16] Ultimately, we denied Ellsworth’s petition for a writ of certiorari, but granted the California Heirs’ cross-petition to review the court of appeals’ ruling on whether Ellsworth was properly joined in the case.1
1 We granted certiorari review of the following issues:
1. Whether the petitioner was properly joined in the sanctions proceedings pursuant to City of Aurora ex rel. Utility Enterprise v. Colorado State Engineer, 105 P.3d 595, 621-24 (Colo. 2005).
2. Whether piercing an entity’s corporate veil is a form of vicarious liability supporting joinder pursuant to City of Aurora ex rel. Utility Enterprise v. Colorado State Engineer, 105 P.3d 595 (Colo. 2005).
3. Whether service of a summons and an opportunity to be heard before entry of the sanctions [**11] judgments afforded the petitioner due process.
The California Heirs filed their opening brief on July 3, 2017. Pursuant to our May 22 scheduling order, Ellsworth had until August 7 to file an answer brief. On August 23, having not received an answer from Ellsworth, we ordered him to notify the court by August 30 whether he intended to file an answer brief, warning that if he did not comply, we would presume that he did not intend to file an answer brief, and the case would proceed. Ellsworth did not thereafter file any response.
A. Piercing the Corporate Veil
[*17] We address first the merits of the trial court’s decision to pierce the corporate veil and hold Ellsworth individually liable for Seawatch’s litigation conduct. “Piercing the corporate veil involves a mixed question of law and fact.” Lester v. Career Bldg. Acad., 2014 COA 88, ¶ 42, 338 P.3d 1054, 1062. Accordingly, “[w]e defer to the trial court’s findings of fact if they are supported by the record, but review the trial court’s legal conclusions de novo.” See People v. Marquardt, 2016 CO 4, ¶ 8, 364 P.3d 499, 502.
[*18] A duly formed corporation is a legal entity distinct from its shareholders. Connolly v. Englewood Post No. 322 Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States, Inc. (In re Phillips), 139 P.3d 639, 643 (Colo. 2006). This separate status normally insulates a corporation’s shareholders from personal liability for the debts of the corporation. Indeed, such “[i]nsulation from individual liability is an inherent purpose of incorporation; only extraordinary circumstances justify disregarding the corporate entity to impose personal liability.” Leonard v. McMorris, 63 P.3d 323, 330 (Colo. 2003).
[*19] However, in certain circumstances, a court will “pierce the veil of corporate entity” to expose the individuals “hiding behind” it. I.M. Wormser, Piercing the Veil of Corporate Entity, 12 Colum. L. Rev. 496, 515, 497 (1912); Phillips, 139 P.3d at 644. For instance, a shareholder may be individually liable for the corporation’s actions [**12] “when the corporation is merely the alter ego of the shareholder, and the corporate structure is used to perpetuate a wrong.” Phillips, 139 P.3d at 644 (citation omitted). “In such extraordinary circumstances, the courts may ignore the independent existence of the business entity and pierce the corporate veil to achieve an equitable result.” Id.; see also Griffith v. SSC Pueblo Belmont Operating Co. LLC, 2016 CO 60M, 381 P.3d 308, 313 (“The case law governing corporate veil-piercing applies to disregarding the LLC form as well.”)
[*20] A corporation is the alter ego of its shareholder or shareholders when it is a “mere instrumentality for the transaction of the shareholders’ own affairs, and there is such unity of interest in ownership that the separate personalities of the corporation and the owners no longer exist.” Id. (quoting Krystkowiak v. W.O. Brisben Co., 90 P.3d 859, 867 n.7 (Colo. 2004)). To determine whether a corporation is an alter ego, a court should consider a number of factors, including whether “(1) the corporation is operated as a distinct business entity, (2) funds and assets are commingled, (3) adequate corporate records are maintained, (4) the nature and form of the entity’s ownership and control facilitate misuse by an insider, (5) the business is thinly capitalized, (6) the corporation is used as a ‘mere shell,’ (7) shareholders disregard [**13] legal formalities, and (8) corporate funds or assets are used for noncorporate purposes.” Id. As we explained in Phillips, “[t]hese factors reflect the underlying principle that the court should only pierce when the corporate form has been abused.” Id.
[*21] Next, if the corporation is found to be merely the alter ego of a shareholder, the court must consider “whether justice requires recognizing the substance of the relationship between the shareholder and corporation over the form because the corporate fiction was used to perpetrate a fraud or defeat a rightful claim.” Id. (quotation marks omitted). “Only when the corporate form was used to shield a dominant shareholder’s improprieties may the veil be pierced.” Id.
[*22] Finally, “the court must evaluate whether an equitable result will be achieved by disregarding the corporate form and holding the shareholder personally liable for the acts of the business entity.” Id. “Achieving an equitable result is the paramount goal of traditional piercing of the corporate veil.” Id.
[*23] A claimant seeking to pierce the corporate veil must make a clear and convincing showing that each of the foregoing factors has been satisfied. Id. If a claimant satisfies [**14] this burden and the corporate veil is pierced, the court may ignore the independent existence of the corporate entity and hold the shareholder liable for the corporation’s actions. See id.
[*24] Here, the trial court held that Seawatch “was at all material times” the alter ego of Ellsworth. In its November 10, 2011 order, the trial court adopted XTO’s proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law, as well as portions of the California Heirs’ post-trial briefing. Specifically, the trial court found that Ellsworth was the sole managing partner of Seawatch, which he owned with his wife and two adult children; Ellsworth’s payments to the California Heirs for the mineral deeds were made from Ellsworth’s personal checking account or were cash; Seawatch did not have its own checking account, its own cash, or any loan agreements with Ellsworth; Seawatch did not own other property, had never received any income, and did not file tax returns; and Ellsworth used these alter ego entities to perpetuate a wrong.
[*25] Subsequently, after Judge Herringer took over the case for Judge Dickinson, the trial court incorporated these findings as law of the case in its April 10, 2014 order. In that order, the trial [**15] court also revisited the third requirement for piercing the corporate veil–i.e., whether piercing the veil is necessary to achieve an equitable result. On that point, the court found that “Seawatch was used by Ellsworth as an instrumentality for committing fraud” and that Seawatch’s “sole business function was to acquire mineral deeds from the California Heirs for the benefit of Ellsworth.” Indeed, according to the trial court, “Seawatch had no business dealings outside the facts that give rise to this litigation and it was entirely controlled by Ellsworth.” Moreover, the court found, “Seawatch is apparently insolvent and has no assets, not even its own checking account” and “when Ellsworth was purportedly conducting business on behalf of Seawatch, he used his personal checking account for transactions made by Seawatch.” Additionally, “there [was] no indication that Seawatch’s litigation strategy was controlled or dictated by anyone other than Ellsworth.”
[*26] Thus, the court reasoned, “if liability was limited to Seawatch, it would foreclose any meaningful opportunity for the injured parties to recover for conduct [for] which Ellsworth is responsible.” Because “[t]he record is devoid of [**16] any meaningful evidence that Seawatch was operated as a separate corporate entity apart from Ellsworth,” and “[t]he only respect in which Ellsworth has treated Seawatch as a corporate entity, independent of him personally, is as a barrier to his personal liability,” the court concluded, holding Ellsworth “liable for the actions of Seawatch is required to achieve fairness and reach a just result.”
[*27] As noted above, we “defer to the trial court’s findings of fact if they are supported by the record.” Marquardt, ¶ 8, 364 P.3d at 502. Here, the trial court’s findings are amply supported by the record. During the 2011 bench trial related to the mineral deeds, Ellsworth testified that he owned Seawatch with his wife and two children. Ellsworth testified that he had been the sole manager of Seawatch since its inception in 2007 and that he makes all the decisions for Seawatch. Ellsworth further testified that Seawatch did not have a checking account when he obtained the mineral deeds from the California Heirs; indeed, at least one California Heir testified that Ellsworth paid for the mineral deeds with a personal check. Ellsworth also testified that Seawatch had not received any income and had not filed tax [**17] returns.
[*28] Based on the above factual findings, and reviewing the trial court’s legal conclusion de novo, id., we conclude that the trial court did not err by piercing the corporate veil.
B. Joinder and Due Process
[*29] The court of appeals vacated the judgment against Ellsworth, holding that the trial court lacked personal jurisdiction over him because Ellsworth had not yet been joined as a party (and therefore had no notice or opportunity to contest personal liability) when the trial court entered the November 2011 order holding him individually liable. XTO Energy, slip op. at 1, 5-6. Consequently, the court of appeals reasoned, the initial order was void with respect to Ellsworth, and all subsequent orders and judgments based on the initial order were void as well. Id. at 14. The court of appeals rejected XTO’s argument that joinder “cured” this jurisdictional defect, because (1) joinder was improper; and (2) Ellsworth did not have a chance, after the joinder motion was filed, to contest the trial court’s alter ego findings or its imposition of joint and several liability. Id. at 10-14.
[*30] It is true that a person is not bound by a judgment if he was not “designated as a party or . . . made a party by service of process.” Zenith Radio Corp. v. Hazeltine Research, Inc., 395 U.S. 100, 110, 89 S. Ct. 1562, 23 L. Ed. 2d 129 (1969). But here, we conclude [**18] that Ellsworth was a party to the post-judgment proceedings. The court of appeals’ conclusion that Ellsworth was not properly joined because there was no pleaded “claim for relief” against Ellsworth, XTO Energy, slip op. at 10-12, is contrary to our decision in City of Aurora. There, after the trial court entered its order of dismissal following an eight-week trial, the prevailing party sought attorneys’ fees and costs under section 13-17-102(4), and moved to join Aurora solely “for purposes of collecting attorney fees and costs.” City of Aurora, 105 P.3d at 605. The court granted joinder, and we affirmed.
[*31] As we explained, under the Colorado Rules of Civil Procedure, “[p]arties may be dropped or added by order of the court on motion of any party . . . at any stage of the action and on such terms as are just.” Id. at 623 (emphasis in original) (quoting C.R.C.P. 21). Rules 20 and 21, which should be “liberally construed,” specifically “authorize joinder in situations where one party seeks to join a person who may be liable for the same debt or conduct that is already before the court.” Id. These rules “indicate clearly a general policy to disregard narrow technicalities and to bring about the final determination of justiciable controversies without undue delay.” Id. (quoting Swan v. Zwahlen, 131 Colo. 184, 280 P.2d 439, 441 (Colo. 1955)). Thus, we held, [**19] joinder of Aurora was not an abuse of discretion, even though the court had already entered judgment on the merits, “[b]ecause C.R.C.P. 20 allows joinder at any stage of the proceedings and because C.R.C.P. 21 anticipates joinder where there are joint liabilities, as well as common questions of law and fact,” and Aurora “was potentially liable for conduct that was already before the court.” Id.
[*32] Nor were XTO and the California Heirs required to amend their pleadings to add a “claim for relief” against Ellsworth, or file additional pleadings to the same effect, to join Ellsworth. Such a rule would be antithetical to the policy behind Rules 20 and 21, and would make little sense in situations where, like here and in City of Aurora, the trial court has already entered judgment on the underlying dispute. Additionally, in light of the unique factual circumstances of this case, any failure to amend the complaint to add Ellsworth as a party to the post-judgment sanctions proceedings would be, at most, harmless error. “The court at every stage of the proceeding must disregard all errors and defects that do not affect any party’s substantial rights.” C.R.C.P. 61. “[A]n error affects a substantial right only if it can be said with fair [**20] assurance that the error substantially influenced the outcome of the case or impaired the basic fairness of the trial itself.” Laura A. Newman, LLC v. Roberts, 2016 CO 9, ¶ 24, 365 P.3d 972, 978 (quotation marks omitted). By the time Ellsworth was joined as a party, he had already been heavily involved with the case for several years as Seawatch’s sole managing member. Indeed, he spent much of the trial at counsel’s table and also testified. He was then properly served with the joinder motion and summons. On this record, Ellsworth cannot establish that any error regarding amending the complaint substantially influenced the outcome of the case or impaired the basic fairness of the trial.
[*33] Furthermore, contrary to the court of appeals’ assertion, Ellsworth had an opportunity to contest his individual liability once he was joined as a party. The trial court found that Seawatch was Ellsworth’s alter ego in November 2011 and that, accordingly, Ellsworth would be jointly and severally liable for any award of attorneys’ fees. In December 2011, XTO and the California Heirs moved for judgment on attorneys’ fees and to join Ellsworth as a party to the post-judgment proceedings. The court granted the joinder motion in August 2012, and Ellsworth was served via [**21] substituted service in January 2013. The court did not enter final judgment awarding attorneys’ fees against Ellsworth, however, until May 2015. During the three years after Ellsworth was joined as a party and before the entry of final judgment, Ellsworth had ample opportunity to challenge the alter ego findings.
[*34] In fact, Ellsworth did offer arguments, however unartful, regarding the propriety of piercing the corporate veil. In 2013, Ellsworth, making what he called a “limited appearance,” argued that the court lacked personal jurisdiction over him and that the substituted service had been improper. In his motion to dismiss, Ellsworth, represented by the same attorney who represented Seawatch, “object[ed] to the validity of the Summons served by substitute service . . . and also on the basis that the Court lacks personal jurisdiction over Ellsworth.” Ellsworth’s motion to dismiss went on to address “the elements of ‘piercing the corporate veil,'” arguing that the trial court’s order holding Ellsworth individually liable “contains no record that [the relevant] elements were evaluated” and that the record was “also completely void of the analysis showing all elements satisfied a standard [**22] of ‘clear and convincing’ proof.” (citing Phillips, 139 P.3d at 644).
[*35] In a subsequent filing, Ellsworth argued against piercing the corporate veil under a section entitled “CEMPCO AND SEAWATCH ARE NOT AGENTS OR ALTER EGOS OF ELLSWORTH.” Ellsworth asserted that the “alter-ego theory of the trial court cannot be applied here” for various reasons, including that “the failure of a limited liability company to observe the formalities or requirements relating to the management of its business and affairs is not in itself a ground for imposing personal liability on the members for liabilities of the limited liability company.” (quoting § 7-80-107, C.R.S. (2017)). Ellsworth went on to address the “[c]ommon law Alter Ego elements,” reiterating that the trial court made, in his view, insufficient findings on the record. Based on this record, we disagree with the court of appeals that “Ellsworth did not have a chance, after the joinder motion was filed, to contest the court’s alter ego finding or its imposition of joint and several liability.” XTO Energy, slip op. at 13.
[*36] The court of appeals’ focus on the 2013 hearing on the motions for attorneys’ fees was misplaced. That hearing, the court of appeals asserted, was limited to “whether XTO could recover fees it [**23] had incurred by participating in the litigation more actively than a traditional interpleader plaintiff” and thus “did not provide any kind of belated opportunity for Ellsworth to challenge the court’s alter ego finding.” Id. However, this conclusion is belied by the transcripts of the hearing; it also discounts the time after joinder before the hearing, and the years after the hearing but before final judgment entered.
[*37] It is true that Judge Herringer ruled that Judge Dickinson’s findings were “law of the case.” But that doctrine did not prevent Ellsworth from challenging those findings. Generally speaking, the law of the case doctrine “provides that prior relevant rulings made in the same case are to be followed unless such application would result in error or unless the ruling is no longer sound due to changed conditions.” People v. Dunlap, 975 P.2d 723, 758 (Colo. 1999). However, the law of the case doctrine recognizes that “a trial court is not inexorably bound by its own precedents.” Brodeur v. Am. Home Assur. Co., 169 P.3d 139, 149 (Colo. 2007). That is, the law of the case doctrine does not “prevent[ ] a trial court from clarifying or even revisiting its prior rulings.” In re Bass, 142 P.3d 1259, 1263 (Colo. 2006). To the contrary, “[a] trial court has discretion to apply the law of the case doctrine to its own prior rulings.” [**24] San Antonio, Los Pinos & Conejos River Acequia Pres. Ass’n v. Special Improvement Dist. No. 1, 2015 CO 52, ¶ 31, 351 P.3d 1112, 1120. Thus, Judge Herringer was not bound by Judge Dickinson’s findings. And indeed, here, before addressing the merits of the trial court’s decision to pierce the corporate veil, Ellsworth argued that “the trial court always possesses the power to correct or re-direct a prior Order and . . . is ‘not’ to be trapped by the ‘law of the case’ doctrine while its case remains pending.” (emphasis in original) (citing Bass, 142 P.3d at 1263).
[*38] Ellsworth also could have filed a Rule 59(e) motion to alter or amend the judgment after the trial court entered judgment against him in May 2015. He did not do so. Nor did he move under Rule 60(b) to ask the court to relieve him from the final judgment. See Link v. Wabash R.R. Co., 370 U.S. 626, 632, 82 S. Ct. 1386, 8 L. Ed. 2d 734 (1962) (recognizing that “the availability of a corrective remedy such as is provided by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b)–which authorizes the reopening of cases in which final orders have been inadvisedly entered–renders the lack of prior notice of less consequence.”); see also Am. Sur. Co. v. Baldwin, 287 U.S. 156, 168, 53 S. Ct. 98, 77 L. Ed. 231 (1932) (“Due process requires that there be an opportunity to present every available defense; but it need not be before the entry of judgment.”). In sum, we disagree with the court of appeals that Ellsworth lacked notice and opportunity to contest his liability.
[*39] We conclude that the trial court [**25] properly pierced the corporate veil to hold Ellsworth individually liable for Seawatch’s, his alter ego, frivolous claims and defenses. Additionally, we hold that Ellsworth, who was properly joined to the post-judgment proceedings, had notice and opportunity to contest his individual liability. We therefore reverse the court of appeals and remand with instructions to reinstate the judgment awarding attorneys’ fees and costs.
Lloyd v. Bourassa, 2002 Me. Super. LEXIS 132
C. Gary Lloyd, Plaintiff v. Tom Bourassa, Sugarloaf Mountain Corp., and United States Cycling, Inc. d/b/a National Off-Road Bicycle Association, Defendants
Civil Action Docket No. 01-CV-039
Superior Court of Maine, Hancock County
2002 Me. Super. LEXIS 132
August 20, 2002, Decided
August 21, 2002, Filed and Entered
SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Affirmed by, Remanded by, Sub nomine at Lloyd v. Sugarloaf Mt. Corp., 2003 ME 117, 2003 Me. LEXIS 131 (Sept. 25, 2003)
DISPOSITION: [*1] Plaintiff’s motion for judgment on pleadings denied. Motions for summary judgment filed by defendants U.S.A. Cycling and Sugarloaf granted. Judgment granted to defendants on Counts II and III of plaintiff’s amended complaint.
CORE TERMS: cycling, membership, summary judgment, sponsor, bicycle, successors, mandatory, off-road, counterclaims, collision, promoter, mountain, collectively, indirectly, genuine, assigns, travel, entities, sport, waive, heirs, wanton negligence, willful, law enforcement agencies, matter of law, own negligence, issue of material fact, legal representatives, successors in interest, property owners
JUDGES: Ellen A. Gorman.
OPINION BY: Gorman
On June 22, 1995, C. Gary Lloyd applied for membership in “USCF . NORBA . NCCA.” After filling in some identifying information on the first page of the application form, Lloyd placed his signature on the second page, under a section entitled “Acknowledgment of Risk and Release of Liability.” That section contained the following language:
Please accept this as my application for membership and a USCF, NORBA and/or NCCA license.
I acknowledge that cycling is an inherently dangerous sport in which I participate at my own risk and that the United States Cycling Federation, Inc. is a non-profit corporation formed to advance the sport of cycling, the efforts of which directly benefit me. In consideration of the agreement of the USCF to issue a license to me, hereby on behalf of myself, my heirs, assigns and personal representatives, I release and forever discharge the USCF, its employees, agents, members, [*2] sponsors, promoters and affiliates from any and all liability, claim, loss, cost or expense, and waive and promise not to sue on any such claims against any such person or organization, arising directly or indirectly from or attributable in any legal way to any negligence, action or omission to act of any such person or organization in connection with sponsorship, organization or execution of any bicycle racing or sporting event, including travel to and from such event, in which I may participate as a rider, team member or spectator.
On August 11, 1995, with his NORBA membership in hand, Lloyd traveled to Kingfield, Maine to participate in a mountain biking event sponsored by the Sugarloaf Mountain Corporation known as the Widowmaker Challenge. At Kingfield, Lloyd signed the Official Entry Form, which included the following language under the heading of “Athlete’s Entry & Release Form 1“:
I fully realize the dangers of participating in a bicycle race and fully assume the risks associated with such participation including, by way of example, and not limitations, the following: the dangers of collision with pedestrians, vehicles, other racers and fixed or moving objects; the [*3] dangers arising from surface hazards, equipment failure, inadequate safety equipment and weather conditions; and the possibility of serious physical and/or mental trauma or injury associated with athletic cycling competition.
I hereby waive, release and discharge for myself, my heirs, executors, administrators, legal representatives, assigns, and successors in interest (hereinafter collectively “successors”) any and all rights and claims which I have or which may hereafter occur to me against the sponsors of this event, the National Off-Road Bicycle Association, the promoter and any promoting organization(s), property owners, law enforcement agencies, all public entities, and special districts and…. through or by which the events will be held for any and all damages which may be sustained by me directly or indirectly in connection with, or arising out of, my participation in or association with the event, or travel to or return from the event . . . .
I agree, for myself and successors, that the above representations are contractually binding, and are not mere recitals, and that should I or my successors assert my claim in contravention of this agreement, I or my successors shall [*4] be liable for the expenses incurred (including legal fees) incurred by the other party or parties in defending, unless the other parties are financially adjudged liable on such claim for willful and wanton negligence.
1 To avoid confusion, the “release” signed in June shall be referred to as the “Membership Release,” and the release signed in August shall be referred to as the “Event Release.”
Lloyd registered to participate in both the cross-country race and the downhill challenge. While completing a mandatory practice run on August 11, 1995, Lloyd was involved in a collision with another participant, Tom Bourassa.
On August 10, 2001, Lloyd filed suit against Bourassa, Sugarloaf Mountain Corporation, and United States Cycling Federation d/b/a National Off-Road Bicycle Association, asserting negligence claims against all three. Soon thereafter, Lloyd learned that he had failed to name the appropriate corporate defendant, and filed a motion to amend the complaint. Over objection, that motion was granted, [*5] and U.S.A. Cycling, Inc. replaced United States Cycling Federation d/b/a National Off-Road Bicycle Association.
In their Answers, both Sugarloaf and U.S.A. Cycling responded that Lloyd’s claims were barred by the releases quoted above. In addition, both asserted Counterclaims against Lloyd for breaching the terms of the releases. Both demanded Lloyd be held liable for any expenses they incurred in defending his suit.
On January 25, 2002, Lloyd filed a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings with respect to Defendants’ Counterclaims and Affirmative Defenses of Release and Waiver. Sugarloaf Mountain Corporation opposed that motion and filed its own Motion for Summary Judgment on March 11, 2002. U.S.A. Cycling also opposed the plaintiff’s motion, and filed its Motion for Summary Judgment on April 11, 2002. All of the motions requested that the court review the language of the releases and determine whether and how it affected the outcome of this suit. A hearing on all three motions was held on July 3, 2002. Any findings included below are based upon the properly submitted affidavits and statements of material fact. Specifically excluded from that category is the affidavit form Attorney [*6] Greif.
1. Plaintiff’s Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings
The plaintiff argues that he is entitled to judgment on the defendants’ counterclaims and on their affirmative defenses of release and waiver because “the release, 2” by its terms, does not apply to U.S.A. Cycling, does not apply to the facts of this case, does not protect the defendants from their own negligence, and is unenforceable as contrary to public policy.
2 Plaintiff did not address the language of the Membership Release in his motion.
In considering a motion for judgment on the pleadings, the court is required to accept all of the responding party’s pleadings as true, and draw all reasonable inferences in its favor. Judgment is only appropriate if the responding party can prove no set of facts that would entitle it to relief. The plaintiff has failed to meet that burden.
Applicability to U.S.A. Cycling
In support of his first assertion, Lloyd argued that, because the Event Release does not mention U.S.A. Cycling, [*7] that defendant is not within the category of potentially released entities. With its response to this motion, U.S.A. Cycling filed an affidavit by Barton Enoch to establish that NORBA, a named sponsor of the Widowmaker, was the off-road division of U.S.A. Cycling, Inc. The clear language of the Entry Release covers sponsors, including U.S.A. Cycling d/b/a NORBA.
As mentioned above, Lloyd applied for membership in the United States Cycling Federation (USCF) and NORBA in June 1995. Soon thereafter, USCF merged into a new corporation, U.S.A. Cycling, Inc, that assumed all of its rights and responsibilities. By signing the Membership Release, Lloyd released U.S.A. Cycling, Inc. from responsibility for any accidents that might occur during his participation in any race events it sponsored.
Definition of Event
Lloyd has argued that the strictly construed language of the Event Release does not cover accidents that occur during the training run. In support of this argument, he has cited Doyle v. Bowdoin College, 403 A.2d 1206 (Me. 1979.) In that case, the Law Court said “releases absolving a defendant of liability for his own negligence must expressly spell out [*8] ‘with the greatest particularity’ the intention of the parties contractually to extinguish negligence liability.” Doyle, at 1208. Contrary to the plaintiff’s assertions, the language of the Event Release does precisely that:
I hereby waive, release and discharge for myself, my heirs, executors, administrators, legal representatives, assigns, and successors in interest (hereinafter collectively “successors”) any and all rights and claims which I have or which may hereafter occur to me against the sponsors of this event, the National Off-Road Bicycle Association, the promoter and any promoting organization(s), property owners, law enforcement agencies, all public entities, and special districts and properties . . . . through or by which the events will be held for any and all damages which may be sustained by me directly or indirectly in connection with, or arising out of, my participation in or association with the event, or travel to or return from the event . . . . (emphasis added)
All parties have agreed that the training run was a mandatory part of the event. To interpret the Event Release in such a convoluted fashion that it excludes a mandatory part of the [*9] event from the term “event” defies logic and is contrary to the intent of the parties as demonstrated by the plain language of the release. Hardy v. St. Clair, 1999 ME 142, 739 A.2d 368.
Although releases of liability are “traditionally disfavored,” in Maine that disfavor has resulted in strict interpretation rather than prohibition. Doyle v. Bowdoin College, Id. The cases cited by plaintiff in support of his contrary argument are from other jurisdictions and do not accurately describe the law in Maine. When asked to consider the issue raised here, both Maine state courts and the First Circuit have consistently enforced the language of releases. See, e.g., Hardy v. St. Clair, 1999 ME 142, 739 A.2d 368; McGuire v. Sunday River Skiway Corp., 1994 WL 505035 (D.Me.)(Hornby, J.), aff’d 47 F.3d 1156 (1st Cir. 1995). Despite his reference to a “contract of adhesion,” Lloyd was not compelled to sign either release. He chose to sign both because he wanted to participate in an inherently risky sport. He is free to make such choices, but must also accept responsibility for what happens as a result [*10] of that choice.
For the reasons stated above, plaintiff’s motion for judgment on the pleadings is denied.
2. Defendants’ Motions for Summary Judgment
The Law Court has addressed motions for summary judgment on many occasions:
In reviewing a summary judgment, we examine the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonprevailing party to determine whether the record supports the conclusion that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the prevailing party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. (citation omitted) In testing the propriety of a summary judgment, we accept as true the uncontroverted facts properly appearing in the record. (citation omitted)
Champagne v. Mid-Maine Med. Ctr., 1998 ME 87, P5, 711 A.2d 842, 844. The issue is not whether there are any disputes of fact, but whether any of the disputes involve a “genuine” issue of “material” fact. See Rule 56(c). After reviewing the record provided with these standards in mind, the court must conclude that there are no genuine issues of disputed fact.
Both Lloyd and the defendants agree that Lloyd was required to complete a practice run in order to participate [*11] in the Widowmaker Challenge. All of them agree that Lloyd signed both releases before he took that mandatory run, and all agree that he was involved in a collision with another bicyclist during that run. As was discussed above, the practice run and any problems encountered during it are covered by the terms of the releases Lloyd signed. The Membership Release contains express language releasing claims arising from negligence. The Entry Release contains express language describing the types of accidents or dangers covered by the release, including “the dangers of collision with … other racers.” The collision between Lloyd and Bourassa was precisely the type of accident contemplated by the parties and waived by Lloyd in both releases.
Lloyd has failed to refer to any evidence in the record that might support his theory that that the Event Release should be seen as a substitution or novation of the Membership Release. Without such evidence, the court may not presume that the parties intended that one contract be substituted for the other.
Lloyd has asserted that the reference in the Event Release to an exception for “willful and wanton negligence” precludes summary judgment. However, [*12] no such tort has yet been recognized in Maine, so no jury could be asked to determine whether the defendants had acted with willful or wanton negligence. That exception is inapplicable in this jurisdiction. In addition, that language refers only to the portion of the Release that discusses the defendants’ right to recover expenses, including legal fees. On the record presented, there are no material issues of disputed fact concerning the language of the releases.
U.S.A. Cycling was a sponsor and Sugarloaf was a promoter of the race. As a matter of law, the court finds that the mandatory practice run was included within the language of the Releases, that the releases are clear and unambiguous, and that the accident Lloyd claims falls entirely within the types of harms contemplated by the parties at the time the releases were signed. There is nothing left to be litigated on either plaintiff’s Complaint against defendants U.S.A. Cycling and Sugarloaf, or on their Counterclaims against him.
For the reasons stated above, the court finds that the releases signed by Lloyd individually and collectively bar any civil action against either U.S.A. Cycling, d/b/a NORBA or against Sugarloaf for [*13] the injuries Lloyd allegedly sustained on August 11, 1995. Summary judgment on plaintiff’s Complaint is granted to U.S.A. Cycling, d/b/a NORBA and to Sugarloaf. In addition, summary judgment against Lloyd on their Counterclaims is granted to both U.S.A. Cycling, d/b/a NORBA and. Within thirty (30) days, counsel for these defendants shall submit proof of expenses, including attorney fees, incurred in defense of this action.
Plaintiff’s motion for judgment on the pleadings is denied. The motions for summary judgment filed by defendants U.S.A. Cycling and Sugarloaf are granted. Judgment is granted to those defendants on Counts II and III of plaintiff’s amended complaint.
The Clerk is directed to incorporate this Order in the docket by reference, in accordance with M.R.Civ.P. 79(a).
DATED: 20 August 2002
Ellen A. Gorman