Hawaii Supreme Court agrees that finding out a release is required to be signed upon arrival at the activity and after the activity has been paid for may be a deceptive trade practice.

However, the court does uphold the use of a release as a defense to a horseback riding claim.

Citation: Courbat v. Dahana Ranch, Inc., 141 P.3d 427 (Hawai’i 2006)

State: Hawaii, Supreme Court of Hawai’i

Plaintiff: Lisa Courbat and Steven Courbat

Defendant: Dahana Ranch, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: negligence, gross negligence and the actions of the defendant were a deceptive trade practice

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the plaintiffs on the deceptive trade practices claim and sent back for review. However, if not a deceptive trade practice then for the defendant because of the signed release.

Year: 2006

Summary

The plaintiff’s signed up with a third-party booking agent to take a horseback ride while in Hawaii. Upon arrival, they were presented with a release to sign which they were not told about when the booked the ride. Both the plaintiff and her husband signed the release.

During the ride the plaintiff road her horse to close to another hose that kicker her in the leg.

Facts

The present matter arises out of personal injuries sustained by Lisa on February 1, 1999, while she and Steven were on a horseback riding tour on the Dahana Ranch on the Big Island of Hawai’i. The Courbats had booked the tour and prepaid the fee several months earlier through Island Incentives, Inc., an internet-based tour organizer. When they checked in at the Ranch, the Courbats were presented with a document to review and to sign which laid out the rules for the horseback tour and included a waiver “releas[ing] and hold[ing] harmless . . . [the] Ranch . . . from . . . injury to myself . . . resulting from my . . . being a spectator or participant or while engaged in any such activity in the event[-]related facilities” and stating that the undersigned “acknowledge[s] that there are significant elements of risk in any adventure, sport, or activity associated with horses.” [3] According to admissions by the Courbats in subsequent depositions, Lisa read over the waiver and, having no questions regarding the rules and regulations it contained, signed it before passing it to her husband to sign. Steven evidently did not read it, but recognized that it was “some kind of release of some sort” and signed it. In fact, no guest of the Ranch had ever refused to sign a waiver. Steven was familiar with the concept of such waivers, having participated with his wife in a snorkeling activity earlier during the vacation, at which time they both signed similar forms.

The Ranch’s guide, Daniel Nakoa, briefed the Courbats on how to handle a horse and general rules of the trail, including the importance of not riding single-file or allowing the horses to bunch up end to end. Out on the ride, Lisa was injured when she rode up behind Nakoa’s horse while Nakoa was speaking with another guest who had approached Nakoa with a question. According to later statements by both Nakoa and Lisa, Lisa approached Nakoa’s horse from the rear while the three horses were in motion, and, when her horse neared Nakoa’s horse, Nakoa’s horse struck out at her horse, hitting Lisa in the left shin.

It was interesting the court went on for 2 more pages, including the deposition testimony of the plaintiff and the wrangler on how this occurred. It seems like the defendant missed the defense of assumption of the risk, and the court was pointing it out to them.

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

The first argument of the plaintiff’s the court reviewed was whether the practice of booking a ride and having the release signed after the people arrive for the ride was a deceptive trade practice. The Plaintiffs argued.

… that the Ranch’s practice of booking ride reservations through an activity company, receiving payment prior to the arrival of the guest, and then, upon the guest’s arrival at the Ranch, requiring the guest to sign a liability waiver as a precondition to horseback riding is an unfair and deceptive business practice to which the remedies of HRS ch. 480 apply.

Hawaii Revised Statute ch. 480 is the Hawaiian deceptive trade practices act.

The plaintiff’s argued that not telling guests that they had to sign a release until after they arrived was misleading, and the release should be thrown out of that reason. A prior court of appeal’s decision held that the act was not available to plaintiff’s for personal injury claims. The plaintiff’s argued the act did apply because they were injured economically because of the cost of the ride.

The court held that a three-prong test must be applied to the facts to determine if the actions of the defendant violated the statute. The court also held that a determination that the actions violated the statute must be determined by the trier of fact, (the jury) and could not be determined by a motion for summary judgment.

This set up two possible outcomes. The first the non-disclosure of the waiver was a deceptive trade practice, then the release would be void. Also, the court held that the protections and rebutable presumption the Hawaii Equine Liability act provided would be void.

If the trier of fact determines that the failure to inform the Courbats of the waiver requirement was a deceptive trade practice, then the negligence waiver, along with the underlying contract, will be rendered void, and the Courbats’ negligence claims will be revived.

If the trier of fact held that the non-disclosure of the release was not deceptive, then the release is valid and the defendant’s win.

“The general rule of contract law is that one who assents to a contract is bound by it and cannot complain that he has not read it or did not know what it contained. “Furthermore, ” ‘[p]arties are permitted to make exculpatory contracts so long as they are knowingly and willingly made and free from fraud. No public policy exists to prevent such contracts.’

“[S]uch bargains are not favored, however, and, if possible, bargains are construed not to confer this immunity.” Therefore, as a general rule, ” ‘[e]xculpatory clauses will be held void if the agreement is (1) violative of a statute, (2) contrary to a substantial public interest, or (3) gained through inequality of bargaining power.’ ”

The Courbats have not alleged that any of the terms of the waiver, or the use of a waiver by the Ranch, violates a statute; on the contrary, the Courbats concede that waivers are an acceptable method by which tour operators may seek to limit their liability in response to rising insurance and litigation costs.

The court never really specified what the reasoning for its conclusion that the Hawaii Equine Liability Act did not apply except the one statement.

…. we hold that HRS ch. 663B, entitled “Equine activities,” see supra note 2, setting forth a rebuttable presumption of non-negligence on the part of the tour operator, does not apply to the present matter.

The plaintiff argued the release was void because of public policy grounds which the court denied.

….we determine that the public interest here is not at stake: recreational activity tours are not generally suitable to public regulation, in the manner of common carriers, nor of great importance to the public, nor of an essential nature, in the manner of medical care, such that the provider’s bargaining power is greatly enhanced over any member of the public seeking their services.

….in considering negligence waivers in the context of recreational activity, while such waivers may be contracts of adhesion, in that they are presented on a “take-it-or-leave-it” basis, they are not unconscionable, but “are of a sort commonly used in recreational settings” and “are generally held to be valid.” “[C]ontracts [of adhesion] are ‘unenforceable if two conditions are present: (1) the contract is the result of coercive bargaining between parties of unequal bargaining strength; and (2) the contract unfairly limits the obligations and liabilities of, or otherwise unfairly advantages, the stronger party.’ (“[A]dhesion contracts are fully enforceable provided that they are not unconscionable and do not fall outside the reasonable expectations of the weaker or adhering party.”). Unequal bargaining strength “involves the absence of alternatives; specifically whether the plaintiffs were ‘free to use or not to use’ [the] defendant’s . . . services.”

The court tied up any lose ends by reiterating the plaintiff’s deposition testimony concerning the release.

In the present matter, Lisa read through and responded to queries contained in the waiver form and had no further questions or concerns regarding the contents before she signed it. Steven conceded that he routinely relied on his wife to review documents before signing them and that he knew he was waiving rights when he signed the form. The record demonstrates that the Courbats were given adequate time and opportunity to fully review the waiver presented to them before they signed it and that both knew that by signing it, they were waiving legal rights in return for being allowed to participate in the ride.

The final issue was the gross negligence claim the plaintiff’s plead. The court stated the release did not protect against gross negligence or willful misconduct.

So Now What?

The good news is, if properly written and presented in advance of the arrival or the guests, a release in Hawaii is valid. If the release is void, big check. If the release is valid, still the issue of gross negligence to determine.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Hawkins, v Ranch Rudolph, Inc., 2005 Mich. App. LEXIS 2366

Hawkins, v Ranch Rudolph, Inc., 2005 Mich. App. LEXIS 2366

Bret D. Hawkins and Erin Hawkins, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v Ranch Rudolph, Inc. and Circle H Stables, Inc., Defendants-Appellees.

No. 254771

COURT OF APPEALS OF MICHIGAN

September 27, 2005, Decided

NOTICE: [*1] THIS IS AN UNPUBLISHED OPINION. IN ACCORDANCE WITH MICHIGAN COURT OF APPEALS RULES, UNPUBLISHED OPINIONS ARE NOT PRECEDENTIALLY BINDING UNDER THE RULES OF STARE DECISIS.

PRIOR HISTORY: Grand Traverse Circuit Court. LC No. 03-022735-NO.

DISPOSITION: Reversed and remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. We do not retain jurisdiction.

JUDGES: Before: Meter, P.J., and Murray and Schuette, JJ.

OPINION

PER CURIAM.

Plaintiffs appeal as of right from the order granting defendants summary disposition. Bret Hawkins was injured after falling off a horse during a guided trail ride conducted by defendants. We reverse and remand.

I. FACTS

On June 18, 2002, plaintiffs, who were on their honeymoon, went to defendants’ stables to participate in a guided horseback trail ride. Defendants offered several different types of rides, based on age and level of experience. Plaintiffs chose the “Wrangler Ride,” which was described by defendants’ brochure as a “walk/trot ride” and had the minimum age requirement of eight-years-old. The ride consisted of a four-mile, single-file ride on wooded trails. Plaintiffs chose the “Wrangler Ride” because Bret had never ridden a horse before. Before participating, however, [*2] plaintiffs executed a release and indemnification waiver, in accordance with § 6 of the Equine Activity Liability Act (EALA), MCL 691.1661 et seq. MCL 691.1666.

Prior to beginning the ride, defendants’ trail guide, Kate Ridge, asked all the participants about their riding experience. Erin Hawkins indicated that she had only ridden a horse once before when she was eleven-years-old, and Bret indicated that he had never ridden a horse. In light of Bret’s lack of experience, Ridge assigned him “Tye,” a horse that defendants typically assign to beginning riders, including children, because he was calm and easy to ride. Plaintiffs were given basic instructions regarding how to stay on the horse and how to use the reins. According to Ridge, she saddled the horses before the ride and then double-checked all the saddles both before and after the horses were mounted. Bret claimed that after mounting Tye, he complained to Ridge that his saddle was not securely fastened, and she checked it again. Ridge stated that she did not recall Bret telling her his saddle was loose before the ride and she did not notice that it was loose while he [*3] was mounting the horse.

The ride started out at a slow walk, but after awhile, Ridge asked the participants if they wanted to go a little faster. The group responded, “Yes,” and Ridge told them to hold on to the saddlehorn with one hand and to put the other hand on the back of the saddle, and to yell if they wanted to slow down. According to plaintiffs, Ridge and her horse then “bolted” into a fast, or full-out run, and the other horses followed her lead. Both plaintiffs stated that when their horses began running they were too surprised or shocked to yell and were just trying to hang on. According to Bret, his saddle slid to the right and he grabbed the saddlehorn and the back of the saddle as instructed but was still falling off his horse. He stated that his arm hit a tree so hard that he suffered a humeral fracture. He then fell from the horse.

Defendants and Ridge denied that the horses were running. According to defendants, midway through the ride, Ridge asked the participants if they would like to begin a “short trot.” According to Ridge, a trot is a fast walk, “slower than a canter, and much slower than a run or gallop.” Other experienced riders in the group characterized [*4] a trot in similar language. After asking for but hearing no objections, defendants contended that Ridge then proceeded to trot the horses. Defendant noted that if anyone had stated that they did not want to trot, Ridge would not have began the trot and continued with the walk. Defendant also explained that horses are not permitted to engage in a “fast run” during rides.

Plaintiffs filed a complaint alleging gross negligence. Defendants moved for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(7), (C)(8), and (C)(10), arguing, in pertinent part, that given the facts, even if there was a question of fact regarding whether defendants’ conduct amounted to negligence, reasonable jurors could not differ that defendants’ conduct did not amount to gross negligence. Defendant pointed out that Ridge attested that a couple seconds after commencing the trot she heard a scream and turned around to see that Bret had dropped his reins and was hanging on to the saddle horn with both hands, which she instructed him not to do. Ridge stated that Bret was losing his balance and leaning far to the right and he fell off his horse after hitting a tree branch. One of the other participants attested [*5] that he checked the saddle after the fall and it was not loose. Defendants argued that Bret’s injuries were not the result of defendants’ negligence, but of “the inherent risk of equine activity,” his own lack of experience, and his failure to follow Ridge’s instructions.

The trial court indicated that there was no question that plaintiffs’ allegations related to securing the saddle and instructing the participants only amounted to negligence. With respect to the allegation that the horses were made to run off at a high rate of speed, defendants continued to contend that there was no question of fact because Ridge and the other experienced participants stated that they began to trot, and the only people who said the horses began to run were plaintiffs, who had little or no riding experience. Plaintiffs responded that the differing accounts meant that there was a factual dispute, thereby precluding summary disposition. The court concluded that, given plaintiffs’ lack of experience compared with the experienced opinions of the guide and other participants, there was no genuine issue of fact that the horses were trotting not running. The court then concluded that even if it were a high [*6] speed run, reasonable minds could not differ that defendants’ conduct did not amount to gross negligence. Accordingly, the court granted defendants summary disposition.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Plaintiffs now argue that the trial court erred in granting defendants summary disposition on the issue of gross negligence. We agree. [HN1] This Court reviews de novo a trial court’s ruling on a motion for summary disposition. Spiek v Dep’t of Transportation, 456 Mich. 331, 337; 572 N.W.2d 201 (1998).

[HN2] Under MCR 2.116(C)(7), a party may move for dismissal of a claim on the ground that a claim is barred because of a release. Neither party is required to file supportive material. Maiden v Rozwood, 461 Mich. 109, 119; 597 N.W.2d 817 (1999). Any documentation that is provided to the court, however, must be admissible evidence and must be considered by the court. MCR 2.116(G)(5). The plaintiff’s well-pleaded factual allegations, affidavits, or other admissible documentary evidence must be accepted as true and construed in the plaintiff’s favor, unless contradicted by documentation submitted by the movant. [*7] Maiden, supra at 119. [HN3] Under MCR 2.116(C)(10), a party may move for dismissal of a claim on the ground that there is no genuine issue with respect to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment or partial judgment as a matter of law. The motion tests the factual support for a claim, and when reviewing the motion, the court must consider all the documentary evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Id. at 119; see also MCR 2.116(G)(4).

III. ANALYSIS

As an initial matter, [HN4] plaintiffs’ testimony was admissible because it was based on their personal observations and perceptions. MRE 602. To the extent that plaintiffs’ testimony merely amounted to opinion, such testimony would nevertheless be admissible evidence. MRE 701. “MRE 701 allows opinion testimony by a lay witness as long as the opinion is rationally based on the perception of the witness and helpful to a clear understanding of his testimony or a fact in issue.” Sells v Monroe Co, 158 Mich. App. 637, 644-645;405 N.W.2d 387 (1987). “Once a witness’s opportunity to observe is demonstrated, [*8] the opinion is admissible in the discretion of the trial court, and the weight to be accorded the testimony is for the jury to decide.” Id. at 646-647. Moreover, laypersons are permitted to testify regarding speed. Mitchell v Steward Oldford & Sons, Inc, 163 Mich. App. 622, 629-630;415 N.W.2d 224 (1987). Therefore, [HN5] that plaintiffs lacked experience with horses merely goes to the weight of their testimony not to its admissibility.

The concept of gross negligence has developed in recent years, evolving from its common law roots. The common-law rule was originally invoked in Gibbard v Cursan, 225 Mich 311; 196 NW 398 (1923), to “circumvent the harsh rule of contributory negligence[,]” which at the time would have barred the plaintiff’s recovery. Jennings v Southwood, 446 Mich. 125, 129; 521 N.W.2d 230 (1994). The Gibbard definition was not crafted to be a higher degree of negligence; rather, it was simply “mere[] ordinary negligence of the defendant that followed from the negligence of the plaintiff.” Id. at 130. In actuality it was really just “the doctrine of last clear chance [*9] in disguise.” Id. at 132. Noting that such a construction was no longer viable after abandonment of the doctrine of contributory negligence in favor of pure comparative negligence and because it was not in keeping with the Legislature’s intent of limiting liability in certain contexts, the Jennings Court renounced further application of the Gibbard gross negligence definition. Id. at 132, 135

[HN6] Presented with the potentially arduous task of constructing a new definition of gross negligence in the context of the emergency medical services act (EMSA), MCL 333.20901 et seq., 1 the Jennings Court simply borrowed language from the government tort liability act (GTLA), MCL 691.1401 et seq. Jennings, supra at 135-136. The Court reasoned that the short cut was permissible given that the two statutory schemes shared the same purpose of insulating certain employees from liability for ordinary negligence. Id. at 136-137. Thus, the Court stated that in the context of the EMSA, gross negligence should be defined as “conduct so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury results.” Id. at 136; [*10] see MCL 691.1407(7)(a).

1 MCL 333.20965(1) states:

Unless an act or omission is the result of gross negligence . . ., the acts or omissions of a medical first responder, emergency medical technician, [etc.,] . . . do not impose liability in the treatment of a patient on those individuals or any of the following persons. . . .

Subsequently, the definition has been employed in other Michigan statutes limiting liability for ordinary negligence while still allowing liability for gross negligence. Xu v Gay, 257 Mich App 263, 269; 668 N.W.2d 166 (2003). [HN7] The GTLA definition of gross negligence adopted in Jennings, arises in statutory contexts where there is a public policy rationale for limiting certain parties’ liability while still affording the public recourse when the parties’ conduct rises to the level of recklessness described in the definition. See id. (citing various examples of statutes using the same definition [*11] of gross negligence). Noting that a contractual waiver of liability can similarly serve to insulate against ordinary negligence but not gross negligence, this Court expanded the scope of application of the Jennings/GTLA gross negligence definition, likewise adopting the definition to address a claim of gross negligence where the decedent signed a waiver purporting to release a privately-owned fitness center from liability. Id. The Xu Court concluded that summary disposition for the defendant was proper where, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, reasonable minds could not differ that the defendant’s mere ignorance of industry safety standards did not constitute conduct so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury resulted to the decedent. Id. at 270-271. [HN8] “Evidence of ordinary negligence does not create a question of fact regarding gross negligence.” Id. at 271.

Here, plaintiffs executed a release and indemnification waiver, in accordance with § 6 of the EALA. MCL 691.1666. By signing the release, plaintiffs agreed that because plaintiffs were participants in an equine [*12] activity defendants were not liable for plaintiffs’ injury or death resulting from an inherent risk of the equine activity. MCL 691.1666(3); MCL 691.1663. “Inherent risk of an equine activity” is defined by the EALA as:

[HN9] a danger or condition that is an integral part of an equine activity, including, but not limited to, any of the following:

(i) An equine’s propensity to behave in ways that may result in injury, harm, or death to a person on or around it.

(ii) The unpredictability of an equine’s reaction to things such as sounds, sudden movement, and people, other animals, or unfamiliar objects.

(iii) A hazard such as a surface or subsurface condition.

(iv) Colliding with another equine or object. [MCL 691.1662(f).]

However, [HN10] the EALA provides exceptions to this general immunity for certain acts, including negligence on the part of the equine professional. 2 Thus, solely applying the EALA, plaintiffs’ claims of negligence and, by implication, gross negligence, would not be barred.

2 MCL 691.1665 states:

[HN11] Section 3 does not prevent or limit the liability of an equine activity sponsor, equine professional, or another person if the equine activity sponsor, equine professional, or other person does any of the following:

(a) Provides equipment or tack and knows or should know that the equipment or tack is faulty, and the equipment or tack is faulty to the extent that it is a proximate cause of the injury, death, or damage.

(b) Provides an equine and fails to make reasonable and prudent efforts to determine the ability of the participant to engage safely in the equine activity and to determine the ability of the participant to safely manage the particular equine. A person shall not rely upon a participant’s representations of his or her ability unless these representations are supported by reasonably sufficient detail.

(c) Owns, leases, rents, has authorized use of, or otherwise is in lawful possession and control of land or facilities on which the participant sustained injury because of a dangerous latent condition of the land or facilities that is known to the equine activity sponsor, equine professional, or other person and for which warning signs are not conspicuously posted.

(d) Commits a negligent act or omission that constitutes a proximate cause of the injury, death, or damage.

[*13] However, the release that plaintiffs signed specifically relieved defendants of liability for negligence, and they were bound to the terms as agreed. Thus, in the face of a contractual waiver of liability insulating defendants against ordinary negligence, the trial court properly focused on whether defendants’ conduct constituted gross negligence. See Xu, supra at 269. Accordingly, following the precedent set by Xu, in addressing this claim of gross negligence, we consider “whether reasonable minds could differ regarding whether defendants’ conduct was so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury resulted.” Xu, supra at 269. Accord Jennings, supra at 130.

[HN12] “Generally, once a standard of conduct is established, the reasonableness of an actor’s conduct under the standard is a question for the factfinder, not the court.” Tallman v Markstrom, 180 Mich. App. 141, 144; 446 N.W.2d 618 (1989). “However, if, on the basis of the evidence presented, reasonable minds could not differ, then the motion for summary disposition should be granted.” Vermilya v Dunham, 195 Mich. App. 79, 83; [*14] 489 N.W.2d 496 (1992). . . . These established precedents form the boundaries of our review. Accordingly, our task is to review the facts, in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and determine the appropriateness of summary disposition in favor of the defendant. [Jackson v Saginaw Co, 458 Mich. 141, 146-147; 580 N.W.2d 870 (1998).]

Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to plaintiffs, it should be accepted as true that after asking the trail ride participants if they wanted to speed up a little bit, Ridge then bolted into a high-speed run – or at the very least, a ride that was too fast given plaintiffs’ lack of experience. While the trial court concluded that Ridge’s conduct “would not be gross negligence even if it were a high speed run,” we disagree. We conclude that viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to plaintiffs, reasonable minds could differ regarding whether her conduct of taking a totally inexperienced rider on a fast ride was so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury resulted.

In his dissent, our colleague Judge Murray emphasizes that the trail guide [*15] placed plaintiff (1) on a safe horse; (2) tightened the saddle; (3) provided safety instructions; (4) started slowly; and (5) sped up only after all riders including plaintiff agreed. We agree that the first four points referenced above appear reasonable. However, in our collective opinion, our point of departure from our esteemed colleague’s dissenting opinion is the trail guide’s decision to speed up the pace when plaintiff had never ridden a horse before. For a first time rider, yelling “Whoa Nellie” or in this instance, “Whoa Tye” hoping to slow the horse down or to obtain the trail guide’s attention for help could be difficult. Here, reasonable minds could indeed differ as to whether the conduct of the trail guide rose to the level of recklessness required to establish gross negligence. The question of whether the trail guide in this case demonstrated a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury resulted is a question of fact upon which reasonable minds could differ. Therefore, it is appropriate for a jury to make this determination.

By participating in the horseback ride, plaintiffs agreed to undertake the inherent risk of an equine activity. But, absent some unexpected [*16] event, Ridge was in control of the horses’ speed, as the guide riding the lead horse. And Bret’s horse “bolted” not because it was scared, which would clearly be an inherent risk of an equine activity, but because it was following Ridge’s lead. It cannot be disputed that she made the conscious decision to “speed things up a little bit,” knowing that Bret lacked the requisite experience to control the animal on which he rode. It would seem that it was indisputably an important part of Ridge’s job to look after the safety of those placed in her care. And asking an inexperienced horseback rider whether he objected to such a ride cannot insulate her conduct.

[HN13] Horseback riding, an activity in which people are exposed to all the inherent risks of dealing with an animal’s individual propensities and unpredictable nature, is a dangerous activity in and of itself. See MCL 691.1662(f). A reasonable person could conclude that Ridge’s conduct of taking plaintiffs on a fast ride given their known lack of experience unreasonably added to the risks of the already dangerous activity and was thus so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an [*17] injury resulted. Therefore, summary disposition in this case was not appropriate.

Reversed and remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. We do not retain jurisdiction.

/s/ Patrick M. Meter

/s/ Bill Schuette

DISSENT BY: MURRAY

DISSENT

MURRAY, J. (dissenting).

With great respect to my esteemed colleagues, I dissent from their decision to reverse the trial court’s grant of defendants’ motion for summary disposition.

As the majority correctly observes, in reviewing the propriety of granting defendants’ motion under MCR 2.116(C)(10), we, like the trial court, must view the admissible evidence in a light most favorable to plaintiffs, the non-moving parties. MCR 2.116(G)(4); Maiden v Rozwood,461 Mich. 109, 119; 597 N.W.2d 817 (1999). With the material facts viewed in that manner, we must then determine whether reasonable minds could differ as to whether the conduct at issue was so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury would result. Xu v Gay, 257 Mich. App. 263, 270-271; 668 N.W.2d 166 (2003).

Where I depart from [*18] my colleagues is my conclusion that this evidence, under this standard, does not arise to the recklessness required to establish gross negligence. The material facts, viewed in a light most favorable to plaintiffs, established that the following events occurred at Ranch Rudolph:

1. Plaintiff Bret Hawkins (hereafter “plaintiff”), signed the waiver of liability, and informed the trail guide that he had never ridden a horse;

2. In response, the trail guide put plaintiff on the most cautious horse available, one usually utilized with children;

3. Once atop the horse, plaintiff informed the trail guide that his saddle was loose. The trail guide responded by attempting to tighten the saddle;

4. Before commencing the ride, the trail guide visually and orally instructed all the participants as to how to properly ride and handle the horse;

5. Once the trail ride commenced, the guide and all riders proceeded “extremely slow”;

6. Eventually, the trail guide asked the riders if they wanted to “go a little faster,” to which the group responded “yes”;

7. Before picking up the pace, the trail guide told the riders that they should yell if anyone wanted to [*19] slow down;

8. The trail guide, and all other horses, started on a “high speed run,” and less than a minute later, plaintiff was injured.

These material facts, taken from plaintiffs’ affidavits, answers to interrogatories and photos, do not establish that the trail guide acted so recklessly that she exhibited a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury would result. Rather, the evidence shows that, in response to plaintiff’s concerns, she (1) placed him on the safest possible horse; (2) attempted to further tighten the saddle; (3) instructed the riders on safety and riding procedures; (4) started the ride off “extremely slow;” and (5) sped up only after the riders – including plaintiffs – agreed to do so. Hence, the act at issue 1 was the trail guide’s decision to go too fast for plaintiff to handle, but not all the others, including his wife, who last rode a horse at age eleven. This misjudgment may have been a negligent one, but it did not reveal a recklessness with regard to plaintiff’s safety. Maiden, supra at 122-123(ordinary negligence does not amount to gross negligence). All the evidence of precautions taken, in fact, precludes reasonable [*20] jurors from so concluding. See, e.g., Lindberg v Livonia Public Schools, 219 Mich. App. 364, 368-369; 556 N.W.2d 509 (1996). 2

1 Plaintiff also complains about the trail guide’s inability to properly tighten the saddle. However, in my view, this is no more than an allegation of negligence, because there is no dispute that the trail guide attempted to tighten the saddle, but at best was unsuccessful in doing so.

2 As the trial court correctly observed, there seems to be a varying degree of decisions under this standard of liability. In my view, this results not from any inconsistency in determining the standard itself, but instead arises from the natural difference resulting from each judge’s own objective determination of whether the evidence meets that standard. Because judges do not always agree on the legal impact of the same undisputed set of facts, our decisions will at times necessarily result in different opinions.

I would affirm the trial court’s order.

/s/ [*21] Christopher M. Murray


Hawaii attempts to limit liability increases the amount of money every injured party will recover. Legislation to limit liability lost recreation business the opportunity to use a release

Hawaii attempts to limit liability increases the amount of money every injured party will recover. Legislation to limit liability lost recreation business the opportunity to use a release

Wheelock vs. Sport Kites, 839 F. Supp. 730 (9th Cir. 1993); and,

King v. CJM Country Stables, 315 F. Supp. 2d 1061; 2004 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 7511

Hawaii Revised Statutes, Section 663-1.54

Badly written statute which was already full of holes was turned absolutely worthless by Hawaiian Federal District Court Decision. You cannot give up the best defense you have when you try and gain more defenses.

In Wheelock vs. Sport Kites

Plaintiff: Mary Rose Wheelock, individually, as Administratrix of the Estate of David William Wheelock, as Guardian Ad Litem for Maggie Wheelock and David William Wheelock, minors

Defendant: Sport Kites, Inc., a foreign corporation, dba Wills Wing, Rob Kells, an individual, Kualoa Ranch, Inc., a Hawaii corporation, and Sport Aviation Hawaii, Inc., a Hawaii corporation

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence, Gross Negligence and Product Liability

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: Holding for the Defendant on the Negligence claim and for the Plaintiff on the Gross Negligence and Product Liability claims.

In King v. CJM Country Stables

Plaintiff: John King and Patricia King

Defendant: CJM Country Stables

Plaintiff’s Claims: Negligence, Negligence Per Se, Strict Liability, Intentional, Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress Loss of Consortium, Punitive Damages, Respondeat Superior

Defendant Defenses: release and the Hawaiian Recreational Activity Liability Statute

Holding: For the Plaintiff

Tourists are the life blood of the outdoor recreation industry. No place does that ring any truer than Hawaii. Without tourists who are there for a vacation or as a stop on a cruise ship, Hawaii’s economy would grind to a stop.

In an effort to limit liability for outdoor recreation activities, the recreation providers passed a law attempting to reduce or prevent lawsuits for injuries tourists received recreating.  However, this Hawaiian law backfired by eliminating the use of releases a defense against a claim in the statute.

To set the stage for Hawaii’s move towards recreation legislation, it is important to acknowledge the development of Hawaiian common law.  The landmark case, Wheelock vs. Sport Kites, 839 F. Supp. 730 (9th Cir. 1993), was the first time the Hawaiian courts dealt with whether an express release of liability bars all claims of negligence.  Wheelock plunged to his death while paragliding when all the lines connecting the canopy to his harness broke.  Wheelock’s wife sued, even though her husband signed a waiver releasing Sport Kites.  The court upheld the release for negligence, declaring that Wheelock assumed the risk of paragliding.

The court did not allow the release to bar claims for gross negligence and the product liability claim.

Despite the Wheelock decision, the statewide Activity Owners Association of Hawaii believed litigation over recreation accidents needed to be reduced. The belief was it would lower insurance premiums and promote business growth. (See Ammie Roseman-Orr, Recreational Activity Liability in Hawai’i: Are Waiver Worth the Paper on Which They Are Written?, 21 U. Haw. L. Rev. 715.) Without a law, every accident had the opportunity to test the waters of the legal system in hopes of a reward.  The Recreational Activity Liability Statute was enacted in 1997 to reduce recreation accident litigation’

§ 663-1.54.  Recreational activity liability.

(a) Any person who owns or operates a business providing recreational activities to the public, such as, without limitation, scuba or skin diving, sky diving, bicycle tours, and mountain climbing, shall exercise reasonable care to ensure the safety of patrons and the public, and shall be liable for damages resulting from negligent acts or omissions of the person which cause injury.

(b) Notwithstanding subsection (a), owners and operators of recreational activities shall not be liable for damages for injuries to a patron resulting from inherent risks associated with the recreational activity if the patron participating in the recreational activity voluntarily signs a written release waiving the owner or operator’s liability for damages for injuries resulting from the inherent risks. No waiver shall be valid unless:

(1) The owner or operator first provides full disclosure of the inherent risks associated with the recreational activity; and

(2) The owner or operator takes reasonable steps to ensure that each patron is physically able to participate in the activity and is given the necessary instruction to participate in the activity safely.

(c) The determination of whether a risk is inherent or not is for the trier of fact. As used in this section an “inherent risk”:

(1) Is a danger that a reasonable person would understand to be associated with the activity by the very nature of the activity engaged in;

(2) Is a danger that a reasonable person would understand to exist despite the owner or operator’s exercise of reasonable care to eliminate or minimize the danger, and is generally beyond the control of the owner or operator; and

(3) Does not result from the negligence, gross negligence, or wanton act or omission of the owner or operator.

This statute superseded the common law, which developed through Wheelock and the cases preceding it.

The first case to review the statute was King v. CJM Country Stables, 315 F. Supp. 2d 1061; 2004 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 7511. In this case, the plaintiff was on a seven-day cruise that left Vancouver and went to Hawaii. While in Hawaii, the plaintiff booked a horseback ride through the cruise, with the defendant stable. While riding, the plaintiff was bit by another rider’s horse. She sued.

The court immediately reviewed the above Hawaiian Recreational Activity Liability Statute. Reading the statute the court concluded:

…these sections provide that a trier of fact must determine if injuries were caused by the “inherent risks” of a recreational activity. And if the trier of fact finds that the injuries were “caused solely by the inherent risk and unpredictable nature” of a horse, then there is a rebuttable presumption that the defendant’s negligence did not cause the injuries.

The court looked at the language of the release which states the trier of fact must determine if the injuries were caused by the activity, or in this case, the horse. The court found that under the statute, the court could not support the defendant’s motion for summary judgment because the statute “…explicitly precludes waiving liability for negligence.”

Since there was a genuine issue of material fact, meaning there were facts important to the case that had two different versions or interpretations (duh!) then the jury had to decide the case no matter what. The statute placed a burden on the plaintiff that was greater than the normal burden of proof, however the decision placed a greater burden on defendants in the increased cost of litigating cases.

…whether Defendant was negligent; and the Release Form’s validity as a waiver of liability, which depends on whether the horse-biting incident was an “inherent risk” of the recreational activity that Defendant provided to Plaintiffs. Defendant cannot satisfy its burden and thus, is not entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

So?

The statute left an enormous hole that will allow every injured party to recover something. The statute states that an “inherent risk” must be determined by the trier of fact, and that negligence cannot be an inherent risk. Consequently, the statute is worthless.

It gets worse. Under the previous common law, the judge could determine the inherent risk and grant summary judgment. In the case of Wheelock, the judge determined that, as a matter of law, equipment failure is an obvious risk of paragliding and set this as a precedent for future paragliding cases.  The recreation statute, on the contrary, declares that the trier of fact must determine the inherent risks of the activity. The trier of fact is the jury. Therefore, every claim will go to trial. That increases the cost and increases the chance that a settlement will occur to reduce the cost of litigation.

Summary judgment cannot be granted because a jury trial must be held to determine if the risk is inherent.  The cost of litigating jury trials will be substantially higher than the cost of a motion for summary judgment.  A precedent cannot be set because it is determined, as a matter of fact, so the inherent risks must be determined in every case.

Even cases with identical inherent risks and injuries must be brought before a trier of fact, with the possibility for differing results.  Second, the statute explicitly states that providers will be liable for negligence.  Wheelock previously determined negligence could be an inherent risk that customers assumed when they signed the waiver for, thereby releasing the provider from liability.  The statute no longer allowed the customer to assume the risk of negligence, making the statute a major step backward for activity providers.

So Now What?

Although a good effort by the Activity Owners Association of Hawaiian, they probably wrote the legislation without help from attorneys or those knowledgeable in how the statute would be applied (someone who had been in a courtroom with a suit and briefcase).

The statute is great in its intent; the actual way it was written makes the statute the best thing that could happen for any injured person in Hawaii. No matter what, this statute is going to allow the plaintiff to recover because the cost of fighting every claim through trial is at least $50,000 or more. Consequently, it will always be cheaper to settle than to sue.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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King v. CJM Country Stables, 315 F. Supp. 2d 1061; 2004 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 7511

King v. CJM Country Stables, 315 F. Supp. 2d 1061; 2004 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 7511

John King and Patricia King, Plaintiffs, vs. CJM Country Stables, Defendant.

Civ. No. 03-00240 ACK/BMK

United States District Court for the District of Hawaii

315 F. Supp. 2d 1061; 2004 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 7511

February 18, 2004, Decided

February 18, 2004, Filed

DISPOSITION: [**1] Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment denied.

COUNSEL: For JOHN KING, PATRICIA KING, plaintiffs: David C. Schutter, Christopher A. Dias, Schutter Dias Smith & Wong, Honolulu, HI.

For CJM COUNTRY STABLES, INC., defendant: Gale L.F. Ching, Mitzi A. Lee, Jane Kwan, Hisaka Stone Goto Yoshida Cosgrove & Ching, Honolulu, HI.

JUDGES: Alan C Kay, United States District Judge.

OPINION BY: Alan C Kay

OPINION:

[*1062] ORDER DENYING DEFENDANT’S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

BACKGROUND

This matter comes before the Court on Defendant CJM Country Stables’ (“CJM” or “Defendant”) Motion for Summary Judgment. The Motion for Summary Judgment argues that Patricia and John King (collectively, “Plaintiffs”) signed a valid waiver that releases CJM from liability for the injuries Plaintiffs allegedly suffered when they participated in a recreational horseback riding activity provided by the Defendant.

I. Factual History.

On September 16, 2001, Plaintiffs began an 11-night Royal Caribbean cruise sailing from Vancouver to and around the Hawaiian islands. On September 26, 2001, the cruise ship docked in Nawiliwili, on the Island of Kauai. That day, Plaintiffs participated in an organized horseback ride that [**2] they arranged through the shore excursion desk on board their ship.

Upon arriving at the stables, the horseback riding participants were asked to read and sign a form entitled “Participant Agreement, Release, and Acknowledgement of Risk,” (hereinafter the “Release Form”). Both Plaintiffs signed this Release Form. (Motion for Summary Judgment, Exs. A, D). The Release Form provides, in relevant part, that “in consideration of the services of CJM Country Stables, Inc.” the signatory agrees “to release and discharge C.J.M., on behalf of [himself or herself] … as follows:

1. I acknowledge that horseback trailrides entails known and unanticipated risks which could result in physical or emotional injury, … to myself … I understand that such risks simply cannot [*1063] be eliminated without jeopardizing the essential qualities of the activity. The risks include, among other things: … horses, irrespective of their previous behavior and characteristics, may act or react unpredictably based upon instinct, fright, or lack of proper control by rider; latent or apparent defects or conditions in … animals …; acts of other participants in this activity;… contact with plants or animals; [**3] … Furthermore, C.J.M. guides have difficult jobs to perform. They seek safety, but they are not infallible … They may give inadequate warnings or instructions, and the equipment being used might malfunction.

2. I expressly agree and promise to accept and assume all of the risks existing in this activity. My participation in this activity is purely voluntary, and I elect to participate in spite of the risks.

3. I hereby voluntarily release … and hold harmless C.J.M. from any and all claims, demands, or causes of action which are in any way connected with my participation in this activity … including any such Claims which allege negligent acts or omissions of C.J.M … I have had sufficient opportunity to read this entire document, I have read and understood it, and I agree to be bound by its terms.”

Motion for Summary Judgment, Exs. A, D.

After signing the Release Forms, each of the riders was assigned a horse and proceeded on the trail ride. The parties agree that at some point during the ride Mrs. King was bitten by another rider’s horse. Plaintiffs allege that as a result of this incident they have suffered severe and permanent bodily injuries, pain [**4] and suffering, past and future medical expenses, lost wages, and other special and general damages. Plaintiffs claim that Defendant’s negligence was the proximate cause of these damages. Defendant argues that the signed Release Forms validly waive its liability for the Plaintiffs’ alleged injuries.

II. Procedural History.

Plaintiffs filed their Complaint in state court on February 27, 2003 and it was removed to this Court on May 14, 2003. The Complaint sets forth claims of:

I. Negligence; II. Negligence Per Se; III. Strict Liability; IV. Intentional and Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress; V. Loss of Consortium; VI. Punitive Damages; and VII. Respondeat Superior.

On January 14, 2004, CJM filed this Motion for Summary Judgment. The Motion for Summary Judgment argues that Defendant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law because the Plaintiffs signed a valid waiver of liability. Plaintiffs filed their Opposition to the Motion for Summary Judgment on January 30, 2004.

The Opposition argues that the Motion for Summary Judgment should be denied because the Release Form is unenforceable as a waiver and in any event, does not include negligence claims. If the Court [**5] is inclined to grant Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment, Plaintiff alternatively requests that the Court order a continuance of the motion pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Rule 56(f). n1 Defendant filed its Reply on February 5, 2004. The Reply argues that negligence is explicitly covered by the waiver. The Reply does not address Plaintiff’s alternative request for a Rule 56(f) continuance.

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

n1 The Court need not address this alternative request because it is denying Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment.

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STANDARD

The purpose of summary judgment is to identify and dispose of factually unsupported [*1064] claims and defenses. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265, 106 S. Ct. 2548 (1986). Summary judgment is therefore appropriate when the “pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the moving [**6] party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” n2 Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c).

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

n2 Affidavits made on personal knowledge and setting forth facts as would be admissible at trial are evidence. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e). Legal memoranda and oral argument are not evidence and do not create issues of fact. See British Airways Bd. v. Boeing Co., 585 F.2d 946, 952 (9th Cir. 1978).

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“A fact is ‘material’ when, under the governing substantive law, it could affect the outcome of the case. A genuine issue of material fact arises if ‘the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.’” n3 Thrifty Oil Co. v. Bank of America Nat’l Trust & Sav. Ass’n, 310 F.3d 1188, 1194 (9th Cir. 2002) (quoting Union Sch. Dist. v. Smith, 15 F.3d 1519, 1523 (9th Cir. 1994)) (internal citations omitted). Conversely, where the evidence “could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party, there is no [**7] ‘genuine issue for trial.’” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587, 89 L. Ed. 2d 538, 106 S. Ct. 1348 (1986) (quoting First Nat’l Bank of Ariz. v. Cities Serv. Co., 391 U.S. 253, 289, 20 L. Ed. 2d 569, 88 S. Ct. 1575 (1968)).

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

n3 Disputes as to immaterial issues of fact do “not preclude summary judgment.” Lynn v. Sheet Metal Workers’ Int’l Ass’n, 804 F.2d 1472, 1478 (9th Cir. 1986).

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

The moving party has the burden of persuading the Court as to the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. The moving party may do so with affirmative evidence or by “’showing’—that is pointing out to the district court—that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party’s case.” Id. at 325. All evidence and reasonable inferences drawn therefrom are considered in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. See, e.g., T.W. Elec. Serv. v. Pacific Elec. Contractors Ass’n, 809 F.2d 626,

630-31 (9th Cir. 1987). [**8] So, too, the Court’s role is not to make credibility assessments. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202, 106 S. Ct. 2505 (1986). Accordingly, if “reasonable minds could differ as to the import of the evidence,” summary judgment will be denied. Id. at 250-51.

Once the moving party satisfies its burden, however, the nonmoving party cannot simply rest on the pleadings or argue that any disagreement or “metaphysical doubt” about a material issue of fact precludes summary judgment. See Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-23, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265; Matsushita Elec., 475 U.S. at 586; California Arch. Bldg. Prods., Inc. v. Franciscan Ceramics, Inc., 818 F.2d 1466, 1468 (9th Cir. 1987). Nor will uncorroborated allegations and “self-serving testimony” create a genuine issue of material fact. Villiarmo v. Aloha Island Air, Inc., 281 F.3d 1054, 1061 (9th Cir. 2002); see also T.W. Elec. Serv., 809 F.2d at 630. The nonmoving party must instead set forth “significant probative evidence tending to support the complaint.” T.W. Elec. Serv., 809 F.2d at 630. Summary judgment [**9] will thus be granted against a party who fails to demonstrate facts’ sufficient to establish an element essential to his case when that party will ultimately bear the burden of proof at proof at trial. See Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322.

[*1065] DISCUSSION

At issue in this Motion for Summary Judgment is whether the Release Form signed by Plaintiffs waives Defendant’s liability for the Plaintiffs’ alleged horseback riding injuries. Plaintiffs assert that the Release Form is unenforceable as a waiver and regardless, does not waive Defendant’s liability for its own negligent conduct allegedly contributing to their injuries.

Defendant claims that the Release Form constitutes a valid waiver of liability for Plaintiffs’ alleged injuries because the form clearly lists the risks associated with horseback riding and the horse-biting incident at issue constitutes one of these risks. Defendant also argues that the waiver explicitly waives liability for negligence.

As movant, Defendant has the burden of establishing that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law by showing that there are no genuine issues of material fact as to whether the Release Form validly waives its liability [**10] for the Plaintiffs’ alleged injuries.

I. Hawaii Revised Statutes, Section 663-1.54.

Although neither party cites or discusses it, the Court finds that Hawaii Revised Statutes, Section 663-1.54, addressing “Recreational activity liability, “ applies to this case. Section 663-1.54 provides:

(a) Any person who owns or operates a business providing recreational activities to the public, such as, without limitation, scuba or skin diving, sky diving, bicycle tours, and mountain climbing, shall exercise reasonable care to ensure the safety of patrons and the public, and shall be liable for damages resulting from negligent acts or omissions of the person which cause injury.

(b) Notwithstanding subsection (a), owners and operators of recreational activities shall not be liable for damages for injuries to a patron resulting from inherent risks associated with the recreational activity if the patron participating in the recreational activity voluntarily signs a written release waiving the owner or operator’s liability for damages for injuries resulting from the inherent risks. No waiver shall be valid [**11] unless:

(1) The owner or operator first provides full disclosure of the inherent risks associated with the recreational activity; and

(2) The owner or operator takes reasonable steps to ensure that each patron is physically able to participate in the activity and is given the necessary instruction to participate in the activity safely.

(c) The determination of whether a risk is inherent or not is for the

trier of fact. As used in this section an “inherent risk”:

(1) Is a danger that a reasonable person would understand to be associated with the activity by the very nature of the activity engaged in;

(2) Is a danger that a reasonable person would understand to exist despite the owner or operator’s exercise of reasonable care to eliminate or minimize the danger, and is generally beyond the control of the owner or operator; and

(3) Does not result from the negligence, gross negligence, or wanton act or omission of the owner or operator.

HRS § 663-1.54 (emphasis added).

A. Legislative History.

There is no Hawaii case law interpreting Section 663-1.54. The Standing Committee that drafted Section 663-1.54, described its [**12] purpose and function as follows:

“This measure is necessary to more clearly define the liability of providers of commercial recreational activities by statutorily validating inherent risk waivers signed by the participants. Your [*1066] Committee further finds that these inherent risk waivers … do not extend immunity to providers for damages resulting from negligence.”

Haw. Stand. Comm. Rep. No. 1537, in 1997 Senate Journal, at 1476. In substituting the provisions of Senate Bill 647 with those of House Bill number 581, which was codified into Section 663-1.54, the Standing Committee eliminated “the substantive provisions of S.B. No. 647, S.D.1, the Senate companion measure,” including a section “exempting the provisions of Chapter 663B, existing law regarding equine liability.” Id. n4 Thus, equine activities, such as the one at issue here, are covered by Section 663-1.54. n5

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

n4 Section 663B-2(a) provides: “In any civil action for injury … of a participant, there shall be a presumption that the injury … was not caused by the negligence of an equine activity sponsor … or their employees or agents, if the injury … was caused solely by the inherent risk and unpredictable nature of the equine. An injured person … may rebut the presumption of no negligence by a preponderance of the evidence.” HRS § 663B-2(a). [**13]

n5 Section 663-1.54, addressing recreational activity liability, and Section 663B, addressing equine activities, are not mutually exclusive. Read together, these sections provide that a trier of fact must determine if injuries were caused by the “inherent risks” of a recreational activity. And if the trier of fact finds that the injuries were “caused solely by the inherent risk and unpredictable nature” of a horse, then there is a rebuttable presumption that the defendant’s negligence did not cause the injuries. The injured plaintiff may then rebut the presumption of no negligence by a preponderance of the evidence.

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Subsection (c), providing that “the determination of whether a risk is inherent or not is for the trier of fact,” is pertinent to the resolution of this Motion for Summary Judgment. HRS § 663-1.54(c). Unfortunately, legislative materials specifically addressing this part of Section 663-1.54 are not helpful to this analysis as they consist of the following: “Now let me say that we have, and I supposed admirably, set out to define what inherent risks are in subsection (c), but whether [**14] this is sufficient is not clear.” Debate on Haw. Stand. Comm. Rep. No. 753, in 1997 House Journal, at 408 (statement of Rep. Pendleton).

It is clear that given the statute’s 1997 enactment and specific focus on exculpatory agreements made with those “who own[ ] or operate[ ] a business providing recreational activities to the public” that on the issue of written waivers, Section 663-1.54 supplants every single case on which the parties rely to make their substantive arguments. These cases, however, may be pertinent to other possibly relevant claims and defenses such as negligence and implied assumption of risk. Most of the cases cited were decided prior to the statute’s enactment n6 and those that [*1067] were decided after 1997 do not address the effect of waivers on recreational activity liability as in Section 663-1.54. n7 Moreover, most of these cases do not interpret Hawaii law. Likewise, Defendant’s citation to Section 663-10.95, addressing the liability of “motorsports facility “ owners and operators, is inapplicable to this case. Motion for Summary Judgment, at 13 (citing HRS § 663-10.95). Based on the foregoing, the Court will apply Section 663-1.54 in resolving Defendant’s Motion [**15] for Summary Judgment.

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n6 See Grbac v. Reading Fair Co., 688 F.2d 215 (3rd Cir. 1982); Wheelock v. Sport Kites, Inc., 839 F. Supp. 730 (D. Haw. 1993); Marshall v. Blue Springs Corp., 641 N.E.2d 92 (1994); Huber v. Hovey, 501 N.W.2d 53 (1993); Masciola v. Chicago Metropolitan Ski Council, 257 Ill. App. 3d 313, 628 N.E.2d 1067, 195 Ill. Dec. 603 (1993); Swierkosz v. Starved Rock Stables, 239 Ill. App. 3d 1017, 607 N.E.2d 280, 180 Ill. Dec. 386 (1993); Buchan v. U.S. Cycling Federation, Inc., 227 Cal. App. 3d 134, 277 Cal. Rptr. 887 (1991); Dobratz v. Thomson, 161 Wis. 2d 502, 468 N.W.2d 654 (1991); Guido v. Koopman, 1 Cal. App. 4th 837, 2 Cal. Rptr. 2d 437 (1991); Saenz v. Whitewater Voyages, Inc., 276 Cal. Rptr. 672, 226 Cal. App. 3d 758 (1990); Heil Valley Ranch, Inc. v. Simkin, 784 P.2d 781 (Colo. 1989); Harris v. Walker, 119 Ill. 2d 542, 519 N.E.2d 917, 116 Ill. Dec. 702 (1988); Kurashige v. Indian Dunes, Inc., 200 Cal. App. 3d 606, 246 Cal. Rptr. 310 (1988); Madison v. Superior Court, 203 Cal. App. 3d 589, 250 Cal.

Rptr. 299 (1988); Hulsey v. Elsinore Parachute Center, 168 Cal. App. 3d 333, 214 Cal. Rptr. 194 (1985); McAtee v. Newhall Land & Farming Co., 169 Cal. App. 3d 1031, 216 Cal. Rptr. 465 (1985); Krohnert v. Yacht Systems Hawaii, Inc., 4 Haw.

App. 190, 664 P.2d 738 (1983); Hewitt III v. Miller, 11 Wn. App. 72, 521 P.2d

244 (1974); Delta Air Lines, Inc. v. Douglas Aircraft Co., 238 Cal. App. 2d 95,

47 Cal. Rptr. 518 (1965); Lee v. Allied Sports Associates, Inc., 349 Mass. 544,

209 N.E.2d 329 (1965); Ciofalo v. Vic Tanney Gyms, Inc., 10 N.Y.2d 294, 177 N.E.2d 925, 220 N.Y.S.2d 962 (1961). [**16]

n7 Foronda v. Hawaii International Boxing Club, 96 Haw. 51, 25 P.3d 826 (2001) (holding that primary implied assumption of risk, evidenced by a signed waiver and plaintiff’s free participation in a boxing match, is a complete defense to claims of negligence where defendant’s conduct is an inherent risk of the sports activity); Fujimoto v. Au, 95 Haw. 116, 19 P.3d 699 (2001) (finding contract waiving general partners and landowners’ liability unenforceable where limited partners with unequal bargaining power sought to recover their investment in limited partnerships formed to develop real estate).

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

B. Application.

Under Section 663-1.54, the Court must deny Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment for two reasons. First, Defendant argues that the Release Form validly waives Plaintiffs’ negligence claims but Section 663-1.54(a) explicitly precludes waiving liability for negligence. Thus, paragraph three (3) of the Release Form is void as to negligence.

Secondly, Section 663-1.54(c)’s provision that the “determination of whether a risk is inherent or not is for the [**17] trier of fact” automatically creates a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the horse-biting incident was an inherent of the horseback riding activity in which Plaintiffs participated. This statutorily-imposed genuine issue of fact precludes summary judgment as a matter of law. The trier of fact will have to decide whether the Release Form constitutes a valid waiver of Defendant’s liability. n8

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

n8 The legislative history indicates that the statute’s proponents did not aim for this result. See Ammie I. Roseman-Orr, Comment, Recreational Activity Liability in Hawai’i: Are Waivers Worth The Paper On Which Thev Are Written?, 21. U. Haw. L. Rev. 715, 743-44 (1999) (“From the legislative testimony, it is apparent that the industry did not intend, nor was it aware, that this new law might eliminate summary judgment determinations of whether waivers are valid … Hawai’i’s new recreational activity liability statute, championed by the activity providers to protect the industry has instead eroded the common law protection it otherwise enjoyed.”).

– – – – – – – – – – – – End Footnotes- – – – – – – – – – – – – – [**18]

The Court finds that there are genuine issues of material fact as to: [1] whether Defendant was negligent; and [2] the Release Form’s validity as a waiver of liability, which depends on whether the horse-biting incident was an “inherent risk” of the recreational activity that Defendant provided to Plaintiffs. Defendant cannot satisfy its burden and thus, is not entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

CONCLUSION

The Court holds that there are genuine issues of material fact as to Defendant’s negligence and as to whether the Release Form constitutes a valid waiver of Defendant’s liability and accordingly DENIES Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment.

IT IS SO ORDERED.

DATED: Honolulu, Hawii, 18 FEB 2004

Alan C Kay

United States District Judge

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Wheelock v. Sport Kites, Inc, 839 F. Supp. 730; 1993 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 17050

Wheelock v. Sport Kites, Inc, 839 F. Supp. 730; 1993 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 17050

Mary Rose Wheelock, individually, as Administratrix of the Estate of David William Wheelock, as Guardian Ad Litem for Maggie Wheelock and David William Wheelock, minors, Plaintiff, v. Sport Kites, Inc., a foreign corporation, dba Wills Wing, Rob Kells, an individual, Kualoa Ranch, Inc., a Hawaii corporation, and Sport Aviation Hawaii, Inc., a Hawaii corporation, Defendants.

Civ. No. 92-00768 HMF

United States District Court for the District of Hawaii

839 F. Supp. 730; 1993 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 17050

December 1, 1993, Decided

December 1, 1993, Filed

Counsel: [**1] For Mary Rose Wheelock, individually gal, Maggie Wheelock, minor gal, David William Wheelock, minor, plaintiff: Jeffrey R. Buchli, Carroll Smith & Buchli, Honolulu, HI. John S. Carroll, Carroll Smith & Buchli, Honolulu, HI.

For Sport Kites, Inc., a foreign corporation dba Wills Wing, Rob Kells, an individual, defendants: Leighton K. Oshima, Patrick I. Wong, Wong Oshima & Kondo, Honolulu, HI. For Kualoa Ranch, Inc., a Hawaii corporation, defendant:

Sidney K. Ayabe, a, Rodney S. Nishida, Libkuman Ventura Ayabe Chong & Nishimoto, Honolulu, HI. For Sport Aviation Hawaii, Inc., a Hawaii corporation, defendant:

Randolph R. Slaton, Law Offices of Randolph R. Slaton, Honolulu, HI.

For Kualoa Ranch, Inc., cross-claimant: Sidney K. Ayabe, a, Libkuman Ventura Ayabe Chong & Nishimoto, Honolulu, HI.

For Sport Kites, Inc. dba Wills Wing, ROB KELLS, cross-defendants: Leighton K.

Oshima, Patrick I. Wong, Wong Oshima & Kondo, Honolulu, HI.

For Sport Aviation Hawaii, Inc., cross-claimant: Randolph R. Slaton, Law Offices of Randolph R. Slaton, Honolulu, HI.

For Sport Kites, Inc. dba Wills Wing, ROB KELLS, cross-defendants: Leighton K.

Oshima, Patrick I. Wong, Wong Oshima & Kondo, Honolulu, [**2] HI.

Judges: Fong

Opinion by: Harold M. Fong

Opinion:

[*733] Order Granting Plaintiff’s Motion To Dismiss Non-Diverse Parties And Denying Defendants’ Motion To Dismiss For Lack Of Diversity Jurisdiction; Order Granting In Part And Denying In Part Defendants’ Motion For Summary Judgment

Introduction

This is a wrongful death action. On November 1, 1993, the court heard arguments on three motions: (1) defendant Kualoa Ranch, Inc.’s motion for summary judgment; (2) Kualoa Ranch’s motion to dismiss for lack of diversity jurisdiction; and (3) plaintiff’s motion to dismiss non-diverse parties to the complaint to preserve diversity jurisdiction.

Background

This action arises from the accidental death of David Wheelock (“David”). On July 14, 1991, David was paragliding at Kualoa Ranch. He was at a height of between 1,000 and 1,500 feet when the lines connecting him to the parachute-like canopy simultaneously broke, detaching him. He plunged to the earth and died.

Mary Rose Wheelock, David’s wife, brought this action n1 against Kualoa Ranch, owner of the premises where the activity occurred, Sport Aviation Hawaii, provider of the equipment, and Sport Kites, Inc., dba Wills Wing, and Rob Kells, an individual, manufacturers [**3] of the equipment.

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

n1 Mrs. Wheelock brought the action individually, as administratrix of her husband’s estate, and as guardian ad litem for their children.

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

Kualoa Ranch filed a motion to dismiss plaintiff’s complaint for lack of diversity jurisdiction. Plaintiff concedes that there is currently a lack of diversity: plaintiff is a citizen of California and defendant Sports Kites is a California corporation. On July 29, 1993, however, plaintiff reached a settlement agreement with Wills Wing and Rob Kells voluntarily dismissing all claims against them with prejudice. Plaintiff has thus filed a motion to dismiss Sport Kites, Inc., the sole non-diverse party to the complaint, to preserve diversity jurisdiction.

Kualoa Ranch has also filed a motion for summary judgment, joined by Sport Aviation Hawaii, on the grounds that plaintiff is barred from recovery because of an agreement and release of liability signed by David. On June 16, 1991, David signed the agreement as a precondition to use of the facilities and paragliding [**4] equipment. The agreement is a one-page, pre-printed, fill-in-the-blank form. Under its terms, David agreed to release and discharge Kualoa Ranch, Sport Ranch, and others from liability for injuries suffered while paragliding. n2

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

n2 The agreement, entitled an ‘Agreement and Release of Liability,” provides, in relevant part, that:

1. I hereby RELEASE AND DISCHARGE [defendants and others] . . . from any and all liability, claims, demands or causes of action that I may have for injuries and damages arising out of my participation in Ultralight activities, including but not limited to, losses CAUSED BY THE NEGLIGENCE OF THE RELEASED PARTIES.

2. I further agree that I WILL NOT SUE OR MAKE A CLAIM against the Released Parties for damages or other losses sustained as a result of my participation in Ultralight activities. I also agree to INDEMNIFY AND HOLD THE RELEASED PARTIES HARMLESS from all claims, judgments and costs, including attorney’s fees, incurred in connection with any action brought as a result of my participation in Ultralight activities.

3. I understand and acknowledge that Ultralight activities have inherent dangers that no amount of care, caution, instruction, or expertise can eliminate and I EXPRESSLY AND VOLUNTARILY ASSUME ALL RISK OF DEATH OR PERSONAL INJURY SUSTAINED WHILE PARTICIPATING IN ULTRALIGHT ACTIVITIES WHETHER OR NOT CAUSED BY THE NEGLIGENCE OF THE RELEASED PARTIES.

5. I hereby expressly recognize that this Agreement & Release of Liability is a contract pursuant to which I have released any and all claims against the Released Parties . . . .

I HAVE READ THIS AGREEMENT & RELEASE OF LIABILITY, FULLY UNDERSTAND

ITS CONTENTS AND MEANING, AND SIGN IT OF MY OWN FREE WILL.

David signed and dated it at the bottom, and initialed at nine pre-printed blank spaces, including one at each paragraph.

– – – – – – – – – – – – End Footnotes- – – – – – – – – – – – – – [**5]

DISCUSSION

I. KUALOA RANCH’S MOTION TO DISMISS COMPLAINT FOR LACK OF DIVERSITY JURISDICTION AND MARY ROSE WHEELOCK’S COUNTER-MOTION TO DISMISS NON-DIVERSE PARTIES.

The principal requirements of diversity jurisdiction are that the amount in controversy exceed $ 50,000 and that the parties be citizens of different states. 28 U.S.C. § 1332. There is no dispute as to the citizenship of the parties for purposes of diversity: plaintiff n3 and defendant Sport Kites, Inc. are citizens of California, and defendants Kualoa Ranch and Sport Aviation are citizens of Hawaii.

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

n3 The relevant citizenship of plaintiffs in a wrongful death action is that of the decedent. 28 U.S.C. § 1332(c)(2). It is undisputed that the domicile of David, the decedent, was in California.

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

The court will dismiss Sport Kites unless doing so will prejudice the remaining defendants. Rule 19 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which sets forth the rules for joinder [**6] of persons needed for a just adjudication, provides that in determining whether a party is indispensable, the court should consider “whether in equity and good conscience the action should proceed among the parties before it, or be dismissed.” A dispensable non-diverse party may be dismissed to perfect retroactively the district court’s original jurisdiction. Continental Airlines, Inc. v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 819 F.2d 1519, 1522-23 (9th Cir. 1987); Othman v. Globe Indem. Co., 759 F.2d 1458, 1463 (9th Cir. 1985); Inecon Agricorporation v. Tribal Farms, Inc., 656 F.2d 498, 500 (9th Cir. 1981). Refusal by the court to dismiss a dispensable, non-diverse party may constitute an abuse of discretion. Kerr v. Compagnie de Ultramar, 250 F.2d 860, 864 (2d Cir. 1958).

Defendants claim that they will be prejudiced because Sports Kites, Inc. designed and manufactured the allegedly defective paraglider, and unless they remain as defendants, they will not be part of the special verdict form submitted to the jury, pursuant to Hawaii Revised Statutes § 663-11 et seq., [**7] for determination of comparative fault. The court, however, may include a non-party on the special verdict form for apportionment of fault. See, e.g., In re Hawaii Federal Asbestos Cases, 960 F.2d 806 (9th Cir. 1992) (where the jury attributed a percentage of fault to non-parties). The statute does not require that fault be apportioned only among parties to the lawsuit.

Plaintiff has already settled with Rob Kells and Wills Wing, the parties destroying diversity, and will not be prejudiced by their dismissal. Defendants are not prejudiced because they may bring a third-party complaint against Sport Kites for indemnification, and their ability to defend plaintiff’s suit is unimpaired. The greatest source of potential prejudice is to plaintiff if the court dismisses for lack of diversity jurisdiction because the statute of limitations has expired on her claims.

II. KUALOA RANCH’S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT.

Plaintiff in a wrongful death action is subject to defenses which could be asserted against the decedent. See Saenz v. Whitewater Voyages, Inc., 226 Cal. App.3d 758, 763-64, 276 Cal. Rptr. 672 (Cal. App. 1990); [**8] Madison v. Superior Court, 203 Cal. App.3d 589, 250 Cal. Rptr. 299 (Cal. App. 1988).

Defendants thus raise the defense which they would have had against David—his agreement. The agreement provided, inter alia, that David agreed to release and discharge defendants Kualoa Ranch, Sport Aviation, and others from any liability, including “losses caused by the negligence of the released parties.”

The issue before the court on the motion for summary judgment is whether to give effect to the release of liability signed by David (and initialed at each paragraph).

A. David Wheelock Expressly Assumed the Risk of Death.

Defendants contend that signing the agreement constituted an assumption of risk by David. If the agreement is valid, they argue, it operates to relieve them of any legal [*735] duty to protect David from the injury-causing risk.

The agreement signed by David was a standardized, pre-printed form. It was an adhesion contract of the sort frequently offered to consumers of goods and services on a “take-it-or-leave-it” basis. In Leong v. Kaiser Found, Hospitals, 71 Haw. 240, 247-48, 788 P.2d 164 (1990), [**9] the Hawaii Supreme Court addressed the problem of such contracts:

An adhesion contract is a form contract created by the stronger of the contracting parties. It is offered on a “take this or nothing” basis. Consequently, the terms of the contract are imposed on the weaker party who has no choice but to conform. These terms unexpectedly or unconscionably limit the obligations of the drafting party. Because of these circumstances, some courts look past the wording of the contract and consider the entire transaction in order to effectuate the reasonable expectations of the parties. Ambiguities in the contract will be construed against the drafters and in plaintiff’s favor. (citing Robin v. Blue Cross Hosp. Serv., Inc., 637 S.W.2d 695, 697 (Mo. 1982).

While the agreement in the case at bar was an adhesion contract, it is not unconscionable. It is of a sort commonly used in recreational settings. See, e.g., Saenz v. Whitewater Voyages, Inc., 226 Cal. App.3d 758, 276 Cal. Rptr. 672 (Cal. App. 1990) (whitewater rafting); Westlye v. Look Sports, Inc., 17 Cal. App. 4th 1715, 22 Cal. Rptr.2d 781 (Cal. App. 1993) [**10] (skiing). Such agreements are generally held to be valid. Adhesion contracts are fully enforceable provided that they are not unconscionable and do not fall outside the reasonable expectations of the weaker or adhering party. See Graham v. Scissor-Tail, Inc., 28 Cal.3d 807, 820, 623 P.2d 165, 171 Cal. Rptr. 604, 612 (1981).

In Saenz, 226 Cal. App.3d at 758, the court barred recovery in a wrongful death action because plaintiff had signed a release expressly assuming the risk of the activity. Saenz had signed a “release and assumption of risk” agreement in order to participate in a three-day whitewater rafting trip on which he drowned. The court found that the release constituted an express assumption of risk and acted as a bar to a wrongful death action. Id. at 765.

Plaintiff argues that Saenz is distinguishable in the extent of the decedent Saenz’s knowledge of the assumed risk. He received extensive warning regarding the risk, extensive preparation, and several opportunities to avoid the particular rapids in which he drowned. [**11] n4 In contrast, David received some, less extensive explanation of the dangers of paragliding. n5 Although David did sign and initial the agreement providing that he assumed all risks, plaintiff argues that there is a question of fact as to David’s state of mind and the parties’ understanding.

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

n4 He was given several safety talks on emergency procedures, lessons, explanations of how to run the particular rapid, and a number of opportunities to opt out of riding the rapid in which he drowned. 276 Cal. Rptr. at 678.

n5 William Fulton, president of defendant Sport Aviation, avers that he warned David and informed him of the dangers of paragliding before he signed the release.

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

Plaintiff also argues that Saenz is distinguishable in terms of the nature of the risk assumed. The Saenz court referred to the risk of drowning in treacherous rapids as “inherent in whitewater rafting and apparent to anyone.” Id. at 766. According [**12] to plaintiff, while injury or death caused by treacherous winds, improper landings, or collision with an obstacle are “apparent” risks, the risk which befell David—the simultaneous breaking of all lines connecting him to the parachute—was not apparent. The Saenz court held that defendant’s assumption of all risks, known and unknown, made knowledge of the particular risk (death by drowning) unnecessary. Id. The court need not adopt so broad a holding. A risk must be a known risk for it to be properly assumed. Prosser & Keaton, Torts, § 68 at 480-81 (5th ed. 1984).

The court is satisfied that David knowingly assumed the risk at issue. The agreement provided that David “expressly [*736] and voluntarily assume[d] all risk of death or personal injury sustained while participating in ultralight activities whether or not caused by the negligence of the released parties.” (capitalization omitted). The risk which befell David was the risk of death.

David expressly assumed this risk. Plaintiff could characterize it in many different ways, but the fact is that David assumed the risk of death. Moreover, the apparent cause of David’s fall and subsequent death—equipment failure — [**13] is an obvious risk in paragliding and other “air” sports.

B. The Agreement Does Not Affect Plaintiff’s Gross Negligence and Strict Liability Claims.

1. Plaintiff’s Negligence Claims Are Barred.

David’s assumption of risk relieves defendants from any legal duty towards him, except insofar as the law nullifies such a waiver. Plaintiff is thus barred from bringing any negligence claims against defendants.

Hawaii courts permit a waiver of negligence claims. In Krohnert v. Yacht Systems Hawaii, Inc., 4 Haw. App. 190, 198, 664 P.2d 738 (Haw. App. 1983), the court declared that absent a public interest, “a party can contract to exempt himself for harm caused by his negligence.” (citing Restatement (Second) of Contracts and Williston on Contracts). Accord, Madison v. Superior Court, 203 Cal. App.3d 589, 599, 250 Cal. Rptr. 299, 305 (Cal. App. 1988). Although Hawaii courts have not specifically addressed the issue, courts in other jurisdictions have rejected the notion that the public interest is at stake in sport- or recreational-related waivers. See Saenz, supra. [**14] Plaintiff’s claims under negligence theories are effectively barred, and defendants are entitled to summary judgment vis-a-vis these claims.

2. Plaintiff’s Gross Negligence Claims Are Unaffected.

Plaintiff alleges gross negligence on defendant’s part in misrepresenting the safety of the paraglider. This is a distinct theory of liability from negligence. Negligence is the failure to use such care as a reasonably prudent and careful person would use under similar circumstances. Gross negligence, by contrast, is a failure to perform a manifest duty in reckless disregard of the consequences. “Gross negligence involves a risk substantially greater in amount than that which is necessary to make conduct negligent.” Bunting v. United States, 884 F.2d 1143, 1147 (9th Cir. 1989). The Restatement (Second) describes the difference between gross and ordinary negligence as follows: “[Gross negligence] differs from that form of negligence which consists of mere inadvertence, incompetence, unskillfulness, or a failure to take precautions to enable the actor to cope with a possible or probable future emergency.” Restatement (Second) of Torts § 500 cmt. g (1965). [**15]

Hawaii courts have not addressed the issue of whether a party can contract away liability for his own gross negligence. Because this is a diversity action, the court applies the substantive law of the forum state, Hawaii, and uses its best judgment in predicting how the Hawaii Supreme Court would decide this issue. See Takahashi v. Loomis Armored Car Serv., 625 F.2d 314, 316 (9th Cir. 1980). In Krohnert, 4 Haw. App. at 198, the court enunciated the principle that a party can only contract away liability for negligence in the absence of a public interest. The public interest is at stake when a party attempts to contract to exempt himself for harm caused by his gross negligence. See Stuart Rudnick, Inc. v. Jewelers Protection Servs., Ltd., 194 A.D.2d 317, 598 N.Y.S.2d 235, 236 (N.Y. App. Div. 1993); see also Saenz, 226 Cal. App.3d at 765 (“everything short of gross negligence is covered by the release . . . .”). The agreement in the instant case is therefore void against public policy to the extent that it attempts to relieve defendants of liability [**16] for their gross negligence. n6

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

n6 Alternatively, the court has grounds to find that the contract is ambiguous as to gross negligence. While the release and discharge agreement is a valid contract, it is an adhesion contract, and the court will interpret it accordingly. Adhesion contracts are construed liberally in favor of the adhering party and any ambiguities are resolved against the drafting party. See State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Fermahin, 73 Haw. 552, 556, 836 P.2d 1074 (1993) (interpreting an insurance contract) (citation omitted). The court applies this rule only if there is a true ambiguity, and not merely because the parties disagree over its interpretation. Id. at 556. “Ambiguity exists ‘only when the contract taken as a whole, is reasonably subject to differing interpretation. A court must respect the plain terms of the policy and not create ambiguity where none exists.’” Id. at 556-57 (citations omitted). The release agreement, however, addresses only negligence and not gross negligence. The court will construe this as not barring a claim in gross negligence.

– – – – – – – – – – – – End Footnotes- – – – – – – – – – – – – – [**17]

[*737] 3. Plaintiff’s Strict Liability Claims.

The remaining question is whether the waiver of plaintiff’s strict products liability claims is effective. This is also an issue of first impression in Hawaii. See Takahashi v. Loomis Armored Car Serv., 625 F.2d at 316.

In Madison, 203 Cal. App.3d at 596, the California court of appeals held that the waiver constituted a “complete defense” to any claims in plaintiff’s actions. Accord, Saenz, 226 Cal. App.3d at 763. Neither court addressed the issue of strict products liability claims. More recently, however, a California appellate court held that an agreement relieving a product supplier from strict products liability is void. In Westlye v. Look Sports, Inc., 17 Cal. App. 4th 1715, 22 Cal. Rptr.2d 781 (Cal. App. 1993), the court held that a release agreement did not bar plaintiff who suffered skiing injuries from suing under a strict products liability theory in tort:

there is a strong policy against allowing product suppliers to disclaim liability for injuries caused [**18] by defects in products they place on the market. To allow product suppliers to achieve this prohibited result merely by substituting assumption of risk language for disclaimer language would too easily allow circumvention of these policies. In effect, such an agreement is nothing more than a disclaimer. Id. at 17-18.

The court rejected defendants’ argument that the express assumption of risk was good against the whole world. Id. at 1716 (“we have not discovered any authority for this proposition. The doctrine of express assumption is founded on express agreement.”). Westlye is well reasoned and solidly grounded in relevant policy considerations. The essence of the doctrine of strict liability, as enunciated by Justice Traynor in Escola v. Coca Cola Bottling Co., 24 Cal.2d 453, 461, 150 P.2d 436 (1944) (Traynor, J., concurring), is that a manufacturer who places a product on the market should be absolutely liable if it knows that the product will be used without inspection and is shown to have an injury-causing defect. See also Greenman v. Yuba Power Products, Inc., 59 Cal.2d 57, 62, 377 P.2d 897, 27 Cal. Rptr. 697 (1963) [**19] (applying the doctrine of strict liability as formulated by Traynor in Escola). The doctrine of strict liability is based not only on the public policy of discouraging the marketing and distribution of defective products, but also on the reasoning that a manufacturer is in a far better position than individual consumers to insure against the risk of injury and to distribute costs among consumers.

The court sees no reason to permit defendants to insulate themselves from strict liability by means of a release when they could not do so otherwise.

Insofar as the agreement signed by David attempts to relieve product suppliers of their responsibility for injuries caused by defective products, it is squarely at odds with the strict products liability doctrine. The very reason for the growth of products liability law was a perceived need to protect consumers from defective products and from attempts by product suppliers to disclaim responsibility for such defects by way of contractual provisions. See Seely v. White Motor Co., 63 Cal.2d 9, 16-17, 403 P.2d 145, 45 Cal. Rptr. 17 (1965); Vandermark v. Ford Motor Co., 61 Cal.2d 256, 391 P.2d 168, 37 Cal. Rptr. 896 (1964) [**20] (“since [the dealer] is strictly liable in tort, the fact that it restricted its contractual liability to [plaintiff] is immaterial.”); Greenman, 59 Cal.2d at 57, 377 P.2d at 897. With respect to claims for strict liability, David’s waiver is thus void as against public policy.

Hawaii courts have recognized that lessors of products who are in the business of leasing are subject to strict products liability. Stewart [*738] v. Budget Rent-A-Car Corp., 52 Haw. 71, 75, 470 P.2d 240 (1970). Accord, Price v. Shell Oil Co., 2 Cal.3d 245, 250, 466 P.2d 722, 725, 85 Cal. Rptr. 178, 181 (1970). Plaintiff’s claims in strict liability against Kualoa Ranch and Sport Aviation are not precluded by the release agreement.

C. The Agreement Is Not Ambiguous.

Plaintiff claims that the agreement is ambiguous because it includes the following paragraph:

6. It is understood that the purchase of this waiver does not constitute a contract of insurance but only a waiver of the contractual defenses that would otherwise be available to the Released Parties.

[**21]

Plaintiff claims that this paragraph indicates that David was purchasing a waiver of the contractual defenses available to defendants, and that the agreement itself would constitute a defense which is being waived. She argues that it is thus ambiguous as to whether such defenses are being waived.

Plaintiff points out correctly that courts regard attempts to contract away tort liability with skepticism, Gardner v. Downtown Porsche Audi, 180 Cal. App.3d 713, 716, 225 Cal. Rptr. 757 (Cal. App. 1986), and that an attempt to do so must be “clear, explicit, and comprehensible in each of its details.” Ferrell v. Southern Nevada Off-Road Enthusiasts, Ltd., 147 Cal. App.3d 309, 319, 195 Cal. Rptr. 90 (Cal. App. 1983). The court will resolve ambiguities in such contracts against the drafting party. See State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Fermahin, 73 Haw. 552, 556, 836 P.2d 1074 (1992) (interpreting an insurance contract) (citation omitted).

Before an exculpatory clause may be enforced against a party, it must be established that he clearly and unequivocally [**22] agreed to the disclaimer with knowledge of its contents. Krohnert, 4 Haw. App. at 200, 664 P.2d at 744 (citations omitted). The court, however, only applies this rule in the event of a true ambiguity, and not merely because of a confusing passage. “Ambiguity exists ‘only when the contract taken as a whole, is reasonably subject to differing interpretation. A court must respect the plain terms of the policy and not create ambiguity where none exists.’” Id. at 556-57 (citations omitted). In this case, the contract, taken as a whole is unambiguous.

D. There Is No Genuine Issue of Material Fact as to Whether the Decedent Agreed to the Release with Knowledge of Its Contents.

Plaintiff contends that it is unclear whether David signed the agreement with clear and unequivocal knowledge of its terms. David is dead and thus unavailable to testify.

Defendants have come forward, however, with the affidavit of William Fulton, president of Sport Aviation, averring that he explained and warned David of the dangers at length before David signed the agreement. Moreover, there is no dispute that David signed the agreement and initialed it at the [**23] title and each paragraph. Plaintiff has not come forward with any evidence contradicting the Fulton affidavit and the signed agreement. There thus appears to be no genuine issue of material fact as to whether David signed the agreement with knowledge of its terms and of the dangers involved in paragliding.

CONCLUSION

For the reasons given, the court GRANTS plaintiff’s motion to dismiss non-diverse parties and DENIES defendants’ motion to dismiss for lack of diversity jurisdiction. Plaintiff has already settled with Sport Kites, Inc., dba Wills Wing and Rob Kells, the non-diverse defendants, and Sport Kites is not indispensable within the meaning of Rule 19 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. n7

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

n7 The court understands that the remaining defendants will seek to prosecute a third-party complaint against Sport Kites as designers and manufacturers of the equipment. In the event that a third-party complaint may not be prosecuted, Sport Kites may still be included as non-parties on the special jury forms for assessment of its share of liability under Hawaii’s comparative negligence framework.

– – – – – – – – – – – – End Footnotes- – – – – – – – – – – – – – [**24]

For the reasons given, the court GRANTS in part and DENIES in part defendants ‘ [*739] motion for summary judgment. The release and discharge agreement signed by David Wheelock is valid and enforceable, and a plain reading of the agreement indicates that David expressly assumed the risk of death—the risk which befell him—and waived his right to any negligence claims against defendant. Plaintiff’s negligence claims are barred on this basis. The release and discharge is void, however, as it applies to plaintiff’s claims for gross negligence and strict liability, because the assumption of risk is ineffective vis-a-vis these claims.

IT IS SO ORDERED.

DATED: Honolulu, Hawaii, December 1, 1993

Harold M. Fong

UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

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