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.


Decision supporting PA ski area when skier skied off the trail supported by the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

The Federal District Court case, Vu v. Ski Liberty Operating Corp., et. al., 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 49013 and reviewed in Under Pennsylvania law, a collision with other skiers or boarders is an inherent risk of skiing. Skiing off the trail because of the collision is also an inherent risk of skiing was upheld

Citation: Vu v. Ski Liberty Operating Corp., (the decision is so new, not id numbers have been assigned to it yet.

State: Pennsylvania

Plaintiff: Quan Vu and his spouse May Siew

Defendant: Ski Liberty Operating Corp., doing business as Liberty Mountain Resort; Snow Time, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: negligent for, among other things, failing to keep the slope free from unsafe conditions, warn Vu of the dangerous condition, and erect a fence or boundary marker to prevent skiers from skiing over the edge and into the large rocks below and alleged loss of consortium

Defendant Defenses: No duty under the Pennsylvania Skier’s Responsibility Act (PSRA)

Holding: For the Defendant upholding the lower court decision

Year: 2019

Summary

A lower Federal District Court held that a skier assumed the risk when he skied off the trail and over a 3′-4′ embankment. The skier appealed and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court holding the Pennsylvania Skier Responsibility Act created no duty on the part of the ski area.

Facts

On the evening of January 23, 2015, Vu was skiing down a trail at the Liberty Mountain Resort in Pennsylvania. At some point, Vu encountered a snowboarder, who “either cut [him] off or got awfully close” to him. To avoid colliding with the snowboarder, Vu “had a knee-jerk reaction to veer,” which led him toward the edge of the trail. Id. Vu skied over the edge, left the slope, and landed among a pile of rocks. He suffered multiple serious injuries, which he alleges were caused by his skiing over an unmarked, “artificial three to four-foot cliff at the slope’s edge” that was created by “the Defendants’ snowmaking and snow grooming practices.”

Vu’s daughter, who was skiing with him, testified that she did not see Vu ski off of the slope, but she did find him laying off of the trail. She stated that to get to her father, she had to exercise caution due to the height difference between the artificial snow and the natural terrain. She also testified that she had no “difficulty that evening discerning the edge of the trail.”

Dawson Disotelle was also present on the slope and witnessed the incident. He testified that he was snowboarding behind Vu and Vu’s daughter, and he saw that Vu’s “skis went to the left and his body went with [them] and he just went straight off the run.” Thereafter, Disotelle attempted to render assistance to Vu, which required Disotelle to “hop[] down” to where Vu was laying. According to Disotelle, the elevation change from the slope to where Vu landed was “[t]hree or four feet maybe,” and “it wasn’t a challenge to get down there.” Like Vu’s daughter, Disotelle testified that he was able to “easily” distinguish the skiable trail from off trail.

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

The appellate court simply looked at the Pennsylvania Skiers Responsibility Act (PSRA) and found the ski area had no duty to the Plaintiff Vu.

The PSRA establishes a “no-duty” rule for skiing injuries, relieving ski resorts of the “duty to protect skiers from risks that are ‘common, frequent, and expected,’ and thus ‘inherent’ to the sport.” The no-duty rule applies in this context when: (1) the plaintiff was “engaged in the sport of downhill skiing at the time of her injury”; and (2) the risk of the injury at issue “is one of the ‘inherent risks’ of downhill skiing.” When both prongs are met, summary judgment is warranted in favor of the ski resort “because, as a matter of law, [the plaintiff] cannot recover for her injuries.”

The court did have to look at case law and commented on the fact the Pennsylvania act did not identify risks that were inherent in skiing like most other skier safety acts did. “The PSRA “is unusual in its brevity and failure to give any definition of an ‘inherent’ risk of skiing….”

The court identified several cases that held that “…snow and ice, elevation, contour, speed and weather conditions, and falling from a ski lift…” where inherent to skiing.

Nor does the PRSA require proof that a skier assumed the risk, only that the injury “arose from a “general risk” inherent to the sport….” Consequently, the court found the risk of skiing off the edge of the trail over a three to four feet drop was inherent to skiing.

Not only does this risk appear to fall under the umbrella of elevation or contour (or both), which have been identified by Pennsylvania courts as inherent risks, but also other courts have recognized the more general risk of skiing off a trail as inherent to downhill skiing,

The court then added as support for its finding that what the Plaintiff Vu encountered was an inherent risk but that Vu had been skiing for twenty years and was skiing black diamond runs or the most difficult slopes.

So Now What?

The Pennsylvania Skiers Responsibility Act is the weakest of most of the ski area statutes because it does not define what the inherent risks of skiing are. However, the courts in Pennsylvania have done a fairly good job of determining, based on case law and statutes from other states what are the inherent risks of skiing.

However, because the inherent risks are not defined, the plaintiffs are going to continue to test the issues because there is a chance they can win.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2018 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

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By Recreation Law    Rec-law@recreation-law.com    James H. Moss

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Vu v. Ski Liberty Operating Corp.,

Vu v. Ski Liberty Operating Corp.,

Quan Vu; May Siew, Appellants

v.

Ski Liberty Operating Corp., doing business as Liberty Mountain Resort; Snow Time, Inc.

No. 18-1769

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

February 12, 2019

NOT PRECEDENTIAL

Submitted Pursuant to Third Circuit L.A.R. 34.1(a) January 22, 2019

On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania (D.C. No. 1:16-cv-02170) District Judge: Hon. John E. Jones, III

Before: CHAGARES and BIBAS, Circuit Judges, and SÁNCHEZ, Chief District Judge [+].

OPINION [*]

CHAGARES, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

Appellants Quan Vu and his spouse, May Siew (collectively, “the plaintiffs”), brought this action against the defendants, Ski Liberty Operating Corporation, d/b/a Liberty Mountain Resort and Snow Time, Inc., for damages relating to injuries Vu suffered while skiing at Liberty Mountain Resort. The defendants successfully moved for summary judgment, and the plaintiffs now appeal. Because we conclude that the plaintiffs’ cause of action is barred by the Pennsylvania Skier’s Responsibility Act, 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 7102(c) (“PSRA”), we will affirm.

I.

We write principally for the parties and therefore recite only those facts necessary to our decision. On the evening of January 23, 2015, Vu was skiing down a trail at the Liberty Mountain Resort in Pennsylvania. At some point, Vu encountered a snowboarder, who “either cut [him] off or got awfully close” to him. Appendix (“App.”) 314. To avoid colliding with the snowboarder, Vu “had a knee-jerk reaction to veer,” which led him toward the edge of the trail. Id. Vu skied over the edge, left the slope, and landed among a pile of rocks. He suffered multiple serious injuries, which he alleges were caused by his skiing over an unmarked, “artificial three to four-foot cliff at the slope’s edge” that was created by “the Defendants’ snowmaking and snow grooming practices.” Vu Br. 4.

Vu’s daughter, who was skiing with him, testified that she did not see Vu ski off of the slope, but she did find him laying off of the trail. She stated that to get to her father, she had to exercise caution due to the height difference between the artificial snow and the natural terrain. She also testified that she had no “difficulty that evening discerning the edge of the trail.” App. 74-75.

Dawson Disotelle was also present on the slope and witnessed the incident. He testified that he was snowboarding behind Vu and Vu’s daughter, and he saw that Vu’s “skis went to the left and his body went with [them] and he just went straight off the run.” App. 124-25. Thereafter, Disotelle attempted to render assistance to Vu, which required Disotelle to “hop[] down” to where Vu was laying. App. 143. According to Disotelle, the elevation change from the slope to where Vu landed was “[t]hree or four feet maybe,” and “it wasn’t a challenge to get down there.” Id. Like Vu’s daughter, Disotelle testified that he was able to “easily” distinguish the skiable trail from off trail. App. 129.

The plaintiffs filed a two-count complaint in October 2016. The first count alleged that the defendants were negligent for, among other things, failing to keep the slope free from unsafe conditions, warn Vu of the dangerous condition, and erect a fence or boundary marker to prevent skiers “from skiing over the edge and into the large rocks below.” App. 902-03. In the second count, Siew alleged loss of consortium.

The defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing in part that the plaintiffs’ action was barred because “skiing off trail and colliding into rocks . . . is an inherent risk” of downhill skiing. App. 784. The District Court agreed and granted the motion. The plaintiffs now appeal.

II.

The District Court had diversity jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332, and we have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291. We exercise plenary review over the grant of summary judgment, Bjorgung v. Whitetail Resort, LP, 550 F.3d 263, 268 (3d Cir. 2008), and must ascertain whether the movant has “show[n] that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law,” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A dispute is genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party,” and a fact is material if it “might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). In conducting this analysis, we “view the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party.” Bjorgung, 550 F.3d at 268.

III.

In this action based on diversity jurisdiction, we apply Pennsylvania law. See Chamberlain v. Giampapa, 210 F.3d 154, 158 (3d Cir. 2000). The statute upon which this case turns is the PSRA, which acknowledges that “there are inherent risks in the sport of downhill skiing,” 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 7102(c)(1), and, for that reason, “preserves assumption of risk as a defense to negligence suits stemming from downhill skiing injuries,” Smith v. Seven Springs Farm, Inc., 716 F.2d 1002, 1007 (3d Cir. 1983).

The PSRA establishes a “no-duty” rule for skiing injuries, relieving ski resorts of the “duty to protect skiers from risks that are ‘common, frequent, and expected,’ and thus ‘inherent’ to the sport.” Chepkevich v. Hidden Valley Resort, L.P., 2 A.3d 1174, 1186 (Pa. 2010). The no-duty rule applies in this context when: (1) the plaintiff was “engaged in the sport of downhill skiing at the time of her injury”; and (2) the risk of the injury at issue “is one of the ‘inherent risks’ of downhill skiing.” Hughes v. Seven Springs Farm, Inc., 762 A.2d 339, 344 (Pa. 2000). When both prongs are met, summary judgment is warranted in favor of the ski resort “because, as a matter of law, [the plaintiff] cannot recover for her injuries.” Id.

The PSRA “is unusual in its brevity and failure to give any definition of an ‘inherent’ risk of skiing,” Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1188 n.15, so we turn to caselaw for guidance. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has identified collisions with other skiers, “snow and ice, elevation, contour, speed and weather conditions,” Hughes, 762 A.2d at 344, and falling from a ski lift, Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1188, as inherent risks. It has also instructed other courts to adopt “a practical and logical interpretation of what risks are inherent to the sport,” id. at 1187-88, and explained that invocation of the PSRA does not require proof that the injured skier assumed the “specific risk” that caused injury – only that the injury arose from a “general risk” inherent to the sport, id. at 1188.

Applying this guidance, we conclude that the plaintiffs’ action is barred by the PSRA. The plaintiffs do not dispute that the first prong – “engaged in the sport of downhill skiing,” Hughes, 762 A.2d at 344 – is met. Only the “inherent risk” prong is at issue on appeal, and it is also satisfied.

The risk identified by the plaintiffs as causing Vu’s injuries is skiing off of a trail edge that was three to four feet above the natural terrain, which we conclude is inherent to the sport of downhill skiing.[1] Cf. Smith-Wille v. Ski Shawnee, Inc., 35 Pa. D. & C. 5th 473, 475, 484 (Pa. Ct. Com. Pl. 2014) (holding, where a skier was injured after losing control on an icy slope and crashing into a fence running along the edge of a ski trail, that “[t]he edge of the ski slope . . . [is an] inherent risk[] of skiing,” as is “[s]triking a protective fence designating and protecting skiers from the edge of the trail”). Not only does this risk appear to fall under the umbrella of elevation or contour (or both), which have been identified by Pennsylvania courts as inherent risks, Hughes, 762 A.2d at 344, but also other courts have recognized the more general risk of skiing off a trail as inherent to downhill skiing, see Nutbrown v. Mount Cranmore, Inc., 671 A.2d 548, 553 (N.H. 1996) (holding that when “the chief cause of [the plaintiff’s] injuries” was the “quintessential risk . . . that a skier might lose control and ski off the trail,” he “may not recover against a ski area operator for resulting injuries”); cf. Bjorgung, 550 F.3d at 265, 269 (holding that the PSRA barred a competitive skier’s cause of action where he was injured after he skied into the woods off of a trail because the failure to set safety netting or “fix a race course in a way that minimizes the potential for the competitors to lose control” were inherent risks of ski racing).

Given “the clear legislative intent to preserve the assumption of the risk doctrine in this particular area, as well as the broad wording of the Act itself,” the District Court correctly concluded that skiing over a slope edge and leaving the trail is an inherent risk of downhill skiing from which the defendants had no duty to protect Vu. Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1187. That is particularly true because Vu – who had been skiing for more than twenty years as of January 2015 and could ski black diamond, or the “most difficult,” slopes, App. 908, 1025 – acknowledges “that downhill skiing is a dangerous, risk sport” and “that if he skied off trail, he could encounter trees[ and] rocks,” App. 909, 911, 1025, 1027, and because Vu’s daughter and Disotelle both testified that they had no trouble discerning the slope edge, and on trail from off trail, on January 23, 2015.

The plaintiffs unsuccessfully make four related arguments, which we briefly address. To begin, they make much of the fact that the elevation difference between the slope edge and the natural terrain “was not a naturally occurring condition” but rather the result of the defendants’ grooming or making artificial snow. Vu Br. 5. This distinction is of no import for two reasons. First, the PSRA is concerned with the general, not the specific, risk that allegedly caused injury. Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1188. The general risk at issue is skiing over a slope edge (natural or not) and encountering off-trail conditions. Second, the PSRA bars recovery not only for injuries due to naturally occurring conditions, but also for injuries due to any “common, frequent, and expected” risk. Id. at 1186. Indeed, it has been invoked to preclude actions relating to PVC piping on a fence, Smith-Wille, 35 Pa. D. & C. 5th at 484, snowmaking equipment, Glasser v. Seven Springs Mountain Resort, 6 Pa. D. & C. 5th 25, 29 (Pa. Ct. Com. Pl. 2008), aff’d, 986 A.2d 1290 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2009), a ski lift, Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1188, and “wheel ruts on a ski slope created by an ATV,” Kibler v. Blue Knob Recreation, Inc., 184 A.3d 974, 980-81 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2018). Although none of those causes of injury are naturally occurring conditions, they were all found to be inherent risks of downhill skiing.

Second, the plaintiffs contend that the “unguarded existence” of this slope made of artificial snow “is a deviation from the standard of care in the skiing industry,” apparently attempting to invoke the exception to the no-duty rule explained in Jones v. Three Rivers Management Corp., 394 A.2d 546 (Pa. 1978). Vu Br. 14. Pursuant to Jones, although sports facilities and amusement parks have no duty to protect against inherent risks, a plaintiff may recover from one such establishment for injury caused by an inherent risk if she “introduces adequate evidence that the amusement facility . . . deviated in some relevant respect from established custom.” Jones, 394 A.2d at 550-51. The plaintiffs have not provided support for this assertion beyond their expert’s report, [2] which does not clearly identify any industry standard from which the defendants are supposed to have deviated, but instead merely asserts that they violated generally accepted practices within the industry.[3]

Third, the plaintiffs seem to assert that the District Court improperly resolved a disputed issue of material fact in the defendants’ favor because reasonable jurors could disagree whether a slope edge with a three to four-foot elevation difference is an inherent risk. We reject this argument because the record citation provided does not support the plaintiffs’ contention, and the cases upon which the plaintiffs rely are inapposite, one involving the application of Vermont law and the other (predating Hughes and Chepkevich) applying a no-duty standard different from the standard espoused in those two cases.

Fourth, the plaintiffs also contend that the legislative intent behind the PSRA could not have been to encourage “the creation of artificial, Defendant-made ‘cliffs’ along . . . trail edges.” Vu Br. 6. For all of the reasons already discussed, we reject this argument as well.

In sum, we conclude that the plaintiffs’ injuries were caused by risks inherent to downhill skiing, satisfying the second prong of the Hughes test. Because it is undisputed that Vu was “engaged in the sport of downhill skiing at the time of [his] injur[ies],” the first prong is also met, such that summary judgment in favor of the defendants was properly granted. Hughes, 762 A.2d at 344.

IV.

For the aforementioned reasons, we will affirm the judgment of the District Court.

Notes:

[+] The Honorable Juan Sánchez, Chief United States District Judge for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, sitting by designation.

[*]This disposition is not an opinion of the full Court and, pursuant to I.O.P. 5.7, does not constitute binding precedent.

[1] To the extent that the plaintiffs allege that Vu’s injuries resulted from his attempt to avoid a collision with a snowboarder, we conclude that that risk is also inherent to downhill skiing. See Hughes, 762 A.2d at 345.

[2] The defendants argue that the expert report is unsworn and therefore may not be considered on a motion for summary judgment. Given our conclusion, we need not address this contention.

[3] The plaintiffs also point to evidence of “other skiers being injured at [Liberty Mountain Resort] in the exact same manner” on other slopes during previous seasons. Vu Br. 11-12. Such evidence does not identify any industry custom or Liberty Mountain Resort’s deviation from it.


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

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

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

State: Wyoming

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

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

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence, Punitive damages

Defendant Defenses: Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act

Holding: Mixed, mostly for the plaintiff

Year: 2009

Summary

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

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

Facts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Third, they assert that federal law preempts the Act.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Punitive damages in Wyoming are:

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

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

So Now What?

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

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

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

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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

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

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

Case No. 08-CV-139-J

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF WYOMING

2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 139788

October 1, 2009, Filed

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

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

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

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

OPINION BY: ALAN B. JOHNSON

OPINION

ORDER ON DEFENDANTS’ MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

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

FACTS

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

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

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

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

DISCUSSION

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

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

Choice of Law

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recreation Safety Act

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-1-123.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Id. at 1168-69.

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

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

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

Negligence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joint Venture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fraud

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Punitive Damages

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

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

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

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

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

Plaintiffs reason as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dated this day of October, 2009.

/s/ Alan B. [*42] Johnson

ALAN B. JOHNSON

UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE


California decision imposes three specific requirements for a release to be valid. On requirement is a release must be understood by a person untrained in the law.

Lawsuit filed by family of deceased runner who died of cardiac arrest after crossing the finish line of a race. Release and assumption of the risk blocked all claims except the claim for gross negligence.

Hass v. RhodyCo Productions, 2018 Cal. App. LEXIS 710

State: California, Court of Appeal of California, First Appellate District, Division Four

Plaintiff: Eden Gonzalez Hass et al

Defendant: Rhodyco Productions

Plaintiff Claims: negligently organized and planned the Half Marathon; negligently “hired, retained, … supervised, [and] controlled” the medical team; and negligently “managed, trained, supervised and controlled emergency and medical resources.

Defendant Defenses: Release and Primary Assumption of the Risk

Holding: Split decision, however case to continue on issue of gross negligence

Year: 2018

Summary

This California Appellate decision added some new requirements for releases to be valid in California. Two of those new requirements stem from the requirements of the California wrongful death statute. The other two are simple.

Under California law, inherent is a limiting word when it is used to describe the risks in a release, and a release must be understandable by a non-lawyer.

Facts

The deceased, Peter Hass, crossed the finish line of the 2011 Kaiser Permanente San Francisco Half Marathon, suffered a cardiac arrest, collapsed and died. His wife and his two children, referred to as the Hess Family in the opinion, sued the event organizer for negligence.

Before entering the race, the deceased signed a release online.

Having signed a release (Release) in which he agreed, among other things, to “accept the inherent dangers and risks” arising from his participation in the race and to release RhodyCo from “any and all claims” based on injuries he might suffer “at or enroute to and from this event

The race organizer had been putting on events for twenty-five year. This even had approval from the city which approval required providing an emergency management plan. The plan stated that a medical team and ambulance would be at the finish line and stationed on the course. The medical team the family argued was inadequate.

Family highlighted the use of chiropractors rather than medical doctors, the use of chiropractic students rather than EMTs, the lack of ambulance personnel at the finish line, inadequate communication and communication devices, and inadequate AEDs and ambulances.

The Hess family sued. Initially, the trial court granted the defendant RhodyCo’s motion for summary judgment based on the release and assumption of the risk. The family objected and argued in a hearing they should have the right to amend their complaint and bring additional claims. After the hearing, the trial court agreed and granted the Hess family’s motion for a new trial.

Specifically, the court agreed with the Hass Family that primary assumption of the risk was inapplicable on these facts and further determined that the Hass Family should have been allowed to amend the Complaint to plead gross negligence. Although it refused to rule on the existence of a triable issue with respect to gross negligence pending the filing of the amended Complaint, it did reject RhodyCo’s argument that the Hass Family had not moved with diligence in taking the deposition of Dr. Brown.

The defendant RhodyCo filed a notice of appeal, and the Hess family filed a notice of cross appeal bringing the matter to the California Court of Appeals, which issued the opinion here.

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

The appellate court first looked at the wrongful-death claim of the plaintiff Hess family. Under California law, a wrongful-death claim is not a derivative claim. Meaning the claim does not arise from a superior claim of the plaintiff. It is a claim, in and of itself, and not a claim of the deceased by a claim of the deceased’s family.

In other words, although a decedent cannot release or waive a subsequent wrongful-death claim by the decedent’s heirs, that decedents “express agreement to waive the defendant’s negligence and assume all risks” acts as a complete defense to such a wrongful-death action.

Consequently, a release must be written differently under California law if it is to be used to stop a wrongful-death claim.

The longstanding rule is that a wrongful death action is a separate and distinct right belonging to the heirs, and it does not arise until the death of the decedent.'” “Because a wrongful death claim is not derivative of the decedent’s claims, an agreement by the decedent to release or waive liability for [his or] her death does not necessarily bar a subsequent wrongful death cause of action

For a release to block a wrongful-death claim, the language in the release, not the law of releases. Looking at the entire document, is it clear the parties expressed the intent to assume the risk, thus blocking the wrongful-death claim.

Under California law for a release to block a claim for wrongful death, it must also be an assumption of risk agreement that on its face shows the parties intended for the deceased to assume the risk.

…in the instant case, we conclude that Hass intended both to assume all risks associated with his participation in the race, up to and including the risk of death, and to release RhodyCo (on behalf of himself and his heirs) from any and all liability with respect to any injuries he might suffer as a result of his participation. This was sufficient to block the Hass Family’s wrongful death claim for ordinary negligence.

The plaintiff Hess family argued the assumption of the risk language was insufficient to make that claim because the release used the term “inherent” to describe the risks. As such the risks that killed the deceased were not covered in the release.

The Hass Family, however, argues that the Release executed by Hass in this case is ineffective as a defense to their wrongful death claim because the express assumption of the risk language is limited solely to risks “inherent” in race participation—I “accept the inherent dangers and risks … that arise from participation in the event”—which does not include any potentially negligent conduct by RhodyCo that may have increased those inherent risks.

Again, the release used terms that limited the scope of the risks the deceased was to assume, which limited the breath of the release.

Use of the term Inherent in describing risks in a release limits the risks that can be assumed by the signor.

The court found that the language in other parts of the release were broad enough to cover the risks the deceased undertook and thus assumed.

Here, reading the Release as a whole—as would an ordinary person untrained in the law—we are convinced it expresses Hass’s intent to assume all risks arising from his participation in the Half Marathon, including any risks related to RhodyCo’s negligence.

California also has a requirement that the “release should be understood as speaking to an ordinary person untrained in the law.” This requirement was argued stated twice in the decision.

A release under California law must be written so that an ordinary person untrained in the law can understand it.

The Hess family then argued the release was void because it violated public policy. The Hess Family claimed the defendants were negligent in providing the medical care that responded, and medical care is a necessity and as such should not be protected by a release.

The Hass Family, however, argues that, even if the Release might otherwise be deemed a valid bar to their negligence claim, it is void as against public policy to the extent it purports to apply to the provision of emergency medical services, as such services implicate the public interest. Civil Code section 1668 provides that “[a]ll contracts which have for their object, directly or indirectly, to exempt anyone from responsibility for his own fraud, or willful injury to the person or property of another, or violation of law, whether willful or negligent, are against the policy of the law.”

California Civil code § 1668 does not allow a release to be sued to stop a claim if the service or the nature of the contract is based on public policy.

All contracts which have for their object, directly or indirectly, to exempt anyone from responsibility for his own fraud, or willful injury to the person or property of another, or violation of law, whether willful or negligent, are against the policy of the law.

There is a six-part test to determine if the agreement is one affecting the public interest. Not all six of the requirements must be met.

“‘[1] It concerns a business of a type generally thought suitable for public regulation. [2] The party seeking exculpation is engaged in performing a service of great importance to the public, which is often a matter of practical necessity for some members of the public. [3] The party holds himself out as willing to perform this service for any member of the public who seeks it, or at least any member coming within certain established standards. [4] As a result of the essential nature of the service, in the economic setting of the transaction, the party invoking exculpation possesses a decisive advantage of bargaining strength against any member of the public who seeks his services. [5] In exercising a superior bargaining power the party confronts the public with a standardized adhesion contract of exculpation, and makes no provision whereby a purchaser may pay additional reasonable fees and obtain protection against negligence. [6] Finally, as a result of the transaction, the person or property of the purchaser is placed under the control of the seller, subject to the risk of carelessness by the seller or his agents.'”

However, courts in California have declined to find releases used for recreational activities as violating the statute and thus being void because of the public interest argument.

Most recreational activities may require first aid or greater medical services. However, people do not engage in the sport or activity because of the first aid or medical issues. The first aid and medical issues are ancillary to the activity and as such not the main purpose for the activity or the release.

Many recreational activities may require the ancillary provision of first aid or emergency medical services by event organizers, but that fact alone does not change such pursuits into anything other than the voluntary leisure pastimes that they are. In particular, with reference to the Tunkl factors, we note that half marathons are not an activity of great importance to the general public and are certainly not a matter of necessity. No racer is required to enter a particular event or to run it in any particular way.

The next issue was the issues of pleading the claim for gross negligence. California like most, if not all, other states do not allow a release to stop a gross negligence claim. If the Hess family is able to argue to the trier of fact that the actions of the defendant, RhodyCo rose to the level of gross negligence the release is not a defense.

Under California law, gross negligence is a want of even scant care.

…”‘[g]ross negligence’ long has been defined in California and other jurisdictions as either a ‘”‘want of even scant care'”‘ or ‘”‘an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.'”‘[G]ross negligence” falls short of a reckless disregard of consequences, and differs from ordinary negligence only in degree, and not in kind.'” In assessing where on the spectrum a particular negligent act falls, “‘[t]he amount of care demanded by the standard of reasonable conduct must be in proportion to the apparent risk. As the danger becomes greater, the actor is required to exercise caution commensurate with it.'”

Normally, to appeal an issue or even argue an issue at the trial court level, you must first include the claim in your complaint or amend your complaint to bring a new issue in. The Hass family did not include any claim in their complaint for gross negligence.

However, the court found that there was no need in California to specifically plead gross negligence as it was part of negligence, sort of. The court never specifically stated why it was reviewing the gross negligence claim, only that other courts had found that it was not necessary to specifically plead gross negligence.

The court then found the plaintiff’s complaint, and arguments had raised enough issues that the plaintiffs might have a claim for gross negligence.

In this case, there are clearly factual and credibility questions that need to be answered regarding exactly what was required under the terms of the EMS Plan. For example, there is conflicting evidence as to whether the “finish line” included the crowded postrace expo area for purposes of compliance with the EMS Plan, and it must also be established exactly what medical personnel and equipment were required to be stationed at the finish line. We will not here catalogue every conceivable argument that the Hass Family could present in an attempt to prove grossly negligent conduct by RhodyCo in this context.

Primary assumption of the risk was the final issue reviewed by the court. Primary assumption of the risk is a complete bar to negligence claims, including gross negligence claims because it removes any duty on the part of the defendant to the plaintiff. Meaning, the defendant cannot be negligent because they have not duty to the plaintiff.

Specifically, our high court distinguished between two different types of assumption of the risk: primary assumption of the risk—”those instances in which the assumption of risk doctrine embodies a legal conclusion that there is ‘no duty’ on the part of the defendant to protect the plaintiff from a particular risk”—and secondary assumption of risk—”those instances in which the defendant does owe a duty of care to the plaintiff but the plaintiff knowingly encounters a risk of injury caused by the defendant’s breach of that duty.”

When applicable, primary assumption of the risk “operate[s] as a complete bar to the plaintiff’s recovery.”

Primary assumption of risk arose out of sports and recreational activities so that the activities could be played with the intensity and vigor so that the reason, and sport of the game was not lost.

The primary assumption of risk doctrine, a rule of limited duty, developed to avoid such a chilling effect. Where the doctrine applies to a recreational activity, operators, instructors and participants in the activity owe other participants only the duty not to act so as to increase the risk of injury over that inherent in the activity.”

The issue then becomes what duty is owed by the defendant to the plaintiff that was not assumed by the plaintiff to the extent that it was then breached by the defendant.

Here, RhodyCo asserts that the primary assumption of the risk doctrine serves as a complete bar to the Hass Family’s negligence claim, and thus the trial court erred in concluding otherwise. Specifically, RhodyCo argues that the risk of cardiac arrest is inherent to the sport of long-distance running and that, since it did nothing to increase Hass’s risk of suffering cardiac arrest in the way it conducted the Half Marathon, it owed no further duty to the Hass Family.

The court then stated that the organizer of the even does not have a duty to decrease the risk of any activity or event. However, there is a duty to minimize extrinsic risks.

While the operator or organizer of a recreational activity has no duty to decrease risks inherent to the sport, it does have a duty to reasonably minimize extrinsic risks so as not to unreasonably expose participants to an increased risk of harm.

The court reasoned this was a necessary departure from the encompassing defense provided by assumption of the risk to keep owners and organizers from avoiding “accountability for their gross negligence in this context, based on the primary assumption of the risk doctrine, would contravene public policy, not support it.”

The court did not point out specific facts or risks that created the issue that the defendant RhodyCo had been grossly negligent.

The case was sent back to trial on the sole issue on whether or not the actions of the defendant were grossly negligent.

So Now What?

At the end of the decision, the court awarded costs to the Hess family. Costs on appeal are awarded to the winner of the appeal, in terms of overall and in terms of the number of claims. The defendant won all but one of the issues on appeal in this case. The only claim the defendant did not win was the plaintiffs did not plead gross negligence in their complaint, so they cannot argue it now.

Yet the court still awarded costs to the plaintiffs. It is only a guess, but does this indicate leaning in favor of the plaintiff’s in this case?

There are three specific takeaways from this decision affecting the law of California and releases.

1.    Consequently, a release must be written differently under California law if it is to be used to stop a wrongful-death claim.

2.    Under California law for a release to block a claim for wrongful death, it must also be an assumption of risk agreement that on its face shows the parties intended for the deceased to assume the risk.

3.    Use of the term Inherent in describing risks in a release limits the risks that can be assumed by the signor.

4.    A release under California law must be written so that an ordinary person untrained in the law can understand it.

The final issue to come out of this decision a new back door to defeating the primary assumption of the risk claim. Now if the risk is not enumerated in the release, the plaintiff is going to argue it is extrinsic and therefore, not covered by the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk to defeat the defense.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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