Indemnification fails again in a release. Parent of child having a birthday at climbing gym signed release for the injured child, not her own child.

Indemnification is rarely if upheld in a release. The language does not meet the requirements needed under the law in most states to be an indemnification agreement.

Cannon v. Rock Climb Fairfield, LLC, 2020 Conn. Super. LEXIS 261

State: Connecticut, Superior Court of, Judicial District of Fairfield At Bridgeport

Plaintiff: Cindy Cannon PPA Emma Cannon

Defendant: Rock Climb Fairfield, LLC, Carabiners Fairfield, LLC and Matthew Conroy

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Indemnification by third party

Holding: for the Plaintiff

Year: 2020

Summary

Connecticut climbing gym had mother of a group of girls at a gym for a birthday party sign release for all the girls. After one of the girls was injured and sued, the climbing gym attempted to recover money from the mother who signed the release based on the language of the release in its indemnification clause. That failed.

If failed so badly the court voided the entire release finding it to be an adhesion contract.

Indemnification agreements in releases never work to recover damages from an injured plaintiff.

Facts

We are never made aware of the facts that gave rise to the injury that created this decision. However, since the issue is solely who is liable under contract (release) for the injury it is not really relevant.

The case arises from an incident where the minor plaintiff, Emma Cannon, fell from a climbing wall at the Rock Climb defendant’s indoor rock climbing facility located in Fairfield, Connecticut. The minor plaintiff claims she sustained personal injuries. On behalf of her minor child, Cindy Cannon instituted the present action alleging the facility, its agents and employees were negligent in supervising the rock climbing activities, thereby causing the minor plaintiff’s injuries. The defendants have filed an answer and eight special defenses to the amended complaint.

Thereafter, the Rock Climb defendants filed an apportionment complaint against the defendant Kate Licata, who brought the minor plaintiff, Emma Cannon, and several other girls to the facility for a group birthday party event. The apportionment complaint is dated February 6, 2019.4 The apportionment complaint alleges that Licata was negligent in numerous ways and seeks an apportionment of liability and damages as to Licata for the percentage of negligence attributable to her. The apportionment complaint is not the subject of the motion for summary judgment that is presently before the court. The Rock Climb defendants also filed a cross claim against Licata alleging contractual and common-law indemnity. The cross claim, which is the subject of Licata’s motion for summary judgment, is dated February 22, 2019.

So, the parent of the birthday child signed releases for the children attending the birthday party. When one child was injured and sued the climbing gym, the climbing gym brought the parent who signed the release into the lawsuit based on the indemnification language in the releases she signed.

The release was signed electronically; however, this was not an issue the court seemed interested in looking at.

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

The cross claim alleges that the Rock Climb defendants, who are the third-party plaintiffs, require all invitees to its facility to complete a “Release of Liability and Assumption of Risk” form before participating in rock climbing activities. If the participant is a minor, the form must be signed by the minor’s parent or court-appointed guardian, which Licata was not.

The defendant climbing gym filed a motion for summary judgement arguing the mother should be liable for any damages they pay out on behalf of the injured minor child. This was based on two legal theories the first was the indemnification language found in the release itself.

The release form contains language to the effect that the parent or guardian of the minor has explained the inherent risks of the activity to the minor and the minor understands the said risks and that the minor, nonetheless, wishes to participate in the activities. The release form further provides that “the parent of the minor visitor . . . forever discharge, and agree to indemnify . . . Carabiners Fairfield, LLC, its agents, owners, officers, volunteers, employees, and all other persons or entities acting in any capacity on its behalf . . . from any and all claims, suits, demands, causes of action, which are in any way connected with my or the minor visitor’s visit to the RCF activity site . . . My agreement of indemnity is intended to include claims arising out of losses suffered by me (an adult climber or parent) or the child and losses caused by me or the child. The agreements of indemnity and release include claims of negligence . . . of a Released Party.” The Rock Climb defendants allege that Licata completed an online version of the Release form and electronically signed it on behalf of the minor plaintiff Emma Cannon on October 3, 2016. Thus, Licata is contractually obligated to defend and indemnify the Rock Climb defendants for the injuries and damages resulting from Emma Cannon’s fall at the Rock Climb defendants’ facility pursuant to General Statutes §52-102a.5

The second defense or reason why the mother should be liable was based on common-law indemnification.

The Rock Climb defendants also allege Licata is liable for common-law indemnification, claiming that any injuries sustained by the minor plaintiff were proximately caused, in whole or part, by Licata’s negligence and carelessness in multiple ways. Among these allegations are failing to supervise and monitor the minor; failing to instruct the minor; and failing to warn the minor of the dangerous nature and risks of the activity. Lastly, the Rock Climb defendants argue that a substantial amount of discovery remains outstanding and various issues of fact are yet to be settled, and therefore, it argues that Licata’s summary judgment motion should be denied.

To succeed on an indemnification agreement the court found under Connecticut law the defendant climbing gym must show the following.

A party may bring an indemnification claim based on the terms of an indemnity agreement . . . [A]llegations of contractual indemnification must be supported by the terms of the contract or the contract itself . . . Under Connecticut law, to state a contract-based indemnification claim, the claimant must allege either an express or implied contractual right to indemnification . . . There is no requirement that a party seeking indemnification must assert allegations of exclusive control (or any of the other elements of a claim for indemnification based on active-passive negligence) in order to state a legally sufficient claim for contractual indemnification.

An indemnification agreement in Connecticut has four elements.

“The essential elements for a cause of action based on breach of contract are (1) the formation of an agreement, (2) performance by one party, (3) breach of the agreement by the opposing party, and (4) damages . . . [and] causation.”

The plaintiff argued that the entire release was void because of two prior Connecticut court decisions.

Lastly, the Reardon court noted that the release that the plaintiff signed broadly indemnifying the defendants from liability for damages resulting from the defendants’ own negligence was a classic contract of adhesion of the type that this court found to be in violation of public policy in Hanks.

(See Reardon v. Windswept Farm, LLC, et al., 280 Conn. 153; 905 A.2d 1156; 2006 Conn. LEXIS 330
and
States that do not Support the Use of a Release.)

The release stated the mother who signed the release knew that “the defendants’ [facilities or equipment] were maintained in a reasonably safe condition. The court found this to be utterly bogus (as do I). The mother had no knowledge or experience rock climbing and no clue, whether the facility was in good condition.

To the contrary, it was the defendants, not the plaintiff or the other customers, who had the “expertise and opportunity to foresee and control hazards, and to guard against the negligence of their agents and employees. They alone [could] properly maintain and inspect their premises, and train their employees in risk management.” In particular, the defendants acknowledged that they were responsible for providing their patrons with safe horses, qualified instructors, as well as properly maintained working equipment and riding surfaces.

This was the same position a Connecticut court in Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corporation et al., 276 Conn. 314; 885 A.2d 734; 2005 Conn. LEXIS 500, that the requirements in the release were absurd because the knowledge necessary to know and understand if the activity was safe or the equipment was in good working order was solely within the knowledge and experience of the defendant.

As we concluded in Hanks, it is illogical to relieve the defendants, as the party with greater expertise and information concerning the dangers associated with engaging in horseback riding at their facility, from potential claims of negligence surrounding an alleged failure to administer properly the activity.

The court then, using the issue of the ability of the mother who signed the release to contract about the equipment found the release to be a contract of adhesion.

Specifically, we have noted that the most salient feature of adhesion contracts is that they are not subject to the normal bargaining processes of ordinary contracts, and that they tend to involve a standard form contract prepared by one party, to be signed by the party in a weaker position, usually a consumer, who has little choice about the terms.

The issue of whether or not the release was an adhesion contract had been touched on lightly; however, the court eventually unloaded on the defendant finding the release to be a contract of adhesion, which voids releases in most states.

…that the release that the plaintiff signed broadly indemnifying the defendants from liability for damages resulting from the defendants’ own negligence was a classic contract of adhesion of the type that this court found to be in violation of public policy in Hanks.

Most states look at recreation, and since it is not a necessity, something needed for the modern survival of a person or family as not being contacts of adhesion. However, in Connecticut, there is no review of why the release is signed, just a review of the specific language in the release to determine if it is an adhesion contract.

The court then looked at the release under the requirements of the Connecticut Supreme Court and found the release lacking as well as the indemnification language in the release.

In the present case, the defendant’s facility was open to the general public regardless of a patron’s experience level. The minor plaintiff was a ten-year-old female. The defendants have admitted that they provided instruction to the group of minors attending the birthday celebration at the defendants’ facility. Neither the minor plaintiff or Licata provided any of the equipment to be used. Licata, herself, did not provide training, guidance or supervision to the minors, including the minor plaintiff. Licata possessed no special knowledge regarding rock climbing or bouldering activities including training and safety procedures other than an initial orientation by RCF employees. Maklad testified at her deposition that the orientation lasted only five to ten minutes. The RCF defendants/third-party plaintiffs admit that there was zero expectation that Licata would “train and guide climbers” or to inspect various facility equipment. RCF argues that they did expect that parents and guardians would supervise children. Thus, there is a question of fact as to whether or not Licata was adequately supervising the minor plaintiff Cannon when she fell. The court disagrees.

And then tore the release apart based on the lack of bargaining power between the parties.

In this case, signing the release provided by RCF was required as a condition of the plaintiff’s participation in the bouldering and rock climbing activities at the RCF facility. There was no opportunity for negotiation by the plaintiff, and if she was unsatisfied with the terms of the release, her only option was to not to allow the minor guests who accompanied her to the birthday party to participate. Licata had no bargaining power with respect to the negotiation of the release and in order to participate in the activity, she was required to assume the risk of the defendants’ negligence. “This condition of participation violates the stated public policy of our tort system because the plaintiff was required to bear an additional risk despite her status as a patron who was not in a position to foresee or control the alleged negligent conduct that she was confronted with, or manage and spread the risk more effectively then the defendants.”

The court then looked at the common-law indemnification argument of the climbing gym. For one party to hold the other party liable under common law, the following facts must be in place.

(1) the third party against whom indemnification is sought was negligent; (2) the third party’s active negligence, rather than the defendant’s own passive negligence, was the direct, immediate cause of the accident and the resulting harm; (3) the third party was in control of the situation to the exclusion of the defendant seeking reimbursement; and (4) the defendant did not know of the third party’s negligence, had no reason to anticipate it, and reasonably could rely on the third party not to be negligent.”

Just looking at these requirements at a climbing wall, you know the mother of a child hosting a birthday party, there is not going to meet any of these requirements.

The defendant climbing wall could not produce any evidence that the mother was in exclusive control of the situation to the exclusion of all others.

The mother’s motion for summary judgment was granted, and the plaintiff’s indemnification claims failed.

So Now What?

Overall, the language in this release did not meet Connecticut law on many counts. However, the court found the language to be so one-sided and so bad that if found multiple ways to void it. Releases must be written for the activity, the guests and the law of the state where the release will be used. When you have a state like Connecticut, where releases are always on a thing line between valid and void, the language is critical to succeed.

Indemnification claims in a release have never worked. The only way that the claims may work, would be against third parties when the liability is created by the guest. An example of something like that might be a guest on a trip starts a forest fire. The special-use permit or concession agreement generally holds the outfitter/permittee/concessionaire liable for the damages caused by the fire. The indemnification clause might work in that situation to recover some of the money to reimburse the outfitter.

(Always make sure your outfitter liability policy provides coverage for actions to third parties by your guests.)

However, I have never found a case where indemnification has worked to recover damages for an injury from parents, friends or the leader of the group of kids. Maine looked at the language of indemnification in a release and seemed to indicate it would be supported if written correctly. See Maine follows the majority and does not allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue.

The situation that created this mess is classic. A group of kids is coming to your business or program, and no one has notified the parents of a requirement to sign a release in advance. Upon arrival, someone who does not know or understand or a facility that does not care just has the adult with the kids sign the paperwork. That does not work.

Either get the parent’s signatures on documents or spend most of the time creating an assumption of the risk defense by educating the kids.

Don’t waste the paper or electrons having a youth leader or mother responsible of the group sign the release for the rest of the children in attendance. It just does not work.

This will be the fourth article I’ve written about Connecticut courts voiding releases. If you work or operate in Connecticut you are probably working in a state that does not support the use of a release.

For more information about indemnification see:

Indemnification agreements? What are you signing?

Indemnification between businesses requires a contract outlining the type of indemnification and a certificate of insurance from one party to the other so the insurance company knows it is on the hook

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Cannon v. Rock Climb Fairfield, LLC, 2020 Conn. Super. LEXIS 261

Cannon v. Rock Climb Fairfield, LLC, 2020 Conn. Super. LEXIS 261

Superior Court of Connecticut, Judicial District of Fairfield At Bridgeport

February 13, 2020, Decided; February 13, 2020, Filed

FBTCV186079642S

Reporter

2020 Conn. Super. LEXIS 261 *

Cindy Cannon PPA Emma Cannon v. Rock Climb Fairfield, LLC et al.

Notice: THIS DECISION IS UNREPORTED AND MAY BE SUBJECT TO FURTHER APPELLATE REVIEW. COUNSEL IS CAUTIONED TO MAKE AN INDEPENDENT DETERMINATION OF THE STATUS OF THIS CASE.

Prior History: Cannon v. Rock Climb Fairfield Llc, 2019 Conn. Super. LEXIS 1819 (Conn. Super. Ct., Feb. 11, 2019)

Judges:  [*1] Richard E. Arnold, Judge Trial Referee.

Opinion by: Richard E. Arnold

Opinion

MEMORANDUM OF DECISION RE MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT #142

The third-party defendant Kate Licata has moved for summary judgment on Counts One and Two of the Cross Complaint filed by the defendants third-party plaintiffs, Rock Climb Fairfield, LLC, Carabiners Fairfield, LLC and Matthew Conroy.1 Count One of the cross complaint alleges contractual indemnification and Count Two alleges common-law indemnification. The cross complaint is dated February 22, 2019. The third-party defendant Licata’s motion for summary judgment is dated September 9, 2019. The defendant third-party plaintiff’s objection is dated October 14, 2019.2 Licata’s reply to the objection is dated October 17, 2019. The court heard oral argument on October 21, 2019.

The case arises from an incident where the minor plaintiff, Emma Cannon, fell from a climbing wall at the Rock Climb defendant’s indoor rock climbing facility located in Fairfield, Connecticut. The minor plaintiff claims she sustained personal injuries. On behalf of her minor child, Cindy Cannon instituted the present action alleging the facility, its agents and employees were negligent in supervising the rock [*2]  climbing activities, thereby causing the minor plaintiff’s injuries.3 The defendants have filed an answer and eight special defenses to the amended complaint.

Thereafter, the Rock Climb defendants filed an apportionment complaint against the defendant Kate Licata, who brought the minor plaintiff, Emma Cannon, and several other girls to the facility for a group birthday party event. The apportionment complaint is dated February 6, 2019.4 The apportionment complaint alleges that Licata was negligent in numerous ways and seeks an apportionment of liability and damages as to Licata for the percentage of negligence attributable to her. The apportionment complaint is not the subject of the motion for summary judgment that is presently before the court. The Rock Climb defendants also filed a cross claim against Licata alleging contractual and common-law indemnity. The cross claim, which is the subject of Licata’s motion for summary judgment, is dated February 22, 2019.

The cross claim alleges that the Rock Climb defendants, who are the third-party plaintiffs, require all invitees to its facility to complete a “Release of Liability and Assumption of Risk” form before participating in rock climbing [*3]  activities. If the participant is a minor, the form must be signed by the minor’s parent or court-appointed guardian, which Licata was not. The release form contains language to the effect that the parent or guardian of the minor has explained the inherent risks of the activity to the minor and the minor understands the said risks and that the minor, nonetheless, wishes to participate in the activities. The release form further provides that “the parent of the minor visitor . . . forever discharge, and agree to indemnify . . . Carabiners Fairfield, LLC, its agents, owners, officers, volunteers, employees, and all other persons or entities acting in any capacity on its behalf . . . from any and all claims, suits, demands, causes of action, which are in any way connected with my or the minor visitor’s visit to the RCF activity site . . . My agreement of indemnity is intended to include claims arising out of losses suffered by me (an adult climber or parent) or the child and losses caused by me or the child. The agreements of indemnity and release include claims of negligence . . . of a Released Party.” The Rock Climb defendants allege that Licata completed an online version of the Release [*4]  form and electronically signed it on behalf of the minor plaintiff Emma Cannon on October 3, 2016. Thus, Licata is contractually obligated to defend and indemnify the Rock Climb defendants for the injuries and damages resulting from Emma Cannon’s fall at the Rock Climb defendants’ facility pursuant to General Statutes §52-102a.5

The Rock Climb defendants also allege Licata is liable for common-law indemnification, claiming that any injuries sustained by the minor plaintiff were proximately caused, in whole or part, by Licata’s negligence and carelessness in multiple ways. Among these allegations are failing to supervise and monitor the minor; failing to instruct the minor; and failing to warn the minor of the dangerous nature and risks of the activity. Lastly, the Rock Climb defendants argue that a substantial amount of discovery remains outstanding and various issues of fact are yet to be settled, and therefore, it argues that Licata’s summary judgment motion should be denied.

The plaintiff cross claim defendant, Licata, argues that the defendants cross claim plaintiffs’ claims are void as against public policy as a result of the decision in Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corp., 276 Conn. 314, 885 A.2d 734 (2005), [*7]  regarding any waiver signed by Licata, and any waiver signed by Licata was a contract of adhesion. Licata argues that she was not given any opportunity to negotiate the terms of the Release document, which was presented to her on a “take or leave it” basis. It was the Rock Climb defendants who were responsible for training Licata and/or the minor plaintiff to ensure safe rock climbing, as Licata claims she did not possess the knowledge, experience or authority to ensure the rock climbing facility was in a safe condition. Additionally, Licata argues she was not in control of the situation on the date in question, and the cross claim does not even allege she was in control of the situation. Therefore, any claim for common-law indemnification also fails as a matter of law.

I

Summary Judgment

The legal standard governing summary judgment motions is well settled. Summary judgment “shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, affidavits and any other proof submitted 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.” Practice Book §17-49. “A material fact is a fact that will make a difference in the result of the case . . . The facts [*8]  at issue are those alleged in the pleadings.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Morrissey-Manter v. Saint Francis Hospital & Medical Center, 166 Conn.App. 510, 517, 142 A.3d 363, cert. denied, 323 Conn. 924, 149 A.3d 982 (2016). Moreover, “[a] genuine issue has been variously described as a triable, substantial or real issue of fact . . . and has been defined as one which can be maintained by substantial evidence . . . Hence, the genuine issue aspect of summary judgment procedure requires the parties to bring forward before trial evidentiary facts, or substantial evidence outside the pleadings, from which the material facts alleged in the pleadings can warrantably be inferred.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Rickel v. Komaromi, 144 Conn.App. 775, 790-91, 73 A.3d 851 (2013).

“The party moving for summary judgment has the burden of showing the absence of any genuine issue of material fact and that the party is, therefore, entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) St. Pierre v. Plainfield, 326 Conn. 420, 426, 165 A.3d 148 (2017). “Because litigants ordinarily have a constitutional right to have issues of fact decided by the finder of fact, the party moving for summary judgment is held to a strict standard. [H]e must make a showing that it is quite clear what the truth is, and that excludes any real doubt as to the existence of any genuine issue of material fact.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) [*9]  Barasso v. Rear Still Hill Road, LLC, 81 Conn.App. 798, 802-03, 842 A.2d 1134 (2004). Consequently, on a motion by defendant for summary judgment the burden is on the defendant to negate each claim as framed by the complaint. Squeo v. Norwalk Hospital Ass’n, 316 Conn. 558, 594, 113 A.3d 932 (2015). “It necessarily follows that it is only [o]nce [the] defendant’s burden in establishing his entitlement to summary judgment is met [that] the burden shifts to [the] plaintiff to show that a genuine issue of fact exists justifying a trial.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Rockwell v. Quintner, 96 Conn.App. 221, 229, 899 A.2d 738, cert. denied, 280 Conn. 917, 908 A.2d 538 (2006).

“A material fact is a fact that will make a difference in the result of the case . . . The facts at issue are those alleged in the pleadings.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Morrissey-Manter v. Saint Francis Hospital & Medical Center, 166 Conn.App. 510, 517, 142 A.3d 363, cert. denied, 323 Conn. 924, 149 A.3d 982 (2016). Moreover, “[a] genuine issue has been variously described as a triable, substantial or real issue of fact . . . and has been defined as one which can be maintained by substantial evidence . . . Hence, the genuine issue aspect of summary judgment procedure requires the parties to bring forward before trial evidentiary facts, or substantial evidence outside the pleadings, from which the material facts alleged in the pleadings can warrantably be inferred.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Rickel v. Komaromi, 144 Conn.App. 775, 790-91, 73 A.3d 851 (2013). “Because litigants ordinarily have a constitutional right to have issues [*10]  of fact decided by the finder of fact, the party moving for summary judgment is held to a strict standard. [H]e must make a showing that it is quite clear what the truth is, and that excludes any real doubt as to the existence of any genuine issue of material fact.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Barasso v. Rear Still Hill Road, LLC, 81 Conn.App. 798, 802-03, 842 A.2d 1134 (2004).

II

Additional Discovery Argument

In their objection to summary judgment, the RCF defendants argue several times that summary judgment would be inappropriate because discovery is not complete. The court has before it the scheduling orders submitted by the parties, as signed by legal counsel for the RCF parties and the plaintiff. These scheduling orders filed on February 22, 2019,were approved by the court (Kamp, J.) on March 7, 2019.6 The approved scheduling order listed September 30, 2019, as the date by which all discovery was to be completed. There have been no requests to modify the scheduling order or to extend the dates for the completion of discovery.7 The court has before it the “Rock Climb Fairfield Release of Liability and Assumption of Risk” document and further additional information submitted by the parties to allow the court to move forward, including the transcript of the deposition [*11]  testimony of Nora Maklad and employee of RCF. There is no indication that the defendants have sought more information through the discovery process or that Licata has objected to, obstructed or delayed the discovery process. The court has a one hundred and twenty-day time limitation to issue its decision and the court will do so within that time limit with the information that is available, as a trial date assignment is pending.

III

Contractual Indemnification

Count One of the Rock Climb defendants’ third-party complaint against Licata alleges contractual indemnification. “Indemnity involves a claim for reimbursement in full from one who is claimed to be primarily liable.” Atkinson v. Berloni, 23 Conn.App. 325, 326, 580 A.2d 84 (1990). “A party may bring an indemnification claim based on the terms of an indemnity agreement . . . [A]llegations of contractual indemnification must be supported by the terms of the contract or the contract itself . . . Under Connecticut law, to state a contract-based indemnification claim, the claimant must allege either an express or implied contractual right to indemnification . . . There is no requirement that a party seeking indemnification must assert allegations of exclusive control (or any of the other elements [*12]  of a claim for indemnification based on active-passive negligence) in order to state a legally sufficient claim for contractual indemnification.” (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Kinney v. Gilbane Building Co., Superior Court, judicial district of New Haven at Meriden, Docket No. CV 01 0276049 (September 21, 2004, Wiese, J.).

“As a general rule, contractual indemnification claims that are based on written agreements are construed in accordance with the principles of contract law.”
Lawrence v. Sodexho, Inc., Superior Court, judicial district of Fairfield, Docket No. CV 06 5001264 (January 25, 2007, Owens, J.T.R.); 42 Conn. L. Rptr. 843, 2007 Conn. Super. LEXIS 245; see also PSE Consulting, Inc. v. Frank Mercede & Sons, Inc., 267 Conn. 279, 290, 838 A.2d 135 (2004). “The essential elements for a cause of action based on breach of contract are (1) the formation of an agreement, (2) performance by one party, (3) breach of the agreement by the opposing party, and (4) damages . . . [and] causation.” Greco Properties, LLC v. Popp, Superior Court, judicial district of Hartford, Docket No. CVH 7628, 2008 Conn. Super. LEXIS 414 (February 15, 2008, Bentivegna, J.), citing McCann Real Equities Series XXII, LLC v. David McDermott Chevrolet, Inc., 93 Conn.App. 486, 503-04, 890 A.2d 140, cert. denied, 277 Conn. 928, 895 A.2d 798 (2006).

“[I]n order to form a contract, generally there must be a bargain in which there is a manifestation of mutual assent to the exchange between two or more parties . . . and the identities of [*13]  the contracting parties must be reasonably certain.” (Citations omitted.) Ubysz v. DiPietro, 185 Conn. 47, 51, 440 A.2d 830 (1981); BRJM, LLC v. Output Systems, Inc., 100 Conn.App. 143, 152, 917 A.2d 605, cert. denied, 282 Conn. 917, 925 A.2d 1099 (2007). “[A] party is entitled to indemnification, in the absence of a contract to indemnify, only upon proving that the party against whom indemnification is sought either dishonored a contractual provision or engaged in some tortious conduct.” Burkert v. Petrol Plus of Naugatuck, Inc., 216 Conn. 65, 74, 579 A.2d 26 (1990). “[Allegations of contractual indemnification must be supported by the terms of the contract or the contract itself . . . Under Connecticut law, to state a contract-based indemnification claim, the claimant must allege either an express or implied contractual right to indemnification . . .”(Citation omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Fisher v. Countrywide Home Loans, Inc., Superior Court, judicial district of Litchfield, Docket No. CV-09-4008690-S, 2011 Conn. Super. LEXIS 32 (January 7, 2011, Roche, J.).

As noted, herein, the contract relied upon by the Rock Climb defendants is the “Rock Climb Fairfield Release of Liability and Assumption of Risk” document that has been submitted for the court’s review. It was admittedly signed by Kate Licata on October 3, 2016, the date of the alleged incident, wherein the minor child was injured. The document bears the name of the minor child [*14]  and her date of birth. It lists the e-mail address of Licata and Licata’s electronic signature.

Paragraph 1 of the document titled “activities and risks” lists indoor wall climbing and bouldering as activities. Risks include, among other things: falling from climbing surfaces; persons climbing out of control or beyond personal limits; over-exertion; inadequate physical conditioning; and the negligence of other persons, including other visitors. The document states that the risks described in the document “are inherent in RCF activities . . . and cannot be eliminated without jeopardizing the essential qualities of the activity.”

Paragraph 2, titled “Assumption of Risks” states:

I accept and assume all the risks of a visit to RCF activity sites, inherent or not and whether or not described above, If the visitor is a minor of whom I am parent or legal guardian, I have explained the risks to the minor visitor, who understands them and wishes to visit and participate in RCF activities in spite of the risks.

Paragraph 3 is titled “Release and Indemnity. That paragraph notes that the signor of the agreement is an adult visitor or parent of a minor visitor and that the signor releases and discharges [*15]  and agrees to indemnify the RCF defendants from all claims, suits, demands or causes of action, which are connected to the minor’s visit to and participation in, RCF activities. The agreement is intended to include claims arising out of losses suffered by the child and losses caused by the signor or the child. By signing the agreement, the signor agrees to indemnify and release claims of negligence of the RCF defendants.

Lastly, paragraph 5 of the Release notes that the signor acknowledges that if the minor visitor for whom the signor has signed their signature, is hurt and files a lawsuit, the signor will protect the released and indemnified RCF defendants from any claims of the minor visitor.

The Release bears a signature line and date line for the “parent or legal court appointed guardian. As stated, it is signed by Kate Licata and dated October 3, 2016. The document is not signed by the RCF defendants or any agent, servant or employee of the RCF defendants.

Licata, in moving for summary judgment, argues the “Release of Liability and Assumption of Risk” document is void as against public policy and unenforceable against her. Her argument relies upon the decisions in Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corporation, 276 Conn. 314, 885 A.2d 734 (2005) and Reardon v. Windswept Farm, LLC, 280 Conn. 153, 905 A.2d 1156 (2006).

In Hanks [*16] , the plaintiff, a patron, brought his three children and another child to Powder Ridge to snow-tube. Neither the plaintiff or the children had ever snow-tubed at Powder Ridge, but the snow-tubing run was open to the public generally, regardless of prior snow-tubing experience, with the restriction that only persons at least six years old or forty-four inches tall were eligible to participate. In order to snow-tube at Powder Ridge, patrons were required to sign a “Waiver, Defense, Indemnity and Hold Harmless Agreement, and Release of Liability.” The plaintiff read and signed the agreement on behalf of himself and the four children. While snow-tubing, the plaintiff’s right foot became caught between his snow-tube and the man-made bank of the snow-tubing run, resulting in serious injuries that required multiple surgeries to repair. Id., 316-17. The plaintiff alleged that the defendants negligently caused his injuries in several ways. Id. The defendants denied the plaintiff’s allegations of negligence and asserted two special defenses. “Specifically, the defendants alleged that the plaintiff’s injuries were caused by his own negligence and that the agreement relieved the defendants of liability, “even if the accident was due to the negligence of the defendants.” Id., 318-19.

In Hanks, our Supreme Court determined that even though the exculpatory agreement purporting to release the defendants from prospective liability for personal injuries sustained as a result of the operator’s negligent conduct was well drafted, it nonetheless violated public policy. In finding the agreement violated public policy, the Supreme Court reversed [*17]  the trial court’s granting of summary judgment for the defendants. Id., 321-26.

In Hanks, snowtubing was the recreational activity at issue. Our Supreme Court placed particular emphasis on: (1) the societal expectation that family oriented activities will be reasonably safe; (2) the illogic of relieving the party with greater expertise and information concerning the dangers associated with the activity from the burden of proper maintenance of the snowtubing run; and (3) the fact that the release at issue was a standardized adhesion contract, lacking equal bargaining power between the parties, and offered to the plaintiff on a “take it or leave it” basis. Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corp., supra, 276 Conn. at 331-34. The court recognized the clear public policy in favor of participation in athletics and recreational activities. Id., at 335.

In Reardon v. Windswept Farm, LLC, supra, 280 Conn. 153, the plaintiff was an experienced horseback rider, who was injured while riding one of the defendant’s horses. The plaintiff subsequently challenged the validity of a release document similar to the one in Hanks, and in this case, wherein the defendant sought to insulate itself from liability. Reardon found that the decision in Hanks was controlling in determining the validity of the release and indemnity agreement.

We conclude [*18]  that, based on our decision in Hanks, the totality of the circumstances surrounding the recreational activity of horseback riding and instruction that was offered by the defendants demonstrates that the enforcement of an exculpatory agreement in their favor from liability for ordinary negligence violates public policy and is not in the public interest. First, similar to the situation at issue in Hanks, the defendants in the present case provided the facilities, the instructors, and the equipment for their patrons to engage in a popular recreational activity, and the recreational facilities were open to the general public regardless of an individual’s ability level. Indeed, the defendants acknowledged that, although the release required riders to indicate their experience level, it also anticipated a range in skills from between “[n]ever ridden” to “[e]xperienced [r]ider,” and that the facility routinely had patrons of varying ability levels. Accordingly, there is a reasonable societal expectation that a recreational activity that is under the control of the provider and is open to all individuals, regardless of experience or ability level, will be reasonably safe.

Id., 161.

Additionally, in [*19]  the present case, as in Hanks, the plaintiff “lacked the knowledge, experience and authority to discern whether, much less ensure that, the defendants’ [facilities or equipment] were maintained in a reasonably safe condition. Specifically, although the plaintiff characterized herself as an experienced rider, she was in no greater position then the average rider to assess all the safety issues connected with the defendants’ enterprise. To the contrary, it was the defendants, not the plaintiff or the other customers, who had the “expertise and opportunity to foresee and control hazards, and to guard against the negligence of their agents and employees. They alone [could] properly maintain and inspect their premises, and train their employees in risk management.” In particular, the defendants acknowledged that they were responsible for providing their patrons with safe horses, qualified instructors, as well as properly maintained working equipment and riding surfaces. In the context of carrying out these duties, the defendants were aware, and were in a position continually to gather more information, regarding any hidden dangers associated with the recreational activity including the [*20]  temperaments of the individual horses, the strengths of the various riding instructors, and the condition of the facility’s equipment and grounds. As we concluded in Hanks, it is illogical to relieve the defendants, as the party with greater expertise and information concerning the dangers associated with engaging in horseback riding at their facility, from potential claims of negligence surrounding an alleged failure to administer properly the activity.

(Internal citations and quotation marks omitted.) Id., 161-62.

Lastly, the Reardon court noted that the release that the plaintiff signed broadly indemnifying the defendants from liability for damages resulting from the defendants’ own negligence was a classic contract of adhesion of the type that this court found to be in violation of public policy in Hanks.

Specifically, we have noted that the most salient feature of adhesion contracts is that they are not subject to the normal bargaining processes of ordinary contracts, and that they tend to involve a standard form contract prepared by one party, to be signed by the party in a weaker position, usually a consumer, who has little choice about the terms. In the present case, signing the release [*21]  provided by the defendants was required as a condition of the plaintiff’s participation in the horseback riding lesson, there was no opportunity for negotiation by the plaintiff, and if she was unsatisfied with the terms of the release, her only option was to not participate in the activity. As in Hanks, therefore, the plaintiff had nearly zero bargaining power with respect to the negotiation of the release and in order to participate in the activity, she was required to assume the risk of the defendants’ negligence. This condition of participation violates the stated public policy of our tort system because the plaintiff was required to bear an additional risk despite her status as a patron who was not in a position to foresee or control the alleged negligent conduct that she was confronted with, or manage and spread the risk more effectively then the defendants.

(Internal citations and quotation marks omitted.) Id., 162-63.

It is also noted that the court in Reardon did not limit its decision to the sport of horseback riding or the activity of snowtubing which was the activity in Hanks. “The list of recreational activities that we identified in Hanks was meant to be illustrative, not exhaustive. [*22]  Indeed, it would be impossible for us to identify all of the recreational activities controlled by the Hanks decision.” Id., 165-66. The court finds that the factors considered in Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corporation, supra, 276 Conn. 314 and Reardon v. Windswept Farm, LLC, supra, 280 Conn. 153 apply to the activities of bouldering and rock climbing which are present in the case before this court.8

In the present case, the defendant’s facility was open to the general public regardless of a patron’s experience level. The minor plaintiff was a ten-year-old female. The defendants have admitted that they provided instruction to the group of minors attending the birthday celebration at the defendants’ facility. Neither the minor plaintiff or Licata provided any of the equipment to be used. Licata, herself, did not provide training, guidance or supervision to the minors, including the minor plaintiff. Licata possessed no special knowledge regarding rock climbing or bouldering activities including training and safety procedures other than an initial orientation by RCF employees.9 Maklad testified at her deposition that the orientation lasted only five to ten minutes. The RCF defendants/third-party plaintiffs admit that there was zero expectation that Licata would “train and guide climbers” [*23]  or to inspect various facility equipment. RCF argues that they did expect that parents and guardians would supervise children. Thus, there is a question of fact as to whether or not Licata was adequately supervising the minor plaintiff Cannon when she fell. The court disagrees.

In this case, signing the release provided by RCF was required as a condition of the plaintiff’s participation in the bouldering and rock climbing activities at the RCF facility. There was no opportunity for negotiation by the plaintiff, and if she was unsatisfied with the terms of the release, her only option was to not to allow the minor guests who accompanied her to the birthday party to participate. Licata had no bargaining power with respect to the negotiation of the release and in order to participate in the activity, she was required to assume the risk of the defendants’ negligence. “This condition of participation violates the stated public policy of our tort system because the plaintiff was required to bear an additional risk despite her status as a patron who was not in a position to foresee or control the alleged negligent conduct that she was confronted with, or manage and spread the [*24]  risk more effectively then the defendants.” Reardon v. Windswept Farm, LLC, supra, 280 Conn. 162-63. The RCF release at issue was a standardized adhesion contract, lacking equal bargaining power between the parties, and offered to the plaintiff on a “take it or leave it” basis. Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corp., supra, 276 Conn. at 331-34.10

The RCF parties additionally argue that it is improper to allow Licata to avail herself of arguments based on public policy when she in turn violated public policy by signing the Release and Indemnification Agreement when she was not the parent or legal guardian of the minor plaintiff, Cannon. They argue Licata violated societal expectations and norms in signing the document and now disclaiming responsibility. They declare that Licata is the wrongdoer and should not be allowed to walk away from this issue.

Licata in her reply to the RCF objection to summary judgment argues that the RCF defendants have cited no authority for their position that Licata’s signing of the release document on behalf of the minor, Emma Cannon constituted a violation of public policy; nor have they explained why such a violation would restrict Licata from challenging the validity of the waiver. Licata also questions why the RCF defendants would make this argument, given that the sole basis [*25]  for the contractual indemnification claim against Licata is her signing of the release document is which they now assert violated public policy. The court agrees. If the signing of the release was invalid, then it would stand to reason that the release itself is invalid. The RCF defendants, by their own reasoning would be attempting to enforce an agreement, which they themselves claim is invalid.

For the reasons set forth herein, the court grants Licata’s motion for summary judgment on Count One of the Rock Climb defendants’ third-party complaint against Licata alleging contractual indemnification.

IV Common-Law Indemnification

In Count Two of the cross claim, the RCF defendants allege common-law indemnification. Therefore, the court reviews our law concerning common-law indemnification, as set forth in Valente v. Securitas Sec. Services, USA, Inc., 152 Conn.App. 196, 203-04, 96 A.3d 1275 (2014). Citing, Kaplan v. Merberg Wrecking Corp., 152 Conn. 405, 412, 207 A.2d 732 (1965), the Appellate Court in Valente, supra, noted that “[g]enerally, there is no right to indemnification between joint tortfeasors.” Kaplan v. Merberg Wrecking Corp., supra, recognized an exception to this general rule. “Kaplan teaches that indemnification is available from a third party on whom a primary exposure of liability is claimed to rest. To hold a third party liable to indemnify one tortfeasor for damages awarded against [*26]  it to the plaintiff for negligently causing harm to the plaintiff, a defendant seeking indemnification must establish that: (1) the third party against whom indemnification is sought was negligent; (2) the third party’s active negligence, rather than the defendant’s own passive negligence, was the direct, immediate cause of the accident and the resulting harm; (3) the third party was in control of the situation to the exclusion of the defendant seeking reimbursement; and (4) the defendant did not know of the third party’s negligence, had no reason to anticipate it, and reasonably could rely on the third party not to be negligent.” (Citation omitted.) Valente v. Securitas Sec. Services, USA, Inc., supra, 152 Conn.App. 203-04. “Our Supreme Court has defined exclusive control of the situation, for the purpose of a common-law indemnification claim, as exclusive control over the dangerous condition that gives rise to the accident.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Id., citing, Pellecchia v. Connecticut Light & Power Co., 139 Conn.App. 767, 775, 57 A.3d 803 (2012) (dangerous condition held to be electric power line which electrocuted plaintiff), cert. denied, 308 Conn. 911, 61 A.3d 532 (2013).

The court has reviewed the objection to the motion for summary judgment filed by the RCF defendants and notes, as pointed out by Licata in her reply brief, that the RCF defendants have [*27]  not addressed Licata’s claim in her motion for summary judgment that she did not control the situation that prevailed at the RCF’s facility on the date of the minor’s injury; nor is it alleged in the cross claim that Licata controlled the situation. An essential element of common-law indemnification is that the third party, Licata, was in control of the situation to the exclusion of the third-party plaintiffs. Valente v. Securitas Sec. Services, USA, Inc., supra, 152 Conn.App. 203-04; Pellecchia v. Connecticut Light & Power Co., supra, 139 Conn.App. 775. The third-party plaintiffs, the RCF defendants, have produced little to no credible evidence; nor have they alleged or argued that Licata was in control of the situation to the exclusion. “Where a claim is asserted in the statement of issues but thereafter receives only cursory attention in the brief without substantive discussion or citation of authorities, it is deemed to be abandoned.” (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Merchant v. State Ethics Commission, 53 Conn.App. 808, 818, 733 A.2d 287 (1999). These same principles apply to claims raised in the trial court. Connecticut Light and Power Co. v. Department of Public Utility Control, 266 Conn. 108, 120, 830 A.2d 1121 (2003).

For the foregoing reasons discussed, herein, Licata’s motion for summary judgment is granted as to Count Two alleging common-law indemnification.

ORDERS

Licata’s Motion for Summary Judgment is granted as to Count One, which alleges contractual indemnification and Count [*28]  Two, which alleges common-law indemnification.

THE COURT

Judge Richard E. Arnold,

Judge Trial Referee


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

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

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

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

Hawaii Revised Statutes, Section 663-1.54

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

In Wheelock vs. Sport Kites

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

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

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence, Gross Negligence and Product Liability

Defendant Defenses: Release

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

In King v. CJM Country Stables

Plaintiff: John King and Patricia King

Defendant: CJM Country Stables

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

Defendant Defenses: release and the Hawaiian Recreational Activity Liability Statute

Holding: For the Plaintiff

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

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

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

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

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

§ 663-1.54.  Recreational activity liability.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So?

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

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

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

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

So Now What?

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

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

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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

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

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

Civ. No. 03-00240 ACK/BMK

United States District Court for the District of Hawaii

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

February 18, 2004, Decided

February 18, 2004, Filed

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

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

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

JUDGES: Alan C Kay, United States District Judge.

OPINION BY: Alan C Kay

OPINION:

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

BACKGROUND

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

I. Factual History.

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

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

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

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

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

Motion for Summary Judgment, Exs. A, D.

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

II. Procedural History.

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

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

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

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

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

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STANDARD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[*1065] DISCUSSION

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

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

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

I. Hawaii Revised Statutes, Section 663-1.54.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HRS § 663-1.54 (emphasis added).

A. Legislative History.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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B. Application.

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

IT IS SO ORDERED.

DATED: Honolulu, Hawii, 18 FEB 2004

Alan C Kay

United States District Judge

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

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

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

Civ. No. 92-00768 HMF

United States District Court for the District of Hawaii

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

December 1, 1993, Decided

December 1, 1993, Filed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Judges: Fong

Opinion by: Harold M. Fong

Opinion:

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

Introduction

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

Background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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DISCUSSION

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

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

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

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

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

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

II. KUALOA RANCH’S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT.

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

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

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

A. David Wheelock Expressly Assumed the Risk of Death.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Plaintiff’s Negligence Claims Are Barred.

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

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

2. Plaintiff’s Gross Negligence Claims Are Unaffected.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

C. The Agreement Is Not Ambiguous.

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

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

[**21]

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

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

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

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

IT IS SO ORDERED.

DATED: Honolulu, Hawaii, December 1, 1993

Harold M. Fong

UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

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