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

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

141 P.3d 427 (Hawai’i 2006)

111 Hawai’i 254

Lisa COURBAT and Steven Courbat, Plaintiffs-Appellants,

v.

DAHANA RANCH, INC., Defendant-Appellee,

and

John Does 1-10, Jane Does 1-10, Doe Associations 1-10, Doe Partnerships 1-10, Doe Corporations 1-10, Doe Entities 1-10, and Doe Governmental Units 1-5, Defendants.

No. 25151.

Supreme Court of Hawai’i

July 10, 2006

As Amended on Grant of Reconsideration in Part Aug. 3, 2006. [*]

APPEAL FROM THE THIRD CIRCUIT COURT (CIV. NO. 01-1-0049).

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Andrew S. Iwashita, Hilo, on the briefs, for the plaintiffs-appellants Lisa Courbat and Steven Courbat.

Zale T. Okazaki, of Ayabe, Chong, Nishimoto, Sia and Nakamura, Honolulu, on the briefs, for the defendant-appellee Dahana Ranch, Inc.

MOON, C.J., LEVINSON AND NAKAYAMA, JJ., AND DUFFY, J., DISSENTING, WITH WHOM ACOBA, J. JOINS.

OPINION

LEVINSON, J.

[111 Hawai’i 256] The plaintiffs-appellants Lisa Courbat and Steven Courbat [hereinafter, collectively, “the Courbats”] appeal from the May 13, 2002 judgment of the circuit court of the third circuit, the Honorable Riki May Amano presiding, entered pursuant to the circuit court’s April 26, 2002 grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendant-appellee Dahana Ranch, Inc. (the Ranch).

On appeal, the Courbats contend that the circuit court erred: (1) in concluding that Hawai’i Revised Statutes (HRS) § 480-2 et seq. (Supp. 1998) [1] do not apply to the Ranch’s business practices of booking prepaid tours and subsequently requiring liability waivers upon check-in; (2) by applying the rebuttable presumption set forth in HRS § 663B-2(a) (Supp. 1994) [2] in finding that Lisa’s injuries were not due to the negligence of the tour operator; (3) in finding that the Courbats sufficiently read over the waiver before signing it; and (4) in concluding that the waiver was valid as to their negligence claims.

For the reasons discussed infra in section III. A, we vacate the circuit court’s May 13, 2002 judgment and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I. BACKGROUND

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. Lisa described the incident in a deposition taken on November 3, 2001:

Q: At what point did you believe that you needed to pull the reins back as you were approaching the guide . . . ? . . .

[Lisa]: When I felt that the horse[] was getting too close to the horses above me.

Q: So it appeared to you that the nose end of the horse was getting too close to the butt end of the horse in front?

[Lisa]: To the horse in general. We were coming in. I was just trying to keep a certain space between myself and the horse.

Q: [T]hose two horses, the guide’s horse and the guest’s horse, they were to the left of your horse, is that correct, to the front left of you?

[Lisa]: Yes.

Q: You recall which hind leg of the horse kicked you? Was it the right or the left?

[Lisa]: It would be the right one.

Q: And that was a horse which was ridden by the guide or the guest?

[Lisa]: The guide.

Q: Just before the horse in front of you kicked you, were all of the horses still in motion? When I say “all the horses,” yours, the guide’s, and the guest that was riding parallel to the guide?

[Lisa]: Just before?

Q: Yes.

[Lisa]: Yes.

Q: Was there any conversation between you and the guide or the guest just before this kicking incident occurred?

[Lisa]: No.

Q: At the time this kicking incident occurred, w[ere] the guide and the guest still talking to each other?

[Lisa]: Yes.

Nakoa described the same incident in a January 9, 2002 deposition:

[Nakoa]: . . . Everybody was facing the gate, the second gate…. And I was in the back. And because I lots of times don’t want to be a part of the ride, I started riding to the right. And then a man came to talk to me and ask me about the horse.

Q: On which side of your horse was he at the time?

[Nakoa]: He was on the left side of me.

Q: And were you still moving or were you stopped?

[Nakoa]: We were walking.

….

Q: . . .[H]ad you passed Lisa along the way? ….

[Nakoa]: Because of the angle, she was off to my left.

Q: Still in front of you?

[Nakoa]: No. About the same.

….

Q: And when is the next time you notice[] Lisa’s horse before the injury takes place?

….

[Nakoa]: She was still on the left side of me.

Q: . . . [A]bout how far away do you estimate she was from your horse?

[Nakoa]: You know, 30 feet maybe….

Q: And from that point on, . . . were you able to continually observe Lisa riding her horse until the time the injury occurred?

[Nakoa]: Yes. The man was on my left and I was talking to him.

….

Q: . . . [W]hile [the guest is] asking you this question and you can see [Lisa], what is her horse doing as it’s approaching your horse?

[Nakoa]: No, I didn’t see her approaching my horse. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. She was on the left side of this man and me and we’re all going in that direction (indicating). She was trotting, and I was walking with this man. And I saw her. And then this man asked me something. And the next thing I knew, she was right in back of my horse telling me that my horse kicked her.

Nakoa later acknowledged in the deposition that, if he or his horse had been aware that Lisa’s horse was approaching from behind, his horse would not have been surprised and would not have struck out at her horse. As a result of the impact, Lisa suffered severe pain and swelling, but no broken bones, and since the incident has complained of ongoing pain and injury to her leg.

The Courbats filed suit on January 31, 2001, asserting claims of negligence and gross negligence that resulted in physical injury to Lisa and loss of consortium injuries to Steven. On November 21, 2001, they filed a first amended complaint, adding a claim of unfair and deceptive trade practices regarding the waiver they had signed the day of the ride.

On January 16, 2002, the Ranch filed a motion for summary judgment on the grounds: (1) that the Courbats had assumed the risk of the activity; (2) that the Courbats had waived their rights to sue the Ranch for negligence; and (3) that the Ranch had not committed any acts that brought it under the purview of HRS §§ 480-2 and 480-13, see supra note 1.

The Courbats filed a memorandum in opposition to the Ranch’s motion and a motion for partial summary judgment, urging the circuit court to rule, inter alia : (1) that the Ranch owed Lisa a duty to protect her from injury by Nakoa’s horse; and (2) that the rebuttable presumption of no negligence on a defendant’s part set forth in HRS § 663B-2, see supra note 2, was inapplicable.

The circuit court conducted a hearing on both motions on February 13, 2002 and, on April 26, 2002, entered an order granting the Ranch’s motion and denying the Courbats’ motion. On May 13, 2002, the circuit court entered a final judgment in favor of the Ranch and against the Courbats. On August 8, 2002, the Courbats filed a timely notice of appeal. [4]

II. STANDARDS OF REVIEW

A. Summary Judgment

We review the circuit court’s grant or denial of summary judgment de novo….

[S]ummary judgment is appropriate if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. A fact is material if proof of that fact would have the effect of establishing or refuting one of the essential elements of a cause of action or defense asserted by the parties. The evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. In other words, we must view all of the evidence and the inferences drawn there from in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. [Hawai’i Cmty. Fed. Credit Union v. Keka, 94 Hawai’i 213, 221, 11 P.3d 1, 9 (2000)] (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). Querubin v. Thronas, 107 Hawai’i48, 56, 107 Hawai’i 48, 56, 109 P.3d 689, 697 (2005) (quoting Durette v. Aloha Plastic Recycling, Inc., 105 Hawai’i 490, 501, 100 P.3d 60, 71 (2004)) (internal citation omitted) (some brackets in original).

B. Interpretation Of Statutes

The interpretation of a statute is a question of law reviewable de novo. State v. Arceo, 84 Hawai’i 1, 10, 928 P.2d 843, 852 (1996).

Furthermore, our statutory construction is guided by established rules:

When construing a statute, our foremost obligation is to ascertain and give effect to the intention of the legislature, which is to be obtained primarily from the language contained in the statute itself. And we must read statutory language in the context of the entire statute and construe it in a manner consistent with its purpose.

When there is doubt, doubleness of meaning, or indistinctiveness or uncertainty of an expression used in a statute, an ambiguity exists….

In construing an ambiguous statute, “[t]he meaning of the ambiguous words may be sought by examining the context, with which the ambiguous words, phrases, and sentences may be compared, in order to ascertain their true meaning.” HRS § 1-15(1) [(1993)]. Moreover, the courts may resort to extrinsic aids in determining legislative intent. One avenue is the use of legislative history as an interpretive tool. Gray [v. Admin. Dir. of the Court], 84 Hawai’i [138,] 148, 931 P.2d [580,] 590 [(1997)] (footnote omitted). State v. Koch, 107 Hawai’i 215, 220, 112 P.3d 69, 74 (2005) (quoting State v. Kaua, 102 Hawai’i 1, 7-8, 72 P.3d 473, 479-480 (2003)). Absent an absurd or unjust result, see State v. Haugen, 104 Hawai’i 71, 77, 85 P.3d 178, 184 (2004), this court is bound to give effect to the plain meaning of unambiguous statutory language; we may only resort to the use of legislative history when interpreting an ambiguous statute. State v. Valdivia, 95 Hawai’i 465, 472, 24 P.3d 661, 668 (2001).

III. DISCUSSION

A. Inasmuch As The Presence Or Absence Of An Unfair Or Deceptive Trade Practice Is For The Trier Of Fact To Determine, The Circuit Court Erroneously Granted Summary Judgment In Favor Of The Ranch And Against The Courbats.

The Courbats do not dispute that they both signed the Ranch’s waiver form, see supra note 3, prior to their ride. Nor do they dispute that waivers are an accepted method by which businesses may limit their liability. Rather, they assert 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. The Courbats maintain that the practice of withholding the waiver had “the capacity or tendency to mislead” customers, thereby satisfying this court’s test for a deceptive trade practice as articulated in State ex rel. Bronster v. United States Steel Corp., 82 Hawai’i 32, 50, 919 P.2d 294, 312 (1996).

The Intermediate Court of Appeals held in Beerman v. Toro, 1 Hawai’i App. 111, 118, 615 P.2d 749, 754-55 (1980), that the remedies afforded by HRS ch. 480 are not available for personal injury claims. See also Blowers v. Eli Lilly & Co., 100 F.Supp.2d 1265, 1269-70 (D. Hawai’i 2000). The Courbats, however, assert that they are not invoking HRS ch. 480 for the purpose of establishing personal injury damages, but rather because the lack of notice as to the waiver requirement injured them economically, by way of the $116 cost of the tour, giving rise to a valid claim under HRS § 480-13, see supra note 1.As a deceptive trade practice, the Courbats maintain, the waiver is void under HRS § 480-12, see supra note 1.

1. The elements of a deceptive trade practice claim for recision of a contract

To render the waiver void, the Courbats must establish that it is an unseverable part of a “contract or agreement in violation of [HRS ch. 480].” See HRS § 480-12, supra note 1. Furthermore, any “unfair or deceptive act[] or practice[] in the conduct of any trade or commerce” violates HRS § 480-2.

“Deceptive” acts or practices violate HRS § 480-2, but HRS ch. 480 contains no statutory definition of “deceptive.” This court has described a deceptive practice as having “the capacity or tendency to mislead or deceive,” United States Steel Corp., 82 Hawaii at 50, 919 P.2d at 312, 313, but, beyond noting that federal cases have also defined deception “as an act causing, as a natural and probable result, a person to do that which he [or she] would not do otherwise,” Keka, 94 Hawai’i at 228, 11 P.3d at 16 (brackets in original) (quoting United States Steel Corp., 82 Hawaii at 51, 919 P.2d at 313 (citing Bockenstette v. Federal Trade Comm’n, 134 F.2d 369 (10th Cir. 1943))), we have not articulated a more refined test.

HRS § 480-3, see supra note 1, provides that HRS ch. 480 “shall be construed in accordance with judicial interpretations of similar federal antitrust statutes,” and HRS § 480-2(b) provides that “[i]n construing this section, the courts . . . shall give due consideration to the . . . decisions of . . . the federal courts interpreting . . . 15 U.S.C. [§] 45(a)(1)[(2000)],” [5] in recognition of the fact that HRS § 480-2 is “a virtual counterpart.” [6] Keka, 94 Hawai’i at 228, 11 P.3d at 16. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), in In re Cliffdale Assocs., Inc., 103 F.T.C. 110 (1984), developed a three-part analytical test for “deception,” [7] which the federal courts have thereafter extensively adopted, see FTC v. Verity Int’l, Ltd., 443 F.3d 48, 63 (2d. Cir. 2006); FTC v. Tashman, 318 F.3d 1273, 1277 (11th Cir. 2003); FTC v. Pantron I Corp., 33 F.3d 1088, 1095 (9th Cir. 1994); FTC v. World Travel Vacation Brokers, Inc., 861 F.2d 1020, 1029 (7th Cir. 1988). Under the Cliffdale Assocs. test, a deceptive act or practice is “(1) a representation, omission, or practice[] that (2) is likely to mislead consumers acting reasonably under the circumstances [where] (3)[] the representation, omission, or practice is material.” Verity Int’l, 443 F.3d at 63. A representation, omission, or practice is considered “material” if it involves ” ‘information that is important to consumers and, hence, likely to affect their choice of, or conduct regarding, a product.’ ” Novartis Corp. v. FTC, 223 F.3d 783, 786 (D.C. Cir. 2000) (quoting Cliffdale Assocs., 103 F.T.C. at 165); see also Kraft, Inc. v. FTC, 970 F.2d 311, 322 (7th Cir. 1992); FTC v. Crescent Publ’g Group, Inc., 129 F.Supp.2d 311, 321 (S.D.N.Y. 2001); FTC v. Five-Star Auto Club, Inc., 97 F.Supp.2d 502, 529 (S.D.N.Y. 2000); FTC v. Sabal, 32 F.Supp.2d 1004, 1007 (N.D. Ill. 1998). Moreover, the Cliffdale Assocs. test is an objective one, turning on whether the act or omission “is likely to mislead consumers,” Verity Int’l, 443 F.3d at 63, as to information “important to consumers,” Novartis Corp., 223 F.3d at 786, in making a decision regarding the product or service. [8]

Given our obligation under HRS §§ 480-3 and 480-2(b) to apply federal authority as a guide in interpreting HRS ch. 480, we hereby adopt the three-prong Cliffdale Assocs. test in determining when a trade practice is deceptive. [9]

2. Under The Cliffdale Assocs. Objective Consumer Test, The Determination Of A Deceptive Omission Is One For The Trier Of Fact, Thereby Rendering Summary Judgment Inappropriate.

The Courbats do not allege that the waiver itself is deceptive; rather, they urge that the deceptive practice at issue was the booking agent’s failure to inform them of the waiver requirement during the negotiation and execution of the underlying contract. [10] Nevertheless, if any deceptive omission occurred with respect to the negotiation and execution of the original contract, the operation of HRS § 480-12, see supra note 1, would render both the original contract and the waiver, signed afterward, void. [11] Thus, the waiver’s survival depends on the trier of fact’s determination as to whether the omission of the waiver requirement during Island Incentives, Inc.’s booking process was deceptive and therefore in violation of HRS § 480-2.

The application of an objective “reasonable person” standard, of which the Cliffdale Assocs. test is an example, is ordinarily for the trier of fact, rendering summary judgment “often inappropriate.” Amfac, Inc. v. Waikiki Beachcomber Inv. Co., 74 Hawai’i 85, 107, 839 P.2d 10, 24 (1992), cited in Casumpang v. ILWU Local 142, 108 Hawai’i 411, 425, 121 P.3d 391, 405 (2005); Arquero v. Hilton Hawaiian Village LLC, 104 Hawai’i 423, 433, 91 P.3d 505, 515 (2004). “Inasmuch as the term ‘reasonableness’ is subject to differing interpretations . . ., it is inherently ambiguous. Where ambiguity exists, summary judgment is usually inappropriate because ‘the determination of someone’s state of mind usually entails the drawing of factual inferences as to which reasonable [minds] might differ.’ ” Amfac, Inc., 74 Hawai’i at 107, 839 P.2d at 24 (quoting Bishop Trust Co. v. Cent. Union Church, 3 Hawai’i App. 624, 628-29, 656 P.2d 1353, 1356 (1983)). Reasonableness can only constitute a question of law suitable for summary judgment ” ‘when the facts are undisputed and not fairly susceptible of divergent inferences’ because ‘[w]here, upon all the evidence, but one inference may reasonably be drawn, there is no issue for the jury.’ ” Id. at 108, 839 P.2d at 24 (quoting Broad & Branford Place Corp. v. J.J. Hockenjos Co., 132 N.J.L. 229, 39 A.2d 80, 82 (N.J. 1944) (brackets in original)). ” ‘[A] question of interpretation is not left to the trier of fact where evidence is so clear that no reasonable person would determine the issue in any way but one.’ ” Id. (quoting Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 212 cmt. e (1981) (brackets in original)). See also Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 212(2) (1981 and Supp. 2005) (“A question of interpretation of an integrated agreement is to be determined by the trier of fact if it depends on the credibility of extrinsic evidence or on a choice among reasonable inferences to be drawn from extrinsic evidence.“) (Emphasis added). There is no genuine issue of material fact regarding the failure to disclose the waiver requirement during negotiation of the original tour contract, but we cannot say that, applying the Cliffdale Assocs. test, reasonable minds could draw only one inference as to the materiality of that omission to reasonable consumers contemplating the transaction. Therefore, the question whether a waiver requirement would be materially important in booking a horseback tour remains one for the trier of fact.

Because a genuine issue of material fact, resolvable only by the trier of fact, remains in dispute, the grant of summary judgment on the HRS ch. 480 claim was erroneous. We therefore vacate the circuit court’s May 13, 2002 judgment and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

B. The Consequences,On Remand, Of The Determination By The Trier Of Fact As To Whether Nondisclosure Of The Waiver Requirement Was A Deceptive Trade Practice

If, on remand, the trier of fact determines that the nondisclosure of the waiver was a deceptive trade practice, rendering the waiver void, then the Courbats’ negligence claims proceed free of the waiver defense. Nevertheless, for the reasons set forth below and for purposes of any subsequent trial on the Courbats’ negligence claims, 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.

Conversely, if, on remand, the trier of fact determines that the nondisclosure of the waiver was not deceptive, then the Courbats validly waived their negligence claims.

1. The Statutory Presumption Of Non-Negligence For Equine-Related Injuries Set Forth In HRS Ch. 663B Does Not Apply To The Courbats’ Claims.

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. In order to provide guidance on remand, therefore, we hold that it was error for the circuit court in the present matter to apply HRS § 663B-2(a), see supra note 2, which establishes a rebuttable presumption in favor of horseback tour operators that any injury “caused solely by the inherent risk and unpredictable nature of the equine” is not due to the negligence of the tour operator.

HRS § 663B-2(b) provides in relevant part that “[n]othing in this section shall prevent or limit the liability of an equine activity sponsor . . . if the equine activity sponsor, equine professional, or person: . . . (2) [p]rovided the equine and . . . failed to reasonably supervise the equine activities and such failure is a proximate cause of the injury.” The substance of Lisa’s claim revolves around her assertion that Nakoa failed to monitor her approach toward his horse while he was engaged in conversation with another guest; in other words, Lisa claims that Nakoa “failed to reasonably supervise the equine activities” that were the “proximate cause of [her] injury.” Therefore, we hold that, if Lisa is correct, the presumption of non-negligence set forth in HRS § 663B-2(a) would not apply to the Courbats’ claims.

2. If The Trier Of Fact Determines That The Nondisclosure Of The Waiver Was Not A Deceptive Trade Practice, Then The Courbats Validly Waived Their Negligence Claims.

a. The waiver was validly executed.

Citing Krohnert v. Yacht Sys. of Hawai’i, 4 Hawai’i App. 190, 201, 664 P.2d 738, 745 (1983), the Courbats assert that, because they manifested no clear and unequivocal acceptance of the terms of the waiver, the waiver cannot be enforced against them. However, pursuant to the following analysis, we hold that, if the trier of fact finds that the failure to inform the Courbats of the waiver requirement was not a deceptive trade practice, then the waiver, in all other respects, was valid.

“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.” Leong v. Kaiser Found. Hosps., 71 Hawai’i 240, 245, 788 P.2d 164, 168 (1990); see also Joaquin v. Joaquin, 5 Hawai’i App. 435, 443, 698 P.2d 298, 304 (1985); In re Chung, 43 B.R. 368, 369 (Bankr. D. Hawai’i 1984); In re Kealoha, 2 B.R. 201, 209 (Bankr. D. Hawai’i 1980). 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.’ ” Fujimoto v. Au, 95 Hawai’i 116, 156, 19 P.3d 699, 739 (2001) (some brackets omitted) (quoting Gen. Bargain Ctr. v. Am. Alarm Co., Inc., 430 N.E.2d 407, 411-12 (Ind.Ct.App. 1982)).

“[S]uch bargains are not favored, however, and, if possible, bargains are construed not to confer this immunity.” Fujimoto, 95 Hawai’i at 155, 19 P.3d at 738. 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.’ ” 95 Hawaii at 156, 19 P.3d at 739 (quoting Andrews v. Fitzgerald, 823 F.Supp. 356, 378 (M.D.N.C. 1993)).

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.

In Krohnert, the ICA defined the public interest

as involving some or all of the following characteristics:

[1] It concerns a business of a type generally thought suitable for public regulation.

[2] The party seeking exculpation is engaged in performing a service of great importance to the public, which is often a matter of practical necessity for some members of the public.

[3] The party holds himself out as willing to perform this service for any member of the public who seeks it, or at least for any member coming within certain established standards.

[4] As a result of the essential nature of the service, in the economic setting of the transaction, the party invoking exculpation possesses a decisive advantage of bargaining strength against any member of the public who seeks his services.

[5] In exercising a superior bargaining power the party confronts the public with a standardized adhesion contract of exculpation and makes no provision whereby a purchaser may pay additional reasonable fees and obtain protection against negligence.

[6] Finally, as a result of the transaction, the person or property of the purchaser is placed under the control of the seller of the service, subject to the risk of carelessness by the seller or his agents. 4 Hawai’i App. at 199, 664 P.2d at 744 (finding under this test that the exculpatory clause contained in a contract for marine surveying was permissible) (brackets omitted) (quoting Lynch v. Santa Fe Nat’l Bank, 97 N.M. 554, 627 P.2d 1247, 1251-52 (N.M.Ct.App.1981) (holding that services of escrow agents in New Mexico were not in the nature of a public service so as to render an exculpatory clause unenforceable) (quoting Tunkl v. Regents of Univ. of Cal., 60 Cal.2d 92, 32 Cal.Rptr. 33, 383 P.2d 441, 445-46 (1963) (declaring invalid as against the public interest an exculpatory clause for future negligence required for admission to a public research hospital))); see also 15 Corbin on Contracts § 85.18 (2003 & Supp.2005) (summarizing a similar test commonly used by courts and noting that courts tend to enforce exculpatory clauses for recreational activities under the test). (FN12) Entities that have been found to fall under the public interest doctrine, rendering exculpatory clauses void, include common carriers, see Adams Express Co. v. Croninger, 226 U.S. 491, 509, 33 S.Ct. 148, 57 L.Ed. 314 (1913); Shippers Nat’l Freight Claim Council, Inc. v. Interstate Commerce Comm’n, 712 F.2d 740, 746 (2d Cir.1983); Clairol, Inc. v. Moore-McCormack Lines, Inc., 79 A.D.2d 297, 309-10, 436 N.Y.S.2d 279 (N.Y.App.Div.1981), and hospitals, see Tunkl, 32 Cal.Rptr. 33, 383 P.2d at 447; Smith v. Hosp. Auth. of Walker, Dade & Catoosa Counties, 160 Ga.App. 387, 287 S.E.2d 99, 101 (1981) Belshaw v. Feinstein, 258 Cal.App.2d 711, 65 Cal.Rptr. 788, 798 (1968).

Applying these factors to the present matter, 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.

Finally, as the United States District Court for the District of Hawai’i noted, 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.” Wheelock v. Sport Kites, Inc., 839 F.Supp. 730, 736 (D. Hawai’i 1993). “[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.’ ” Fujimoto, 95 Hawai’i at 156, 19 P.3d at 739 (quoting Brown v. KFC Nat’l Mgmt. Co., 82 Hawai’i 226, 247, 921 P.2d 146, 167 (1996)); see also Wheelock, 839 F.Supp. at 735 (“[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.” Krohnert, 4 Hawai’i App at 199, 664 P.2d at 744 (quoting Lynch, 627 P.2d at 1250). These conditions are generally not germane in the recreational waiver context. In the context of a recreational sport or adventure activity, freely undertaken for pleasure, “coercive bargaining” and “an absence of alternatives” are terms that hold little meaning.

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. In short, there is no evidence of coercion. By signing the waiver form, they demonstrated that they agreed to its terms, and by reading it, or, in Steven’s case, in relying on the advice of his wife, demonstrated knowledge of its contents. Moreover, they had signed similar waivers that week for another activity and were familiar with what they represented. Accordingly, we hold that, if the trier of fact determines that the nondisclosure of the waiver was not a deceptive trade practice, the Courbats’ waiver was valid.

b. The scope of the Courbats’ waiver does not extend beyond negligence claims.

The language of the waiver, see supra note 3, releases the Ranch and its agents and holds it harmless “from loss or damage to property or injury to [the undersigned] . . . resulting from [the undersigned] . . . being a spectator or participant or while engaged in any such activity in the event[-]related facilities.” However, because ” ‘[e]xculpatory provisions are not favored by the law and are strictly construed against parties relying on them,’ ” the effect of the broad exculpatory language contained in the Ranch’s waiver should be construed to limit the waiver’s scope to simple negligence claims; it does not protect the Ranch against its own gross negligence or willful misconduct. Fujimoto, 95 Hawai’i at 156, 19 P.3d at 739 (quoting Andrews, 823 F.Supp. at 378); see also Wheelock, 839 F.Supp. at 736 (interpreting the reasoning in Krohnert to conclude that to allow an exculpatory clause to extend to gross negligence would violate the public interest, rendering the clause void).

IV. CONCLUSION

In light of the foregoing analysis, we vacate the circuit court’s May 13, 2002 judgment in favor of the Ranch and against the Courbats and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

DISSENTING OPINION BY DUFFY, J., IN WHICH ACOBA, J., JOINS.

DUFFY, J.

I respectfully dissent. In my view, no reasonable person would find that the recreational tour operator’s failure to disclose the waiver requirement of Dahana Ranch, Inc. during negotiation of the horseback riding activity was a deceptive trade practice under HRS § 480-2. The Courbats concede that waivers are an acceptable method by which recreational tour operators and sponsors may seek to limit their liability in response to rising insurance and litigation costs, and admit that they were required to sign such a waiver before participating in a snorkeling activity earlier during the same Hawai’i vacation. Applying the Cliffdale Assoc. test to the undisputed facts in this case involving the inherently dangerous activity of horseback riding, I respectfully submit that the tour operator’s failure to disclose the waiver requirement of Dahana Ranch, Inc. during negotiation of the horseback riding activity with the Courbats was not a material omission implicating a deceptive trade practice under HRS § 480-2. I would thus affirm the circuit court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Dahana Ranch, Inc.

———

Notes:

[1] HRS ch. 480 provided in relevant part:

§ 480-2 …. (a) Unfair methods of competition and unfair or deceptive acts or practices in the conduct of any trade or commerce are unlawful.

(b) In construing this section, the courts and the office of consumer protection shall give due consideration to the rules, regulations, and decisions of the Federal Trade Commission and the federal courts interpreting section 5(a)(1) of the Federal Trade Commission Act (15 U.S.C. 45(a)(1)), as from time to time amended.

….

§ 480-3 …. This chapter shall be construed in accordance with judicial interpretations of similar federal antitrust statutes ….

….

§ 480-12 …. Any contract or agreement in violation of this chapter is void and is not enforceable at law or in equity.

§ 480-13 …. (b) Any consumer who is injured by any unfair or deceptive act or practice forbidden or declared unlawful by section 480-2:

(1) May sue for damages sustained by the consumer, and, if the judgment is for the plaintiff, the plaintiff shall be awarded a sum not less than $1,000 or threefold damages by the plaintiff sustained, whichever sum is the greater, and reasonable attorneys’ fees together with the costs of suit; . . . and

(2) May bring proceedings to enjoin the unlawful practices, and if the decree is for the plaintiff, the plaintiff shall be awarded reasonable attorneys’ fees together with the cost of suit. Effective June 28, 2002, HRS § 480-2 was amended in respects immaterial to the present matter. See 2002 Hawai’i Sess. L. Act 229, §§ 2 and 6 at 916-18. Effective May 2, 2001, June 28, 2002, and June 7, 2005, HRS § 480-13 was amended in respects immaterial to the present matter. See 2005 Hawai’i Sess. L. Act 108, §§ 3 and 5 at 265-66, 267; 2002 Hawai’i Sess. L. Act 229, §§ 3 and 6 at 917-18; 2001 Hawai’i Sess. L. Act 79, §§ 1 and 5 at 127-28.

[2] HRS ch. 663B, entitled “Equine activities” and enacted in 1994, see 1994 Hawai’i Sess. L. Act 229, §§ 1 and 2 at 591-92, provides in relevant part:

§ 663B-1 …. As used in this [chapter], unless the context otherwise requires:

“Engages in an equine activity” means riding . . . or being a passenger upon an equine ….

….

“Equine activity” means:

….

(5) Rides, trips, hunts, or other equine activities of any type however informal or impromptu that are sponsored by an equine activity sponsor; and

….

“Equine activity sponsor” means an individual, group, club, partnership, or corporation . . . which sponsors, organizes, or provides the facilities for, an equine activity….

“Equine professional” means a person engaged for compensation in instructing a participant or renting to a participant an equine for the purpose of riding, driving, or being a passenger upon the equine, or in renting equipment or tack to a participant.

“Inherent risks of equine activities” means those dangers or conditions which are an integral part of equine activities, including, but not limited to:

(1) The propensity of an equine to behave in ways that may result in injury, harm, or death to persons on or around them;

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

(3) Certain hazards such as surface and subsurface conditions;

(4) Collisions with other equines or objects; and

(5) The potential of a participant to act in a negligent manner that may contribute to injury to the participant or others, such as failing to maintain control over the animal or not acting within the participant’s ability.

“Participant” means any person, whether amateur or professional, who engages in an equine activity, whether or not a fee is paid to participate in the equine activity.

§ 663B-2 …. (a) In any civil action for injury, loss, damage, or death of a participant, there shall be a presumption that the injury, loss, damage, or death was not caused by the negligence of an equine activity sponsor, equine professional, or their employees or agents, if the injury, loss, damage, or death was caused solely by the inherent risk and unpredictable nature of the equine. An injured person or their legal representative may rebut the presumption of no negligence by a preponderance of the evidence.

(b) Nothing in this section shall prevent or limit the liability of an equine activity sponsor, an equine professional, or their employees or agents if the equine activity sponsor, equine professional, or person:

….

(2) Provided the equine and . . . failed to reasonably supervise the equine activities and such failure is a proximate cause of the injury ….

(Some brackets in original and some omitted.)

[3] The rules and waiver stated in pertinent part:

In order for us to keep our ride from being a “Nose To Tail Trail Ride[,”] there are certain rules which must be followed for your safety and the horses’ mental well being. FAILURE TO FOLLOW THESE RULES WILL RESULT IN FORFEITURE OF YOUR RIDE WITH NO REFUND.

RULES AND REGULATIONS

FOLLOW RIDING INSTRUCTIONS & DIRECTIONS THROUGHOUT THE RIDE

….

PLEASE DO NOT RIDE AHEAD OF YOUR GUIDE UNLESS TOLD TO DO SO

….

DO NOT FOLLOW ONE ANOTHER

….

WAIVER

I/We, the undersigned, hereby release and hold harmless the land owners, managers, operators (William P. Kalawaianui, Daniel H. Nakoa, Dahana Ranch and Nakoa Ranch), [t]he State of Hawai[]i and the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands and all other persons directly related to those listed above for the event listed herein[,] their successors, assigns and affiliates from loss or damage to property or injury to myself or any person . . . resulting from my . . . being a spectator or participant or while engaged in any such activity in the event[-] related facilities. I/We acknowledge that there are significant elements of risk in any adventure, sport or activity associated with horses.

I/WE HAVE READ AND UNDERSTOOD THE FOREGOING RULES, REGULATIONS AND WAIVER.

(Emphasis in original.)

[4] On May 10, 2002, the Ranch filed a notice of taxation of costs which, pursuant to Hawai’i Rules of Appellate Procedure (HRAP) Rule 4(a)(3), tolled the time for filing an appeal. An order as to taxation of costs was never entered, and so, pursuant to HRAP Rule 4(a)(3), the request was deemed denied 90 days later, on August 8, 2002. The Courbats’ appeal, filed prematurely on June 7, 2002, was therefore timely filed as of August 8, 2002, pursuant to HRAP Rule 4(a)(2) and (3).

[5] 15 U.S.C. § 45(a)(1) provides that “[u]nfair methods of competition in or affecting commerce, and unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce, are hereby declared unlawful.”

[6] Hawai’i courts have long recognized, therefore, that federal interpretations of 15 U.S.C. § 45(a)(1) guide us in construing HRS § 480-2 “in light of conditions in Hawai’i.” Ai v. Frank Huff Agency, 61 Hawai’i 607, 613 n.11, 607 P.2d 1304, 1309 n.11 (1980); see also Island Tobacco Co. v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., 63 Hawai’i 289, 299, 627 P.2d 260, 268 (1981) overruled on other grounds by Robert’s Hawaii School Bus, Inc. v. Laupahoehoe Transp. Co., Inc., 91 Hawai’i 224, 982 P.2d 853 (1999); Rosa v. Johnston, 3 Hawai’i App. 420, 426, 651 P.2d 1228, 1233-34 (1982).

[7] See Cliffdale Assocs., 103 F.T.C. at 164-65 (characterizing the new standard as a refinement of the “tendency or capacity to deceive” test used by the FTC to that point and pronouncing the old test “circular and therefore inadequate to provide guidance”).

[8] While federal courts have not expressly categorized the test as objective, the FTC, in Cliffdale Assocs., commented that “[t]he requirement that an act or practice be considered from the perspective of a consumer acting reasonably in the circumstances is not new…. [The FTC] has long recognized that the law should not be applied in such a way as to find that honest representations are deceptive simply because they are misunderstood by a few…. [A]n advertisement would not be considered deceptive merely because it could be unreasonably misunderstood by an insignificant and unrepresentative segment of the class of persons [to] whom the representation is addressed.” 103 F.T.C. at 165 (footnotes and internal quotation signals omitted).

[9] Other states have already adopted the Cliffdale Assocs. test. See, e.g., Luskin’s, Inc. v. Consumer Prot. Div., 726 A.2d 702, 713 (Md. 1999); Carter v. Gugliuzzi, 716 A.2d 17, 23 (Vt. 1998). Our adoption of the Cliffdale Assocs. test does not change the existing rule that, in order to establish a violation of HRS § 480-2, the plaintiff need not establish an intent to deceive on the part of the defendant, World Travel Vacation Brokers, 861 F.2d at 1029; Five-Star Auto Club, 97 F.Supp. at 526, nor any actual deceit, United States Steel Corp., 82 Hawai’i at 51, 919 P.2d at 313.

[10] It is undisputed that Island Incentives, Inc. was acting as the Ranch’s agent in this matter, and “we note that an owner is responsible for the representations of his agent made within the scope of his agent’s selling authority.” Au v. Au, 63 Hawai’i 210, 215, 626 P.2d 173, 178 (1981) (citing Negyessy v. Strong, 136 Vt. 193, 388 A.2d 383, 385 (Vt. 1978)).

[11] If the waiver were severable from the underlying contract, it could survive despite a determination that the original contract was void. See Ai v. Frank Huff Agency, 61 Hawai’i 607, 619, 607 P.2d 1304, 1312 (1980) (“The wording on HRS § 480-12 might . . . appear to suggest that any contract containing an illegal provision . . . should be held unenforceable in its entirety…. [U]nder ordinary contract law, however, . . . a partially legal contract may be upheld if the illegal portion is severable from the part which is legal.”). However, “the general rule is that severance of an illegal provision is warranted and the lawful portion . . . enforceable when the illegal provision is not central to the parties’ agreement.” Beneficial Hawaii, Inc. v. Kida, 96 Hawai’i 289, 311, 30 P.3d 895, 917 (2001). The underlying contract at issue is the sum of the parties’ agreement; the waiver would be considered an addendum to it. Therefore, the waiver is not severable and must stand or fall with the underlying contract.

[12] Courts have upheld exculpatory clauses relating to car racing, see Cadek v. Great Lakes Dragaway, Inc., 843 F.Supp. 420 (N.D. Ill. 1994); Barbazza v. Int’l Motor Sports Ass’n, 245 Ga.App. 790, 538 S.E.2d 859 (Ga. Ct. App. 2000), snow skiing, see Chauvlier v. Booth Creek Ski Holdings, Inc., 109 Wash.App. 334, 35 P.3d 383 (Wash. Ct. App. 2001), skydiving, see Scrivener v. Sky’s The Limit, Inc., 68 F.Supp.2d 277 (S.D.N.Y. 1999), and horseback riding, see Street v. Darwin Ranch, Inc., 75 F.Supp.2d 1296, 1299 (D. Wyo. 1999) (finding that “recreational trail rides are neither of great importance to the public, nor a practical necessity to any member of the public”).

———


Interesting decision only real defense was the Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act, which provides little if any real defense.

Defendants are the company that booked the trip (Vail through Grand Teton Lodge Company) and the travel agent who booked the trip.

Rizas et. al. v. Vail Resorts, Inc.; et. al., 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 139788

State: Wyoming

Plaintiff: Alexis R. Rizas, Individually and as the Personal Representative of the Wrongful Death Beneficiaries of John J. Rizas, deceased; John Friel, Individually and as the Personal Representative of the Wrongful Death Beneficiaries of Elizabeth A. Rizas, Deceased; Ronald J. Miciotto, as the Per-sonal Representative of the Wrongful Death Beneficiaries of Linda and Lewis Clark, Deceased; James Clark; Lawrence Wilson; and Joyce Wilson, Plaintiffs

Defendant: Vail Resorts, Inc.; Grand Teton Lodge Company; Tauck, Inc., a.k.a. Tauck World Discovery, Inc., a.k.a. Tauck Tours, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence, Punitive damages

Defendant Defenses: Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act

Holding: Mixed, mostly for the plaintiff

Year: 2009

Summary

Decision looks at the liability of the travel agency and the hotel that booked a rafting float trip where three people died. The only defenses of available were the Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act which helped keep the lawsuit in Wyoming applying Wyoming law, but was ineffective in assisting in the defense of the lawsuit.

The rafting company is not part of this decision so probably the raft company settled with the defendants before the case was filed or this motion was heard.

Facts

Tauck is a corporation formed under the laws of New Jersey and primarily doing business in Connecticut. Stipulated Facts, Docket Entry 108. Tauck is in the business of selling tour packages to its clients, one of which in 2006 was a tour called the “Yellowstone & Grand Teton – North.” This tour began in Salt Lake City, Utah and ended in Rapid City, South Dakota. Id. The tour included a two-night stay at the Jackson Lake Lodge in the Grand Teton National Park, and the Lodge was operated by GTLC. GTLC is organized under the laws of Wyoming and operates within the Grand Teton National Park pursuant to a concessionaire agreement with the National Park Service. Among the services that GTLC offered its guests is a 10-mile float trip along the Snake River from Deadman’s Bar to the Moose Landing. Tauck’s 2006 promotional materials contains the following sentence: “Take a scenic ten-mile raft trip on the Snake River as it meanders through spectacular mountain scenery alive with wildlife, including moose, elk, deer, and many species of birds.”

On June 2, 2006, a tour group gathered at the Lodge at approximately 8:00 a.m. They traveled via several vans to the rafting launch site at Deadman’s Bar. The trip took approximately one hour. There the larger group was split into four smaller groups, one for each raft provided. Raft No. 1 was guided by Wayne Johnson, an employee of GTLC. The raft at issue, Raft No. 2, had 11 passengers: John Rizas, Elizabeth Rizas, Patricia Rizas, Linda Clark, James Clark, Lawrence “Bubba” Wilson, Joyce Wilson, Tom Rizas, Ruth Rizas, Jon Shaw, and Maria Urrutia. The raft guide was Daniel Hobbs, who was also a GTLC employee and had been for four years.

During the float trip, Raft No. 2 struck a log jam. The collision occurred in the Funnelcake channel, which was one of several braided channels of the river. The raft upended as a result and all passengers were thrown into the river. John Rizas, Elizabeth Rizas, and Linda Clark died as a result.

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

The first issue was a choice of laws (jurisdiction and venue) provision in the agreement with the travel agency Tauck, which stated venue was to be in Connecticut. The plaintiff was arguing that the case should be moved to Connecticut, which is odd, because the plaintiff’s filed the case to start in Wyoming. However, since they sued in Wyoming, the plaintiff is still arguing that Connecticut law should apply.

Tauck argued the choice of law provisions was for its benefit, and it had the right to waive that provision in the agreement. The court found that Tauck had the right to waive a provision in the agreement that was there for its benefit.

In Wyoming, a contract must be construed according to the law of the place where it was made. There is no evidence indicating where the contract at issue was formed, but that makes little difference because the law of waiver of contract provisions is widespread and well accepted. “A party to a contract may waive a provision of the contract that was included for his benefit.”

The court held that the provision was for Tauck’s benefit because the living plaintiffs were residents of Georgia and Louisiana.

The court also stated, even it had not found for Tauck on this issue this way; it would have still used Wyoming law because of Wyoming’s strong public policy of recreational immunity.

Even if Tauck had not waived its right to enforce the choice-of-law provision, this Court would not enforce this provision due to Wyoming’s strong public policy of recreational immunity. Plaintiffs seek application of Connecticut law largely to avoid the effects of. The Court will discuss the Act in detail below; it is sufficient here to note that the Act provides a near-total elimination liability of a recreation provider where a person is injured because of an “inherent risk” of a recreational activity. River floating is specifically named as a qualifying recreational activity. Consequently, Plaintiffs seek application of Connecticut law because Connecticut is not so protective of its recreational providers as Wyoming.

Choice of law provisions are usually upheld by the courts; however, there are ways to get around them as this court explained.

The tour members and Tauck agreed that Connecticut law would apply, and Connecticut has a significant connection to the contract because of Tauck’s operation there. Nevertheless, Wyoming’s interest in the resolution of this issue is significantly greater because important Wyoming policy concerns are involved in the question of whether a provider of recreation opportunities should be subject to liability for injury from inherent risks. Absent a Connecticut plaintiff, Connecticut has no interest in whether a Wyoming corporation is held liable. Indeed, Connecticut’s interest in this case, if any, is probably more closely aligned with Tauck, which operates in that state.

The Court’s analysis is further informed by the fact that that Wyoming’s public policy in this matter is a strong one. Initially, the Act was less protective of recreation service providers, defining an “inherent risk” as “any risk that is characteristic of or intrinsic to any sport or recreational opportunity and which cannot reasonably be eliminated, altered or controlled.” In 1996, the Wyoming Legislature eliminated the clause, “and which cannot reasonably be eliminated, altered or controlled.” Subsequent to the amendment, this Court recognized the extraordinary protection offered to recreation providers in Wyoming:

Given this extraordinary protection, this Court must conclude that the Wyoming Legislature views immunity for recreation providers to be an important state interest. Wyoming law should apply in this case.

The court then reviewed the Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act. The plaintiff’s argued the Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act did not apply for three reasons.

First, they contend that Connecticut law applies–an argument that the Court has already resolved in favor of Defendants.

Second, Plaintiffs argue that Tauck is not a “provider” as defined in the Act.

Third, they assert that federal law preempts the Act.

The court found the first argument was already resolved in its analysis of jurisdiction above.

The second argument was the Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act did not apply to the defendant Tauck, because it was a travel agent in Connecticut and not a “provider” as defined under the act. The court found that Tauck was a provider under the act because as part of its package. Provider is defined as “[A]ny person or governmental entity which for profit or otherwise offers or conducts a sport or recreational opportunity.”

The final issue was the argument that the state law was pre-empted by federal law. The argument was based on the concessionaire agreement the defendant had with the NPS. Although the concession agreement with the NPS provided for visitor safety, there was nothing in the agreement showing intent to pre-empt the Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act.

The court then looked to see if the Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act provided a defense in this case. The court first defined Inherent Risk under Wyoming law.

‘Inherent risk’ with regard to any sport or recreational opportunity means those dangerous conditions which are characteristic of, intrinsic to, or an integral part of any sport or recreational opportunity.”

[As you can see, the definition of inherent risk is not a broad definition it narrowly defines the risks to those intrinsic or integral to the activity. That leaves out thousands of risks created by man such as steering the raft, water releases, choosing the run, etc. which are probably not protected by the act.]

Outside of the inherent risks, to thwart the act, the plaintiff only needs to argue the risk was not inherent and the case would proceed to trial because the Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act does not provide a defense to any risk not inherent in the sport. Because the court could not determine what risks were inherent what were not, it held the Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act did not apply in this case.

In any case, this Court is bound to apply Sapone. Plaintiffs have submitted evidence that tends to show that the river, on the day of the river float trip, was running higher and faster so as to result in an activity with some greater risk to the participants. In addition, Plaintiffs submitted evidence suggesting that this stretch of river was generally believed to be a dangerous one. Specifically, a National Park Service publication entitled “Floating the Snake River” states that the area from Deadman’s Bar to Moose Landing “is the most challenging stretch of river in the park, and most accidents occur here. The river drops more steeply, with faster water than in other sections south of Pacific Creek. Complex braiding obscures the main channel, and strong currents can sweep boaters into side channels blocked by logjams.” Id. This evidence is not uncontested, of course, but it is sufficient to preclude summary judgment on this issue. The Court finds that there is a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether colliding with the log jam was an inherent risk of the river float trip undertaken by the tour members on June 2, 2006.

The court moved on to Tauck’s motion for summary judgment because as a tour agency is was not liable for the negligent acts of third parties, it dealt with. The law supports that argument. “As a general rule, a tour operator is not liable for injuries caused by the negligence of third parties over which the tour operator did not exercise ownership or control.”

However, that general rules does not apply if a contract with the travel agency or marketing state the travel agency will undertake a duty. (Always remember Marketing makes Promises Risk Management has to Pay for.)

Here the court found the promotional materials were marketing and did not rise to the level to be promises to be kept.

The plaintiff also argued Tauck took on a greater duty to the guests when it undertook the duty to have the guests sign the defendant GTLC’s acknowledgment of risk forms. That duty included duty to inform the guests of the risk associated with river rafting. However, the court could find nothing in Tauck’s action indicating it was accepting a greater duty when it handed out the assumption of the risk forms.

The plaintiff’s created a fraud argument. Under Montana’s law:

To prove fraud, the plaintiff must show by clear and convincing evidence that (1) the defendant made a false representation intended to induce action by the plaintiff; (2) the plaintiff reasonably believed the representation to be true; and (3) the plaintiff suffered damages in relying upon the false representation

The plaintiff’s argued that the defendants made all sorts of statements and advertising that the float trip was a leisurely scenic trip. The channel the raft guide took was not leisurely but was a dangerous channel by some authorities. However, the issue was, did the defendants intentionally made the statements about the river to induce the plaintiffs to the trip.

The defendants wanted the plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages dismissed. In Wyoming, punitive damages appear to be a claim much like negligence. The punitive damages claim was based on the same allegations that the fraud claim was made, that the defendants misrepresented the nature of the float trip.

Punitive damages in Wyoming are:

We have approved punitive damages in circumstances involving outrageous conduct, such as intention-al torts, torts involving malice and torts involving willful and wanton misconduct.” Willful and wanton misconduct is the intentional doing, or failing to do, an act in reckless disregard of the consequences and under circumstances and conditions that a reasonable person would know that such conduct would, in a high degree of probability, result in harm to another. “The aggravating factor which distinguishes willful misconduct from ordinary negligence is the actor’s state of mind. In order to prove that an actor has engaged in willful misconduct, one must demonstrate that he acted with a state of mind that approaches intent to do harm.”

Failing to advise the plaintiffs that the river was running higher than normal because of the spring run off did not rise to a level to be reckless and willful misconduct. The one channel of several the one guide went down was a negligent decision, not a willful one.

So Now What?

Fairly simple, use a release. It would have stopped this lawsuit sooner. If the outfitter would have used a release, it could have protected the lodge and the travel agent. I’m sure the lodge is going to use one now, which will probably just muddy the water because of multiple releases and defendants.

There are very few statutes that provide any real protection in the outdoor recreation industry. Most, in fact, make it easier for the plaintiffs to win. The exception to the rule is a few of the Ski Area Safety Statutes.

Be prepared and do more than rely on a week statute.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Rizas et. al. v. Vail Resorts, Inc.; et. al., 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 139788

Rizas et. al. v. Vail Resorts, Inc.; et. al., 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 139788

Alexis R. Rizas, Individually and as the Personal Representative of the Wrongful Death Beneficiaries of John J. Rizas, deceased; John Friel, Individually and as the Personal Representative of the Wrongful Death Beneficiaries of Elizabeth A. Rizas, Deceased; Ronald J. Miciotto, as the Personal Representative of the Wrongful Death Beneficiaries of Linda and Lewis Clark, Deceased; James Clark; Lawrence Wilson; and Joyce Wilson, Plaintiffs, vs. Vail Resorts, Inc.; Grand Teton Lodge Company; Tauck, Inc., a.k.a. Tauck World Discovery, Inc., a.k.a. Tauck Tours, Inc., Defendants.

Case No. 08-CV-139-J

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF WYOMING

2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 139788

October 1, 2009, Filed

COUNSEL: [*1] For Alexis R Rizas, individually and as the personal representative of the wrongful death beneficiaries, on behalf of John J Rizas, John Friel, individually and as the personal representative of the wrongful death beneficiaries, on behalf of Elizabeth A Rizas, Ronald J Miciotto, individually and as the personal representative of the wrongful death beneficiaries, on behalf of Linda Lewis Clark, James Clark, individually, Lawrence Wilson, individually, Joyce Wilson, individually, Plaintiffs: Mel C Orchard, III, Roy A Jacobson, Jr, LEAD ATTORNEY, SPENCE LAW FIRM Jackson, WY USA.

For Grand Teton Lodge Company, a Wyoming corporation, Defendant: Joe M Teig, LEAD ATTORNEY, Susan Combs, HOLLAND & HART, Jackson, WY USA; Maryjo C Falcone, Peter W Rietz, LEAD ATTORNEY, RIETZ LAW FIRM, Dillon, CO USA.

For Tauck Inc, a New Jersey corporation doing business in the state of Connecticut, also known as Tauck Tours Inc, also known as Tauck World Discovery Inc, Defendant: William M McKellar, LEAD ATTORNEY, McKELLAR TIEDEKEN & SCOGGIN, Cheyenne, WY USA.

JUDGES: ALAN B. JOHNSON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

OPINION BY: ALAN B. JOHNSON

OPINION

ORDER ON DEFENDANTS’ MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

This matter comes before the Court on Defendants’ [*2] motions for summary judgment. Tauck, Inc. filed five motions and Grand Teton Lodge Company (“GTLC”) filed one, all on July 22, 2009. After careful consideration of the arguments and evidence supplied by both Plaintiffs and Defendants, for the reasons discussed in detail below, the Court finds that a genuine issue of material fact exists regarding the inherent risk of the river float activity. In all other respects, the Court will grant the defendants’ motions for summary judgment.

FACTS

The Court relates the following facts in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs, who are opposing Defendants’ motions for summary judgment.

Tauck is a corporation formed under the laws of New Jersey and primarily doing business in Connecticut. Stipulated Facts, Docket Entry 108, ¶ 9. Tauck is in the business of selling tour packages to its clients, one of which in 2006 was a tour called the “Yellowstone & Grand Teton – North.” Id. ¶ 24. This tour began in Salt Lake City, Utah and ended in Rapid City, South Dakota. Id. The tour included a two-night stay at the Jackson Lake Lodge in the Grand Teton National Park, and the Lodge was operated by GTLC. Id. ¶¶ 23, 24. GTLC is organized under the laws of Wyoming [*3] and operates within the Grand Teton National Park pursuant to a concessionaire agreement with the National Park Service. Id. ¶¶ 7, 8. Among the services that GTLC offered its guests is a 10-mile float trip along the Snake River from Deadman’s Bar to the Moose Landing. Id. ¶¶ 23, 24. Tauck’s 2006 promotional materials contains the following sentence: “Take a scenic ten-mile raft trip on the Snake River as it meanders through spectacular mountain scenery alive with wildlife, including moose, elk, deer, and many species of birds.” Plaintiff’s Resp. to Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiffs’ Claim for Fraud, Ex. 5.

On June 2, 2006, a tour group gathered at the Lodge at approximately 8:00 a.m. Stipulated Facts ¶ 27. They traveled via several vans to the rafting launch site at Deadman’s Bar. Id. The trip took approximately one hour. There the larger group was split into four smaller groups, one for each raft provided. Id. ¶ 28. Raft No. 1 was guided by Wayne Johnson, an employee of GTLC. The raft at issue, Raft No. 2, had 11 passengers: John Rizas, Elizabeth Rizas, Patricia Rizas, Linda Clark, James Clark, Lawrence “Bubba” Wilson, Joyce Wilson, Tom Rizas, Ruth Rizas, Jon Shaw, and Maria [*4] Urrutia. Id. ¶ 29. The raft guide was Daniel Hobbs, who was also a GTLC employee and had been for four years. Id. ¶ 30.

During the float trip, Raft No. 2 struck a log jam. Id. ¶ 32. The collision occurred in the Funnelcake channel, which was one of several braided channels of the river. The raft upended as a result and all passengers were thrown into the river. John Rizas, Elizabeth Rizas, and Linda Clark died as a result. Further facts will be discussed as necessary to resolve each legal issue.

DISCUSSION

This Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332 because there is complete diversity of citizenship between the plaintiffs and defendants. Vail Resorts was dismissed from this case for lack of jurisdiction on June 16, 2009. Plaintiffs are citizens of Maryland, Arizona, Louisiana, and Georgia. GTLC is incorporated in Wyoming, which is also its principal place of business. Tauk is incorporated in New Jersey, and its principal place of business is Connecticut.

Summary judgment is appropriate “if the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” [*5] Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); e.g., Kerber v. Qwest Pension Plan, 572 F.3d 1135, 1144 (10th Cir. 2009). The Court must view all facts and make inferences from the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. E.g., Utah Animal Rights Coalition v. Salt Lake County, 566 F.3d 1236, 1242 (10th Cir. 2009). The Court may consider only admissible evidence. Wright-Simmons v. City of Oklahoma City, 155 F.3d 1264, 1268 (10th Cir. 1998). See also Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e)(1).

Choice of Law

Because the Court is sitting in diversity, it would normally apply Wyoming law. See Butt v. Bank of America, N.A., 477 F.3d 1171, 1179 (10th Cir. 2007). In this case, however, Plaintiffs have raised a choice-of-law issue by urging this Court to apply Connecticut law. A federal court sitting in diversity applies the choice-of-law principles of the state in which it sits. Morrison Knudson Corp. v. Ground Improvement Techniques, Inc., 532 F.3d 1063, 1077 n.12 (10th Cir. 2008). Accordingly, this Court will apply Wyoming choice-of-law principles.

Plaintiffs first contend that Connecticut law applies because Tauck and its clients signed a contract to that effect. Specifically, the contract states the following:

It is agreed by Tauck World Discovery and the Tour Member that all legal claims, actions and proceedings against Tauck World Discovery under, in connection with, resulting from or incident to a tour may be instituted, if at all, only in a state or federal court within the State of Connecticut, USA, to the exclusion of the courts of or in any other state or jurisdiction. It is further agreed that all such claims, actions and proceedings shall [*6] be governed by and decided in accordance with the laws of the State of Connecticut.

Plaintiffs’ Resp. to Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiffs’ Claims for Fraud, Ex. 2. Tauck counters by claiming that the choice-of-law provision was intended for its benefit, and therefore it can waive that provision. Furthermore, it points out that, if the contract is to be enforced, there are a number of other provisions that would benefit Tauck, such as the choice-of-forum provision in the excerpt above.

In Wyoming, a contract must be construed according to the law of the place where it was made. J.W. Denio Milling Co. v. Malin, 25 Wyo. 143, 165 P. 1113, 1116 (Wyo. 1917). There is no evidence indicating where the contract at issue was formed, but that makes little difference because the law of waiver of contract provisions is widespread and well accepted. “A party to a contract may waive a provision of the contract that was included for his benefit.” E.g., Lanna v. Greene, 399 A.2d 837, 841 (Conn. 1978). See Takahashi v. Pepper Tank & Contracting Co., 58 Wyo. 330, 131 P.2d 339, 354 (Wyo. 1942). The question in this case is whether the choice-of-law provision was included for Tauck’s benefit.

The Court finds that it was. As far as the evidence indicates, none of the tour members or their survivors who are involved in this action are residents of Connecticut. [*7] The three plaintiffs who were also tour members, Mr. Clark and the Wilsons, are residents of Louisiana and Georgia, respectively. The residence of the three deceased tour members is not clear from the evidence submitted to the Court. Even if one of the three decedents were residents of Connecticut, that does not necessarily mean that the provision existed for that person’s benefit. Tauck drafted the provision at issue. The provision benefits Tauck by ensuring that any claims will be litigated in the forum most convenient to it, and under the law with which it is most familiar. Meanwhile, there is little or no benefit to any tour member who is not a resident of Connecticut. Even then, the choice-of-law provision would benefit the tour member by happenstance rather than by intention. Accordingly, Tauck may waive the choice of law provision, and has affirmatively stated that it has done so. Its waiver is further supported by the fact that it has never contended that suit is improper in this Court as a result of the choice-of-forum provision in the same contract.

Even if Tauck had not waived its right to enforce the choice-of-law provision, this Court would not enforce this provision due [*8] to Wyoming’s strong public policy of recreational immunity. Plaintiffs seek application of Connecticut law largely to avoid the effects of Wyoming’s Recreational Safety Act, Wyo. Stat. Ann. §§ 1-1-121 through -123 (LexisNexis 2009). The Court will discuss the Act in detail below; it is sufficient here to note that the Act provides a near-total elimination liability of a recreation provider where a person is injured because of an “inherent risk” of a recreational activity. River floating is specifically named as a qualifying recreational activity. Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-1-122(a)(iii). Consequently, Plaintiffs seek application of Connecticut law because Connecticut is not so protective of its recreational providers as Wyoming.

It is this very policy of protecting these providers that renders the contractual choice-of-law provision invalid. The Wyoming Supreme Court has not answered the question of whether the Act represents so strong a Wyoming policy as to render invalid a contractual choice-of-law provision that would eliminate the Act’s application. This Court believes that Wyoming, like other states, would look to general contract principles to resolve this question. The Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 187 (1971) states:

(1) The law of the state chosen by the parties to govern [*9] their contractual rights and duties will be applied if the particular issue is one which the parties could have resolved by an explicit provision in their agreement directed to that issue.

(2) The law of the state chosen by the parties to govern their contractual rights and duties will be applied, even if the particular issue is one which the parties could not have resolved by an explicit provision in their agreement directed to that issue, unless either

(a) the chosen state has no substantial relationship to the parties or the transaction and there is no other reasonable basis for the parties choice, or

(b) application of the law of the chosen state would be contrary to a fundamental policy of a state which has a materially greater interest than the chosen state in the determination of the particular issue and which, under the rule of § 188, would be the state of the applicable law in the absence of an effective choice of law by the parties.

(3) In the absence of a contrary indication of intention, the reference is to the local law of the state of the chosen law.

The tour members and Tauck agreed that Connecticut law would apply, and Connecticut has a significant connection to the contract [*10] because of Tauck’s operation there. Nevertheless, Wyoming’s interest in the resolution of this issue is significantly greater because important Wyoming policy concerns are involved in the question of whether a provider of recreation opportunities should be subject to liability for injury from inherent risks. Absent a Connecticut plaintiff, Connecticut has no interest in whether a Wyoming corporation is held liable. Indeed, Connecticut’s interest in this case, if any, is probably more closely aligned with Tauck, which operates in that state.

The Court’s analysis is further informed by the fact that that Wyoming’s public policy in this matter is a strong one. Initially, the Act was less protective of recreation service providers, defining an “inherent risk” as “any risk that is characteristic of or intrinsic to any sport or recreational opportunity and which cannot reasonably be eliminated, altered or controlled.” Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-1-122(a)(i) (LexisNexis 1989). In 1996, the Wyoming Legislature eliminated the clause, “and which cannot reasonably be eliminated, altered or controlled.” 1996 Wyo. Sess. Laws ch. 78, § 1. Subsequent to the amendment, this Court recognized the extraordinary protection offered to recreation [*11] providers in Wyoming:

The Court recognizes that its reading of the Wyoming Recreational Safety Act provides enormous protection to those in the business of providing recreational activities. . . . Consumers in Wyoming are now faced with an entire industry whose economic and consequent legislative power enables them to conduct business with only a passing thought to the safety of those who utilize their services. Despite this frightening prospect, the Court recognizes its place in our nation’s federal system of government. A court should not decimate the purpose of a legislative act, no matter how distasteful, when that purpose is clearly incorporated in the language of the act.

Cooperman v. David, 23 F. Supp. 2d 1315, 1321 (D. Wyo. 1998). Given this extraordinary protection, this Court must conclude that the Wyoming Legislature views immunity for recreation providers to be an important state interest. Wyoming law should apply in this case.

The Court’s decision is consistent with precedent set by the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. In Electrical Distributers, Inc. v. SFR, Inc., one issue considered by the court was whether the trial court properly applied Colorado law where a covenant not to compete named Colorado as the applicable law, [*12] but was to be performed exclusively in Utah. 166 F.3d 1074, 1083-84 (10th Cir. 1999). Using the analysis that this Court has adopted above, the Court of Appeals determined that Utah’s strong interest in careful scrutiny of covenants not to compete controlled over any interest Colorado had in enforcement of a contract made within its boundaries, but to be performed outside them. Id.

Recreation Safety Act

Defendants rely on Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act and claim that, pursuant to the Act, they owed no duty of care to any of the tour members. In response, Plaintiffs provide three reasons that the Act does not apply. First, they contend that Connecticut law applies–an argument that the Court has already resolved in favor of Defendants. Second, Plaintiffs argue that Tauck is not a “provider” as defined in the Act. Third, they assert that federal law preempts the Act. The Court will now address Plaintiffs second and third arguments in turn.

Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-1-122(a)(ii) defines “provider” as follows: “[A]ny person or governmental entity which for profit or otherwise offers or conducts a sport or recreational opportunity.” Plaintiffs claim that Tauck is not a provider because of its position that it did not conduct the activity itself, but rather was a travel agent [*13] that procured the raft trip on behalf of its tour members. In doing so, however, Plaintiffs overlook the undisputed fact that Tauck offered the float trip as part of its tour package. Given that the Act includes offering a recreational opportunity in its definition of “provider,” it is obvious that Tauck is, in fact, a provider.

Plaintiffs’ preemption argument requires significantly more discussion. State law may be preempted by federal law in three ways. First, Congress may expressly preempt state law. Barnett Bank of Marion County, N.A. v. Nelson, 517 U.S. 25, 31, 116 S. Ct. 1103, 134 L. Ed. 2d 237 (1996). Second, Congress may preempt an entire field by regulating that field so comprehensively that there is no room for state regulation. Id. at 31. Third, federal and state law may be in irreconcilable conflict, preempting state law even though Congress has not explicitly stated its intent to do so. Id. None of these three types of preemption occurred in this case.

The specific federal “law” that Plaintiffs believe preempt the Act is the concession contract between GTLC and the National Park Service. In particular, Plaintiffs point to the following language in the concession contract:

The Concessioner is responsible for providing a safe and healthful environment for its employees and clients as outlined [*14] in the Contract. The Concessioner will develop a Risk Management Program that will be approved by the Service in accordance with the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) and Service Guidelines. The Risk Management Program will be reviewed annually by the Service.

Plaintiffs’ Resp. to Motion For Summary Judgment on Wyoming Recreation Safety Act, Ex. 3. Plaintiffs claim that the concession contract “change[s] the character of the state law provisions encompassed by” the Act, and therefore results in an actual conflict between state and federal law. Plaintiffs’ Resp. Motion to Dismiss on Wyoming Recreation Safety Act, at 12. Plaintiffs also point to the National Park Service Management Policies 2006, which provides for visitor safety emergency response and emergency preparedness. That document refers several times to the safety of visitors to the park. Plaintiffs’ Resp. Motion to Dismiss on Wyoming Recreation Safety Act, Ex. 4.

Plaintiffs make an argument similar to that raised by the plaintiff in Carden v. Kelly, 175 F. Supp. 2d 1318 (D. Wyo. 2001). In Carden, this Court summarized the plaintiffs’ arguments as follows:

1) Plaintiff’s injuries occurred on federal land, the Bridger-Teton National Forest; 2) Defendants, in order to operate [*15] their business in the Bridger-Teton National Forest had to obtain a special-use permit from the Forest Service; 3) because Plaintiff’s injuries occurred on federal land, federal law, namely Forest Service regulations and the Defendants’ special-use permit apply; 4) the special-use permit contains provisions concerning negligence and injury to patrons of Forest Service permit holders, which Plaintiff claims requires the permit holders to inform their guests of the risks and have them sign a risk acknowledgment form; and 5) provisions in the Forest Service regulations requiring patrons of the Forest Service concessionaires to assume “usual” risks of activities within the National Forest conflicts with, and thus preempts, the Wyoming Recreation Statute.

Carden, 175 F. Supp. 2d at 1322. The Court determined that, although Congress had the authority to pre-empt the Recreation Safety Act on federal lands, it did not do so. Id. at 1322-26.

In the current case, the Court will follow Carden‘s sound reasoning. The Management Policies and the concession contract cited by Plaintiffs do broadly emphasize the Park Service’s interest in public safety, but does not indicate any intent to preempt Wyoming tort law. “Courts do not ‘lightly attribute [*16] to Congress or to a federal agency the intent to preempt state or local laws.'” Ramsey Winch Inc. v. Henry, 555 F.3d 1199, 1204 (10th Cir. 2009) quoting Nat’l Solid Wastes Mgmt. Ass’n v. Killian, 918 F.2d 671, 676 (7th Cir. 1990).

Plaintiffs in the case at bar attempt to distinguish Carden by noting that the requirements in Carden were imposed by the Forest Service, while this case involves the Park Service. Plaintiffs do not point out how this fact is relevant, and the Court does not discern any. The Park Service was created to

promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks . . . to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.

16 U.S.C. § 1. Its mission is therefore one of conservation, and the Court does not perceive any intent to impact state tort law. The Court finds that federal law has not preempted the Wyoming Recreational Safety Act.

It is now incumbent upon the Court to determine if the Act applies to the circumstances of this case and insulates the defendants from liability. The Act states, in relevant part,

(a) Any person who takes part in any sport or recreational opportunity assumes the inherent risks in that sport [*17] or recreational opportunity, whether those risks are known or unknown, and is legally responsible for any and all damage, injury or death to himself or other persons or property that results from the inherent risks in that sport or recreational opportunity.

(b) A provider of any sport or recreational opportunity is not required to eliminate, alter or control the inherent risks within the particular sport or recreational opportunity.

(c) Actions based upon negligence of the provider wherein the damage, injury or death is not the result of an inherent risk of the sport or recreational opportunity shall be preserved pursuant to W.S. 1-1-109.

Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-1-123.

Past disputes regarding the Act’s application involve, as does this case, questions about what constitutes an “inherent risk.” “‘Inherent risk’ with regard to any sport or recreational opportunity means those dangerous conditions which are characteristic of, intrinsic to, or an integral part of any sport or recreational opportunity.” Id. § 1-1-122(a)(i). The Wyoming Supreme Court has had few occasions to address the determination of what is an inherent risk of a particular activity. One of the more recent cases arose as a certified question from this Court. Jackson Hole Mount. Resort Corp. v. Rohrman, 2006 WY 156, 150 P.3d 167 (Wyo. 2006). The [*18] question certified was: “When faced with motions for summary judgment in which there are no genuine issues of material fact, how should a court differentiate, as a matter of law, between ‘inherent risks’ . . . and non-inherent risks . . . ?” Id. at 168.

[The] general answer is that if such a motion is filed, the trial court must scrutinized the facts brought forward by the parties with great care. If the court can say that, given the evidence, this is an “inherent risk” and reasonable minds cannot differ about that, then summary judgment is appropriate. If the risk is an inherent one, then the provider has no duty to eliminate, alter, or control it. On the other hand, if reasonable minds could differ as to whether or not the risk was one inherent to the recreational activity, then summary judgment is not appropriate and the answer to the question must be assigned to the jury (or other fact finder).

Id. This formulation, of course, depends on properly characterizing the activity and risk. For example, in the current case, the activity may be characterized as a “scenic float trip”–as Plaintiffs do throughout their memorandum in opposition to summary judgment–or as “river rafting.” The particular [*19] risk may be described generically as falling out of the boat or, more specifically, as colliding with a log jam resulting in ejection from the raft.

Governing precedent demands that the activity and risk be described as particularly as possible. In Cooperman v. David, for example, the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit stated that, “[w]hen attempting to determine whether a risk is inherent to a sport, we can not look at the risk in a vacuum, apart from the factual setting to which the [injured person] was exposed. And, we must evaluate the risk at the greatest level of specificity permitted by the factual record.” 214 F.3d 1162, 1167 (10th Cir. 2000). In this case, the activity is best described as river floating under the water conditions that were apparent when the tour members embarked. The risk is best described as the risk that the raft would encounter a log jam, ejecting one or more tour members into the river.

Applying the law from this point forward is somewhat more problematic because the precedent in this area is not entirely clear. In Cooperman, the court affirmed this Court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendant because a loose saddle cinch was an inherent risk of the activity of horseback [*20] riding. Id. at 1169. The trial court received expert testimony that a slipping saddle was a risk inherent to horseback riding. Id. at 1168. There was also testimony that the particular saddle at issue was cinched too loosely, and an inference that the loose cinching caused the saddle to slip. Id. The Cooperman court said that, even with this evidence, the risk was inherent because a person cinching a saddle had to balance between doing so too tightly and too loosely. “This imprecision in the cinching of the saddle is ‘characteristic’ or ‘typical’ of and therefore ‘inherent in’ the sport of horseback riding.” Id. Critically, the court stated,

As part of the Coopermans’ burden of showing that [the provider] owed Dr. Cooperman a duty of care, the Coopermans must provide some evidence to explain why the saddle fell, which explanation is not inherent to the sport. . . . Thus, stating only that the cinch was not tight enough does not show that the risk was no longer inherent to the sport. The Coopermans have the burden of presenting some evidence on summary judgment that would raise a question of fact that the loosely cinched saddle was caused, not by an inherent risk, but rather by a risk that was atypical, uncharacteristic, [*21] not intrinsic to, and thus not inherent in, the recreational activity of horseback riding. The Coopermans have not met this burden.

Id. at 1168-69.

The current case presents certain parallels. It is undisputed based on the evidence before the Court that being ejected or otherwise falling out of a raft is generally an inherent risk of river floating. For example, Sheri Griffith, an outfitter and river guide, testified that it is an inherent risk that a person might “become a swimmer” during a float trip. Griffith Depo. 152. There is no testimony that contradicts her opinion. It is also undisputed that the rafting guide instructed the tour members that, if they were to end up in the river, the proper procedure was to float on their back until they could be recovered. L. Wilson Depo. 318; Hobbs Depo. 136. This is similar to the expert testimony in Cooperman that a slipping saddle is an inherent risk of horseback riding: it describes the risk in general terms without looking at the specific cause. Also like Cooperman, Plaintiffs in this case have not submitted admissible evidence that describes a specific cause of the injury, and shown that the particular cause falls outside of the realm of being an inherent [*22] risk. Following the Cooperman analysis, then, the Court would conclude that Plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate that a genuine issue of material fact exists regarding whether encountering a log jam resulting in ejection from the raft is an inherent risk of river floating.

But the Court must also consider Sapone v. Grand Targhee, Inc., 308 F.3d 1096 (10th Cir. 2002). In that case, a six-year-old girl was injured when her horse bolted. Sapone, 308 F.3d at 1098. The plaintiffs presented evidence from an expert that “(1) the instructions were inadequate, (2) the horse was too large, (3) headgear should have been provided, (4) the trail ride may have been too dangerous, and (5) her parents were not notified of the accident.” Id. at 1104. It is not entirely clear why these facts would affect the nature of the risk. The court concluded “that a reasonable jury might conclude that [the girl’s] injuries were the result of negligence that is not characteristic of, intrinsic to, or an integral part [of] horseback riding.” Id. at 1105. Two possible interpretations of this passage are that negligence is never an integral part of horseback riding, or that some negligence is an integral part, but not the negligent acts complained of in that case. The former interpretation would render the statute futile [*23] as a way to safeguard recreation providers against liability, so it is unlikely that the Court of Appeals intended that meaning. The latter interpretation is more plausible, but raises the difficult question of what types of negligence are inherent to a particular activity and which are not. In either case, a trial court or fact finder is confronted with the difficult task of determining whether negligence occurred in order to determine whether the defendant owed a duty.

In any case, this Court is bound to apply Sapone. Plaintiffs have submitted evidence that tends to show that the river, on the day of the river float trip, was running higher and faster so as to result in an activity with some greater risk to the participants. In addition, Plaintiffs submitted evidence suggesting that this stretch of river was generally believed to be a dangerous one. Rutter Depo. Ex. 1. Specifically, a National Park Service publication entitled “Floating the Snake River” states that the area from Deadman’s Bar to Moose Landing “is the most challenging stretch of river in the park and most accidents occur here. The river drops more steeply, with faster water than in other sections south of Pacific Creek. [*24] Complex braiding obscures the main channel and strong currents can sweep boaters into side channels blocked by logjams.” Id. This evidence is not uncontested, of course, but it is sufficient to preclude summary judgment on this issue. The Court finds that there is a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether colliding with the log jam was an inherent risk of the river float trip undertaken by the tour members on June 2, 2006.

Negligence

Tauck moved for summary judgment in its favor on Plaintiffs’ negligence claim. Tauck’s argument boils down to an assertion that it is essentially a travel agency, and therefore is not liable for any negligence committed by GTLC. Plaintiffs contend that Tauck is a common carrier, and therefore subject to a heightened duty of care. They also assert that Tauck assumed a duty to warn of dangerous conditions when it distributed a form entitled “Acknowledgment of Risk” on the way to the river.

As a general rule, a tour operator is not liable for injuries caused by the negligence of third parties over which the tour operator did not exercise ownership or control. E.g., Sova v. Apple Vacations, 984 F. Supp. 1136, 1140 (S.D. Ohio 1997).1 The general rule may not apply, however, in the face of contractual language to the [*25] contrary. In this case, Plaintiffs contend that Tauck’s promotional materials contained promises that Tauck would assume a certain duty. For example, they point to language in which Tauck states tour members will “enjoy VIP attention from our experienced Tauck Directors who are dedicated to making your trip the best it can be” and that “[o]nce you arrive at your Tauck Bridges destination, leave the day-to-day details to us–all you need to do is have fun with your family.” Plaintiffs’ Resp. to Motion for Summary Judgment on Negligence, 5-6. They compare this language to that relied upon by the court in Stevenson v. Four Winds Travel, Inc. to find that the plaintiff had a right to expect a warning of a slippery condition while on a tour. 462 F.2d 899, 906-07 (5th Cir. 1972).

1 The Wyoming Supreme Court has not yet addressed this question, but it would likely follow this general rule.

Stevenson, however, is distinguishable from the current case. First, the language in the promotional materials in Stevenson is considerably stronger than those distributed by Tauck. For example, the materials stated that guests would be “cared for by a carefully selected Four Winds Tour escort” and that the tour directors “know precisely what you will be seeing and doing every day.” Id. In contrast, Tauck’s materials state that trips “are enhanced by [*26] our experienced directors,” and that Tauck will “take care of all [arrangements] for you, so you can indulge in the joys of travel without any of the day-to-day hassles.” Plaintiffs’ Resp. to Motion for Summary Judgment on Negligence, 5. To the extent that these vague statements mean anything at all, it falls far short of a promise to assume a duty. In addition, there is no indication in Stevenson that there was a separate contract. In this case, however, Tauck’s “Conditions of Tour”–relied upon by Plaintiffs in its argument that Connecticut law is applicable–contains a provision in which Tauck disclaims liability for “any Damages, or any problems concerning any . . . supplier providing tour services [or] programs, . . . including but not limited to . . . negligence by any . . . other supplier providing tour services [or] programs.” Plaintiffs’ Resp. to Motion for Summary Judgment on Recreation Safety Act, Ex. 1. Courts have relied on similar disclaimers to bar liability for acts of third parties that are beyond the control of the tour operator because the disclaimers are evidence that the operator did not intend to assume a guarantee of safety, even if the disclaimer is not itself [*27] contractually binding. E.g., Sova, 984 F. Supp. at 1139-40 (collecting illustrative cases). Accordingly, this Court finds that, as a matter of law, Tauck had no duty, either by virtue of its position as a tour operator or assumed through its promotional materials.

Plaintiffs next contend that Tauck is a common carrier pursuant to the common law and Article 10, Section 7 of the Wyoming Constitution. That provision states: “All corporations engaged in the transportation of persons, property, mineral oils, and minerals products, news or intelligence, including railroads, telegraphs, express companies, pipe lines and telephones, are declared to be common carriers.” Plaintiffs then rely upon section 314A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts, which states that a common carrier has a duty to its passengers to take reasonable action “to protect them against unreasonable risk of physical harm,” and to render aid if they are harmed. Tauck contends that it is not a common carrier because it does not actually transport tour members during the river floating trip.

Tauck’s position has merit, and there is authority for the proposition that a tour operator is not a common carrier. E.g., Stafford v. Intrav, Inc., 841 F. Supp. 284, 287 (E.D. Mo. 1993). The Court need not resolve the question of whether Tauck is a common carrier, however, because even if it is in general, it was not transporting [*28] tour members at the time of the raft collision. The undisputed evidence is that the tour members, during the rafting trip, were being transported by GTLC, not Tauck. In short, the tour members were no longer subject to Tauck’s custody or control, and therefore Tauck owed no duty. See Id. (tour operator had no duty to warn of dangerous condition on premises not under its control).

This leaves the question of whether distribution of “Acknowledgment of Risk” forms resulted in an imposition of a duty on Tauck. Plaintiffs cite section 324A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts, which states:

One who undertakes, gratuitously or for consideration, to render services to another which he should recognize as necessary for the protection of a third person or his things is subject to liability to the third person for physical harm resulting from his failure to exercise reasonable care to protect his undertaking, if

(a) his failure to exercise reasonable care increases the risk of such harm, or

(b) he has undertaken to perform a duty owed by the other to the third person, or

(c) the harm is suffered because of reliance of the other or the third person upon the undertaking.

The Wyoming Supreme Court adopted this provision as reflected in subsection (a) in Ellsworth Bros., Inc. v. Crook, 406 P.2d 520, 524 (Wyo. 1965). Relying [*29] on the Restatement, Plaintiffs claim that “by requiring its Tour Directors to get guests to sign GTLC’s Acknowledgment of Risk form well in advance of arriving at the Lodge, Tauck undertook the duty to inform guests about risks associated with the raft trip.” Plaintiffs’ Resp. to Motion for Summary Judgment on Negligence, 7.

This statement, however, assumes that by undertaking to distribute the “Acknowledgment of Risk” form, Tauck was undertaking the broader task of informing guests about risks associated with the raft trip. There is no evidence before the Court to support this assumption. The only evidence that Tauck undertook to do anything for GTLC is testimony that GTLC asked Tauck to present the form to those tour members who were to participate in the rafting trip. Rice Depo. 47.2 There is no testimony that suggests Tauck was asked, or agreed, to inform guests of all risks involved in the rafting trip.

2 There is some conflict in the record regarding precisely when the tour members were given the form, but that is not material for resolution of this issue.

The Court finds as a matter of law that Tauck did not owe a duty to the tour members to warn them of the conditions of the river or otherwise act to prevent their injuries. Tauck may not be found negligent on a theory of direct liability.

Joint Venture

The Court must next address Tauck’s [*30] contention that it may not be held vicariously liable for GTLC’s negligence because the two companies did not form a joint venture. Tauck argues that GTLC was simply a supplier, and that the two businesses did not jointly embark on a business venture. In Wyoming, a person alleging the existence of a joint venture has the burden to prove four elements:

(1) an agreement, express or implied, among the members of the group; (2) a common purpose to be carried out by the group; (3) a community of pecuniary interest in that purpose, among the members; and (4) an equal right to a voice in the direction of the enterprise, which gives an equal right of control.

Popejoy v. Steinle, 820 P.2d 545, 549 (Wyo. 1991) quoting Holliday v. Bannister, 741 P.2d 89, 93 n.1 (Wyo. 1987).

Considering the first element, that of an agreement, the Court finds that there is a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether Tauck and GTLC agreed to provide services. Plaintiffs have submitted a document entitled “Tour Operator Contract,” which governs the terms of the sale of room blocks and river float trips to Tauck. Plaintiff’s Resp. to Motion for Summary Judgment on Joint Venture, Ex. 5. Several witnesses, officials of Tauck, testified that they viewed GTLC as a supplier, not as a partner. Nevertheless, viewing [*31] the contract in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs, it is not unreasonable to characterize it as an agreement for the purposes of this joint venture analysis.

The Court also finds that a reasonable jury could find that Tauck and GTLC had a common purpose. This purpose was to sell tour members lodging and river float trips. Tauck’s purpose was somewhat broader, generally, because it sold lager tours of which the interaction with GTLC was a small part, but this does not remove the fact that GTLC and Tauck were united in purpose during this portion of the tour. Similarly, they both had a pecuniary interest in the enterprise. Tauck points out that GTLC received the same amount for its float tours whether its guests were members of a Tauck tour or individuals. But the arrangement nonetheless furthered GTLC’s financial goals by bringing significant numbers of guests to GTLC. Similarly, Tauck benefitted financially by featuring GTLC lodging and the float trip as part of its tour.

The Court does not find, however, that Tauck and GTLC had an equal right of control. Plaintiffs rely heavily on the fact that both business had the capability to cancel the float trip at their discretion, but that [*32] does not suggest an equal voice in the activity in question. For example, the evidence submitted to the Court indicates that the Tauck tour director brought the residents to the lodge and interacted with GTLC staff, but there is no indication that any Tauck official had the authority to direct any day-to-day activities. It had no input into the decision to hire Mr. Hobbs, the guide of Raft No. 2, or to direct the manner in which he conducted the rafting trip. Tauck could not have directed that the river guide take the group down a different part of the river, or terminated the guide’s employment. If GTLC had decided to terminate its river floating operations, Tauck would have been powerless to prevent it, aside from the scope of any service contract that was currently in place. Tauck and GTLC were two separate operations, and there is no evidence submitted to the Court that suggests otherwise. The Court finds, as a matter of law, that Tauck and GTLC did not have a joint venture.

The Court notes that, with no direct liability and no joint venture resulting in vicarious liability, Tauck is not liable for any claims of negligence.

Fraud

Plaintiffs have alleged that GTLC and Tauck committed [*33] fraud by enacting a scheme whereby the tour members were lured into taking a dangerous rafting trip as a result of GTLC and Tauck’s material misrepresentations regarding the level of danger. “To prove fraud, the plaintiff must show by clear and convincing evidence that (1) the defendant made a false representation intended to induce action by the plaintiff; (2) the plaintiff reasonably believed the representation to be true; and (3) the plaintiff suffered damages in relying upon the false representation.” Garrison v. CC Builders, Inc., 2008 WY 34, 179 P.3d 867, 877 (Wyo. 2008). The false representation must be made knowingly: “One cannot be guilty of fraudulently or intentionally concealing or misrepresenting facts of which he is not aware.” Meeker v. Lanham, 604 P.2d 556, 559 (Wyo. 1979). Plaintiffs’ fraud claim fails because they have failed to provide evidence from which a reasonable jury could find by clear and convincing evidence that Defendants knowingly made a false representation of a material fact.

Plaintiffs first cite statements made in Tauck’s travel brochure discussing the rafting trip. “[T]he record shows that Tauck’s 2006 Brochure described the Snake River as a ‘meandering float trip,’ when in actuality, the Plaintiffs’ [sic] ended up on a whitewater raft trip with Class IV rapids.”
[*34] Plaintiffs’ Resp. to Motion for Summary Judgment on Fraud Claim, 8. Plaintiffs also cite statements in Tauck’s promotional materials stating that its tour directors are “knowledgeable professionals, with a wealth of information,” and that Tauck “does it all for you,” and that tour members can “leave all day-to-day details” to Tauck. Id.

For the most part, these promotional statements are “mere puffery” E.g., Alpine Bank v. Hubbell, 555 F.3d 1097, 1106 (10th Cir. 2009). The one arguable exception is the description of the activity as a “meandering float trip,” which may be sufficiently definite that a sensible person may be justified in relying on it to some degree. Even in that case, however, there is no indication that Tauck was aware that the river floating trip would be anything other than as described.

The key problem with Plaintiffs’ case is that there is no indication that this particular stretch of the Snake River was inherently dangerous on the day of the collision. Instead, the evidence, viewed in a light most favorable to Plaintiffs, indicates that the guide of the raft that collided with the log jam took the raft into an unsafe channel. For example, the deposition of Wayne Johnson, one of the river guides on June 2, 2006, indicates [*35] that he viewed the “Funnelcake” channel as dangerous on that date. Johnson Depo. 184. Mr. Reed Finlay, a river guide with a different company, testified at some length about the “Funnelcake” channel, specifically that it was dangerous on the date of the collision. Finlay Depo. 126-32. Indeed, it is undisputed that the float trip on the day of the collision was peaceful and uneventful until Raft No. 2 entered the channel and struck the log jam. J. Wilson Depo. 76-77; R. Rizas Depo. 102, 209, 219. In short, there is no indication that Tauck made a misrepresentation when the rafting trip was marketed as a “meandering float trip.”

Plaintiffs also rely on several statements made by employees of Tauck and GTLC before the raft trip. First, Mr. Wilson saw saw people white water rafting while on the bus trip into Jackson on June 1, 2006. When the he asked the tour director, Mr. Rice, if that was what their rafting trip would be like, Mr. Rice replied that the rafting trip would be a “leisurely, scenic float down the Snake River,” and not to worry. Mr. Rice also stated that Tauck had “never lost anybody.” L. Wilson Depo. 61-62. Second, while the groups were in the GTLC vans on the way to the [*36] river, Ms. Elizabeth Rizas asked the van driver about the safety of the float trip. The van driver responded by telling her that she was more likely to be in an accident in the van traveling to the river than on the float trip. J. Wilson Depo 39-40. There is also some evidence that the van driver also stated that they had “never lost anybody yet.” Id. 60.

Again, there is no evidence indicating that these statements are deliberately false. Much like Tauck’s advertising, there was no reason for Tauck or GTLC to believe that the rafting trip would be anything other than a leisurely, scenic float trip. Although Plaintiffs repeatedly rely on the fact that the river was flowing stronger and faster than usual because of the spring thaw, there is no evidence suggesting that this change in conditions precluded GTLC from being able to provide the safe and relaxing experience that the tour members were expecting. The additional fact that the float trip resulted in a devastating collision instead is not relevant when considering what Tauck and GTLC knew at the time they made the statements at issue.

Lastly, Plaintiffs contend that Defendants committed fraud by failing to inform them of the full nature [*37] of the risks on this particular float trips. The Court finds that any failure to inform the guest of these dangers is not actionable as a matter of law. First, there can be no fraud because there is no statement involved. The Court also relies on the Wyoming Supreme Court’s explicit refusal to adopt the tort of nondisclosure in Pittard v. Great Lakes Aviation, 2007 WY 64, 156 P.3d 964, 976 (Wyo. 2007). Plaintiffs have failed to establish the existence of a genuine issue of material fact that would preclude summary judgment in Defendants’ favor on the fraud issue.

Punitive Damages

GTLC has moved to dismiss Plaintiffs’ claim for punitive damages.3 Plaintiffs’ response is similar to their fraud argument, that is, that GTLC deliberately misrepresented the float trip as safe and leisurely.

3 Tauck has also moved for summary judgment in its favor on the punitive damages issue. The Court, however, has already determined that Tauck is not liable, either directly or vicariously. Accordingly, the Court’s discussion addresses only Plaintiffs’ claim as it applies to GTLC.

The Wyoming Supreme Court has set out the following standard regarding punitive damages:

We have explained that punitive damages “are to be awarded only for conduct involving some element of outrage, similar to that usually found in crime. . . . We have approved punitive damages in circumstances involving outrageous conduct, such as intentional torts, torts involving malice and torts involving willful and wanton misconduct.” Weaver v. Mitchell, 715 P.2d 1361, 1369-70 (Wyo. 1986). Willful and wanton misconduct is the intentional doing, [*38] or failing to do, an act in reckless disregard of the consequences and under circumstances and conditions that a reasonable person would know that such conduct would, in a high degree of probability, result in harm to another. Mayflower Rest. Co. v. Griego, 741 P.2d 1106, 1115 (Wyo. 1987). “The aggravating factor which distinguishes willful misconduct from ordinary negligence is the actor’s state of mind. In order to prove that an actor has engaged in willful misconduct, one must demonstrate that he acted with a state of mind that approaches intent to do harm.” Bryant v. Hornbuckle, 728 P.2d 1132, 1136 (Wyo. 1986) (internal citation omitted).

Cramer v. Powder R. Coal Co., 2009 WY 45, 204 P.3d 974, 979-80 (Wyo. 2009).

Plaintiffs reason as follows:

Defendants here should have communicated the true Snake River conditions to the Plaintiffs rather than misrepresent the conditions and intentionally take the guests who had signed up for a scenic float trip into something knowingly quite different. Defendant’s failure to communicate the details indicates “reckless disregard of the consequences, and under such circumstances and conditions that a reasonable man would know, or have reason to know, that such conduct would, in a high degree of probability, result in substantial harm to another.” Danculovich [v. Brown], 593 P.2d [187,] 191.

Plaintiffs’ Response to Motion for Summary Judgment on Punitive Damages [*39]
, 11.

Plaintiffs’ contention that GTLC was aware that the float trip was materially more dangerous than previously represented to the tour members is not, as the Court has discussed, reflected in the record. Although it is undisputed that the level and flow of water was increased, and that this increase may heighten the risk of log jams or hide obstructions in the river, there is no evidence suggesting that the character of the river was altered to such an extent that it was willfully reckless to take passengers on the float trip.

The facts of this case are in stark contrast to those cases relied on by the Plaintiffs in which the Wyoming Supreme Court overturned trial courts’ grants of summary judgment in defendants’ favor on punitive damages. For example, the conduct alleged in Danculovich was drunk driving and speeding resulting in the driver losing control of the vehicle and killing the decedent. 593 P.2d at 190. The evidence in that case indicated that the defendant, who was driving the vehicle, had a blood alcohol content of 0.12%. Id. The court described the evidence of speeding as follows:

Radar clock of vehicle at 56 m.p.h. was made at north edge of business district. A witness estimated speed [*40] at 75 m.p.h. at city limits. Another witness estimated speed at 85 m.p.h. when vehicle passed him at point about .4 of mile before place of accident. Accident reconstruction expert estimated speed at place of accident to be minimum of 75 m.p.h. The speed limit within the city limits was 30 m.p.h. and beyond the city limits, 55 m.p.h.

Id. n.3. In Errington v. Zolessi, a treating physician conducted several cystograms of a patient following a laparoscopically assisted vaginal hysterectomy. 9 P.3d 966, 968 (Wyo. 2000). The cystograms initially indicated the presence of a fistula, and later confirmed it, but the doctor told the patient that she was healing normally, albeit slowly. Id. The Wyoming Supreme Court held that there was sufficient evidence that would allow a reasonable jury to find that the physician acted with reckless disregard for the patient’s safety. In either case, it is apparent that simply failing to advise the tour group members of the increased flow of the river does not rise to the level of reckless and willful misconduct. There is no question that the consequences of any negligence committed were devastating. But this Court must evaluate the question of outrageous conduct based on what was known [*41] at the time of the allegedly negligent act, not looking back at events with the benefit of hindsight. This is not to say that this conduct may not constitute simple negligence, but it does not warrant punitive damages.

IT IS ORDERED that Tauck’s Motion for Summary Judgment on Wyoming Recreational Safety Act, Docket No. 87, is DENIED.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Tauck’s Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiffs’ Claim of Negligence, Docket No. 81, is GRANTED.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Tauck’s Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiffs’ Claims of Joint Venture, Docket No. 84, is GRANTED.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Tauck’s Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiffs’ Claims of Fraud, Docket No. 90, is GRANTED.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Tauck’s Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiffs’ Claim for Punitive and Exemplary Damages, Docket No. 93, is GRANTED.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Grant Teton Lodge Company’s Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiffs’ Claims, Docket No. 96, is granted in part and denied in part. Specifically, the motion is DENIED as it relates to application of the Wyoming Recreation Safety Act, and is in all other respects GRANTED.

Dated this day of October, 2009.

/s/ Alan B. [*42] Johnson

ALAN B. JOHNSON

UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE


Expert testimony is needed when the activity is beyond the scope of the general knowledge of a juror in Connecticut.

In this case, the plaintiff’s claim failed because they needed any expert witness and the one they had hired was disqualified. Without an expert in horseback riding lessons, the plaintiff’s claims were dismissed.

Ellis v. YMCA Camp Mohawk, Inc., 615 Fed. Appx. 697; 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 16057

State: Connecticut, United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

Plaintiff: Louisa R. Ellis, ppa Elizabeth Ellis, Elizabeth Ellis

Defendant: YMCA Camp Mohawk, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses:

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2015

Summary

Your expert witness must have the experience, education or background to be able to testify as to their findings. In states where an expert opinion is needed, like Connecticut, not having an expert means not have a case.

Here the expert witness hired by the plaintiff did not have the necessary qualifications, and the court would not allow his testimony. Because horseback riding and equine issues were outside of the scope of the normal juror in Connecticut, an expert witness was needed by the plaintiff. Without an expert, the plaintiff’s case was dismissed.

Facts

On July 18, 2011, Louisa Ellis fell from a pony while taking horseback riding lessons at YMCA Camp Mohawk. Ellis sustained injuries to her hand and elbow that required surgery and therapy. Appellants identified Andres, an employee of Robson Forensic, to investigate the claims and to provide expert testimony.

The plaintiff’s hired an expert witness to provide expert testimony on why the defendant was negligent. The court found the plaintiff’s expert was not qualified to render an expert opinion on the matter.

… Corey Andres, was not qualified to render an expert opinion regarding the standard of care for an equestrian course at the YMCA camp at which twelve-year-old Louisa was injured.

The trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s case because they could not prove their case.

The district court excluded Andres’s expert testimony on the ground that he had limited experience in the field of horseback riding. Therefore, appellants’ failure to produce an expert where expert testimony was required led the district court to grant summary judgment.

The plaintiffs appealed.

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

Although the case was brought in the federal district court because the parties were from different states, the law of the state where the accident happened was the law used in the case. Since the accident occurred in Connecticut, Connecticut law was applied to the case.

Under Connecticut law, horseback riding was outside the general knowledge of jurors and thus required expert testimony for the jurors to make their decisions.

Connecticut courts have held, on similar facts, that the general public is no longer as familiar with horsemanship as it arguably was at the beginning of the twentieth century, and that expert testimony is necessary to establish a standard of care and a breach of that standard.

An expert witness is needed to show both the standard of care in the case and whether the defendant breached that standard of care.

The plaintiff hired Andres, an employee of Robson Forensic.

Andres claimed his expertise based on his membership in the American Camp Association (“ACA”) and his study of therapeutic education at Ohio State, University of Toledo, including a study pertaining to equestrian matters. Andres’s investigation concluded that YMCA was negligent in failing to provide complete and proper instruction as to how to fall from a horse in a way that minimizes injury.

The district court excluded “Andres’s expert testimony on the ground that he had limited experience in the field of horseback riding.”

The district stated, and the appellate court agreed that:

Andres does not rise to the level of expertise required to opine on the matters at hand. Andres has practically no knowledge or experience relating to horsemanship — his resume makes no reference to any such knowledge, and his investigation merely points to three publications that he relied on when preparing his report. Andres’s resume instead highlights a wide array of fields and organizations in which he has obtained certifications or is a member. Appellants argue that Andres’s membership in the ACA broadly reaches all camp recreations. This broad qualification falls well short of the specialized knowledge that Federal Rule of Evidence 702 demands. The district court therefore did not abuse its discretion in its decision to exclude Andres’s testimony.

Because the plaintiff’s expert witness was excluded and could not testify, the plaintiffs could not prove their case.

Appellants’ failure to provide necessary expert testimony precludes them from presenting these claims under Connecticut state law. Thus, there are no issues of material fact raised to challenge the district court’s entry of summary judgment.

So Now What?

The courts have been given broader discretion to determine who can and cannot testify as an expert witness. The courts can also determine, even if the expert is qualified to testify, that the testimony they are going to give is not based on science.

In states where expert testimony is required or any state where you want to win, you need to hire expert witnesses who are going to qualify as an expert in their field and provide an opinion based on science, history, experience and real life.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Twenty years ago, the New Hampshire Supreme Court shows how you can trample common sense to find a release invalid.

Release was signed for a trail ride and plaintiff claimed she told guide his horse was getting ready to act out before it kicked her.

Wright v. Loon Mountain Recreation Corporation, 140 N.H. 166; 663 A.2d 1340; 1995 N.H. LEXIS 119

State: New Hampshire, Supreme Court of New Hampshire

Plaintiff: Brenda Wright

Defendant: Loon Mountain Recreation Corporation d/b/a Loon Mountain Equestrian Center

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: for the Plaintiff

Year: 1995

Summary

Twenty-year-old New Hampshire Supreme Court decisions shows how convoluted a court can get when it decides a release will not be enforced. Court held the language in the release was confusing. However, to get that point the court had to not read the release I think.

Facts

The plaintiff signed up for a trail ride with the defendant. While on the ride she was kicked in the leg by another horse. She sued. On appeal she argued that her guide had failed to respond to indications that his horse, the one that kicked the plaintiff, was about to “act out.”

While on the tour, the plaintiff was kicked in the leg by her guide’s horse and sustained an injury. She brought a negligence action against the defendant, alleging that her tour guide had failed to respond to indications that his horse was about to “act out.”

[Every time I’ve been bit or kicked by a horse there was no warning. Sure, if a horse’s ears go back, there is a warning, but most times, horse 1, Moss 0. I wish there were indications that a horse was going to act out.]

Prior to suing she signed a release. The trial court dismissed her claim because of the release. She appealed.

New Hampshire has a two-tier court system. The trial court is called the Superior Court and appeals from the Superior Court are appealed to the New Hampshire Supreme Court. This appeal was decided by the New Hampshire Supreme Court.

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

The entire issue before the court was “whether an exculpatory contract signed by the plaintiff, Brenda Wright, released the defendant, Loon Mountain Recreation Corporation, from liability for its own negligence.”

The defendant argued the release “clearly and specifically indicated an intent to release Loon Mountain from liability for injury resulting from its own negligence while [the plaintiff] was engaged in the activity of horseback riding’“.

The Supreme Court looked at this decision in its analysis in a slightly different way.

This court will not enforce an exculpatory contract that contravenes public policy. “Once an exculpatory agreement is found unobjectionable as a matter of public policy, it will be upheld only if it appears that the plaintiff understood the import of the agreement or that a reasonable person in his position would have known of the exculpatory provision.”

“Since the terms of the contract are strictly construed against the defendant, the contract must clearly state that the defendant is not responsible for the consequences of his negligence.”

The court then read the release to determine if a reasonable person would have known about the exculpatory clause in the release. The court then worked hard to find a reasonable person would not.

A reasonable person would understand the provision if its language “clearly and specifically indicates the intent to release the defendant from liability for personal injury caused by the defendant’s negligence . . . .” We will assess the clarity of the con-tract by evaluating it as a whole, not by examining isolated words and phrases.

We conclude that the contract structure and organization obscured the exculpatory clauses. Strictly construing the contract language against the defendant, we find the contract did not clearly relieve the defendant of responsibility for the sort of negligence at issue in this case.

The language the court examined was in all caps so the language stood out from the surrounding language. However, the court stated that when the entire agreement was read, the all cap language was unclear. (?) The court’s determination that the clause was not clear was based on the word therefore.

In this case, the term “therefore” is significant. A common definition of “therefore” is “for that rea-son: because of that: on that ground . . . .” Webster’s Third New International Dictionary 2372 (unabridged ed. 1961) (Webster’s). A clause that is introduced by the term “therefore” cannot be understood without reading the antecedent language.

The court found additional language that it held confused the meaning of the release. The court concluded its analysis with this statement.

The exculpatory contract lacks a straightforward statement of the defendant’s intent to avoid liability for its failure to use reasonable care in any way. The agreement easily could have been framed in a manner that would have expressed more clearly its conditions and exclusions.

There was a dissent by two justices. Both who found the majority’s analysis was just a little ridiculous.

So Now What?

Sometimes your release is not going to win. In those cases, you are going to rely on your insurance company. In this case, the court worked hard to find little ways it could justify its desire to not support the release.

Possibly, this release might have had a better chance with a simple clear statement that by signing the release the signor could not sue for negligence. This release reads like it was written by an attorney training to kill trees rather than write documents for consumers.

But!

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Wright v. Loon Mountain Recreation Corporation, 140 N.H. 166; 663 A.2d 1340; 1995 N.H. LEXIS 119

Wright v. Loon Mountain Recreation Corporation, 140 N.H. 166; 663 A.2d 1340; 1995 N.H. LEXIS 119

Brenda Wright v. Loon Mountain Recreation Corporation d/b/a Loon Mountain Equestrian Center

No. 94-266

SUPREME COURT OF NEW HAMPSHIRE

140 N.H. 166; 663 A.2d 1340; 1995 N.H. LEXIS 119

August 22, 1995, Decided

SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: [***1] Released for Publication September 7, 1995.

PRIOR HISTORY: Merrimack County.

DISPOSITION: Reversed and remanded.

CASE SUMMARY:

PROCEDURAL POSTURE: Plaintiff injured brought a negligence action against defendant tour company after being hurt while on a horseback riding tour. The injured appealed the decision of the Superior Court of Merrimack County (New Hampshire), which granted the tour company’s motion for summary judgment.

OVERVIEW: Before going horseback riding on the tour, the injured signed an exculpatory agreement that released the tour company from liability as a result of various occurrences. The tour company successfully argued in the trial court that the exculpatory agreement barred the injured’s suit. The court found that the issue of whether the injured understood the agreement presented an issue of fact. In assessing the clarity of the contract by evaluating it as a whole, the court found that the contract structure and organization obscured the exculpatory clauses and did not clearly relieve the tour company of responsibility for the sort of negligence at issue in the case. The court reasoned that one clause was understandable to relate to the inherent dangers of horseback riding and liability for injures that occurred for that reason. However, the court found that receiving an injury that would not have occurred but for a tour guide’s negligence was not an inherent danger. Because the contract did not put the injured on clear notice, the tour company was not entitled to summary judgment.

OUTCOME: The judgment was reversed, and the case was remanded.

CORE TERMS: horse, exculpatory, horseback riding, reasonable person, exculpatory provision, personal injury, own negligence, summary judgment, public policy, animal, exculpatory clauses, issue of fact, opportunity to prove, contravenes, inclusive, obscured, verb, tour guide, qualifying, notice, ridden, matter of law, entitled to judgment, contract language, misunderstanding, unabridged, exhaustive, quotations, prefaced, genuine

LexisNexis(R) Headnotes

Civil Procedure > Summary Judgment > Burdens of Production & Proof > Movants

Civil Procedure > Summary Judgment > Opposition > General Overview

Civil Procedure > Summary Judgment > Standards > Genuine Disputes

[HN1] The trial court must grant summary judgment when it finds no genuine issue of material fact, after considering the affidavits and other evidence presented in a light most favorable to the non-moving party, and when the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The party opposing summary judgment must put forth contradictory evidence under oath, sufficient to indicate that a genuine issue of fact exists so that the party should have an opportunity to prove the fact at trial. All reasonable doubts should be resolved against the movant.

Contracts Law > Contract Conditions & Provisions > Exculpatory Clauses

Torts > Negligence > Defenses > Exculpatory Clauses > Interpretation

Torts > Procedure > Settlements > Releases > Construction & Interpretation

[HN2] The court will not enforce an exculpatory contract that contravenes public policy. Once an exculpatory agreement is found unobjectionable as a matter of public policy, it will be upheld only if it appears that the plaintiff understood the import of the agreement or that a reasonable person in his position would have known of the exculpatory provision. Since the terms of the contract are strictly construed against the defendant, the contract must clearly state that the defendant is not responsible for the consequences of his negligence.

Contracts Law > Contract Conditions & Provisions > Indemnity

[HN3] The plaintiff’s understanding presents an issue of fact, and the plaintiff should have an opportunity to prove the fact at trial unless the exculpatory language was clear and a misunderstanding was unreasonable.

Contracts Law > Contract Conditions & Provisions > Exculpatory Clauses

Contracts Law > Types of Contracts > Releases

Torts > Procedure > Settlements > Releases > General Overview

[HN4] The court examines the language of the release to determine whether a reasonable person in the plaintiff’s position would have known of the exculpatory provision. A reasonable person would understand the provision if its language clearly and specifically indicates the intent to release the defendant from liability for personal injury caused by the defendant’s negligence. The court assesses the clarity of the contract by evaluating it as a whole, not by examining isolated words and phrases.

HEADNOTES

1. Contracts–Liability for Negligence–Public Policy

New Hampshire Supreme Court will not enforce an exculpatory contract that contravenes public policy.

2. Contracts–Construction–Ambiguity

The plaintiff’s understanding of the release presents an issue of fact, and the plaintiff should have an opportunity to prove the fact at trial unless the exculpatory language was clear and a misunderstanding was unreasonable.

3. Contracts–Liability for Negligence–Exculpatory Provision

A reasonable person would “understand” an exculpatory provision if its language clearly and specifically indicated the intent to release the defendant from liability for personal injury caused by the defendant’s negligence.

4. Contracts–Liability for Negligence–Exculpatory Provision

Release language should be plain; a careful reading should not be necessary to divine the defendant’s intent.

5. Contracts–Liability for Negligence–Exculpatory Provision

The release language fails where it is obscured by qualifying terms and phrases and doesn’t put the plaintiff on clear notice.

COUNSEL: Craig, Wenners, Craig & Casinghino, P.A., of Manchester (Gary L. Casinghino and Gemma M. Dreher on the brief, and Mr. Casinghino orally), for the plaintiff.

Devine, Millimet & Branch, P.A., of Manchester (Gregory D. H. Jones and Joseph M. McDonough, III, on the brief, and Mr. Jones orally), for the defendant.

JUDGES: JOHNSON, J.; THAYER, J., with whom BROCK, C.J., joined, dissented; the others concurred.

OPINION BY: JOHNSON

OPINION

[*167] [**1341] JOHNSON, J. The question presented is whether an exculpatory contract signed by the plaintiff, Brenda Wright, released the defendant, Loon Mountain Recreation Corporation, from liability for its own negligence. The Superior Court (Manias, J.) found that the signed release barred the plaintiff’s negligence claim and granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment. We reverse.

Before embarking on a horseback riding tour at the Loon Mountain Equestrian Center, owned and operated by the defendant, the plaintiff was asked to read, complete, and sign the following exculpatory [***2] agreement:

I accept for use, as is, the animals listed on this form and accept full responsibility for its care while it is in my possession. I have made no misrepresentation to Loon Mountain regarding my name, address or age. I agree to hold harmless and indemnify Loon Mountain Recreation Corporation and its owners, agents and employees for any loss or damage, including any that result from claims for personal injury or property damage related to the use of this animal.

I understand and am aware that horseback riding is a HAZARDOUS ACTIVITY. I understand that the above activity and the use of horses involves a risk of injury to any and all parts of my body. I hereby agree to freely and expressly assume and accept any and all risks of injury or death from the use of this animal while participating in this activity.

I understand that it is not possible to predict every situation and condition of the terrain a horse will be ridden on; therefore, it is impossible to guarantee the horse I am riding will react safely in all riding situations. [*168]

I realize that it is mandatory that I wear a helmet at all times while horseback riding, and that I will obey all trail signs [***3] and remain only on open trails.

I therefore release Loon Mountain Recreation Corporation, its owners, agents and employees FROM ANY AND ALL LIABILITY FOR DAMAGES AND PERSONAL INJURY TO MYSELF OR ANY PERSON OR PROPERTY RESULTING FROM THE NEGLIGENCE OF LOON MOUNTAIN RECREATION CORPORATION TO INCLUDE NEGLIGENCE IN SELECTION, ADJUSTMENT OR ANY MAINTENANCE OF ANY HORSE, accepting myself the full responsibility for any and all damages or injury of any kind which may result. (PLEASE SIGN: Brenda Wright/s)

I agree that there have been no warranties, expressed or implied, which have been made to me which extend beyond the description of the equipment listed on this form. I the undersigned, acknowledge that I have carefully read this agreement and release of liability, and I understand its contents. I understand that my signature below expressly waives any rights I have to sue Loon Mountain Recreation Corporation for injuries and damages.

The plaintiff signed this agreement after the fifth paragraph and at the bottom.

While on the tour, the plaintiff was kicked in the leg by her guide’s horse and sustained an injury. She brought a negligence action against the defendant, alleging [***4] that her tour guide had failed to respond to indications that his horse was about to “act out.” The defendant argued that the exculpatory contract barred the plaintiff’s suit and moved for summary judgment. The Superior Court (Manias, J.) granted its motion, and this appeal followed.

[**1342] On appeal, the defendant argues that we should uphold the trial court’s grant of summary judgment because the contract “clearly and specifically indicated an intent to release Loon Mountain from liability for injury resulting from its own negligence while [the plaintiff] was engaged in the activity of horseback riding.”

[HN1] The trial court must grant summary judgment when it finds no genuine issue of material fact, after considering the affidavits and other evidence presented in a light most favorable to the non-moving party, and when the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The party opposing summary judgment must put forth contradictory [*169] evidence under oath, sufficient to indicate that a genuine issue of fact exists so that the party should have an opportunity to prove the fact at trial. All reasonable doubts should be resolved against the movant.


Phillips v. Verax [***5] Corp., 138 N.H. 240, 243, 637 A.2d 906, 909 (1994) (brackets, ellipses, and quotations omitted).

[HN2] This court will not enforce an exculpatory contract that contravenes public policy. Audley v. Melton, 138 N.H.. 416, 418, 640 A.2d 777, 779 (1994). “Once an exculpatory agreement is found unobjectionable as a matter of public policy, it will be upheld only if it appears that the plaintiff understood the import of the agreement or that a reasonable person in his position would have known of the exculpatory provision.” Barnes v. N.H. Karting Assoc., 128 N.H. 102, 107, 509 A.2d 151, 154 (1986). “Since the terms of the contract are strictly construed against the defendant, the contract must clearly state that the defendant is not responsible for the consequences of his negligence.” Id.

The plaintiff does not argue that the exculpatory contract contravenes public policy. Accordingly, we determine only whether “the plaintiff understood the import of the agreement,” and if not, whether “a reasonable person in [her] position would have known of the exculpatory provision.” Id.

The parties dispute whether the plaintiff understood the agreement to release the defendant from [***6] liability for its own negligence. [HN3] The plaintiff’s understanding presents an issue of fact, and the plaintiff should have an opportunity to prove the fact at trial unless the exculpatory language was clear and a misunderstanding was unreasonable. See Phillips, 138 N.H. at 243, 637 A.2d at 909; Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107, 509 A.2d at 154.

[HN4] We therefore examine the language of the release to determine whether “a reasonable person in [the plaintiff’s] position would have known of the exculpatory provision.” Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107, 509 A.2d at 154; cf. Raudonis v. Ins. Co. of North America, 137 N.H. 57, 59, 623 A.2d 746, 747 (1993) (interpretation of insurance contract language a question of law; we construe terms as would reasonable person in insured’s position). A reasonable person would understand the provision if its language “clearly and specifically indicates the intent to release the defendant from liability for personal injury caused by the defendant’s negligence . . . .” Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107, 509 A.2d at 154. We will assess the clarity of the contract by evaluating it as a whole, not by examining isolated [*170] words and phrases. See Chadwick v. CSI, Ltd., [***7] 137 N.H. 515, 524, 629 A.2d 820, 826 (1993).

We conclude that the contract structure and organization obscured the exculpatory clauses. Strictly construing the contract language against the defendant, we find the contract did not clearly relieve the defendant of responsibility for the sort of negligence at issue in this case. See Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107, 509 A.2d at 154.

The defendant emphasizes the language of the agreement’s fifth paragraph, which states: “I therefore release [the defendant] from ANY AND ALL LIABILITY FOR . . . PERSONAL INJURY TO MYSELF . . . RESULTING FROM THE NEGLIGENCE OF [THE DEFENDANT] TO INCLUDE NEGLIGENCE IN SELECTION, ADJUSTMENT OR ANY MAINTENANCE OF ANY HORSE, accepting myself the full responsibility for any . . . injury of any kind which may result.” (Emphasis added.) We find that when this clause is read within the [**1343] context of the entire agreement, its meaning is less than clear.

In this case, the term “therefore” is significant. A common definition of “therefore” is “for that reason: because of that: on that ground . . . .” Webster’s Third New International Dictionary 2372 (unabridged ed. 1961) (Webster’s). A clause that is introduced [***8] by the term “therefore” cannot be understood without reading the antecedent language.

The paragraphs preceding the exculpatory clause emphasize the inherent hazards of horseback riding. Because the exculpatory clause is prefaced by the term “therefore,” a reasonable person might understand its language to relate to the inherent dangers of horseback riding and liability for injuries that occur “for that reason.” Being kicked by a horse is a danger inherent to horseback riding; receiving an injury that would not have occurred but for a tour guide’s negligence, however, is not.

The exculpatory phrase in the fifth paragraph is further clouded by the qualifying language that follows. Pursuant to the contract, the defendant is released from liability for its negligence “to include negligence in selection, adjustment or any maintenance of any horse.” If we parse these terms, they do not necessarily restrict the defendant’s release to liability for negligent selection, adjustment, or maintenance of any horse. The superfluity of the terms, however, serves to obscure rather than clarify. Moreover, one sense of the word “inclusive” is “covering or intended to cover all items . . . .” Webster’s, [***9] supra at 1143. A reasonable person reading the clause thus might conclude that the agreement relieved the defendant of responsibility for the enumerated types of negligence only.

[*171] Whether the tour guide’s failure to control his horse constitutes “the negligent . . . maintenance of any horse,” is unclear. Webster’s gives several definitions for the word “maintain,” the two most relevant being: (1) “to keep in a state of repair, efficiency, or validity: preserve from failure or decline” and (2) “to provide for: bear the expense of: SUPPORT.” Webster’s, supra at 1362. When read in the context of selection and adjustment, therefore, a reasonable person in the position of the plaintiff might understand “the negligent . . . maintenance of any horse” to relate to negligent upkeep rather than control.

The contract is also unclear with respect to injuries involving horses not ridden by the plaintiff. The first, second, and third paragraphs emphasize only the horse that the plaintiff “accept[s] for use.” We reject the defendant’s argument that the phrase “use of this animal,” used in the first and second paragraphs, “is merely an alternative expression for the activity of ‘horseback [***10] riding.'” We also reject the defendant’s contention that the phrase “use of this animal” does not limit the contract’s application to injuries involving the plaintiff’s horse because “[a] careful reading . . . reveals that it is part of a clause modifying plaintiff’s agreement to ‘hold harmless and indemnify [the defendant] for any loss or damage. . . .'” The Barnes test requires that release language be plain; a careful reading should not be necessary to divine the defendant’s intent.

In Audley, we concluded:

Quite simply, the general release language does not satisfy the Barnes requirement that the contract must clearly state that the defendant is not responsible for the consequences of his negligence. The release fails in this respect not because it neglects to use the word ‘negligence’ or any other special terms; instead it fails because no particular attention is called to the notion of releasing the defendant from liability for his own negligence. The general language in the context of the release simply did not put the plaintiff on clear notice of such intent.


Audley, 138 N.H. at 419, 640 A.2d at 779 (quotations and citations omitted). [***11] Whereas the release language in Audley failed because it was too general, the release language in the present case fails because it is obscured by qualifying terms and phrases. The cases are similar, however, because neither contract put the plaintiff “on clear notice,” id.

The exculpatory contract lacks a straightforward statement of the defendant’s intent [**1344] to avoid liability for its failure to use reasonable [*172] care in any way. The agreement easily could have been framed in a manner that would have expressed more clearly its conditions and exclusions. The defendant was not entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

Reversed and remanded.

THAYER, J., with whom BROCK, C.J., joined, dissented; the others concurred.

DISSENT BY: THAYER

DISSENT

THAYER, J., dissenting: I would uphold the trial court’s grant of summary judgment because the exculpatory contract explicitly indicated an intent to release the defendant from liability for its own negligence. The contract in question purports to release the defendant from “ANY AND ALL LIABILITY FOR . . . PERSONAL INJURY TO MYSELF . . . RESULTING FROM THE NEGLIGENCE OF [THE DEFENDANT] TO INCLUDE NEGLIGENCE IN SELECTION, ADJUSTMENT OR ANY MAINTENANCE [***12] OF ANY HORSE.” The language clearly indicates an intent to release the defendant from liability for its own negligence. I agree with the majority that the use of the word “therefore” restricts the release to negligence associated with the inherent hazards of horseback riding. I do not agree, however, that the negligence alleged is not such a risk. The plaintiff alleged that the defendant’s employee had failed to properly control his horse, and that as a result, the horse “acted out.” Controlling a horse is an essential part of horseback riding. The possibility that someone will fail to exercise the proper control would seem to fall squarely within the category of dangers inherent in the sport.

The majority bases its holding in part on its interpretation of the phrase “to include.” In holding that the list prefaced by the words “to include” is meant to be exhaustive, the majority relies on a definition of the word “inclusive.” Such reliance is misplaced. The contract used the word “include” as a verb. The primary relevant definition of that word is “to place, list, or rate as a part or component of a whole or a larger group, class, or aggregate.” Webster’s Third New International [***13] Dictionary 1143 (unabridged ed. 1961) (Webster’s). “Inclusive,” however, is an adjective and its definition differs from the verb form of the word. See In re Dumaine, 135 N.H. 103, 107, 600 A.2d 127, 129 (1991). The use of the verb form of the word indicates that the listed types of negligence are “component[s] of a whole or a larger group,” Webster’s, supra, and that the list was not exhaustive.

The appropriate question, therefore, is whether the negligence alleged in this case is of the same type as those listed. The plaintiff [*173] alleges that the defendant’s employee failed to properly control his mount. This would seem to fall squarely within the type of negligence defined by the contract. That the horse causing the injury was not ridden by the plaintiff is irrelevant. The contract releases the defendant for negligence resulting from “the use of horses” and specifically from “NEGLIGENCE IN SELECTION, ADJUSTMENT OR ANY MAINTENANCE OF ANY HORSE.” (Emphasis added.) While the contract does refer to the plaintiff’s horse on a number of occasions, it also refers to horses generally and to “any” horse. This language cannot be read to restrict the defendant’s release [***14] solely to injuries caused by the plaintiff’s horse. I disagree with the majority’s reading of the exculpatory contract. Therefore, I respectfully dissent.

BROCK, C.J., joins in the dissent.


Ellis v. YMCA Camp Mohawk, Inc., 615 Fed. Appx. 697; 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 16057

Ellis v. YMCA Camp Mohawk, Inc., 615 Fed. Appx. 697; 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 16057

Louisa R. Ellis, ppa Elizabeth Ellis, Elizabeth Ellis, Plaintiff-Appellant, -v.- YMCA Camp Mohawk, Inc., Defendant-Appellee.

14-3460

UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SECOND CIRCUIT

615 Fed. Appx. 697; 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 16057

September 10, 2015, Decided

NOTICE: PLEASE REFER TO FEDERAL RULES OF APPELLATE PROCEDURE RULE 32.1 GOVERNING THE CITATION TO UNPUBLISHED OPINIONS.

PRIOR HISTORY: [**1] Appeal from a judgment of the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut (Thompson, J.).

Ellis v. Y.M.C.A. Camp Mohawk, Inc., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 110403 (D. Conn., Aug. 11, 2014)

CASE SUMMARY:

OVERVIEW: HOLDINGS: [1]-A claim that a summer camp operator was negligent in offering horseback riding instruction required the support of expert testimony, as the intricacies of horseback riding technique and horsemanship were no longer within the bounds of ordinary knowledge or experience of judges and jurors; [2]-The proffered expert witness was not qualified under Fed. R. Evid. 702, as he claimed a generalized familiarity with camp education but had practically no knowledge or experience relating to horsemanship.

OUTCOME: Judgment affirmed.

CORE TERMS: expert testimony, summary judgment, state law, standard of care, specialized knowledge, horsemanship, expertise, juror, horseback riding, expert witness, issues of material fact, qualification, familiarity, membership, diversity, resume, equestrian, pony

COUNSEL: FOR APPELLANT: Megan L. Piltz, Sabatini and Associates, LLC, Newington, Connecticut.

FOR APPELLEES: Renee W. Dwyer and Katherine L. Matthews, Gordon, Muir and Foley, LLP, Hartford, Connecticut.

JUDGES: PRESENT: RALPH K. WINTER, JOHN M. WALKER, JR., DENNIS JACOBS, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

[*697] SUMMARY ORDER

UPON DUE CONSIDERATION, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED, ADJUDGED AND DECREED that the judgment of the district court be AFFIRMED.

Louisa Ellis and Elizabeth Ellis (“Appellants”) appeal from the judgment of the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut (Thompson, J.), dismissing [*698] on summary judgment their diversity action alleging negligence against YCMA Camp Mohawk, Inc. (“YMCA”). Appellants argue that the district court abused its discretion in determining that their expert, Corey Andres, was not qualified to render an expert opinion regarding the standard of care for an equestrian course at the YMCA camp at which twelve-year-old Louisa was injured. Appellants also argue that the district court erred in determining that all of the issues presented require expert testimony. We assume the parties’ [**2] familiarity with the underlying facts, the procedural history, and the issues presented for review.

On July 18, 2011, Louisa Ellis fell from a pony while taking horseback riding lessons at YMCA Camp Mohawk. Ellis sustained injuries to her hand and elbow that required surgery and therapy. Appellants identified Andres, an employee of Robson Forensic, to investigate the claims and to provide expert testimony. Andres claimed his expertise based on his membership in the American Camp Association (“ACA”) and his study of therapeutic education at Ohio State, University of Toledo, including a study pertaining to equestrian matters. Andres’s investigation concluded that YMCA was negligent in failing to provide complete and proper instruction as to how to fall from a horse in a way that minimizes injury.

The district court excluded Andres’s expert testimony on the ground that he had limited experience in the field of horseback riding. Therefore, appellants’ failure to produce an expert where expert testimony was required led the district court to grant summary judgment.

[HN1] A grant of summary judgment is reviewed de novo to determine whether any genuine issues of material fact would bar summary judgment. [**3] Zurich Am. Ins. Co. v. ABM Indus., Inc., 397 F.3d 158, 164 (2d Cir. 2005). [HN2] We review the district court’s evidentiary ruling under an abuse-of-discretion standard. See id. at 171-72. “Either an error of law or a clear error of fact may constitute an abuse of discretion.” Schering Corp. v. Pfizer, Inc., 189 F.3d 218, 224 (2d Cir. 1999) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). [HN3] A district court’s qualification of an expert witness will only be overturned if it is manifestly erroneous. United States v. Barrow, 400 F.3d 109, 123 (2d Cir. 2005).

[HN4] In a diversity action, whether expert testimony is required is a matter of state law, whereas the admissibility of a given expert witness is governed by the Federal Rules of Evidence. See 29 Charles Alan Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 6263; see also Beaudette v. Louisville Ladder Inc., 462 F.3d 22, 27 (1st Cir. 2006). [HN5] Under Connecticut state law, expert testimony is required when a matter goes “beyond the ordinary knowledge and experience of judges or jurors.” LePage v. Horne, 262 Conn. 116, 809 A.2d 505, 511 (Conn. 2002). Connecticut courts have held, on similar facts, that the general public is no longer as familiar with horsemanship as it arguably was at the beginning of the twentieth century, and that expert testimony is necessary to establish a standard of care and a breach of that standard. Keeney v. Mystic Valley Hunt Club, Inc., 93 Conn. App. 368, 889 A.2d 829, 833-34 (Conn. App. Ct. 2006).

As the district court held, Appellants’ claims required the support of expert testimony. The intricacies of horseback riding technique and horsemanship [**4] are no longer within the bounds of ordinary knowledge or experience of judges and jurors. Questions [*699] such as whether the stirrups were improperly installed and whether the pony was of sufficient size to carry the rider are not questions that the average juror can decide based on past knowledge or experience. We therefore agree that Ellis needed expert testimony to show both a standard of care and a breach of that standard.

Andres claimed a generalized familiarity with camp education. However, [HN6] Federal Rule of Evidence 702 requires expertise based on specialized knowledge and experience, not a mere understanding derived from others’ publications. “A witness who is qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education may testify in the form of an opinion if the expert’s scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue.” Fed. R. Evid. 702(a); see also Marvel Characters, Inc. v. Kirby, 726 F.3d 119, 135 (2d Cir. 2013). Andres does not rise to the level of expertise required to opine on the matters at hand. Andres has practically no knowledge or experience relating to horsemanship — his resume makes no reference to any such knowledge, and his investigation merely points to three publications [**5] that he relied on when preparing his report. Andres’s resume instead highlights a wide array of fields and organizations in which he has obtained certifications or is a member. Appellants argue that Andres’s membership in the ACA broadly reaches all camp recreations. This broad qualification falls well short of the specialized knowledge that Federal Rule of Evidence 702 demands. The district court therefore did not abuse its discretion in its decision to exclude Andres’s testimony.

Appellants’ failure to provide necessary expert testimony precludes them from presenting these claims under Connecticut state law. See LePage, 809 A.2d at 511. Thus, there are no issues of material fact raised to challenge the district court’s entry of summary judgment.

For the foregoing reasons, and finding no merit in Appellant’s other arguments, we hereby AFFIRM the judgment of the district court.