Morgan, et al., v. Water Toy Shop, Inc., et al., 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 61546

Morgan, et al., v. Water Toy Shop, Inc., et al., 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 61546

Jasmine Nicole Morgan, et al., Plaintiffs,

v.

Water Toy Shop, Inc., et al., Defendants.

Civil No. 16-2540 (PAD)

United States District Court, D. Puerto Rico

March 30, 2018

OPINION AND ORDER

PEDRO A. DELGADO HERNÁNDEZ, United States District Judge

This case arises out of a tragic accident, a collision between two jet skis -one ridden by plaintiffs Jasmin Nicole Morgan and Jarita Kennedy, and the other by Mark A. Castro- in the territorial waters of Puerto Rico (Docket No. 1).[1] In essence, the complaint alleges that: (1) Castro was grossly negligent in operating the jet ski, seriously injuring plaintiffs (id. at ¶ 51); and (2) Water Toy Shop, Inc., Acosta Water Sports, Inc., and Axel Acosta, who rented the jet skis, did not adequately train Castro to operate the jet ski, and as owners of the jet ski that Castro was riding are liable for the damages claimed. Id.

Before the court is defendants Water Toy Shop’s, Axel Acosta’s and Ironshore Indemnity, Inc.’s “Motion for Summary Judgment and Memorandum of Law in Support Thereof” (Docket No. 52), which plaintiffs opposed (Docket No. 61). Defendants replied (Docket Nos. 69), and plaintiffs surreplied (Docket No. 73). For the reasons explained below, the motion is GRANTED and plaintiffs’ claims against the appearing defendants DISMISSED.[2]

I. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

Pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 56, summary judgment is appropriate when the record shows no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. A dispute is genuine if the evidence about the fact is such that a reasonable jury could resolve the point in the favor of the non-moving party. A fact is material if it has the potential of determining the outcome of the litigation. Farmers Ins. Exchange v. RNK, Inc., 632 F.3d 777, 782 (1st Cir. 2011)(quoting Rodríguez-Rivera v. Federico Trilla Regional Hosp. of Carolina, 532 F.3d 28, 30 (1st Cir. 2008)).

In assessing a motion for summary judgment, the court must view the entire record in the light most hospitable to the party opposing summary judgment, indulging all reasonable inferences in that party’s favor. Griggs-Ryan, 904 F.2d at 115 (citations omitted). There is no room for credibility determinations, no room for the measured weighing of conflicting evidence such as the trial process entails, and no room for the judge to superimpose his own ideas of probability and likelihood . Greenburg v. Puerto Rico Maritime Shipping Authority, 835 F.2d 932, 936 (1st Cir. 1987). The court may, however, safely ignore conclusory allegations, improbable inferences, and unsupported speculation. Medina-Muñoz v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., 896 F.2d 5, 8 (1st Cir. 1990) (citations omitted).

II. UNCONTESTED FACTS[3]

Plaintiffs are residents of Washington, D.C. See, Docket No. 52-1, “Statement of Uncontested Material Facts in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment” (“SUMF” at ¶ 1). While vacationing in Puerto Rico, they rented a jet ski from Archie Jet Ski Rental (SUMF ¶ 4), the name used to advertise Water Toy Shop and Acosta Water Sports, two separate corporations that operate different jet ski rental stands in the Isla Verde beach area in Carolina, Puerto Rico. See, PSUMF at ¶ 6 and defendants’ response at Docket No. 69-1 pp. 26-27.[4] Water Toy owned the jet skis involved in the accident, and operated the stand where the jet skis were rented. SUMF ¶ 5; PSUMF ¶¶ 14, 6, 36.

In order to rent the jet ski, both plaintiffs signed a “Personal Watercraft Rental Operations Release of Liability, Waiver of Claims, Express Assumption of Risk and Indemnity Agreement” (“Rental Agreement”) and a “Declaration of Fitness to Operate Personal Watercraft” (“Declaration of Fitness”). SUMF ¶ 7, ¶10.[5] The Rental Agreements read as follows:

PERSONAL WATERCRAFT RENTAL OPERATIONS RELEASE OF LIABILITY, WAIVER OF CLAIMS, EXPRESS ASSUMPTION OF RISK AND INDEMNITY AGREEMENT

Please and be certain you understand the implications of signing. Express Assumption of Risk Associated with use of rental of Personal Watercraft and Related Activities I,, do hereby affirm and acknowledge that I have been fully informed of the inherent hazards and risks associated with motorized (e.g., jet ski) or non-motorized (e.g., kayak) and related water sport activities to which I am about to engage, including but not limited to:

1) changing water flow, tides, currents, wave action, and ship’s wakes;

2) collision with any of the following:

a) other participants,

b) the watercraft,

c) other watercraft,

d) man made or natural objects,

e) shuttle boat;

3) wind shear, inclement weather, lightning, variances and extremes of wind, weather and temperature;

4) my sense of balance, physical condition, ability to operate equipment, swim and/or follow directions;

5) collision, capsizing, sinking, or other hazard that may result in wetness, injury, exposure to the elements, hypothermia, impact of the body upon the water, injection of water into my body orifices, and/or drowning;

6) the presence of insects and marine life forms;

7) equipment failure or operator error;

8) heat or sun related injuries or illnesses, including sunburn, sun stroke or dehydration;

9) fatigue, chill and/or reaction time and increased risk of accident.

I specifically acknowledge that I read, understand and agree to abide by the Personal Watercraft Operational instructions at all times and that I have been trained in the safe use of watersport equipment to my complete satisfaction, and I am physically/mentally able to participate in the water sport activities to which I am about to engage.

I specifically waive any defense insofar as this contract is concerned that may arise as a result of any state or local law and/or regulation or policy that may impact its enforceability.

RELEASE OF LIABILITY, WAIVER OF CLAIMS AND INDEMNITY AGREEMENT.

In consideration of being allowed to participate in the above-described activities, as well as the use of any of the facilities and the use of the equipment of the below listed releases, I hereby agree as follows:

1) To waive and release any and all claims based upon negligence, active or passive, with the exception of intentional, wanton, or willful misconduct that I may have in the future against all of the following named persons or entities herein referred to as releasees.

Water Toy Shop, Inc. Owner (Company and/ or Individual)

___ (Scheduled Personal Watercraft)

___ (Scheduled Shuttle Boat (if applicable)

2) To release the releasees, their officers, directors, employees, representatives, agents, and volunteers, and vessels from any liability and responsibility whatsoever and for any claims or causes of action that I, my estate, heirs, executors, or assigns may have for personal injury, property damage, or wrongful death arising from the above activities, whether caused by active or passive negligence of the releassees or otherwise, with the exception of gross negligence. By executing this document, I agree to hold the releases harmless and indemnify them in conjunction with any injury or loss of life that may occur as a result of engaging in the above activities.

3) By entering into this agreement, I am not relying on any oral or written representation or statements made by the releasees, other than what is set forth in this Agreement.

I hereby declare that I am of legal age and am competent to sign this Agreement or, if not, that my parent or legal guardian shall sign on my behalf and that my parent or legal guardian is in complete understanding and concurrence with this Agreement.

I have read this Agreement, understand it, and I agree to be bound by it. SUMF at ¶¶ 8, 20 (bold emphasis in the original, underlined emphasis added).[6] The Declarations of Fitness state: “by signing this form I still choose to participate in the activity with the rental property and agree to waive all responsibilities to all the above mentioned parties concerning any consequences that would result from my actions.” SUMF at ¶ 9.[7] Morgan did not read the contents of the Rental Agreement and Declaration of Fitness before signing them, or at any time before boarding the rented jet ski, despite having around one hour to spare between the time she signed the documents and when she boarded the jet ski.[8] Neither did she ask Water Toy personnel anything about the document. SUMF at ¶ 11.

Before Castro was allowed to rent the jet ski, he was asked for his I.D. in order to verify that he was old enough to rent a jet ski, which he was; he signed a Rental Agreement and Declaration of Fitness; and was informed of the boundaries within which he could ride, the applicable speed limit and to stay clear of other people. SUMF at ¶ 13, 15.[9] To that end, Mr. Héctor Peralta informed Castro the price for the jet ski ride; explained that he could only ride between the ESJ Tower and the Water Club Hotel; warned him stay away from the swimming area; told him to go slow until he passed the buoys; cautioned him not to get close to a nearby natural reserve and to stay away from other objects or persons because jet skis don’t have breaks; described how the jet skis worked; let him know that when his time was up an employee would let him know; and provided him copy of a Rental Agreement and Declaration of Fitness, explaining their contents and having him sign them. SUMF at ¶ 16.[10]

Additionally, Mr. Jonathan Pérez informed Castro of the boundaries he had to observe whilst riding, by pointing out the ESJ Tower, the Water Club Hotel and the buoys; told him not to ride too far away so that help could get to him straight away in case something happened; warned him not to go over five miles per hour as he left the buoys area in front of the Water Toy stand and when he rode back to it to return his jet ski; and asked him to stay far away from people to avoid any accident. SUMF at ¶ 17.[11] Plaintiffs were taking a break in their jet ski, drifting next to the buoys in front of the Water Toy stand, when Castro’s jet ski collided with theirs at high speed, without warning. SUMF at ¶ 19.

III. DISCUSSION

A. General Principles

Plaintiffs claim defendants are liable to them under Puerto Rico law (Docket No. 61, pp. 2-3), which defendants deny (Docket No. 51, p. 1), stating that general principles of maritime law rather than local law apply in this case, and under those principles they are not liable. Id. at p. 2. Because this case “involves a watercraft collision on navigable waters, it falls within admiralty’s domain.” Yamaha Motor Corp., U.S.A. v. Calhoun, 516 U.S. 199, 206 (1996). With admiralty jurisdiction comes the application of substantive admiralty law. Id. Federal maritime law may be supplemented by state law to the extent that it “would not disturb the uniformity of maritime law.” Kossick v. United Fruit Co., 365 U.S. 731, 738 (1961).

In maritime law, “the owner of a ship in navigable waters owes to all who are on board for purposes not inimical to his legitimate interests [e.g., passengers] the duty of exercising reasonable care under the circumstances of each case.” Kermarec v. Compagnie Generale Transatlantique, 358 U.S. 625, 632 (1959); Muratore v. M/S Scotia Prince, 845 F.2d 347, 353 (1st Cir. 1988)(under maritime law, “a carrier owes a duty of exercising reasonable care towards its passengers under the circumstances”). The degree of required care must be in proportion to the apparent risk. See, Muratone, 845 F.3d at 353 (discussing concept)(citing Prosser, Law of Torts, Section 34, at 180 (4th ed. 1971)).

Plaintiffs contend that defendants are directly and vicariously liable under Puerto Rico law because Congress allowed Puerto Rico to adopt liability standards inconsistent with maritime law (Docket No. 61 at pp. 12-20). Congress can alter, qualify, or supplement admiralty law as it sees fit, provided it neither excludes a thing that falls clearly within the admiralty and maritime law nor includes a thing that clearly falls without, as long as the statute is coextensive with and operates uniformly in the whole of the United States. See, Zych v. Unidentified Wrecked and Abandoned Vessel, Believed to be the Seabird, 19 F.3d 1136, 1140 (7th Cir. 1994)(examining congressional power to revise and supplement maritime law).

However, Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States. See, Maysonet-Robles v. Cabrero, 323 F.3d 43, 53 (1st Cir. 2003)(so describing Puerto Rico). It belongs to, but is not part of the United States, a category considered “foreign … in a domestic sense.” See, United States v. Lebrón-Cáceres, 157 F.Supp.3d 80, 88 & n.11 (D.P.R. 2016)(discussing Puerto Rico’s territorial status)(quoting Downes v. Bidwell, 182 U.S. 244, 287, 341-342, 346-347 (1901)). Accordingly, “… Congress can, pursuant to the plenary powers conferred by the Territorial Clause [U.S. Const. art. IV, § 3, cl. 2], legislate as to Puerto Rico in a manner different from the rest of the United States.” U.S. v. Rivera-Torres, 826 F.2d 151, 154 (1st Cir. 1987).[12]

In 1917, Congress enacted Puerto Rico’s second organic act, commonly known as the Jones Act, 39 Stat. 951, Act of March 2, 1919.[13] Under Section 37 of the Jones Act, the legislative authority of Puerto Rico extended “to all matters of a legislative character not locally inapplicable.” In turn, Section Eight read:

The harbor areas and navigable streams and bodies of water and submerged lands underlying the same in and around the island of Puerto Rico and the adjacent islands and waters, owned by the United States on March 2, 1917, and not reserved by the United States for public purposes, are placed under the control of the government of Puerto Rico … All laws of the United States for the protection and improvement of the navigable waters of the united States and the preservation of the interests of navigation and commerce, except so far as the same may be locally inapplicable, shall apply to said island and waters to its adjacent islands and waters.

Both provisions were reenacted as part of the Federal Relations Act. See, 48 U.S.C. §§ 749 and 821.[14] Interpreting and applying them in the context of admiralty and maritime law, the First Circuit held in Guerrido v. Alcoa Steamship Co., 234 F.2d 349 (1956), that the rules of admiralty and maritime law of the United States “are presently in force in the navigable waters of the United States in and around the island of Puerto Rico to the extent that they are not locally inapplicable either because they were not designed to apply to Puerto Rican waters or because they have been rendered inapplicable to these waters by inconsistent Puerto Rican legislation, ” provided that legislation does not “supplant a rule of maritime law which Congress in the exercise of its constitutional power has made applicable to Puerto Rican waters.” Id. at p. 355 (Emphasis added).[15] In line with Garrido, plaintiffs argue that defendants authorized Castro to operate the jet ski, and as a result, are liable for the resulting damages under Articles 1802 and 1803 of the Puerto Rico Civil Code, P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 31 §§ 5141-5142, and Puerto Rico Law 430 of December 21, 2000, P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 12 §§ 1401-1411 (Docket No. 61, pp. 4-7, 15-20). Because it is undisputed that Water Toy owned and rented the jet skis, unless otherwise stated the court circumscribes the discussion of potential liability to that entity.

B. Puerto Rico Law

Article 1802 imposes liability for personal acts, not for acts of others, providing in part that “a person who by an act or omission causes damage to another through fault or negligence shall be obliged to repair the damage so done.” P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 31 § 5141. See, Burgos-Oquendo v. Caribbean Gulf Refining Corp., 741 F.Supp. 330, 332 (D.P.R. 1990)(discussing concept). To establish liability, the plaintiff must show: (i) a duty of care requiring defendant to conform to a certain standard of conduct; (ii) breach of that duty; (iii) damages; and (iv) a causal connection between the breach and the damages. See, De-Jesús-Adorno v. Browning Ferris Industries of Puerto Rico, Inc., 160 F.3d 839, 842 (1st Cir. 1995)(so explaining).

In general, the duty of care is defined by the tenet that one must act as would a prudent and reasonable person under the same circumstances. See, Vázquez-Filippetti v. Banco Popular de Puerto Rico, 504 F.3d 43, 49 (1st Cir. 2007)(so observing). This includes complying with statutes, regulations, and ordinances relevant to the action. See, Sánchez v. Seguros Triple S, Inc., 687 F.Supp.2d 6, 9 (D.P.R. 2010)(setting forth and applying formulation). The standard applies to those who operate businesses for profit, commanding them to exercise reasonable care toward business invitees. See, Calderón-Ortega v. U.S., 753 F.3d 250, 252 (2014)(recognizing obligation).

In turn, Article 1803 codifies a special type of vicarious liability, a type of liability based in part on the acts or omissions of others. See, P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 31 § 5142. To that end, it states that the obligation imposed by Article 1802 “is demandable not only for personal acts and omissions, but also for those of the persons for whom …[the defendant is] responsible, ” including under that rubric the liability of the father or mother for damages caused by minor children; of guardians for the damage cause by the person under their authority who live with them; of employers for the damage caused by an employee acting in the course of his employment; of masters or directors of arts and trades for damage caused by their pupils or apprentices; and of the Government of Puerto Rico under certain pre-established circumstances. Id. The enumeration is taxative, not of an exemplary nature. See, Burgos-Oquendo, 741 F.Supp. at 333 (so acknowledging). Imposition of vicarious liability in other instances must be anchored in alternate precepts or legislation, like Law 430. See, id. (dismissing complaint brought against lessor under Article 1803 in absence of provision establishing responsibility in the lessor for actions of the lessee).

At common law, vicarious liability implies that by reason of some preexisting relation between two parties, one of them may be held automatically liable to a third party for the negligence of the other even if he is free from fault. See, Prosser and Keeton, The Law of Torts, West Publishing Co., 1984, p. 499 (explaining concept). The doctrine applies in admiralty unless excluded by statute. See, Thomas J. Schoenbaum, supra at p. 188 (so noting). In that context, the negligence of employees is imputed to the owner of the vessel upon a finding of master-servant relationship, but in absence of that relationship, the shipowner is not liable in personam for the negligence of persons to whom the vessel is entrusted. Id. Under Article 1803, however, liability does not attach if the defendant shows that he employed the diligence expected of a good father of family, the bonus pater familias, to prevent the damage. Id. Diligence is predicated on how a prudent and reasonable man would have acted in connection with the obligations arising from the situations enumerated in Article 1803. See, Pueblo v. Rivera Rivera, 23 P.R. Offic. Trans. 641, 1989 WK 607294, *§ V (Rebollo López, J., concurring)(analyzing standard).

By contrast, Law 430 operates much like vicarious liability does at common law, providing in part that “[t]he owner of any ship or navigation vessel shall be responsible for damages caused when operating any of these, with fault or negligence, and when it is operated or under control of any person who, with the main purpose of operating or allowing it to be operated by a third party, obtains possession of it through express or tacit authorization of the owner.” P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 12 § 1406(6)(h). By extension, it imposes liability on the principal -the vessel’s owner- for the damages caused by the wrongful operation of the vessel when that vessel has been operated with the owner’s express or tacit authorization, irrespective of whether the owner has acted -in the words of Article 1803 of the Civil Code- with the diligence of a good father of family to avoid the damage.

As enacted, the provision is preempted by the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851, as amended, 46 U.S.C. § 30501 et seq., because it conflicts with the negligence standard set in the federal statute. See, In the Matter of Rockaway Jet Ski, LLC, 2016 WL 8861617, *603-*604, (holding New York’s Navigation Act § 48 preempted by Limitation Act, as it imposes vicarious liability on the owners of personal watercrafts if the watercraft is operated by a person who used it with the owner’s permission, irrespective of the owner’s wrongdoing)(quoting In re Hartman, 2020 WL 1529488, *4 n.10 (D.N.J. Apr. 15, 2010)(to the extent the claimant argues that the jet ski owner is strictly liable under state law, the claim is preempted because the state’s strict liability standard directly conflicts with the negligence standard of the Limitation Act)). For the same reason, so too here. And given that the Limitation Act applies in Puerto Rico, [16] its preemptive effect comports with Garrido, banning reliance on Law 430 to impose vicarious liability on the vessel owner in the absence of the owner’s negligence.

Against this background, plaintiffs argue that Water Toy Shop violated Law 430 in: (1) operating an illegal additional kiosk a quarter of a mile east of the area specified in the permit issued by the Puerto Rico Department of Natural Resources (“DNR”); (2) renting a jet ski that was not expressly identified in the permit; (3) using a rental ski as a patrol boat operated by a licensed individual who nevertheless had not received the required first aid training; (4) operating a rental stand without a valid navigation license; (5) keeping defective records lacking customers’ identification, addresses, tag of the jet ski used and date and time it was returned; and (6) renting skis without informing customers of navigation rules, safety briefing and prohibited activities (Docket No. 61 at pp. 5-7), making it liable for the collision and resulting damages. But merely violating a statute or regulation is not a synonym for liability in Puerto Rico, since in order for liability to attach, there must be a causal relationship – adequate cause – between the violation and the damages. See, González v. Puerto Rico Elec. Power Authority, 1993 WL 525644, *8 (D.P.R. Nov. 23, 1993)(so holding)(citing Pacheco v. A.F.F., 12 P.R. Offic. Trans. 367 (1982)).[17]

Adequate cause is not an event in the absence of which the damage would not have occurred, but that which in general experience causes it. See, Cárdenas Mazán v. Rodríguez Rodríguez, 125 D.P.R. 702, 710 (1990) (so stating); Ganapolsky v. Boston Mut. Life Ins. Co., 138 F.3d 446, 447-448 (1st Cir. 1998)(accidental injury to plaintiff’s left foot resulting from tripping on a two-inch step at entrance to men’s room in a theater not adequate cause of gangrene requiring foot’s amputation, as the infection that lead to the gangrene normally does not arise from tripping on a step). As such, causation is a function of foreseeability, requiring plaintiff to show that the injury was reasonably foreseeable. See, Marshall v. Pérez Arzuaga, 828 F.2d 845, 847 (1st Cir. 1987)(discussing foreseeability as part of the “causal nexus” element of tort action); Vázquez-Filipetti, 504 F.3d at 49 (highlighting centrality of foreseeability to a successful tort claim).[18]

Within this framework, that violations may have occurred in connection with items (1) to (5)-an unsubstantiated assumption at best- is not causally linked to Castro’s crashing of his jet ski onto plaintiffs’, for there is no evidence in the record showing it was foreseeable for a reasonable person to anticipate that a jet-ski collision would result from those violations.[19] Foreseeability cannot be established through the simple fact that an accident occurred. Id. (so recognizing).[20]The situation is no different in admiralty. See, Poulis-Minott v. Smith, 388 F.3d 354, 363 (1st Cir. 2004)(dismissing claim in admiralty for lack of proof that under the circumstances, there was a reasonable possibility that compliance with the regulatory standard would have prevented the accident).[21]

Water Toy’s obligation to provide Castro with an oral or written orientation on the navigation rules the Commissioner of Navigation of Puerto Rico prepared in accordance with Law 430 stands on a different footing, as it directly implicates the provision of information necessary to safely operate the jet ski. See, Wills v. Amerada Hess Corp., 379 F.3d 32, 42-45 (2d Cir. 2004)(distinguishing between statutory or regulatory provisions naturally and logically linked to maritime safety and those not so linked). The uncontested facts, however, show that Water Toy did provide adequate training to Castro in connection with the operation of the jet ski as well as of the applicable navigation rules. See, SUMF at ¶ 15-17. And the Rental Agreement Castro executed additionally confirms that he: (1) was fully informed of the inherent risks associated with jet skis; (2) understood and agreed to abide by the personal watercraft operational instructions he was given; and (3) was trained in the safe use of water sport equipment to his complete satisfaction. All in all, the record does not sustain a finding of liability against Water Toy deriving from a negligent act causally connected to the damages claimed.

C. Waivers

Beyond the issue of liability, plaintiffs executed a waiver precluding liability as to Water Toy and Axel Acosta – Water Toy’s sole owner and president, representative and agent – except for gross negligence, which the complaint only imputed to Castro. Plaintiffs attack the waiver, essentially characterizing it as unenforceable (Docket No. 61, at pp. 20-31). Voluntary waivers of liability for negligence in maritime activities are enforceable provided they: (1) are consistent with public policy; (2) do not configure a contract of adhesion; and (3) are drafted in clear and unambiguous language. See, Olmo v. Atlantic City Parasail, 2016 WL 1704365, *9 (D.N.J. April 28, 2016)(articulating and applying test)(citing Olivelli v. Sappo Corp., Inc., 225 F.Supp.2d 109, 116 (D.P.R. 2002)). By these standards, the waivers that plaintiffs signed are valid and enforceable.

First, exculpatory clauses waiving liability for negligence in maritime recreational activities are consistent with public policy. See, Cobb v. Aramark Sports and Entertainment Services, LLC, 933 F.Supp.2d 1295, 1299 (D. Nevada 2013)(so acknowledging); Olmo, 2016 WL 1704365, at *10 (same).[22] Thus, parties may enter into agreements to allocate risks inherent in those activities, allowing operators to contractually disclaim liability for their own negligence. See, Brozyna v. Niagara Gorge Jetboarding, Ltd., 2011 WL 4553100, *4-*5 (W.D. N.Y. Sept. 29, 2011)(explaining exculpatory waivers).[23] Relying on In the Matter of Rockaway Jet Ski LLC, 2016 WL 8861617, however, plaintiffs argue the waiver violates public policy because it has been invoked to prevent them from asserting negligence claims based on the violation of Law 430, a safety statute which, at bottom, does not contain a waiver authorization clause (Docket No. 61, at pp. 23, 27).

In Rockaway, the court evaluated whether an exculpatory clause can release negligence claims premised on the violation of a state safety statute, New York Navigation Law 73(a)(2), which (1) required businesses renting personal watercraft to provide a video or in-water demonstration of how to safely operate watercraft; and (2) prohibited those businesses from renting a personal watercraft to an individual unless that individual demonstrated ability to (i) operate the personal watercraft, and (ii) use applicable safety equipment. Id. at *595-*596. The court surveyed relevant caselaw, finding that some jurisdictions considering the same question did not permit parties to waive negligence claims premised on the violation of safety statutes, whereas other jurisdictions permitted the waivers. Id. at *598-*599. It sided with the former, noting “the apparent absence of an established admiralty rule on this question, ” (id. at *601); that statutory violations amount to negligence per se; and that waivers of a negligence per se claim violate public policy. Id. at *602.

Applying the reasoning to Law 430, the only statutory item involving safety is the one requiring information to safely operate the jet ski. But renting out a jet ski without taking steps to provide for its safety operation falls within the realm of negligence regardless of whether it is statutorily required. See, In re Hartman, 2010 WL 1529488, *4 (D.N.J. Apr. 15, 2010)(no need to resort to state safety statute to establish negligence in case originating in jet ski accident, because irrespective of statute, ski owner owed plaintiff a duty of care). And as pointed out above, those actions may be waived. See, Waggoner, 141 F.3d at *8-*9 (rejecting argument that exculpatory clause in recreational boat rental contract violated public policy based in part on Restatement (Second) of Contracts’ explanation that “a party to a contract can ordinarily exempt himself from liability for harm caused by his failure to observe the standards of reasonable care imposed by the law of negligence”). Moreover, although Law 430 imposes vicarious liability, that type of liability is less about boat safety and more about ensuring compensation for injured parties. See, Rockaway, 2016 WL 8861617 at *604 (so observing in validating waiver to protect vessel owner from vicarious liability imposed by state navigation law). In the end, Law 430 does not prohibit waivers, and neither does public policy.

Second, adhesion contracts are “take it or leave it” contracts with no opportunity for negotiation between parties with unequal bargaining power. Id. at *6 (delineating elements of adhesion). The definition does not fit waivers used in connection with voluntary recreational pursuits rather than rendition of essential services such as medical care, where courts would be more likely to find that a contract of adhesion exists. See, Olmo, 2016 WL 1704365 at *10 (so recognizing). For the same reason, liability waivers for voluntary recreational activities in navigable waters are not considered adhesion contracts, as the plaintiff has the option of signing or turning around and declining to do business with the defendant. Id. (waiver in case involving parasailing and related activities). So too here, for plaintiffs were free to choose another jet ski rental company or leave the beach without ridding a jet ski at all. See Olivelli, 225 F.Supp.2d at 110-11, 118-120 (waiver of liability not considered adhesion contract in part because scuba diving is a strictly voluntary recreational pursuit and deceased was free to decline defendant’s services if she did not wish to assent to the terms of the waiver); Brozyna, 2011 WL 4553100 at *6 (same with respect to jetboating excursion, as plaintiff had to option to decline to participate in the excursion); Murley ex rel. Estate of Murley v. Deep Explorers, Inc., 281 F.Supp.2d 580, 589-590 (E.D.N.Y. 2003)(if scuba diver did not agree to or understand any of the clauses of the release, he was free to write “VOID” or decline defendant’s services).[24]

Third, the waivers are clear and unambiguous. Their language (1) identified the specific risks inherent to and associated with riding a jet ski;[25] (2) explained and highlighted the fact that, by executing the Agreement, plaintiffs waived and released any and all claims based upon negligence against Water Toy, its officers, directors, employees, representatives, agents, and volunteers and vessels; and (3) stated that plaintiffs accepted responsibility for the consequences of riding the rented jet skis. The language should have put plaintiffs on notice of its legal significance and effect. Murley, 281 F.Supp.2d at 580-581, 591 (validating liability release with similar characteristics in dismissing action arising out of scuba diving accident that resulted in diver’s death). Even more, both plaintiffs and Castro signed the Agreements before boarding their respective jet skis, acknowledging that they (1) were fully informed of the hazards and risks associated with the jet ski and related water sports activities, including collision with other participants or watercrafts; (2) read, understood, and agreed to abide by the “Personal Watercraft Operational” instructions at all times; (3) were trained in the safe use of watersports equipment to their complete satisfaction; and (4) were physically and mentally able to participate in the water sports activities.

Fourth, plaintiffs are college-educated U.S. citizens, who were interested in participating in a recreational, hazardous maritime activity, one conditioned upon the jet ski’s owner and renter being released from liability as set forth in the waivers, a condition plaintiffs voluntarily agreed to.[26] Plaintiffs state that Ms. Morgan signed the documents without reading them (Docket No. 61-1 at ¶ 11). Nonetheless, the defendant is entitled to rely in good faith upon the reasonable appearance of consent that plaintiff created. See, Chieco v. Paramarketing, Inc., 228 A.D.2d 462, 643 N.Y.S.2d 668 (2d Dept. 1996)(holding release and waiver for paragliding lesson valid despite plaintiff’s allegation that he did not read or understand the document), cited in Murley, 281 F.Supp.2d at 591; Dan B. Dobbs, The Law of Torts, 217-218 (West 2000) (discussing defendant’s reasonable reliance on plaintiff’s acts and words to infer binding consent). Private and uncommunicated reservations to a waiver does not subject defendant to liability. See, Dan B. Dobbs, supra (so noting). Therefore, plaintiffs cannot escape the consequences of their voluntary decisions, bypassing the contracts they signed to avoid the legal consequences of their free choice, for there is no evidence of deceit, violence or intimidation exerted on plaintiffs to coerce or wrongfully induce them to sign the waivers, or that they did so by mistake, thinking they were signing something else. See, P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 31 § 3404 (codifying elements voiding consent under Puerto Rico law, to include violence, intimidation, deceit and error); Cutchin v. Habitat Curacao-Maduro Dive Fanta-Seas, Inc., 1999 WL 33232277, *3 (S.D. Fla. Feb. 8, 1999)(applying pre-accident waiver to dismiss action arising from diving accident, as there was no evidence showing that plaintiff was coerced to sign the document); Murley, 281 F.Supp.2d at 590 (dismissing suit based on scuba diver’s death in part because there was no evidence that defendants procured release by fraud or that deceased signed release under duress); .

Plaintiffs posit the waivers mention negligence but not fault, and cannot bar their action because the complaint alleges that their damages result from defendants’ “fault” or “negligence” (Docket No. 61 at p. 25). These terms have specific meanings in the civil code context of Puerto Rico law. See, CMI Capital Market Investment, LLC v. González-Toro, 520 F.3d 58, 64 (1st Cir. 2008)(so recognizing). Fault consists in the failure to exercise due diligence, the use of which would have prevented the wrongful result, and requires the execution of a positive act causing a damage to another person different from the one who executed it. Id. Negligence supposes an omission producing the same effect as fault (id.), predicated as with fault, on the failure to exercise due diligence. See, Sánchez v. Esso Standard Oil de Puerto Rico, Inc., 2010 WL 3069551, *4 (D.P.R. Aug. 2, 2010)(discussing terms). Both concepts “have in common that the act be executed or the omission incurred without an injurious intent, ” González-Toro, 520 F.3d at 64, and for the same reason, have been described as “faces of the same coin.” Sánchez, 2010 WL 3069551 a *4 (quoting Gierbolini v. Employers Fire Ins. Co., 4 P.R. Offic. Trans. 1197, 1201 (1976).

On this reading, it is apparent that to the extent the waiver mentions negligence it necessarily contemplates the failure to exercise due diligence, the same operative feature underlying fault, reflecting the waiver’s reference to both active and passive negligence. See, Malave-Felix v. Volvo Car Corp., 946 F.2d 967, 971 (1st Cir. 1991)(“An actor is at fault, or negligent, when he fails to exercise due diligence to prevent foreseeable injury”)(emphasis added). Even more, plaintiffs’ factual allegations are couched in negligence, not fault. See, Complaint, ¶ 30 (“As a consequence of the accident caused by the negligence of all defendants, … [Ms. Morgan] has suffered mental anguish, physical injuries and scars;” ¶ 43 (“As a consequence of the accident caused by the negligence of all defendants,, , [Ms. Kennedy] has suffered mental anguish, and physical injuries”).

Plaintiffs allege the waiver does not mention Axel Acosta, the insurance company, or Acosta Water Sports (Docket No. 61, pp. 27-28). Nonetheless, the waiver expressly releases Water Toy Shop’s officers, directors, and agents, and Axel Acosta is Water Sports’ president and resident agent (Docket No. 61-1 at ¶ 23). In addition, the insurance company’s exposure is linked to that of its insured. If the action fails as to Water Toy Shop and Axel Acosta, there is no viable claim against their insurer. Acosta Water Sports would not benefit from the waiver, though, as it is not one of the releases. Only one conclusion follows: the waivers and releases are valid, and must be enforced except as to Acosta Water Sports.

IV. CONCLUSION

For the reasons stated, the motion for summary judgment (Docket No. 52) is GRANTED and the claims against Water Toy, Axel Acosta and Ironshore Indemnity DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE. Since it is uncontested that Acosta Water Sports is not the owner of the jet skis at issue, and did not seem to have incurred in any wrongdoing related to the accident, plaintiffs shall show cause, by April 20, 2018 as to why their claims against Acosta Water Sports should not be dismissed as well. In their motion, plaintiffs shall include relevant caselaw arising out of analogous facts and procedural settings in support of their position.

SO ORDERED.

———

Notes:

[1] Collisions have been described as “the most feared catastrophe of every mariner.” Thomas J. Schoenbaum, Admiralty and Maritime Law, Vol. 2, 103 (West 5th ed. 2011).

[2] Castro was sued and served with process, but failed to appear and the Clerk entered default against him (Docket No. 77).

[3] Except otherwise noted, the facts included in this section are drawn from the parties’ Local Rule 56 submissions (Docket No. 52-1, Docket No. 61-1, Docket No. 69-1). Local Rule 56 is designed to “relieve the district court of any responsibility to ferret through the record to discern whether any material fact is genuinely in dispute.” CMI Capital Market Investment, LLC v. Gonzalez-Toro, 520 F.3d 58, 62 (1st Cir. 2008). It requires a party moving for summary judgment to accompany its motion with a brief statement of facts, set forth in numbered paragraphs and supported by citations to the record, that the movant contends are uncontested and material. Local Rule 56(b) and (e). The opposing party must admit, deny, or qualify those facts, with record support, paragraph by paragraph. Id. 56(c), (e). The opposing party may also present, in a separate section, additional facts, set forth in separate numbered paragraphs. Id. 56(c). While the district court may “forgive” a violation of Local Rule 56, litigants who ignore the rule do it “at their peril.” Mariani-Colón v. Department of Homeland Sec. ex rel. Chertoff, 511 F.3d 216, 219 (1st Cir. 2007).

[4] At his deposition, Axel Acosta explained that these corporations operate separately, with their own permit and insurance. Their personnel, however, is interchangeably used. See, Plaintiffs’ Exhibit 3 at p. 84, lines: 6-20. Water Toy Shop owns the stand adjacent to the San Juan Hotel, whereas Acosta Water Sports owns the stand adjacent to the Intercontinental Hotel. See, PSUMF ¶¶ 6, 36.

[5] Plaintiffs stated they were rushed into signing the documents. However, that do not contest the fact that both of them signed the documents. Moreover, the deposition testimony submitted in support of their contention does not prove that they were rushed to sign documents, but that they “were rushing” (Defendants’ Exh. 2 at p. 94). At any rate, in their opposition to the motion for summary judgment, plaintiffs seem to have abandoned the “rushing” characterization of the events, focusing instead on the alleged invalidity of the releases (Docket No. 61 at pp. 20-29).

[6] Plaintiffs’ explanation as to who gave them the documents does not controvert the language of the Rental Agreements that each plaintiff signed. Their undeveloped and unsupported contention as to the “content and admissibility of the documents” – without any analysis, case law or support whatsoever – does not contest the statement either.

[7] The “disputed” and generalized statement made by plaintiffs “as to the content and admissibility of the documents” does not contest the language of the Rental Agreement and Declaration of Fitness.

[8] Plaintiff testified during her deposition that “thirty to forty five maybe an hour” elapsed (Docket No. 52-3 at p. 100, lines 14-17).

[9] Plaintiffs “disputed” this statement as follows: “Disputed as to hearsay and admissibility of the documents. With the exception of the witness testimonies, Defendants have not yet produced a single piece of evidence that can confirm the identity, address or telephone number of the person who caused the collision, someone allegedly named Mark Castro.” See, Docket No. 61-1. But in addition to the general language disputing this statement, plaintiffs provided no discussion or authority in support of the argument. As such, the statement is deemed admitted. See, U.S. v. Zannino, 895 F.2d 1, 17 (1st Cir. 1990)(“It is not enough merely to mention a possible argument in the most skeletal way, leaving the court to do counsel’s work, create the ossature for the argument, and put flesh on its bones”). Moreover, their “dispute” language does not comply with Local Rule 56 either. See also, Natal-Pérez v. Oriental Bank & Trust, —F.3d.—-, 2018 WL 618598, *1-*2 (D.P.R. January 30, 2018)(explaining what constitutes a proper denial or qualification under Local Rule 56).

[10] Plaintiffs’ denial does not comply with Local Rule 56. This time, they refer the court’s attention to certain portions of plaintiffs’ Exhibit 6. But nothing in those pages serve to properly controvert defendants’ SUMF ¶ 16. Therefore, the statement is deemed admitted.

[11] Plaintiffs did not admit, deny or qualify this statement as required by Local Rule 56. Moreover, their explanation does not contest this statement.

[12] The Territorial Clause gives Congress authority to “make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States.” As a territorial entity subject to congressional authority under the Territorial Clause, Puerto Rico nevertheless boasts “a relationship to the United States that has no parallel in … [United States’] history.” Puerto Rico v. Sánchez-Valle, —U.S.—-, 136 S.Ct. 1863, 1876 (2016). In a well-documented and comprehensive commentary, “Why Puerto Rico Does Not Need Further Experimentation With Its Future: A Reply To The Notion of ‘Territorial Federalism’, ” 131-3 Harvard Law Review Forum (January 2018), Juan R. Torruella examines the different phases of Puerto Rico’s territorial relationship with the United States, divided into what the author has labeled “the four ‘experiments’ in the colonial governance of Puerto Rico by the United States.” Id. at pp. 65-66.

[13] For a description of the main features of the Jones Act, see, Lebrón-Cáceres, 157 F.Supp.3d at 92. Juan R. Torruella, supra, focuses on the historical context of the statutory enactment. The first organic act, known as the Foraker Act, 31 Stat. 77-86, had been enacted in 1900, two years after the United States invaded Puerto Rico during the Hispanic American War. It established a civilian government in the territory, replacing the military government that had exerted control over Puerto Rico from October 1898. See, Lebrón-Cáceres, 157 F.Supp.3d at 91-92 & n.17 (sketching statute); Juan R. Torruella, supra (surveying historical setting).

[14] Lebrón-Cáceres, 157 F.Supp.2d at 92-93, 99-101, and Juan R. Torruella, supra, provide useful information about this statute.

[15] Gustavo A. Gelpí, “Maritime Law in Puerto Rico, An Anomaly in a Sea of Federal Uniformity, ” published as part of The Constitutional Evolution of Puerto Rico and Other U.S. Territories (1898-Present), Interamerican University of Puerto Rico, Metropolitan Campus (2017), p. 57, discusses Garrido and other judicial decisions in light of the interplay between Federal maritime law and Puerto Rico.

[16] See, Aponte v. Caribbean Petroleum, 141 F.Supp.3d 166, 171 (D.P.R. 2015)(applying Limitation Act in Puerto Rico).

[17] The term “adequate cause” is similar to “proximate cause.” See, Rodríguez v. Puerto Rico, 825 F.Supp.2d 341, 347 (D.P.R. 2011)(so noting)(citing Tokyo Marine and Fire Ins. Co., Ltd. v. Pérez &Cia. de Puerto Rico, Inc., 142 F.3d 1, 7 &n. 5 (1st Cir. 1998)(referring to Puerto Rico decisions explaining adequate cause)).

[18] Foreseeability allows courts to reconcile physical or natural cause and effect relationships with the causation necessary to establish civil liability. See, González, 1993 WL 525644 at *4 (so explaining). If that were not so, “damages following a breach … [would] be linked to each other in an endless chain of events.” Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation v. Arrillaga-Torrens, 212 F.Supp.3d 312, 353 (D.P.R. 2016).

[19] At the most, those alleged violations would warrant administrative sanctions under Section 1407 of Law 430. Yet there is no evidence that the DRN sanctioned, fined, suspended or revoked Water Toy’s permit for those reasons.

[20] See also, Marshall, 828 F.2d at 848 (comparing Negrón v. Orozco, 113 D.P.R. 921 (1983)(finding Puerto Rico Police liable for a shooting death in a police station because intervening act, though criminal and intentional, was reasonably foreseeable) with Rivera v. Cruz, 87 J.T.S. 51(1987)(no liability since defendant had no reason to anticipate the criminal act)).

[21] Poulis-Minott measured liability against the so-called Pennsylvania Rule, pursuant to which if a plaintiff in admiralty establishes both that the defendant breached a statutory duty and the breach is relevant to the causal question, the defendant assumes the burden of proving that its breach could not have caused plaintiff’s damages. See, Poulis-Minott, 388 F.3d at 363 (describing Pennsylvania Rule). The Rule aims to enforce strict compliance with maritime regulations pertaining to the safe operation of ships. Id. So to invoke it, the plaintiff must show a relationship between the regulatory violation and the injury. Id. Plaintiffs never invoked the Pennsylvania Rule, but assuming they had done so, there is no evidence linking a safety-related statutory violation with the accident.

[22] Public policy does prohibit a party to a maritime contract to shield itself contractually from liability for gross negligence. See, Royal Ins. Co. of America v. Southwest Marine, 194 F.3d 1009, 1016 (9th Cir. 1999)(discussing issue). The prohibition does not apply here, because as pointed out in the text, the complaint only raised gross negligence allegations as to Castro.

[23] Congress could block the enforceability of these waivers like it did in 46 U.S.C. § 183(c), which prohibits a vessel owner from limiting its liability for its own negligence when carrying passengers between ports of the United States or from a port of the United States to a foreign port. But that provision applies only to common carriers. See, Waggoner v. Nags Head Water Sports, Inc., 141 F.3d 1162, *5-*6 (4th Cir. 1998)(unpublished)(so holding). No common carrier was involved in the case sub judice.

[24] Still and all, “adhesion does not imply nullity of contract” in Puerto Rico. Nieves v. Intercontinental Life Ins. Co. of Puerto Rico, 964 F.2d 60, 63 (1st Cir. 1992). If the wording of the contract is explicit and its language clear, its terms and conditions are binding on the parties. Id. As will be discussed, the waivers here satisfy this requirement.

[25] Those risks included (1) changing water flow, tides, currents, wave action, and ship’s wakes; (2) collision with any of the following: a) other participants, b) the watercraft, c) other watercraft, d) man made or natural objects, e) shuttle boat; (3) wind shear, inclement weather, lightning, variances and extremes of wind, weather and temperature; (4) my sense of balance, physical condition, ability to operate equipment, swim and/or follow directions; (5) collision, capsizing, sinking, or other hazard that may result in wetness, injury, exposure to the elements, hypothermia, impact of the body upon the water, injection of water into my body orifices, and/or drowning; (6) the presence of insects and marine life forms; (7) equipment failure or operator error; (8) heat or sun related injuries or illnesses, including sunburn, sun stroke or dehydration; (9) fatigue, chill and/or reaction time and increased risk of accident.

[26] Morgan had signed similar documents in order to rent jet skis before the accident. At the time of the accident, she had a Bachelor’s degree in Biology, and Kennedy had a High School diploma with one year of nursing school. SUMF at ¶ 2.

———


Assumption of the Risk is a defense to negligence and gross negligence claims in this case against a college offering for credit tour abroad study.

Student died swimming in the Pacific Ocean and his parents sued the college for his death. College was dismissed because student was an adult and assumed the risk that killed him.

Downes et al. v. Oglethorpe University, Inc., 342 Ga.App. 250 (Ga.App. 2017)

State: Georgia, Court of Appeals of Georgia

Plaintiff: Elvis Downes and Myrna Lintner (parents of the deceased)

Defendant: Oglethorpe University, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence and Gross Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Assumption of the Risk

Holding: for the Defendant

Year: 2017

Summary

There are some risks that the courts say you understand and accept the risks because we know of them. Examples are cliffs and water. Here, the family of a student who died on a study abroad trip while swimming in the ocean could not sue because the student assumed the risks of swimming.

What is interesting is the assumption of the risk defense was used to defeat a claim of negligence and Gross Negligence.

Facts

During the 2010-2011 academic year, Oglethorpe offered to their students a 12-day study-abroad trip to Costa Rica. The students were charged a fee for the trip to pay for expenses such as airfare, lodging, and food. The students were also required to pay the ” per credit tuition rate” and were to receive four credits toward their degree for academic work associated with the trip. Oglethorpe retained Horizontes, a Costa Rican tour operator, to coordinate the trip and to provide transportation and an English-speaking guide.

Dr. Jeffrey Collins was then the director of Oglethorpe’s study-abroad program. According to Collins, Oglethorpe tried to follow ” best practices,” which is ” defined as those protocols, procedures that as best and as far as possible ensure[ ] the safety of students.” He acknowledged that students would swim on the trips. Collins was not aware of any potential dangers in Costa Rica and did no investigation to ascertain if there were potential dangers in Costa Rica.

During pre-trip meetings with Downes and the five other students who had registered for the program, Dr. Roark Donnelly and Dr. Cassandra Copeland, the two professors who accompanied the students on the trip, asked the students if everyone was a good swimmer, and the students agreed that they were. The group also discussed swimming in the ocean, including ” that there are going to be currents.” One of the professors told the students that, during a previous study-abroad trip to another location, a student had recognized that he was a weak swimmer and was required to wear a life jacket during all water activities. After hearing this, the students continued to express that they were good swimmers. Before leaving on the trip, the students were required to sign a release agreement which included an exculpatory clause pertaining to Oglethorpe.

The students and professors flew to Costa Rica on December 28, 2010. During the course of the trip, on the afternoon of January 4, 2011, the group arrived at a hotel on the Pacific coast. The six students, two professors, the guide, and the driver got into their bus and drove to a nearby beach, Playa Ventanas, which had been recommended by the hotel. Upon their arrival, there were other people on the beach and in the water. There were no warning signs posted on the beach, nor any lifeguards or safety equipment present.

The students swam in the ocean, staying mostly together, and eventually ventured out into deeper water. After about 20 minutes, Dr. Donnelly yelled for the students to move closer to shore. Shortly thereafter, student Robert Cairns, a former lifeguard, heard a female student screaming. Cairns swam toward the screams, and the student informed him that Downes needed help. Cairns realized that ” some kind of current … had pulled us out.” Cairns swam to within ten feet of Downes and told him to get on his back and try to float. Downes could not get on his back, and Cairns kept telling him he had to try. After some time, Downes was struck by a wave, went under the water, and disappeared from Cairns’s view. Downes’s body was recovered from the ocean three days later.

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

The deceased student signed a release in this case, however the trial court and the appellate court made their decisions based on assumption of the risk.

Under Georgia law, assumption of the risk is a complete bra to a recovery.

The affirmative defense of assumption of the risk bars a plaintiff from recovering on a negligence claim if it is established that he[,] without coercion of circumstances, chooses a course of action with full knowledge of its danger and while exercising a free choice as to whether to engage in the act or not.

Absent a showing by the plaintiff of coercion or a lack of free choice assumption of the risk prevents the plaintiff from recovery any damages for negligence from the defendant.

To prove the deceased assumed the risk the college must show:

A defendant asserting an assumption of the risk defense must establish that the plaintiff (i) had knowledge of the danger; (ii) understood and appreciated the risks associated with such danger; and (iii) voluntarily exposed himself to those risks.

The plaintiff does not have to know and understand every aspect and facet of the risk. The knowledge can be that there are inherent risks in an activity even if the specifics of those risks are not known.

The knowledge requirement does not refer to a comprehension of general, non-specific risks. Rather, the knowledge that a plaintiff who assumes the risk must subjectively possess is that of the specific, particular risk of harm associated with the activity or condition that proximately causes injury.

Assumption of the risk is usually a jury decision because the jury must weigh whether or not the plaintiff truly understood the risks. However, if the risk is such that there is undisputed evidence that it exists and the plaintiff knew or should have known about it, the court can act.

As a general rule, whether a party assumed the risk of his injury is an issue for the jury that should not be decided by summary judgment unless the defense is conclusively established by plain, palpable and undisputed evidence.

Drowning is a known and understood risk under Georgia law of being in the water.

It is well established under Georgia law that ” [t]he danger of drowning in water is a palpable and manifest peril, the knowledge of which is chargeable to [persons] in the absence of a showing of want of ordinary capacity.

Because the deceased student was a competent adult, meaning over the age of 18 and not mentally informed or hampered, the risk was known to him. “As Downes was a competent adult, he was necessarily aware of the risk of drowning when he voluntarily entered the Pacific Ocean.”

The plaintiff’s argued the college created the risk because they did not investigate the beach, have an emergency preparedness plan, ensure the professors had adequate training and did not supply safety equipment. However, the court did not buy this because there was nothing in the record to show the College created or agreed to these steps to create an additional duty on the colleges part.

Assuming that Oglethorpe, having undertaken a study-abroad program, was under a duty to act with reasonable care, and that there is evidence of record that Oglethorpe failed to do so, assumption of risk is nevertheless a defense to negligence.

The college was under not statutory or common law duty to provide any of the issues the plaintiff argued. Nor did the college create a duty by becoming an insurer of the students.

Appellants do not show, however, that Oglethorpe was under a statutory or common law duty to provide safety equipment to its students during an excursion to the beach, or that the ocean is analogous to a nonresidential swimming pool. Nor can we conclude that Oglethorpe became an insurer for the safety of its students by undertaking a study-abroad program, or that it was responsible for the peril encountered by Downes in that it transported him to the beach.

Even then the assumption of the risk defense would apply because assuming the risk relieves the defendant of any negligence.

Even if a defendant is negligent, a determination that a plaintiff assumed the risk or failed to exercise ordinary care for [his] own safety bars recovery for the resulting injury suffered by the plaintiff, unless the injury was wilfully and wantonly inflicted.

The defendant was not liable because the student, as an adult would have appreciated the risks of drowning in the Pacific Ocean.

Because he was a competent adult, Downes would have appreciated the specific risk of drowning posed by entering a body of water so inherently dangerous as the Pacific Ocean. As Downes voluntarily did so, Oglethorpe established that he assumed that risk. Although Downes’s death was undeniably tragic, we are constrained to conclude that the trial court correctly granted Oglethorpe’s motion for summary judgment.

So Now What?

There are two important points in this decision.

First, although not discussed, the court allowed assumption of the risk to stop a claim for gross negligence. Normally, like assumption of the risk, whether or not a defendant was grossly negligent requires a review by the jury to determine if the facts alleged meet the definition of gross negligence in the state.

Second is the issue that the less you do the less liability you create. In the pre-trip briefing with the students the risks of swimming in the ocean were discussed. The students all stated they were strong swimmers and nothing more was done.

If the college had made them take a swim test, further questioned their swimming skills by requiring more information or making sure a professor who was a lifeguard was on the trip, the college would have created an additional duty owed to the students.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Downes et al. v. Oglethorpe University, Inc., 342 Ga.App. 250 (Ga.App. 2017)

Downes et al. v. Oglethorpe University, Inc., 342 Ga.App. 250 (Ga.App. 2017)

342 Ga.App. 250 (Ga.App. 2017)

802 S.E.2d 437

Downes et al. v. Oglethorpe University, Inc

A17A0246

Court of Appeals of Georgia

June 30, 2017

Assumption of the risk. DeKalb State Court. Before Judge Polk, pro hac vice.

Katherine L. McArthur, Caleb F. Walker, for appellants.

Swift, Currie, McGhee & Hiers, David M. Atkinson, for appellee.

OPINION

[802 S.E.2d 438]

Ellington, Presiding Judge.

Erik Downes, then a 20-year-old college student, drowned in the Pacific Ocean on January 4, 2011, while he was in Costa Rica attending a study-abroad program organized by Oglethorpe University, Inc. Elvis Downes and Myrna Lintner (the ” Appellants” ), as Downes’s parents and next of kin, and in their capacity as administrators of Downes’s estate, brought this wrongful death action alleging that Oglethorpe’s negligence and gross negligence were the proximate cause of Downes’s drowning. The trial court granted Oglethorpe’s motion for summary judgment, and the Appellants appeal. We affirm because, as a matter of law, Downes assumed [802 S.E.2d 439] the risk of drowning when he chose to swim in the Pacific Ocean.

Under OCGA § 9-11-56 (c), [s]ummary judgment is warranted if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. We review the grant or denial of a motion for summary judgment de novo, and we view the evidence, and the reasonable inferences drawn therefrom, in a light most favorable to the nonmovant. (Citations and punctuation omitted.) Assaf v. Cincinnati Ins. Co., 327 Ga.App. 475, 475-476 (759 S.E.2d 557) (2014). See also Johnson v. Omondi, 294 Ga. 74, 75-76 (751 S.E.2d 288) (2013) (accord).

So viewed, the evidence shows the following. During the 2010-2011 academic year, Oglethorpe offered to their students a 12-day study-abroad trip to Costa Rica. The students were charged a fee for the trip to pay for expenses such as airfare, lodging, and food. The students were also required to pay the ” per credit tuition rate” and were to receive four credits toward their degree for academic work associated with the trip. Oglethorpe retained Horizontes, a Costa Rican tour operator, to coordinate the trip and to provide transportation and an English-speaking guide.

Dr. Jeffrey Collins was then the director of Oglethorpe’s study-abroad program. According to Collins, Oglethorpe tried to follow ” best practices,” which is ” defined as those protocols, procedures that as best and as far as possible ensure[ ] the safety of students.” He acknowledged that students would swim on the trips. Collins was not aware of any potential dangers in Costa Rica and did no investigation to ascertain if there were potential dangers in Costa Rica.

During pre-trip meetings with Downes and the five other students who had registered for the program, Dr. Roark Donnelly and Dr. Cassandra Copeland, the two professors who accompanied the students on the trip, asked the students if everyone was a good swimmer, and the students agreed that they were. The group also discussed swimming in the ocean, including ” that there are going to be currents.” One of the professors told the students that, during a previous study-abroad trip to another location, a student had recognized that he was a weak swimmer and was required to wear a life jacket during all water activities. After hearing this, the students continued to express that they were good swimmers. Before leaving on the trip, the students were required to sign a release agreement which included an exculpatory clause pertaining to Oglethorpe.

The students and professors flew to Costa Rica on December 28, 2010. During the course of the trip, on the afternoon of January 4, 2011, the group arrived at a hotel on the Pacific coast. The six students, two professors, the guide, and the driver got into their bus and drove to a nearby beach, Playa Ventanas, which had been recommended by the hotel. Upon their arrival, there were other people on the beach and in the water. There were no warning signs posted on the beach, nor any lifeguards or safety equipment present.

The students swam in the ocean, staying mostly together, and eventually ventured out into deeper water. After about 20 minutes, Dr. Donnelly yelled for the students to move closer to shore. Shortly thereafter, student Robert Cairns, a former lifeguard, heard a female student screaming. Cairns swam toward the screams, and the student informed him that Downes needed help. Cairns realized that ” some kind of current … had pulled us out.” Cairns swam to within ten feet of Downes and told him to get on his back and try to float. Downes could not get on his back, and Cairns kept telling him he had to try. After some time, Downes was struck by a wave, went under the water, and disappeared from Cairns’s view. Downes’s body was recovered from the ocean three days later.

The Appellants filed this wrongful death action claiming that Downes’s death was the proximate result of Oglethorpe’s negligence and gross negligence. Evidence adduced during discovery included the testimony of Dr. John Fletemeyer, the Appellants’ expert in [802 S.E.2d 440] coastal sciences, that Downes had been caught in a ” rip current” [1] when he became distressed and ultimately drowned. Dr. Fletemeyer opined that some beaches on the western coast of Costa Rica are particularly dangerous ” mainly [because of] the lack of lifeguards,” but also because of physical conditions such as ” high wave energy force” and ” pocket beaches,” and that Playa Ventanas was a pocket beach.[2] He also testified that, in the context of the ocean, ” every beach you go to is extremely dangerous.” Other testimony showed that a continuing problem with drownings on beaches along the Pacific coast of Costa Rica was well publicized in Costa Rica, and that the United States Consular Authority in Costa Rica had ” published statistics about the danger of swimming on Costa Rica’s beaches and identified specifically the west coast beaches as being the most dangerous.” [3]

Following discovery, Oglethorpe moved for summary judgment and argued that (i) Oglethorpe owed no legal duty to Downes; (ii) the Appellants’ negligence claims are barred by Downes’s written waiver of liability and there is a lack of evidence that Oglethorpe was grossly negligent; and (iii) Downes assumed the risk of swimming in the ocean. The trial court granted Oglethorpe’s motion for summary judgment.

1. The Appellants contend that Oglethorpe was not entitled to summary judgment on the ground that Downes, as a matter of law, assumed the risk of drowning when he swam in the ocean.[4]

The affirmative defense of assumption of the risk bars a plaintiff from recovering on a negligence claim if it is established that he[,] without coercion of circumstances, chooses a course of action with full knowledge of its danger and while exercising a free choice as to whether to engage in the act or not. (Citation and punctuation omitted.) Vaughn v. Pleasent, 266 Ga. 862, 864 (1) (471 S.E.2d 866) (1996).

A defendant asserting an assumption of the risk defense must establish that the plaintiff (i) had knowledge of the danger; (ii) understood and appreciated the risks associated with such danger; and (iii) voluntarily exposed himself to those risks. The knowledge requirement does not refer to a comprehension of general, non-specific risks. Rather, the knowledge that a plaintiff who assumes the risk must subjectively possess is that of the specific, particular risk of harm associated with the activity or condition that proximately causes injury.

(Citation and punctuation omitted.) Gilreath v. Smith, 340 Ga.App. 265, 268 (1) (797 S.E.2d 177) (2017). ” As a general rule, whether a party assumed the risk of his injury is an issue for the jury that should not be decided by summary judgment unless the defense is conclusively established by plain, palpable and undisputed evidence.” (Citation and punctuation omitted.) Findley v. Griffin, 292 Ga.App. 807, 809 (2) (666 S.E.2d 79) (2008).

[342 Ga.App. 254] It is well established under Georgia law that ” [t]he danger of drowning in water is a palpable and manifest peril, the knowledge of which is chargeable to [persons] in the absence of a showing of want of ordinary capacity.” Bourn v. Herring, 225 Ga. 67, 69 (2) (166 S.E.2d 89) (1969). See, e.g., White v.

[802 S.E.2d 441]Ga. Power Co., 265 Ga.App. 664, 666 (1) (595 S.E.2d 353) (2004) (the ” [p]erils of deep water are instinctively known” ). The record does not show that Downes was aware of the presence of rip currents in the waters off the beach; however, ” [i]t is the body of water per se that presents an obvious risk of drowning, not its attendant conditions such as a strong unseen current or a deep unknown hole.” Id. at 667 (1). As Downes was a competent adult, he was necessarily aware of the risk of drowning when he voluntarily entered the Pacific Ocean.

The Appellants contend that Oglethorpe had a duty to exercise ordinary care in the planning and implementing of its study-abroad program to avoid exposing the students to a risk of drowning. Because Oglethorpe owed this duty, they contend, the fact that Downes entered the water voluntarily does not establish as a matter of law that he assumed the risk of drowning. Rather, they contend, Oglethorpe created the dangerous situation by taking Downes to the beach without investigating its dangers, adopting an emergency preparedness plan, ensuring the professors in charge had adequate training and procedures for supervising swimming students, and supplying safety equipment.

Assuming that Oglethorpe, having undertaken a study-abroad program, was under a duty to act with reasonable care, and that there is evidence of record that Oglethorpe failed to do so, assumption of risk is nevertheless a defense to negligence. ” Even if a defendant is negligent, a determination that a plaintiff assumed the risk or failed to exercise ordinary care for [his] own safety bars recovery for the resulting injury suffered by the plaintiff, unless the injury was wilfully and wantonly inflicted.” (Citation omitted.) City of Winder v. Girone, 265 Ga. 723, 724 (2) (462 S.E.2d 704) (1995). In Rice v. Oaks Investors II, 292 Ga.App. 692, 693-694 (1) (666 S.E.2d 63) (2008), the defendant was entitled to a directed verdict where, notwithstanding evidence that the defendants were negligent per se in failing to properly enclose the pool in which the ten-year-old decedent drowned, the child’s own negligence was the sole proximate cause of her death because the risk of swimming in the pool was obvious as a matter of law. Similarly, notwithstanding whether a defendant breached a duty to care for or supervise a decedent, the decedent’s assumption of the risk of injury may bar recovery. See Sayed v. Azizullah, 238 Ga.App. 642, 643-644 (519 S.E.2d 732) (1999) (finding no need to reach the issue [342 Ga.App. 255] of whether a duty was owed by the defendant to care for the 17-year-old decedent because the decedent was charged with appreciating the risk of swimming in the lake as a matter of law, and he voluntarily assumed that risk); Riley v. Brasunas, 210 Ga.App. 865, 868 (2) (438 S.E.2d 113) (1993) (any failure of the defendant to exercise the duty of an ordinary responsible guardian in watching over the seven-year-old child, who was injured using a trampoline, could not be the proximate cause of the child’s injuries where the child knowingly exposed himself to the obvious danger). See also Bourn v. Herring, 225 Ga. at 69-70 (2) (as the decedent, who was over 14 years old, was chargeable with diligence for his own safety against palpable and manifest peril, plaintiff could not recover against defendants for failure to exercise ordinary care in supervising the decedent in and around the lake in which he drowned).

As Appellants show, a decedent’s decision to enter a body of water with awareness of the physical circumstances is not necessarily determinative of whether the decedent assumed the risk of drowning. For example, the breach of a duty to provide statutorily required safety equipment may be ” inextricable from the proximate cause of the damage.” (Citation and punctuation omitted.) Holbrook v. Exec. Conference Center, 219 Ga.App. 104, 107 (2) (464 S.E.2d 398) (1995) (finding that a jury could determine that the absence of statutorily mandated safety equipment was the proximate cause of the decedent’s drowning in the defendant’s pool). See Alexander v. Harnick, 142 Ga.App. 816, 817 (2) (237 S.E.2d 221) (1977) (where the decedent drowned after she jumped from the defendant’s houseboat into the water in an attempt to rescue her dog, and the defendant did not have any throwable life preservers on board, nor readily accessible life vests, as required by law, ” a jury would not be precluded [802 S.E.2d 442] from finding that the absence of the safety equipment was the proximate cause of the decedent’s death merely because she entered the water voluntarily” ). And in premises liability actions, the general rule is ” that owners or operators of nonresidential swimming facilities owe an affirmative duty to exercise ordinary and reasonable care for the safety and protection of invitees swimming in the pool.” Walker v. Daniels, 200 Ga.App. 150, 155 (1) (407 S.E.2d 70) (1991).

Appellants do not show, however, that Oglethorpe was under a statutory or common law duty to provide safety equipment to its students during an excursion to the beach, or that the ocean is analogous to a nonresidential swimming pool. Nor can we conclude that Oglethorpe became an insurer for the safety of its students by undertaking a study-abroad program, or that it was responsible for the peril encountered by Downes in that it transported him to the beach. Compare Alexander v. Harnick, 142 Ga.App. at 817 (3) (an issue of fact remained as to whether, by taking decedent onto the water without the statutorily required safety equipment, defendant helped to create her peril). Because he was a competent adult, Downes would have appreciated the specific risk of drowning posed by entering a body of water so inherently dangerous as the Pacific Ocean. As Downes voluntarily did so, Oglethorpe established that he assumed that risk. Although Downes’s death was undeniably tragic, we are constrained to conclude that the trial court correctly granted Oglethorpe’s motion for summary judgment.

2. The Appellants’ other claims of error are moot.

Judgment affirmed.

Andrews and Rickman, JJ., concur.

Notes:

[1]The evidence showed that ” [a] rip current is a strong outflow or stream of water usually beginning at the beach, moving perpendicular to the beach, beginning with the neck and then terminating at some point beyond the surf line[.]”

[2]Fletemeyer’s testimony is not explicit as to why pocket beaches are dangerous to swimmers, although, in the context of the line of questioning, his testimony implies that the physical characteristics of pocket beaches are associated with the formation of rip currents.

[3]The evidence did not show that Playa Ventanas, in particular, had an unusually high number of drownings.

[4]The Appellants also contend that the trial court erred in granting Oglethorpe’s motion for summary judgment (1) because Oglethorpe owed a duty to exercise ordinary care for the safety of its students in the planning and implementation of its study-abroad program, and material issues of fact remain regarding Oglethorpe’s negligence, (2) the exculpatory clause in the release agreement signed by Downes is not enforceable, and (3) gross negligence cannot be waived by an exculpatory clause, and material issues of fact remain as to whether Oglethorpe was grossly negligent.


Paperwork, the death of trees and in this case the only defense the defendant had at this stage of the trial because the paperwork was not taken care of properly.

The youth camp failed to keep a good copy of the registration paperwork. What was presented to the court as a forum selection clause was illegible so the court held it was not valid.

Epps, et al., v. 1.I.L., INC., d/b/a Independent Lake Camp, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 93335, 2007 WL 4463588

State: Pennsylvania, United States District Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania

Plaintiff: Ben Epps, et al.

Defendant: 1.I.L., INC., d/b/a Independent Lake Camp

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Motion to Dismiss because of improper venue

Holding: For the Plaintiff

Year: 2007

Summary

Lawsuits are not games; they are not invitations to parties, there is a lot of money riding on the outcome in most cases. Documents needed for the case must be given to the attorneys defending the case in the condition in which they are maintained. In this case, a document was faxed to the defense attorneys and in such a bad way the court could not read the document. Since the court could not read the document, the court assumed the original was the same, and therefore, the document was not valid.

At the same time, if you are collecting and keeping documents that may end up in court, you need to create a system that preserves these documents in perfect condition so if they do get to court the judge can read them.

Finally, you must get the documents from the people you need a signature from in a condition the court will accept.

Facts

Plaintiffs allege that on June 24, 2005, their son, Axel, fell from a bike and was seriously injured while attending Defendant’s Independent Lake Camp located in Orson, Wayne County, Pennsylvania. Plaintiffs allege that Axel’s accident was caused by Defendant’s negligence while Defendant was acting in loco parentis. Specifically, Plaintiffs allege that Defendant: 1) failed to provide proper supervision and safeguards; 2) gave Axel a bike, helmet, and other equipment without properly training him to use them; 3) allowed Axel to use a bike track, which was inappropriate for his age and experience; and 4) failed to obtain parental consent for its actions.

Plaintiffs further allege that Axel suffered serious and permanent physical injuries, including permanent cognitive and psychological damage, several fractures, lacerations resulting in scarring, cervical and lumbar sprain, and a shock to his nervous system. Plaintiffs also claim that Axel’s injuries include severe financial losses in the form of future costs of treatment and therapy, loss of earnings, and loss of earning capacity.

Defendant brought its motion to dismiss for improper venue alleging that the Registration Agreement, which Plaintiffs had to sign for Axel to attend camp, contained a forum selection clause. Defendant attached a blank, unsigned version of the Independent Lake Camp Registration 2005 (“Registration Agreement”) to its motion to dismiss. Defendant alleges that under the Registration Agreement, the proper forum would be a court in Wayne County, which is located in the Middle District of Pennsylvania.

In Plaintiffs’ response to Defendant’s motion to dismiss, Plaintiffs argued that the blank Registration Agreement was unsigned and thus that Defendant failed to show that Plaintiffs had agreed to the terms in the document, including the forum selection clause. Plaintiffs averred by affidavit that they did not agree and would not have agreed to such a forum selection clause.

Defendant then provided a signed copy of the Registration Agreement, in which the information requested had been filled in and which was signed by Plaintiff Ben Epps. Defendant submitted an affidavit by Daniel Gould, the president of Defendant and Director of Independent Lake Camp. Mr. Gould avers that, after an exhaustive and diligent search, Defendant could only locate a photocopy of the signed Registration Agreement and was unable to locate the original. He avers that the original agreement is presumed lost and/or destroyed through no bad faith or improper act on the part of Defendant. The photocopy of the agreement provided to the court also appears to be a faxed copy, as evident from a fax header across the top margin.

In the copy of the signed Registration Agreement submitted by Defendant, the small print containing the terms of the agreement is blurry and barely legible. As Defendant concedes, the right-side margin, toward the bottom, is cut off, truncating the forum selection clause.

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

The defendants filed a motion to dismiss because the plaintiffs had filed the case in the wrong court according to the agreement, the registration form signed by the parents of the injured youth. The forum selection clause as defined by the courts or agreement to hold the trial at a specific court, allegedly stated the trial was to be held in Wayne County Court, Pennsylvania. The plaintiffs filed the case in the federal district our in Pennsylvania. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss from federal court and force the case to the state court.

The jurisdiction in the case was going to be Pennsylvania law no matter what; however, the trial would not be held in the back yard of the defendant, which is normally a good thing for the defendant.

When in the federal district court system, if a forum selection clause is upheld the case is simply transferred to the proper court. However, in this case because the selection clause stated a state court the case could not be transferred. The case would be dismissed at the federal court. The case could be refiled in the state court at that time if the statute of limitations had not run.

However, here, the document that was presented to the court that was the alleged agreement by the parents to only sue in state court was not legible.

The court agrees that the small print of the forum selection clause in the photocopied and faxed signed Registration Agreement is blurry and illegible, and does not provide reasonable notice of its terms. The court cannot assume that Mr. Epps signed a clear version of the agreement that became blurry and illegible upon subsequently being photocopied and faxed, because such evidence is not before the court. There is no evidence that Plaintiff Ben Epps signed any version of the Registration Agreement other than the document provided to the court.

Further, even if the forum selection clause were legible, it’s essential term, that any cause of action be brought in Wayne County, Pennsylvania, is cut off so as to be incomprehensible. Even if legible, the term “V– County Pennsylvania” in the forum selection clause gives no reasonable notice of the location of any agreed-upon forum.

The court concludes that the forum selection clause is inconspicuous and does not give notice of its terms to a reasonable person in violation of strong Pennsylvania public policy. The forum selection clause therefore is unreasonable, invalid, and unenforceable. Because the court finds that the forum selection clause is unreasonable and invalid, it does not address the private and public factors as transfer considerations under § 1404(a).

The agreement was a copy that had been faxed, was illegible and could not be read by the court.

Since the court could not read the document, the legal wording was incomplete and the entire document had sections missing the court could not find there was an agreement. The motion to change venue was dismissed.

So Now What?

I would guess the camp had received the faxed copy from the parents. There would be no need to fax the documents around the camp. The camp probably had sent the documents to the parents for their signature, and they had faxed them back. This was mistake one, because the camp accepted a badly faxed copy of the document.

  1. When you receive an email, fax, or original where you cannot make out what is going on, signature seems off, the document is unreadable, you must get a good copy. Tell the signor to do it again and make the copy legible.
  2. Set up a system to check documents when they come in.
  3. Set the system up with enough time so that is time to correct problems. Don’t place yourself in a position where you are balancing the money coming in versus proper paperwork you need.

Second, the camp seemed to not locate the original fax, but only had a copy of the faxed document.

  1. Develop a system to store and maintain the documents. Now day’s scanners are so efficient all the documents can be scanned and maintained in seconds. The original paper documents can be preserved and kept for the statue of limitations for the state, and a good electronic copy is also available.

Don’t allow a kid or adult to come to camp, attend the program, participate in the activity unless you have all the paperwork you need, signed and in a good legible condition. Then and only then cash the check and open the gates.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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forum selection clause, venue, parties, improper venue, enforceability, terms, legible, notice, motion to dismiss, conspicuous, applies, factors, invalid, print, 1.I.L., INC., Independent Lake Camp, forum selection clause,


Epps, et al., v. 1.I.L., INC., d/b/a Independent Lake Camp, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 93335, 2007 WL 4463588

Epps, et al., v. 1.I.L., INC., d/b/a Independent Lake Camp, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 93335, 2007 WL 4463588

Ben Epps, et al., Plaintiffs, v. 1.I.L., INC., d/b/a Independent Lake Camp, Defendant.

Civil Action No. 07-02314

United States District Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania

December 19, 2007

ORDER

MEMORANDUM

James T. Giles J.

I. Introduction

Before the court is Defendant 1.I.L., Inc.’s Motion to Dismiss for Improper Venue pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(3). Plaintiffs, Bens Epps and Amy Monroe, as parents and natural guardians of Axel Epps and in their own right, bring suit based in diversity jurisdiction, 28 U.S.C. § 1332, against Defendant 1.I.L. Inc. for personal injuries allegedly sustained by their son, Axel, while attending Defendant’s camp.

The primary issue raised by Defendant’s motion and determined by the court is whether the forum selection clause in the Registration Agreement at issue is valid and enforceable. The court finds that the forum selection clause contained in the signed Registration Agreement is not enforceable because it does not provide reasonable notice of its terms. The court concludes that Plaintiffs have brought suit in a proper venue and denies Defendant’s motion to dismiss for the reasons that follow.

II. Factual Background

Plaintiffs allege that on June 24, 2005, their son, Axel, fell from a bike and was seriously injured while attending Defendant’s Independant Lake Camp located in Orson, Wayne County, Pennsylvania. (Pls.’ Compl. ¶ 6.) Plaintiffs allege that Axel’s accident was caused by Defendant’s negligence while Defendant was acting in loco parentis. (Pls.’ Compl. ¶ 7.) Specifically, Plaintiffs allege that Defendant: 1) failed to provide proper supervision and safeguards; 2) gave Axel a bike, helmet, and other equipment without properly training him to use them; 3) allowed Axel to use a bike track, which was inappropriate for his age and experience; and 4) failed to obtain parental consent for its actions. (Pls.’ Compl. ¶ 8.)

Plaintiffs further allege that Axel suffered serious and permanent physical injuries, including permanent cognitive and psychological damage, several fractures, lacerations resulting in scarring, cervical and lumbar sprain, and a shock to his nervous system. (Pls.’ Compl. ¶ 9.) Plaintiffs also claim that Axel’s injuries include severe financial losses in the form of future costs of treatment and therapy, loss of earnings, and loss of earning capacity.

Plaintiffs, citizens of New York, brought suit in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania because Defendant is a citizen of Pennsylvania with offices in both Montgomery County and Wayne County. (Pls.’ Compl. ¶ 1-4; Pls.’ Br. in Supp. of Ans. to Mot. of Def. to Dismiss for Improper Venue (“Pls.’ Supp. Ans.”) 1; Def.’s Br. in Supp. of Mot. to Dismiss for Improper Venue (“Def.’s Supp.”) 1, 5.) Plaintiffs demand damages in excess of $150,000 for each of the two counts in the complaint as well as interest and costs of the suit.

III. Procedural History

Plaintiffs filed their Complaint on June 7, 2007. Defendant brought its motion to dismiss for improper venue alleging that the Registration Agreement, which Plaintiffs had to sign for Axel to attend camp, contained a forum selection clause. (Def.’s Mot. to Dismiss 2.) Defendant attached a blank, unsigned version of the Independent Lake Camp Registration 2005 (“Registration Agreement”) to its motion to dismiss. (Def.’s Mot. to Dismiss, Ex. A.) Defendant alleges that under the Registration Agreement, the proper forum would be a court in Wayne County, which is located in the Middle District of Pennsylvania. (Def.’s Mot. to Dismiss, Ex. A.) The blank Registration Agreement, in which the print is small but clear and legible, provides in part:

It is agreed that any dispute or cause of action arising between the parties, whether out of this agreement or other wise [sic], can only be brought in a court of competent jurisdiction located in Wayne County Pennsylvania [sic] and shall be construed in accordance with the laws of Pennsylvania.

(Def.’s Mot. to Dismiss, Ex. A.)

In Plaintiffs’ response to Defendant’s motion to dismiss, Plaintiffs argued that the blank Registration Agreement was unsigned and thus that Defendant failed to show that Plaintiffs had agreed to the terms in the document, including the forum selection clause. Plaintiffs averred by affidavit that they did not agree and would not have agreed to such a forum selection clause. (Pls.’ Supp. Ans. 2, Ex. B ¶¶ 2-3 (Ben Epps Aff.), Ex. C ¶¶ 2-3 (Amy Monroe Aff.).)

Defendant then provided a signed copy of the Registration Agreement, in which the information requested had been filled in and which was signed by Plaintiff Ben Epps. Defendant submitted an affidavit by Daniel Gould, the president of Defendant and Director of Independent Lake Camp. Mr. Gould avers that, after an exhaustive and diligent search, Defendant could only locate a photocopy of the signed Registration Agreement and was unable to locate the original. (Gould Aff. ¶¶ 5, 7-10.) He avers that the original agreement is presumed lost and/or destroyed through no bad faith or improper act on the part of Defendant. (Gould Aff. ¶ 10.) The photocopy of the agreement provided to the court also appears to be a faxed copy, as evident from a fax header across the top margin. (Gould Aff. Ex. A (Signed Registration Agreement).)

In the copy of the signed Registration Agreement submitted by Defendant, the small print containing the terms of the agreement is blurry and barely legible. As Defendant concedes, the right-side margin, toward the bottom, is cut off, truncating the forum selection clause. (Gould Aff. ¶ 6, Ex. A.) Consequently, if the print were clearly legible, when compared with the clear, blank version of the agreement, the forum selection clause would read:

It is agree [sic] any dispute or cause of action arising between the parties, whether out of this agreement or other wise [sic], can only be brought in a court of competent jurisdiction located in V [or three-quarters of a W] County Pennsylvania [sic] and shall be construed in accordance with the laws of Pennsylvania.

(Gould Aff. Ex. A.) Thus, if legible, most or all of the letters in the word “Wayne,” as in “Wayne County Pennsylvania,” are missing. (Gould Aff. ¶ 6, Ex. A.)

In Plaintiffs’ reply to Defendant’s affidavit, Plaintiffs do not dispute that Plaintiff Ben Epps’ signature appears on the copy of the Registration Agreement. Nor do Plaintiffs argue that the entire agreement itself is invalid. (Compare Pls.’ Supp. Ans. 2-3 (arguing, before Defendant’s production of a signed agreement, that the Registration Agreement was not enforceable because there was no objective manifestation of the parties’ intention to be contractually bound), with Pls.’ Reply to Def.’s Aff. 1 (arguing, after Defendant’s production of a signed Registration Agreement, that there was no meeting of the minds as to the forum selection clause because the wording of the clause was truncated and indiscernible).) Thus, the issue determined by the court is the enforceability of the forum selection clause.

III. Discussion

Federal law applies in the determination of the effect given to a forum selection clause in diversity cases. Jumara v. State Farm Ins. Co., 55 F.3d 873, 877 (3d Cir. 1995) (quoting Jones v. Weibrecht, 901 F.2d 17, 19 (2d Cir. 1990)). To evaluate the enforceability of the forum selection clause here, the court determines if the standard for dismissal or transfer is proper.[1] See id. at 877-78. If the standard for transfer applies, the court then determines if the forum selection clause is reasonable. See id. at 880 (citing M/S Bremen v. Zapata Off-Shore Co., 407 U.S. 1, 12-13 (1972)).

A. Dismissal or Transfer under 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a) or 1406.

Although dismissal is a “permissible means of enforcing a forum selection clause that allows suit to be filed in another federal forum,” the Third Circuit cautions that “as a general matter, it makes better sense, when venue is proper but the parties have agreed upon a not- unreasonable forum selection clause that points to another federal venue, to transfer rather than dismiss.” Salovaara v. Jackson Nat’l Life Ins. Co., 246 F.3d 289, 298-99 (3d Cir. 2001); see Stewart Org., Inc. v. Ricoh Corp., 487 U.S. 22, 28-29, 32 (1988) (holding that a federal court sitting in diversity jurisdiction should treat a request to enforce a forum selection clause in a contract as a motion to transfer venue under applicable federal law, 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a)); 15 Charles Alan Wright, Arthur R. Miller & Edward H. Cooper, Federal Practice and Procedure § 3803.1 (2d ed. 1986 & Supp. 2006).

Transfer, however, is not available when a forum selection clause specifies a non-federal forum. Salovaara, 246 F.3d at 298. The forum selection clause in the Registration Agreement, if valid and untruncated, would provide that “any dispute . . . can only be brought in a court of competent jurisdiction located in Wayne County Pennsylvania” and does not limit jurisdiction to state court. The provision’s plain language is construed to permit the action in any court of the county, including the federal court in the federal judicial district encompassing Wayne County, Pennsylvania, regardless of whether the federal court is physically located in the county. See Jumara, 55 F.3d at 881 (construing an arbitration provision requiring the action to transpire within a particular county to mean that the action would be permitted in any court, state or federal, with jurisdiction encompassing that county). Transfer is an available remedy because the forum selection clause, if valid and untruncated, includes a federal forum. See id. at 881-83 (applying the § 1404(a) analysis for transfer where a forum selection clause permitted any state or federal forum within a particular county).

Because transfer is the appropriate remedy, the court must then consider whether 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a) or § 1406 applies. “Section 1404(a) provides for the transfer of a case where both the original venue and the requested venue are proper. Section 1406, on the other hand, applies where the original venue is improper and provides for either transfer or dismissal of the case.” Id. at 878. Whether venue is proper in this district is governed by the federal venue statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1391. Id.

Without considering the forum selection clause, venue is proper in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Neither party disputes that Defendant is subject to personal jurisdiction in this district because Defendant transacts business here. See 28 U.S.C. § 1391(c); Jumara, 55 F.3d at 878-79; Stewart, 487 U.S. at 29 n.8 (“The parties do not dispute that the District Court properly denied the motion to dismiss the case for improper venue under 28 U.S.C. § 1406(a) because respondent apparently does business [there].”); see also (Pls.’ Supp. Ans. 1; Def.’s Supp. 3). This court therefore concludes that the appropriate analysis is whether the case should be transferred under § 1404(a). See Salovaara, 246 F.3d at 298-99.

B. Transfer under 1404(a) Is Improper Because the Forum Selection Clause Is Unreasonable and Unenforceable.

Section 1404(a) controls the inquiry of whether to give effect to a forum selection clause and to transfer a case.[2] Stewart, 487 U.S. at 29, 32. Before considering the factors under Section 1404(a), the court first examines the validity or reasonableness of the forum selection clause through application of the test in M/S Bremen v. Zapata Off-Shore Co., 407 U.S. 1, 12-13 (1972). “Where the forum selection clause is valid, which requires that there have been no ‘fraud, influence, or overweening bargaining power,’ the plaintiffs bear the burden of demonstrating why they should not be bound by their contractual choice of forum.” Jumara, 55 F.3d at 879-80 (quoting Bremen, 407 U.S. at 12-13).

A forum selection clause is unreasonable and invalid if the objecting party demonstrates that (1) the forum selection clause is the result of fraud or overreaching, (2) its enforcement would violate a strong public policy of the forum, or (3) its enforcement would result in litigation so seriously inconvenient and unreasonable that it would deprive a litigant of his or her day in court. Bremen, 407 U.S. at 15-17; In re Diaz Contracting, Inc., 817 F.2d 1047, 1051-52 (3d Cir. 1987).

To dispose of this issue, the court need only address whether the enforcement of the forum selection clause violates a strong public policy of the forum. Under Pennsylvania law, a clause in a contract must be conspicuous, so as to provide notice of its terms to a reasonable person. See, e.g., 13 Pa.C.S. § 2316 (requiring that limitation of warranties terms be conspicuous); 13 Pa.C.S. § 1201 (defining “conspicuous”); Beck-Hummel v. Ski Shawnee, Inc., 2006 Pa. Super 159, P23-24 & n.12-13 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2006) (relying on the requirement for conspicuous terms in the sale of goods context in a case involving the sale of services, and finding that disclaimer language on a ski ticket was not sufficiently conspicuous to put a purchaser on notice of its contents). Plaintiffs argue that the forum selection clause contained in the signed Registration Agreement is invalid because the wording of the clause is “truncated and indiscernible.” (Pls.’ Reply 1.)

The court agrees that the small print of the forum selection clause in the photocopied and faxed signed Registration Agreement is blurry and illegible, and does not provide reasonable notice of its terms. The court cannot assume that Mr. Epps signed a clear version of the agreement that became blurry and illegible upon subsequently being photocopied and faxed, because such evidence is not before the court. There is no evidence that Plaintiff Ben Epps signed any version of the Registration Agreement other than the document provided to the court.

Further, even if the forum selection clause were legible, its essential term, that any cause of action be brought in Wayne County, Pennsylvania, is cut off so as to be incomprehensible. Even if legible, the term “V– County Pennsylvania” in the forum selection clause gives no reasonable notice of the location of any agreed-upon forum.

The court concludes that the forum selection clause is inconspicuous and does not give notice of its terms to a reasonable person in violation of strong Pennsylvania public policy. The forum selection clause therefore is unreasonable, invalid, and unenforceable. Because the court finds that the forum selection clause is unreasonable and invalid, it does not address the private and public factors as transfer considerations under § 1404(a).

V. Conclusion

For the foregoing reasons, Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss for Improper Venue is denied. An appropriate order follows.

ORDER

AND NOW, this 19th day of December, 2007, upon consideration of Defendant 1.I.L., Inc.’s Motion to Dismiss for Improper Venue (Doc. No. 4), Plaintiffs’ Response in opposition thereto, Defendant’s Affidavit of Daniel Gould and Exhibits (Doc. Nos. 8 & 9), and Plaintiffs’ Reply, it is hereby ORDERED that said motion is DENIED for the reasons set forth in the attached memorandum.

Notes:

[1] Prior to Defendant’s production of a signed Registration Agreement, Plaintiffs argued that the forum selection clause should not be enforced because it did not meet the standard of reasonable communicativeness, as set forth in Marek v. Marpan Two, Inc., 817 F.2d 242, 245 (3d Cir. 1987), due to the agreement’s small print. Marek applies primarily in cases involving maritime law. See, e.g., Gibbs v. Carnival Cruise Lines, 314 F.3d 125, 130 (3d Cir. 2002); Hodes v. S. N.C. Achille Lauro ed Altri-Gestione, 858 F.2d 905, 906, 909-12 (3d Cir. 1988). As discussed below, the court follows more recent Third Circuit precedent on the enforceability of forum selection clauses.

[2] Section 1404(a) provides that “a district court may transfer any civil action to any other district or division where it might have been brought” for “the convenience of parties and witnesses” and “in the interest of justice.” 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a); see Stewart, 487 U.S. at 29. Courts must adjudicate motions to transfer based on an “individualized, case-by-case consideration of convenience and fairness,” weighing a number of factors. Id. (quoting Van Dusen v. Barrack, 376 U.S. 612, 622 (1964)). A court’s review is not limited to the three enumerated factors in § 1404(a) – convenience of the parties, convenience of witnesses, or interests of justice – and courts may consider various private and public interests. Jumara, 55 F.3d at 879-80.

The parties’ agreement as to the proper forum, although not dispositive, receives “substantial consideration” in the weighing of relevant factors. Id. at 880; see Stewart, 487 U.S. at 29-30 (“The presence of a forum selection clause . . . will be a significant factor that figures centrally in the district court’s calculus. . . . The flexible and individualized analysis Congress prescribed in § 1404(a) thus encompasses consideration of the parties’ private expression of their venue preferences.”). The deference generally given to a plaintiff’s choice of forum is “inappropriate where the plaintiff has already freely chosen an appropriate venue.” Jumara, 55 F.3d at 880.


Crashing while mountain biking is an inherent risk under Indiana’s law.

The plaintiff also admitted that he knew the risks of mountain biking and as such were contributorily negligent which barred his claims against the park owner.

Hoosier Mountain Bike Association, Inc., et. al., v. Kaler, 73 N.E.3d 712; 2017 Ind. App. LEXIS 133

State:  Indiana, Court of Appeals of Indiana

Plaintiff: (At Trial) Richard Kaler 

Defendant: (At Trial) Hoosier Mountain Bike Association, Inc., City of Indianapolis, and Indy Parks and Recreation

Plaintiff Claims: Premises Liability 

Defendant Defenses: No liability and Contributory Negligence 

Holding: For the Defendants (at Trial) 

Year: 2017 

Summary

Crashing while mountain biking is an inherent risk under Indiana’s law. The plaintiff, an experienced mountain biker could not recover from the park because he knew and had crashed mountain biking and his knowledge of mountain biking also made him contributorily negligent. Contributory negligence under Indiana Law is a complete bar to recovery when suing a municipality.

Facts 

This decision the parties in the heading is reversed. The plaintiff is listed second in this case at the appellate court heading and the defendants are listed first. The reason is the defendants are appealing the trial court’s ruling and they the defendants are prosecuting the case to the appellate court. Few states work this way in titling their decisions. 

The City of Indianapolis, through its Indy Parks and Recreation department owns Town Run Trail Park. It has numerous mountain bike trails through the park which are managed by the Hoosier Mountain Bike Association.

The plaintiff had been mountain biking for five or six years. An Eagle Scout had created a berm in the park as part of a “merit badge” in the park. While riding the berm the plaintiff crashed and sued.

He described himself as an “experienced” and “better than average” bicyclist. Although he was familiar with the trails at Town Run, he had not been on the mountain-bike trail since the berm had been constructed several months earlier. “Oftentimes,” Kaler would “try to get an idea of the technical requirements of the trail” and would step off his bike, especially if he saw something within his view “as a danger.”

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

All states have Premises Liability statutes. These statutes set out the duties of land owners relative to people on their land. If the land owner fails to meet those duties, the landowner is liability. An injury to a person on someone’s land is called a premises liability claim.

The plaintiff mountain biker brought a premises liability claim for his injuries. To win a premises liability claim in Indiana the plaintiff must prove the landowner. 

(a) Knows or by the exercise of reasonable care would discover the condition, and should realize that it involves an unreasonable
risk of harm to such invitees, and

(b) Should expect that they will not discover or realize the danger, or will fail to protect themselves against it, and

(c) Fails to exercise reasonable care to protect them against the danger. 

The plaintiff failed to prove this to the appellate court on two different arguments. First, the plaintiff’s experience as a mountain bike showed he knew that crashing was a possibility mountain biking, and he crashed often. 

He admitted that a fall “was just a general consequence of the sport.” Although he had ridden the trail the first time without any problems, when Kaler decided to make a second run, it was getting dark, but he was insistent that he “wanted to ride the higher grade because [he] knew it was more challenging.” At no point, did Kaler step off his bike and inspect the berm’s high grade prior to riding it in the approaching darkness. Accordingly, pursuant to Kaler’s own statements, the City could objectively and reasonably have expected an experienced bicyclist to realize the risks a beginner to intermediate trail would present and take appropriate precautions. 

Second he had ridden the wooden berm once before that day, electing to take a lower ride through the berm. The second time he went faster taking the higher edge of the berm when he crashed.

The plaintiff could not prove that actual or constructive knowledge that the City knew the trail created an unreasonable risk of harm to the plaintiff. Not because of the lack of the cities’ knowledge, but because crashing was part of the sport. Therefore, there was no unreasonable risk. The plaintiff had testified that crashing was part of the sport.

As the expectation of a bicycle crash is a risk inherent to riding trails, it cannot serve to establish the sort of unreasonable risk of harm contemplated in the first Burrell element.

Having the plaintiff admit crashing was part of the sport, the court held that while mountain biking crashing was an inherent risk of the sport. If a risk is inherent to the sport, then you could not sue for injuries from an inherent risk.

The second defense brought by the City on appeal was the plaintiff was contributorily negligent. Contributory negligence 

“[c]ontributory negligence is the failure of a person to exercise for his own safety that degree of care and caution which an ordinary, reasonable, and prudent person in a similar situation would exercise.

If you can prove the plaintiff was responsible for his own injuries, then the defendant is not liable. In some states, this could act to reduce the plaintiff’s damages. In Indiana, it was a complete bar to the plaintiff’s claims. 

Reviewing the testimony of the plaintiff, the court found that the plaintiff was not completely free of all negligence. Meaning the plaintiff was also negligent and therefore, barred from suing for his claims.

So Now What? 

Two great ideas came out of this for land owners in Indiana. The first is crashing is an inherent risk of the mountain biking. Most mountain bikers already knew this; however, having a court make the statement is great. 

Second premises liability statute in Indiana has been interpreted to allow the defendant to introduce the knowledge and skill of the plaintiff as a defense to the plaintiff’s claims and as a denial of his claims. 

What do you think? Leave a comment. 

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Neither a release nor the Pennsylvania Equine Liability Act protects a stable for injuries when the stirrup broke.

Between a poorly written release, an Equine statute that requires proof the rider assumed the risk and the “cavalier” attitude of the defendant; the plaintiff will proceed to trial.

Melendez v. Happy Trails and Riding Center, Inc., 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 131576

State: Pennsylvania, United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania

Plaintiff: Wilberto Melendez

Defendant: Happy Trails and Riding Center, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence and Recklessness

Defendant Defenses: Release and Pennsylvania Equine Liability Protection Act

Holding: For the plaintiff

Year: 2016

The plaintiff was part of a group ride. Upon arrival he was told, he had to sign a release which he did. At the office where the plaintiff signed, the release signs were posed as required by the Pennsylvania Equine Activities Immunity Act. During the ride, the plaintiff asked the guides if he could gallop the horse and was told no several times. Eventually at the end of the ride, the plaintiff was allowed to gallop his horse.

Plaintiff then mounted the horse and participated in a guided group horseback ride for the next forty-five minutes without incident. On several occasions during the ride, Plaintiff requested permission from the guide to gallop the horse. Plaintiff was told it was too dangerous to do on the trail. At the end of the ride, one of the guides brought Plaintiff away from the group so that Plaintiff could canter the horse. Plaintiff then put the horse into a gallop and, while rounding a turn, a stirrup broke and Plaintiff fell from the animal.

While galloping the horse, the stirrup broke causing the plaintiff to fall incurring injuries.

The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment based on the release signed by the plaintiff and the Pennsylvania Equine Activities Immunity Act. The court denied the motion because the issue of the stirrup breaking could be considered reckless under Pennsylvania law.

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

The decision first looks at releases or exculpatory agreements under Pennsylvania law.

An exculpatory clause is valid if (1) the clause does “not contravene public policy”; (2) the contract is “between persons relating entirely to their own private affairs”; and (3) each party is “a free bargaining agent to the agreement so that the contract is not one of adhesion.

Under Pennsylvania, the language of the release must be clear in relieving notifying the possible plaintiff, he or she is releasing the defendant of negligence. “However, a valid exculpatory clause will nevertheless, be unenforceable “unless the language of the parties is clear that a person is being relieved of liability for his own acts of negligence.”

As in most states, releases are not favored and must conform to contract law. However, the term “not favored” is a term of art rather than a term used to determine if the release will be valid.

Contracts immunizing a party against liability for negligence are not favored by law and therefore established standards must be “met before an exculpatory provision will be interpreted and construed to relieve a person of liability for his own or his servants’ acts of negligence.”

In that regard Pennsylvania, courts have set up standards on how releases will be governed.

1) the contract language must be construed strictly, since exculpatory language is not favored by the law; 2) the contract must state the intention of the parties with the greatest particularity, beyond doubt by ex-press stipulation, and no inference from words of general import can establish the intent of the parties; 3) the language of the contract must be construed, in cases of ambiguity, against the party seeking immunity from liability; and 4) the burden of establishing immunity is upon the party invoking protection under the clause.

As in most other states, Pennsylvania does not allow a release to relieve a defendant for intentional or reckless acts. “Further, exculpatory clauses may not immunize a party for intentional or reckless behavior.

The plaintiff did not argue that the release was not valid. The court reviewed the release on its own and find it valid.

First, the agreement does not violate any public policy of Pennsylvania. In light of the Equine Activities Immunity Act–discussed in the next section–and similar statutes addressing other recreational activities, it is the policy of the state to encourage participation in those activities, despite their inherent danger, and assign the risk of loss to those who choose to participate in them.

Second, the agreement was between two private parties, Happy Trails and Mr. Melendez, concerning the purely private matter of renting a horse for recreational purposes. Finally, this is not a contract of adhesion. (“The signer I is under no compulsion, economic or otherwise, to participate, much less to sign the exculpatory agreement, because it does not relate to essential services, but merely governs a voluntary recreational activity.”). Thus, the agreement is facially valid.

The court also found Pennsylvania law allowed the use of releases for inherently dangerous activities. Horseback riding in Pennsylvania is an inherently dangerous activity.

The plaintiff’s argument centered on the inherent risks of horseback riding. Inherent, a limiting word, defines the risks that are part of horseback riding no matter what. Inherent risks are part of horseback riding and can rarely be reduced or modified by someone because of the horse. However, there are more than just inherent risks in any activity and the plaintiff argued that a stirrup breaking was not an inherent risk and not covered by the release or the statute.

How the bridle or saddle is attached to the horse is under the control of the stable, thus not an inherent risk of horseback riding in must states. How the horse responds; maneuvers or acts is an inherent risk of riding a horse.

Plaintiff contends that Defendant has failed to meet its burden to show either that defective equipment is an inherent risk of horseback riding, or that the language of the agreement shows that Plaintiff expressly assumed the risk of defective equipment.

Plaintiff points out that the agreement does not enumerate defective equipment as a risk. (Id.). Further, Plaintiff argues that a broken stirrup is not an inherent risk of horseback riding as demonstrated by the testimony of both Happy Trails’ owner and a Happy Trails’ employee who both stated they had never seen a stirrup break before. Thus, Plaintiff argues, because the risk was not foreseeable and was not expressly in the agreement, Plaintiff could not appreciate the risk and could therefore not assume it.

(For other articles on the use of “inherent” in a release see: Here is another reason to write releases carefully. Release used the term inherent to describe the risks which the court concluded made the risk inherently dangerous and voids the release and 2015 SLRA – Inherent Risk: Should the Phrase be in your Release?)

The court looked at the issue and rephrased it to a contract analogy. A contract must state the intention of the parties. A release is a contract.

…the contract must state the intention of the parties with the greatest particularity, beyond doubt by express stipulation, and no inference from words of general import can establish the intent of the parties”–is not met in this case because the agreement did not specifically enumerate the risk of defective equipment. Pennsylvania courts, however, have rejected this argument before.

The court then looked at the issue and found that defective equipment was not an inherent risk of horseback riding. This means if you use the term “inherent risk” in your release to describe all of the risks, claims based defective equipment would not be covered by your release in Pennsylvania. However, the release in this case was written broadly so it was not an issue.

Concerning the case at hand, while this Court agrees with Plaintiff that the provision of defective equipment is not an inherent risk in the sport of horseback riding, this point is not dispositive. As one Pennsylvania court explained, “the assumption of the risk doctrine bars a plaintiff from recovering in tort for risks inherent to a certain activity. In contrast, the explicit, broad, and valid language of the exculpatory clause bars all claims, regardless of whether they arise from an inherent risk.”

Pennsylvania courts have held that a release protects against claims for inherent as well as non-inherent risks if written to include those risks, and this release was written broadly.

The plaintiff argued the release should be read narrowly because the release did not identify defective equipment as a risk to be covered. However, the court found that every risk needs not be reviewed or identified in a release.

Plaintiff advances a more narrow reading of the agreement and argues that because the agreement does not enumerate defective equipment as a risk, he did not expressly assume it. The Chepkevich Court, however, was clear that no illustrations or examples are required to give common terms effect in an exculpatory agreement. “All claims” and “negligence” are commonly used terms and Pennsylvania law does not require drafters of exculpatory clauses to enumerate every possible contingency that is included in broader language they choose to use.

The next point the plaintiff argued was the actions of the defendant amounted to recklessness and as such voided the release. The court defined recklessness under Pennsylvania law as:

Recklessness is distinguishable from negligence on the basis that recklessness requires conscious action or inaction which creates a substantial risk of harm to others, whereas negligence suggests unconscious inadvertence.”

Pennsylvania uses the term recklessness to define acts of the defendant that exceed the scope of a release. The majority but not all states use the term gross negligence.

This argument the court did accept. The court found that it was the defendant’s responsibility to inspect the equipment, and the defendant could not provide any evidence of any inspection.

Defendant’s bare assertion that its actions do not rise to the level of recklessness does not satisfy its burden to show that there is no genuine dispute as to a material fact. The record shows that Happy Trails provided a saddle for Plaintiffs ride, that a stirrup on that saddle broke during the ride, and that Plaintiff fell from a horse when the stirrup broke. It was the responsibility of Happy Trails, not the customer, to inspect the equipment, but no records of inspections or repairs were kept, nor was the Happy Trails’ owner able to say if any inspection of the specific stirrup occurred on the day of the accident.

The court on this same topic went on looking at the facts to determine other reckless acts of the defendant. In that review, the court added a comment about the attitude of the defendant/owner of Happy Trails and described his attitude as “cavalier.”

He was unable to say where he procured the saddle in question, how long he had had it, or how old it was. Additionally, Happy Trails’ owner displayed a somewhat cavalier attitude towards safety, asserting that customers assume all risks associated with the activity, including equipment breaking, staff failing to put equipment on the horses correctly, and even staff failing to provide basic equipment like stirrups or a bridal. Viewing the record in a light most favorable to Plaintiff, a question of fact therefore remains as to whether Defendant’s action rose to the level of recklessness

Finding a lack of knowledge about the age or condition of the defendant’s equipment, no record of inspecting or maintaining the equipment and the attitude of the defendant allowed the court to reach a conclusion that the actions of the defendant would be found by a jury to be reckless. As such, a motion for summary judgment could not be granted if there were “genuine dispute as to any material fact.”

The next issue was the application of the Pennsylvania Equine Activities Immunity Act to the case. The court could find no other case law in Pennsylvania that looked at the application of the Pennsylvania Equine Activities Immunity Act to defective equipment. Consequently, the court had to interpret the statute to see if the language of the statute covered defective equipment.

The Pennsylvania Equine Activities Immunity Act like most equine liability protection acts provides immunity to horse owners, stables, etc., for the actions of the animals. (Since Equine Acts have been created, they have been 100% effective. No horses have been sued. Lawsuits against horse owners have increased.) However, the Pennsylvania statute places a burden on the stable or horse owner to prove knowledge of the risk for the immunity to apply.

Most equine protection acts are written to say that when on a horse, or at places where horses, llamas, mules, etc., are, you assume the risk of the actions of the animal. By assuming the risk, the defendant owner is immune from liability for the plaintiff’s injuries. The Pennsylvania statute is different. The Pennsylvania statute states “liability for negligence shall only be barred where the doctrine of knowing voluntary assumption of risk is proven.”

This requirement puts a burden upon the horse owner to provide additional education to the rider.

The court looked at the definition of assumption of risk as defined in the Restatement of Torts, which found four different definitions or as the Restatement defines them doctrines of assumption of the risk.

The Restatement outlines four varieties of the doctrine, the first two of which are of interest in this case. The first, express assumption of risk occurs when lithe plaintiff has given his express consent to relieve the defendant of an obligation to exercise care for his protection, and agrees to take his chances as to injury from a known or possible risk.” Id. (emphasis added). This is the type of assumption of risk examined above in respect to the agreement signed by Plaintiff. The second, implied assumption of risk, occurs when lithe plaintiff has entered voluntarily into some relation with the defendant which he knows to involve the risk, and so is regarded as tacitly or impliedly agreeing to relieve the defendant of responsibility, and to take his own chances.”

The first type of assumption of risk the court found that applied here was express assumption of risk. Express assumption of risk occurs when the plaintiff has consented to the risk. Usually, this consent is given by writing, if written property as part of a release.

The second type applicable in this case was implied assumption of the risk. Implied assumption of the risk has no exactness to the risk assumed. The plaintiff knows there is risk, and the defendant hopes the plaintiff knows of the explicit risk that may injure the plaintiff or that caused the plaintiff’s injuries. If the plaintiff had no knowledge of the risk, then the plaintiff cannot assume the risk.

It is self-evident that a person “cannot be found to have implicitly assumed a risk of which he had no knowledge.” (plurality opinion). As such, lithe defense of assumption of the risk requires that the defendant show that the plaintiff was subjectively aware of the facts which created the danger and…must have appreciated the danger itself and the nature, character and extent which made it unreasonable.”

In this case, there was no evidence that the plaintiff knew of the risk. That risk was of equipment failure that the stirrup would break. Consequently, the plaintiff could not assume the risk.

Thus, for a defendant to prevail on a summary judgment motion based on the assumption of risk defense, it must be “beyond question that the plaintiff voluntarily and knowingly proceeded in the face of an obvious and dangerous condition.”

In short, to preclude Plaintiffs negligence action under the EAIA, Defendant must show that Plaintiff knew that the equipment he was provided with might break and voluntarily continued with the horseback ride in spite of that knowledge.

Because the risk that injured the plaintiff was outside of the risks assumed by the plaintiff, the defense of assumption of the risk did not apply. As such, the Pennsylvania Equine Activities Immunity Act did not provide the defendant with any protection.

With the release not valid and the Pennsylvania Equine Activities Immunity Act not providing any protection both defenses of the defendant failed. The defendant’s motion for summary judgment was denied.

So Now What?

This case would not have meant anything if the plaintiff had simply fallen off the horse. Both the release and the Pennsylvania Equine Activities Immunity Act would have prevented recovery if a claim had even been made.

But broken equipment always creates a different issue. Here it created an issue of whether the actions of the defendant were reckless and proved the plaintiff did not assume the risk.

Another important issue is courts put into their decision the facts they find persuasive or at least interesting.  There were several facts in the decision that did not alter or affect the decision on its face, but important enough for the court to identify them anyway. I always find these facts as instructional and a good indication of something that was not enough for the judge to argue but important anyway.

I also believe that they may not have any legal value, but if written into the decision by the judge, they had to have an impact on the judge’s thinking, and consequently, those issues did affect the outcome of the case.

In this decision those facts included:

After his group arrived, Plaintiff went into the stable’s office to register. Plaintiff was presented with a form (the “agreement”), which stated, in pertinent part….

Combined with the next sentence:

An employee of Happy Trails informed Plaintiff that Plaintiff must sign the agreement in order to go horseback riding. Plaintiff signed the agreement.

Meaning, the plaintiff was not told in advance he was going to be required to sign a release.

Another one was the plaintiff being told galloping was too dangerous yet he was eventually allowed to gallop his horse.

On several occasions during the ride, Plaintiff requested permission from the guide to gallop the horse. Plaintiff was told it was too dangerous to do on the trail.

Plaintiff then put the horse into a gallop and, while rounding a turn, a stirrup broke and Plaintiff fell from the animal.

If galloping the horse was too dangerous earlier, what changed? More importantly, galloping the horse led to the broken stirrup which led to the injury.

And then there are the straight out in your face statements a court rarely makes.

Additionally, Happy Trails’ owner displayed a somewhat cavalier attitude towards safety, asserting that customers assume all risks associated with the activity, including equipment breaking, staff failing to put equipment on the horses correctly, and even staff failing to provide basic equipment like stirrups or a bridal.

If this statement or something like it has been at the beginning, you would have known immediately that the defendant was going to lose. Never walk into a courtroom looking like the bad guy and never give the court proof, such as this, that you are.

For other Equine Liability Act articles see:

$1.2 M award in horseback riding fatality in Wyoming                                     http://rec-law.us/1fE4ncB

$2.36 M awarded to boy kicked by horse during inner-city youth program   http://rec-law.us/1lk7cTP

A specific statute, a badly written release and an equine liability statute sink instructors and business in horse riding accident.                                                                                             http://rec-law.us/SJZCkU

Decisive Supreme Court Decision on the Validity of Releases in Oklahoma                      http://rec-law.us/19gxvkT

Equine laws stop suit against horse, outfitter still sued                                    http://rec-law.us/XjgJvw

Good News ASI was dismissed from the lawsuit                                               http://rec-law.us/131HKWH

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         http://rec-law.us/1nvfCV5

Hawaii’s deceptive trade practices act sends this case and release back to the trial court                                                                                                                                                http://rec-law.us/Z3HdQj

Indiana Equine Liability Statute used to stop litigation                                     http://rec-law.us/12UFp1N

Lying in a release can get your release thrown out by the court.                   http://rec-law.us/11ysy4w

Michigan Equine helped the plaintiff more than the stable and helped prove there may be gross negligence on the part of the defendant                                                             http://rec-law.us/1ZicaQs

Parental control: should you, are you accepting responsibility for kids and when you should or can you not.                                                                                                                             http://rec-law.us/1fteMth

Release saves riding school, even after defendant tried to show plaintiff how to win the case.  http://rec-law.us/14DC7Ad

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Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law

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