Appellate court slams climbing gym, all climbing gyms in New York with decision saying not climbing gym can use a release.

A climbing gym is a recreational facility. As such, under New York law, the court found all releases fail at climbing gyms. Short, simple and broad statement leaves little room to defend using a release in New York.

Citation: Lee, et al., v Brooklyn Boulders, LLC, 156 A.D.3d 689; 67 N.Y.S.3d 67; 2017 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 8723; 2017 NY Slip Op 08660

State: New York; Supreme Court of New York, Appellate Division, Second Department

Plaintiff: Jennifer Lee, et al.

Defendant: Brooklyn Boulders, LLC

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release and Assumption of the Risk

Holding: For the Plaintiff

Year: 2017

Summary

A climber fell between the mats at a climbing gym injuring her ankle. The release was thrown out because a climbing gym is a recreational facility and assumption of the risk did not prevail because the Velcro holding the mats together hid the risk.

Facts

The plaintiff Jennifer Lee (hereinafter the injured plaintiff) allegedly was injured at the defendant’s rock climbing facility when she dropped down from a climbing wall and her foot landed in a gap between two mats. According to the injured plaintiff, the gap was covered by a piece of Velcro.

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

The trial court dismissed the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, and the defendant appealed. There were two issues the defendant argued on appeal: Release and Assumption of the Risk.

The court threw out the release in a way that makes using a release in New York at a climbing gym difficult if not impossible.

Contrary to the defendant’s contention, the release of liability that the injured plaintiff signed is void under General Obligations Law § 5-326 because the defendant’s facility is recreational in nature. Therefore, the release does not bar the plaintiffs’ claims.

The court threw out the release with a very far-reaching statement. “the defendant’s facility is recreational in nature.” It is unknown if the defendant tried to argue educational issues such as in Lemoine v Cornell University, 2 A.D.3d 1017; 769 N.Y.S.2d 313; 2003 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 13209 (NY 2003)

The court then looked at the defense of assumption of the risk.

Relieving an owner or operator of a sporting venue from liability for inherent risks of engaging in a sport is justified when a consenting participant is aware of the risks; has an appreciation of the nature of the risks; and voluntarily assumes the risks. If the risks of the activity are fully comprehended or perfectly obvious, plaintiff has consented to them and defendant has performed its duty. Moreover, “by engaging in a sport or recreational activity, a participant consents to those commonly appreciated risks which are inherent in and arise out of the nature of the sport generally and flow from such participation

This court would seem to agree with an assumption of the risk defense based on statements made in case law set out above.

However, the facts in this case do not lead to such a clear decision. Because the gap between the mats was covered by Velcro, the court thought the Velcro concealed the risk.

Here, the defendant failed to establish, prima facie, that the doctrine of primary assumption of risk applies. The defendant submitted the injured plaintiff’s deposition testimony, which reveals triable issues of fact as to whether the gap in the mats constituted a concealed risk and whether the injured plaintiff’s accident involved an inherent risk of rock climbing.

The Velcro, which was designed to keep the mats from separating, concealed the gap, which injured the plaintiff’s foot, when she landed between the mats. The defense of assumption of the risk was not clear enough for the court to decided the issue. Therefore assumption of the risk must be decided by a jury.

Since the defendant failed to establish its prima facie entitlement to judgment as a matter of law, its motion was properly denied, regardless of the sufficiency of the opposition papers

So Now What?

It is getting tough to defend against claims and injuries in New York, specifically in climbing gyms. For an almost identical case factually see: Employee of one New York climbing wall sues another NYC climbing wall for injuries when she fell and her foot went between the mats.

Obviously, the facts in the prior New York climbing gym case, where the plaintiff fell between the mats provided the “track” used by this plaintiff in this lawsuit.

If your climbing gym has mats held together with Velcro or some other material, paint the material yellow or orange and identify that risk in your release or assumption of the risk agreement.

Assumption of the risk may still be a valid defense see NY determines that falling off a wall is a risk that is inherent in the sport. Unless you are teaching a class or some other way to differentiate your gym or that activity from a recreational activity, you are going to have to beef up your assumption of the risk paperwork and information to stay out of court.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Lee, et al., v Brooklyn Boulders, LLC, 156 A.D.3d 689; 67 N.Y.S.3d 67; 2017 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 8723; 2017 NY Slip Op 08660

Lee, et al., v Brooklyn Boulders, LLC, 156 A.D.3d 689; 67 N.Y.S.3d 67; 2017 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 8723; 2017 NY Slip Op 08660

Jennifer Lee, et al., respondents-appellants, v Brooklyn Boulders, LLC, appellant-respondent. (Index No. 503080/13)

2016-04353

SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, APPELLATE DIVISION, SECOND DEPARTMENT

156 A.D.3d 689; 67 N.Y.S.3d 67; 2017 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 8723; 2017 NY Slip Op 08660

December 13, 2017, Decided

NOTICE:

THE LEXIS PAGINATION OF THIS DOCUMENT IS SUBJECT TO CHANGE PENDING RELEASE OF THE FINAL PUBLISHED VERSION. THIS OPINION IS UNCORRECTED AND SUBJECT TO REVISION BEFORE PUBLICATION IN THE OFFICIAL REPORTS.

CORE TERMS: leave to amend, punitive damages, sport, gap, recover damages, personal injuries, summary judgment, rock climbing, inherent risks, prima facie, cross-appeal, recreational, engaging, mats, inter alia

COUNSEL: [***1] Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith, LLP, New York, NY (Nicholas P. Hurzeler of counsel), for appellant-respondent.

Carman, Callahan & Ingham, LLP, Farmingdale, NY (James M. Carman and Anne P. O’Brien of counsel), for respondents-appellants.

JUDGES: WILLIAM F. MASTRO, J.P., CHERYL E. CHAMBERS, HECTOR D. LASALLE, VALERIE BRATHWAITE NELSON, JJ. MASTRO, J.P., CHAMBERS, LASALLE and BRATHWAITE NELSON, JJ., concur.

OPINION

[**68] [*689] DECISION & ORDER

In an action to recover damages for personal injuries, etc., the defendant appeals, as limited by its brief, from so much of an order of the Supreme Court, Kings County (Toussaint, J.), dated April 20, 2016, as denied its motion for summary judgment dismissing the complaint, and the plaintiffs cross-appeal, as limited by their brief, from so much of the same order as denied their cross motion pursuant to CPLR 3025(b) for leave to amend the complaint to add a demand for punitive damages.

ORDERED that the order is affirmed insofar as appealed and cross-appealed from, without costs or disbursements.

The plaintiff Jennifer Lee (hereinafter the injured plaintiff) allegedly was injured at the defendant’s rock climbing facility when she dropped down from a climbing wall and her foot landed in a gap [***2] between two mats. According to the injured plaintiff, the gap was covered by a piece of velcro.

[**69] [*690] The plaintiffs commenced this action to recover damages for personal injuries, etc. The defendant moved for summary judgment dismissing the complaint, and the plaintiffs, inter alia, cross-moved for leave to amend the complaint to add a demand for punitive damages. The Supreme Court, inter alia, denied the motion and the cross motion. The defendant appeals and the plaintiffs cross-appeal.

Contrary to the defendant’s contention, the release of liability that the injured plaintiff signed is void under General Obligations Law § 5-326 because the defendant’s facility is recreational in nature (see Serin v Soulcycle Holdings, LLC, 145 AD3d 468, 469, 41 N.Y.S.3d 714; Vanderbrook v Emerald Springs Ranch, 109 AD3d 1113, 1115, 971 N.Y.S.2d 754; Debell v Wellbridge Club Mgt., Inc., 40 AD3d 248, 249, 835 N.Y.S.2d 170; Miranda v Hampton Auto Raceway, 130 AD2d 558, 558, 515 N.Y.S.2d 291). Therefore, the release does not bar the plaintiffs’ claims.

“Relieving an owner or operator of a sporting venue from liability for inherent risks of engaging in a sport is justified when a consenting participant is aware of the risks; has an appreciation of the nature of the risks; and voluntarily assumes the risks” (Morgan v State of New York, 90 NY2d 471, 484, 685 N.E.2d 202, 662 N.Y.S.2d 421; see Koubek v Denis, 21 AD3d 453, 799 N.Y.S.2d 746). “If the risks of the activity are fully comprehended or perfectly obvious, plaintiff has consented to them and defendant has performed its duty” (Turcotte v Fell, 68 NY2d 432, 439, 502 N.E.2d 964, 510 N.Y.S.2d 49; see Morgan v State of New York, 90 NY2d at 484; Joseph v New York Racing Assn., 28 AD3d 105, 108, 809 N.Y.S.2d 526). Moreover, “by engaging in a sport or recreational [***3] activity, a participant consents to those commonly appreciated risks which are inherent in and arise out of the nature of the sport generally and flow from such participation” (Morgan v State of New York, 90 NY2d at 484; see Simone v Doscas, 142 AD3d 494, 494, 35 N.Y.S.3d 720).

Here, the defendant failed to establish, prima facie, that the doctrine of primary assumption of risk applies. The defendant submitted the injured plaintiff’s deposition testimony, which reveals triable issues of fact as to whether the gap in the mats constituted a concealed risk and whether the injured plaintiff’s accident involved an inherent risk of rock climbing (see Siegel v City of New York, 90 N.Y.2d 471, 488, 685 N.E.2d 202, 662 N.Y.S.2d 421; Georgiades v Nassau Equestrian Ctr. at Old Mill, Inc., 134 AD3d 887, 889, 22 N.Y.S.3d 467; Dann v Family Sports Complex, Inc., 123 AD3d 1177, 1178, 997 N.Y.S.2d 836; Segal v St. John’s Univ., 69 AD3d 702, 704, 893 N.Y.S.2d 221; Demelio v Playmakers, Inc., 63 AD3d 777, 778, 880 N.Y.S.2d 710). Since the defendant failed to establish its prima facie entitlement to judgment as a matter of law, its motion was properly denied, [*691] regardless of the sufficiency of the opposition papers (see Winegrad v New York Univ. Med. Ctr., 64 NY2d 851, 853, 476 N.E.2d 642, 487 N.Y.S.2d 316).

The Supreme Court providently exercised its discretion in denying the plaintiffs’ cross motion for leave to amend the complaint to add a demand for punitive damages (see Jones v LeFrance Leasing Ltd. Partnership, 127 AD3d 819, 7 N.Y.S.3d 352; Hylan Elec. Contr., Inc. v MasTec N. Am., Inc., 74 AD3d 1148, 903 N.Y.S.2d 528; Kinzer v Bederman, 59 AD3d 496, 873 N.Y.S.2d 692).

[**70] MASTRO, J.P., CHAMBERS, LASALLE and BRATHWAITE NELSON, JJ., concur.


Barth v. Blue Diamond, LLC (d/b/a Blue Diamond MX Park),

Barth v. Blue Diamond, LLC (d/b/a Blue Diamond MX Park),

Scott Barth, Plaintiff,

v.

Blue Diamond, LLC (d/b/a Blue Diamond MX Park), a Delaware corporation, The East Coast Enduro Association, Inc., a New Jersey corporation, and Delaware Enduro Riders, Inc., a Delaware corporation, Defendants.

C.A. No. N15C-01-197MMJ

Superior Court of Delaware

November 29, 2017

Submitted: November 17, 2017

Motions for Summary Judgment on the Issue of Primary Assumption of Risk

Batholomew J. Dalton, Esq., Laura J. Simon, Esq., Dalton & Associates, Larry E. Coben, Esq. (Argued), Gregory S. Spizer, Esq., Anapol Weiss, Attorneys for Plaintiff Scott Barth

Michael J. Logullo, Esq. (Argued), Rawle & Henderson LLP Attorney for Defendants The East Coast Enduro Association, Inc. and Delaware Enduro Riders, Inc.

George T. Lees III, Esq., Logan & Petrone, LLC Attorney for Defendant Blue Diamond, LLC

OPINION

The Honorable Mary M. Johnston.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL CONTEXT

In this Opinion, the Court considers an apparent issue of first impression in Delaware. The question is whether the doctrine of primary assumption of risk applies in certain risky or dangerous sports-related activities in the absence of an express waiver of liability. This is a personal injury case. The plaintiff, Scott Barth, suffered serious injuries during an off-road dirt-bike race. Barth alleges that the race’s course was owned by Defendant Blue Diamond, LLC (“Blue Diamond”), co-sponsored by Defendant Delaware Enduro Riders (“DER”), and overseen by Defendant East Coast Enduro Association, Inc. (“ECEA”). Barth alleges that the Defendants’ negligent and reckless failure to properly mark the race’s course caused his injuries. Prior to the race, Barth signed a release of liability form.

DER and ECEA filed a Motion for Partial Summary Judgment as to Barth’s allegations of recklessness, which Blue Diamond adopted. DER and ECEA also jointly filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, while Blue Diamond separately filed its own. At the hearing on the motions, this Court denied the Motion for Partial Summary Judgment, holding that genuine issues of material fact exist regarding recklessness, particularly as to, among others things, “the adequacy of signage” and “the adequacy of warnings on the course.”[1] The Court declined to rule from the bench as to the Motions for Summary Judgment, instead instructing the parties to make additional submissions limited to the issue of the doctrine of primary assumption of risk, the central grounds for the three defendants’ motions.

DER and ECEA argue they are entitled to summary judgment for two reasons. First, Barth signed a waiver releasing them from liability. Second, Barth assumed the risk inherent in an off-road dirt-bike race. In its separate motion, Blue Diamond makes the same two arguments and adds a third-Barth was a member of the Blue Diamond Riding Club, and Blue Diamond did not owe Barth the same duty it would owe a common law business invitee, MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

Summary judgment is granted only if the moving party establishes that there are no genuine issues of material fact in dispute and judgment may be granted as a matter of law.[2] All facts are viewed in a light most favorable to the non-moving party.[3] Summary judgment may not be granted if the record indicates that a material fact is in dispute, or if there is a need to clarify the application of law to the specific circumstances.[4] When the facts permit a reasonable person to draw only one inference, the question becomes one for decision as a matter of law.[5] If the non- moving party bears the burden of proof at trial, yet “fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party’s case, ” then summary judgment may be granted against that party.[6]

ANALYSIS

Defendants argue that they are entitled to summary judgment because Barth signed a release of liability and, separately, because Barth assumed the risk of participating in the race. Both of these arguments are properly analyzed within the framework of the doctrine of primary assumption of risk.

In Delaware, “primary assumption of the risk is implicated when the plaintiff expressly consents ‘to relieve the defendant of an obligation of conduct toward him, and to take his chances of injury from a known risk arising from what the defendant is to do or leave undone.'”[7] When primary assumption of risk exists, “the defendant is relieved of legal duty to the plaintiff; and being under no legal duty, he or she cannot be charged with negligence.”[8]

The Waiver Form Released the Defendants from Liability for Negligence, not Recklessness

Defendants argue they are entitled to summary judgment under a theory of express primary assumption of risk. Before participating in the race, Barth signed a release titled, “RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABILITY, ASSUMPTION OF RISK AND INDEMNITY AGREEMENT.” It states that Barth:

HEREBY RELEASES, WAIVES, DISCHARGES, AND COVENANTS NOT TO SUE . . . racing associations, sanctioning organizations … track operators, track owners … herein referred to as “Releasees, ” FROM ALL LIABILITY TO THE UNDERSIGNED . . . FOR ANY AND ALL LOSS OR DAMAGE . . . ARISING OUT OF OR RELATED TO THE EVENT(S), WHETHER CAUSED BY THE NEGLIGENCE OF THE RELEASEES OR OTHERWISE.

Barth asserts that the entire waiver agreement is unenforceable as an invalid contract due to lack of consideration. He further contends that even if the agreement is enforceable, it does not release Defendants from liability for recklessness.

To be enforceable under Delaware law, releases of liability “must be crystal clear and unequivocal” and “unambiguous, not unconscionable, and not against public policy.”[9] Barth does not (and cannot) argue that the waiver form at issue does not meet this standard. In Lynam v. Blue Diamond LLC, this Court found a virtually identical release form valid.[10]

Barth instead argues that the form is unenforceable due to lack of consideration. Barth bases his argument on this Court’s finding in Devecchio v. Delaware Enduro Riders, Inc.[11] In Devecchio, this Court deemed a waiver of liability unenforceable due to lack of consideration when the form stated that riders agreed to inspect the course, but the defendants admitted that, under the race’s sanctioning body’s rules, the riders were not allowed to inspect the course before the race. [12]

As in Devecchio, the release here contains an agreement that the race participants “have or will immediately upon entering any of such RESTRICTED AREAS, and will continuously thereafter, inspect the RESTRICTED AREAS . . ., “[13] Unlike in Devecchio, however, no sanctioning body’s rule barred Defendants from performing an inspection of the course.

Instead, the rule in this case stated: “Participants are allowed to walk or bicycle the course prior to the event-with the club’s permission.” Barth argues that, despite this distinction, Devecchio should apply because Barth was never given permission or made aware of his responsibility to inspect the course. Notably, however, Barth never asked for permission to inspect the course. That Barth hypothetically may not have received permission to perform the inspection is not dispositive. Barth cannot claim he was denied permission if he never asked for it. Additionally, the “failure to apprise himself of, or otherwise understand the language of a release that he is asked to sign is insufficient as a matter of law to invalidate the release.”[14] The Court finds that Barth’s own failure to perform a permissive part of the agreement does not make the waiver invalid.

Pursuant to Lynam, however, the form exculpates the Defendants’ negligence, not recklessness. As in Lynam, the form here provides for a release of liability caused by “THE NEGLIGENCE OF THE ‘RELEASEES’ OR OTHERWISE.” As this Court determined in Lynam, “such [exculpatory] agreements [that expressly exempt defendants from liability for their negligent conduct] generally are not construed to cover the more extreme forms of negligence, described as willful, wanton, reckless or gross, and to any conduct which constitutes an intentional tort.”[15]

The Court finds that the waiver form releases the defendants from their liability for negligence, but not for recklessness.

Implied Primary Assumption of Risk Does Not Bar a Claim of Recklessness

It is undisputed that primary assumption of risk applies when the plaintiff signs a valid release of liability form.[16] But because Defendants argue that primary assumption of risk exists in addition to and independent of the waiver form, the Court must determine whether-and if so, how-to apply the defense beyond an express written agreement to waive liability.

Delaware courts have noted, paradoxically, that “depending upon the situation at hand, express consent may be manifested by circumstantial words or conduct.”[17]The illogic of “express consent” being “manifested by circumstantial words or conduct” can be resolved with the conclusion that Delaware recognizes an implied primary assumption of risk doctrine.[18]

Case law suggests that courts should find an implied primary assumption of risk only with respect to certain activities. Delaware cases have noted that primary assumption of risk commonly applies to “sports-related activities that ‘involv[e] physical skill and challenges posing significant risk of injury to participants in such activities, and as to which the absence of such a defense would chill vigorous participation in the sporting activity and have a deleterious effect on the nature of the sport as a whole.'”[19] Examples of such sports-related activities include:

(1) being a spectator at a sporting event such as a baseball or hockey game or tennis match where projectiles may be launched into the audience; (2) participating in a contact sporting event; (3) bungee jumping or bungee bouncing; (4) operating a jet-ski, or engaging in other noncompetitive water sports such as water-skiing, tubing, or white-water rafting; (5) drag racing; and (6) skydiving.[20]

The nature of the activity is pertinent to an analysis of primary assumption of risk. Otherwise, in the absence of a waiver of liability, the dangerousness of the activity would be irrelevant. The case law therefore suggests that the doctrine of primary assumption of risk applies to certain sports-related activities, even in the absence of an express waiver form. However, though Delaware seems to allow for the application of implied assumption of risk in certain sporting events, no Delaware case has provided a framework for applying the doctrine. This precise issue appears to be one of first impression.

The California case Peart v. Ferro, [21] which this Court cited in support of its observations on the prevalence of primary assumption of risk in dangerous sporting events, [22] provides a means of analysis. Under the Peart framework, courts must examine two things to determine whether an implied primary assumption of risk exists: the nature of the activity and the relationship between the parties.[23]

When examining the nature of the activity, courts consider:

what conditions, conduct or risks that might be viewed as dangerous in other contexts are so integral to or inherent in the activity itself that imposing a duty of care would either require that an essential aspect of the sport be abandoned, or else discourage vigorous participation therein. In such cases, defendants generally do not have a duty to protect a plaintiff from the inherent risks of the sport, or to eliminate all risk from the sport.[24]

In examining the relationship of the parties, the court bears in mind that “the general duty of due care to avoid injury to others does not apply to coparticipants in sporting activities with respect to conditions and conduct that might otherwise be viewed as dangerous but upon examination are seen to be an integral part of the sport itself.”[25]

When analyzed within this framework, implied primary assumption of risk remains distinct from secondary assumption of risk. Secondary assumption of risk has been subsumed by Delaware’s contributory negligence statute.[26] It is therefore no longer available as a complete defense. Secondary assumption of risk exists when “the plaintiffs conduct in encountering a known risk may itself be unreasonable, because the danger is out of proportion to the advantage which he is seeking to obtain.”[27] In contrast, the focus for implied primary assumption of risk remains on the nature of the activity the plaintiff has consented to participate in and the actions of the defendants-not how the conduct of the plaintiff may have contributed to his injuries. Commentators also have noted that implied primary assumption of risk is distinct from secondary assumption of risk.[28]

The Court finds that implied primary assumption of risk is a valid affirmative defense to negligence. Because Barth signed a valid release of liability for Defendants’ negligence, the remaining issue in this case is whether implied primary assumption of risk is a valid affirmative defense to allegations of recklessness as well.

Though defendants do not owe a duty to protect a plaintiff from the risks inherent in an activity to which the doctrine of implied primary assumption of risk applies, “defendants do have a duty not to increase the risk of harm beyond what is inherent in the sport through intentional or reckless behavior that is completely outside the range of the ordinary activity in the sport.”[29]

Here, the Court has ruled as a matter of law that a genuine issue of material fact exists as to whether Defendants recklessly marked the course with inadequate signage. The Court finds there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the Defendants committed reckless conduct which increased the race’s risk of harm.[30] Further, the Court holds that the doctrine of implied primary assumption of risk does not insulate a tortfeasor from liability for intentional or reckless conduct. The Defendants’ Motions for Summary Judgment on this issue are denied.

Barth was a Business Invitee for the Race Despite his Blue Diamond Membership

Because Barth’s primary express and implied assumption of risk bar his claims of negligence, the Court need not reach this issue. However, for the sake of completeness, the Court finds that because Barth paid a fee to participate in the race, his relationship with Blue Diamond for the purposes of that event was that of a business invitee. His membership with the Blue Diamond Riding Club had no bearing on his participation in the race.

This fact distinguishes this case from Ketler v. PFPA, LLC, [31] upon which Blue Diamond relies. There, the plaintiff was a member of a fitness center and was injured while using a rowing machine. Because the fitness center was a “private-membership based business, ” the Court found the fitness center did not owe the plaintiff the same duty it “would owe to a common law business invitee or to the public at large.”[32]

In this case, participation in the race was not restricted to members of the Blue Diamond Riding Club. The race was open to any “American Motorcyclist Association Member.” Unlike the fitness center, Blue Diamond invited non-members to the race, and therefore owed participants the duties owed to business invitees.

CONCLUSION

The doctrine of implied primary assumption of risk does not insulate tortfeasors from liability for intentional or reckless conduct.

DER and ECEA’s Motion for Summary Judgment is hereby GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART. The Court finds that the allegations of negligence against these defendants are barred under the doctrine of primary assumption of risk. There remains a genuine issue of material fact as to the allegations of recklessness against these defendants, Blue Diamond’s Motion for Summary Judgment is hereby GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART. The Court finds that the allegations of negligence against this defendant are barred under the doctrine of primary assumption of risk. There remains a genuine issue of material fact as to the allegations of recklessness against this defendant. With the dismissal of the negligence allegations, the question of Blue Diamond’s status as a business invitee is moot.

IT IS SO ORDERED.

Notes:

[1] October 3, 2017 Tr. of Motions, 71:12-16.

[2] Super. Ct. Civ. R. 56(c).

[3] Burkhart v. Davies, 602 A.2d 56, 58-59 (Del. 1991).

[4] Super. Ct. Civ. R. 56(c).

[5] Wooten v. Kiger, 226 A.2d 238, 239 (Del. 1967).

[6] Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986).

[7] Helm v. 206 Massachusetts Avenue, LLC, 107 A.3d 1074, 1080 (Del. 2014) (quoting Fell v. Zimath, 575 A.2d 267, 267-68 (Del. Super. 1989)).

[8] Id.

[9] Lynam v. Blue Diamond LLC, 2016 WL 5793725, at *3 (Del. Super.).

[10] See id. The release in Lynam read:

I HEREBY RELEASE, DISCHARGE AND COVENANT NOT TO SUE the . . . track owners, [and] owners and lessees of premises used to conduct the Event(s). . . all for the purposes herein referred to as “Releasees, ” FROM ALL LIABILITY TO ME, THE MINOR, [and] my and the minor’s personal representatives . .. FOR ANY AND ALL CLAIMS, DEMANDS, LOSSES, OR DAMAGES ON ACCOUNT OF INJRY, including, but not limited to, death or damage to property, CAUSED… BY THE NEGLIGENCE OF THE “RELEASEES” OR OTHERWISE.

[11] 2004 LEXIS 444 (Del. Super.).

[12] Id.

[13] The corresponding clause in Devecchio read:

EACH OF THE UNDERSIGNED . . . acknowledges, agrees and represents that he has, or will immediately upon entering any of such restricted areas, and will continuously thereafter, inspect such restricted areas and all portions thereof which he enters and with which he come in contact, and he does further warrant that his entry upon such restricted area or areas and his participation, if any, in the event constitutes an acknowledgment that he has inspected such restricted area and that he finds and accepts the same as being safe and reasonably suited for the purposes of his use ….

[14] Id. This principle also dispenses with the argument that Barth did not have sufficient time to understand the release that he chose to sign.

[15] Id. (quoting W. Page Keeton, et al., Prosser and Keeton on Torts, § 68 at 483-84 (5th ed. 1984)).

[16] See Lafate v. New Castle Cty., 1999 WL 1241074 (Del. Super.) (analyzing whether a signed waiver constitutes primary assumption of risk).

[17] Storm v. NSL Rockland Place, LLC, 898 A.2d 874, 882 (Del. Super. 2005) (citing Croom v. Pressley, 1994 WL 466013, at *5 (Del. Super. 1994)).

[18] See id. at 882 n.30 (‘”Primary assumption of risk is akin to express or implied consent… .'” (quoting 57B Am. Jur. 2d. Negligence § 1010)). Storm also quoted the Restatement (Second) of Torts at length to explain assumption of risk generally. Id. at 881. That passage described a form of assumption of risk “closely related to” that acquired through “express consent” as one in which:

the plaintiff has entered voluntarily into some relation with the defendant which he knows to involve the risk, and so is regarded as tacitly or impliedly agreeing to relieve the defendant of responsibility, and to take his own chances. Thus a spectator entering a baseball park may be regarded as consenting that the players may proceed with the game without taking precautions to protect him from being hit by the ball. Again the legal result is that the defendant is relieved of his duty to the plaintiff.

Id.; see also McCormick v. Hoddinott, 865 A.2d 523, 529 (Del. Super. 2004) (“In the instant case there appears to be no evidence to support a claim that minor Plaintiff expressly or impliedly assumed any risk; therefore, an affirmative defense of assumption of risk based on primary assumption of risk cannot stand.”) (emphasis added).

[19] Helm, 107 A.3d at 1080 (quoting Storm, 898 A.2d at 883).

[20] Storm, 898 A.2d at 883 (citations omitted). Storm noted, however, that a “common theme” of these activities is that they frequently involve the signing of consent forms, suggesting the Court may have only meant to invoke them as another example of where express consent may apply. Id. However, a “common theme” is not a “common requirement”-spectators at sporting events do not sign releases of liability to view an event. Moreover, courts have found waiver of liability forms enforceable in contexts dissimilar to those listed above. See, e.g., Ketler v. PFPA, LLC, 2015 WL 3540187, at *2 (Del. Super. 2015) (finding a waiver form sufficient to invoke primary assumption of risk when the plaintiff snapped a cable on a rowing machine at the defendant’s gym). The Storm Court would have had no occasion to comment on the nature of the activity if it were not independently meaningful in the analysis.

[21] 13 Cal.Rptr.3d 885, 894 (Cal.App. 4 Dist. 2004).

[22] See Storm, 898 A.2d at 883 (citing Peart to define the sort of sports-related activities that typically raise the issue of primary assumption of risk).

[23] Peart, 13 Cal.Rptr.3d at 894 (citations omitted).

[24] Id.

[25] Id. at 894-95.

[26] Helm, 107 A.3d at 1080 (“[I]t is now accepted in Delaware that the concept of secondary assumption of risk is completely subsumed by the principles of comparative negligence.”).

[27] Fell v. Zimath, 575 A.2d 267, 268 (Del. Super. 1989).

[28] See Restatement (Second) of Torts § 496A (1979) (distinguishing a description of implied primary assumption of risk from a secondary assumption of risk, “in which the plaintiffs conduct in voluntarily encountering a known risk is itself unreasonable, and amounts to contributory negligence”); 57B Am. Jur. 2d Negligence § 1010 (“Primary assumption of risk is akin to express or implied consent, and relieves the defendant of any obligation to exercise care for the injured person’s protection, including situations where an injured person, having knowledge of a hazard, continued voluntarily to encounter it. Secondary assumption of risk is akin to contributory negligence . . . .”).

[29] Peart, 13 Cal.Rptr.3d at 894.

[30] This conclusion is in line with Delaware decisions that applied similar logic under framework of a different name. See Farrell v. University of Delaware, 2009 WL 3309288, at *3 (Del. Super.) (finding persuasive the New York Supreme Court’s rationale that “[a]lthough [a] rink could not be liable for harms caused by the inherent dangers of skating or by unpreventable events, the court considered assumption of risk inapplicable to injuries resulting from ‘the reckless actions of another skater which the defendant, by adequate supervision, could have prevented.'”(quoting Shorten v. City of White Plains, 637 N.Y.S.2d 791, 796 (N.Y.App.Div.1996)); Lafate v. New Castle Cty., 1999 WL 1241074, at *4 (Del. Super. 1999) (denying summary judgment, in part because “it would not be within the normal expectation of the health risk of playing basketball that a supervising employee would place a metal bar within normal head range between two basketball courts” in spite of an express release of liability).

[31] 2015 WL 3540187 (Del. Super 2015).

[32] Id. at*l.


Langlois v. Nova River Runners, Inc., 2018 Alas. LEXIS 31

Langlois v. Nova River Runners, Inc., 2018 Alas. LEXIS 31

Vanessa L. Langlois, Personal Representative of the Estate of Stephen J. Morton, Appellant, v. Nova River Runners, Inc., Appellee.

Supreme Court No. S-16422, No. 1669

Supreme Court of Alaska

2018 Alas. LEXIS 31

March 21, 2018, Decided

NOTICE: MEMORANDUM DECISIONS OF THIS COURT DO NOT CREATE LEGAL PRECEDENT. SEE ALASKA APPELLATE GUIDELINES FOR PUBLICATION OF SUPREME COURT DECISIONS. ACCORDINGLY, THIS MEMORANDUM DECISION MAY NOT BE CITED FOR ANY PROPOSITION OF LAW, NOR AS AN EXAMPLE OF THE PROPER RESOLUTION OF ANY ISSUE.

PRIOR HISTORY: [*1] Appeal from the Superior Court of the State of Alaska, Third Judicial District, Anchorage, Pamela Scott Washington, Judge pro tem. Superior Court No. 3AN-15-06866 CI.

CASE SUMMARY

OVERVIEW: HOLDINGS: [1]-A release entitled defendant rafting company to wrongful

COUNSEL: Mara E. Michaletz and David K. Gross, Birch Horton Bittner & Cherot, Anchorage, for Appellant.

Howard A. Lazar, Scott J. Gerlach, and Luba K. Bartnitskaia, Delaney Wiles, Inc., Anchorage, for Appellee.

JUDGES: Before: Stowers, Chief Justice, Winfree, Maassen, Bolger, and Carney, Justices. Winfree, Justice, with whom Carney, Justice, joins, dissenting.

OPINION

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND JUDGMENT*

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* Entered under Alaska Appellate Rule 214.

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I. INTRODUCTION

The estate of a man who drowned on a rafting trip challenged the validity of the pre-trip liability release. The superior court granted summary judgment in favor of the rafting company. Because there were no genuine issues of material fact and the release was effective under our precedent, we affirm.

II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

In May 2013 Stephen Morton took part in a whitewater rafting trip on Six Mile Creek near Hope. The trip was conducted by NOVA River Runners (NOVA). This case arises out of Morton’s tragic death by drowning after his raft capsized.

A. The Release

Before embarking on a rafting trip, participants typically receive and sign [*2] NOVA’s liability release (the Release). The Release is provided as a single two-sided document. One side is entitled “Participant’s Acknowledgment of Risks” and begins with a definition of activities: “any adventure, sport or activity associated with the outdoors and/or wilderness and the use or presence of watercraft, including but not limited to kayaks, rafts, oar boats and glacier hiking and ice climbing equipment, including crampons, ski poles, climbing harnesses and associated ice climbing hardware.” The Release then states:

Although the concessionaire has taken reasonable steps to provide you with appropriate equipment and/or skilled guides so you can enjoy an activity for which you may not be skilled, we wish to remind you this activity is not without risk. Certain risks cannot be eliminated without destroying the unique character of the activity.

The Release then provides a list of “some, but not all” of the “inherent risks,” including “[m]y . . . ability to swim . . . and/or follow instructions” and “[l]oss of control of the craft, collision, capsizing, and sinking of the craft, which can result in wetness, injury, . . . and/or drowning.” The Release next asks participants to [*3] affirm that they possess certain qualifications, including physical capability and safety awareness. The last section of the first side purports to waive liability for the negligent acts of NOVA and its employees. There is no designated space for signatures or initials on this side.

At the top of the other side, participants are asked to acknowledge that “[They] have read, understood, and accepted the terms and conditions stated herein” and that the agreement “shall be binding upon [the participant] . . . and [their] estate.” No terms or conditions appear on this side. There are then three signature blocks where up to three participants can sign, with space to include an emergency contact, allergies, and medications.

Brad Cosgrove, NOVA’s “river manager” for this trip, did not recall whether Morton read the Release before signing it, but stated that “[n]obody was rushed into signing” and that he “physically showed each participant” both sides of the Release. Bernd Horsman, who rafted with Morton that day, stated that he recalled “sign[ing] a document that briefly stated that you waive any liability in case something happens” but thought the document only had one side. He did not recall [*4] “someone physically show[ing]” the Release to him, but he wasn’t rushed into signing it. Both Horsman’s and Morton’s signatures appear on the Release.

B. The Rafting Trip

The rafting trip consisted of three canyons. NOVA would routinely give participants the opportunity to disembark after the second canyon, because the third canyon is the most difficult. Morton did not choose to disembark after the second canyon, and his raft capsized in the third canyon. Cosgrove was able to pull him from the river and attempted to resuscitate him. NOVA contacted emergency services and delivered Morton for further care, but he died shortly thereafter.

C. Legal Proceedings

Morton’s widow, Vanessa Langlois, brought suit as the personal representative of Morton’s estate (the Estate) in May 2015 under AS 09.55.580 (wrongful death) and AS 09.55.570 (survival), requesting compensatory damages, plus costs, fees, and interest. The Estate alleged that NOVA was negligent and listed multiple theories primarily based on the employees’ actions or omissions.

NOVA moved for summary judgment in November 2015, arguing that the Release barred the Estate’s claims. NOVA supported its position with the signed Release and affidavits from NOVA’s owner [*5] and Cosgrove. The Estate opposed and filed a cross-motion for summary judgment to preclude NOVA from relying on the Release. The parties then stipulated to stay formal discovery until the court had ruled on these motions but agreed on procedures for conducting discovery in the interim if needed. Pursuant to the stipulation, the parties deposed Horsman and filed supplemental briefing.

In June 2016 the superior court granted NOVA’s motion for summary judgment and denied the Estate’s, reasoning that the Release was valid under our precedent. This appeal followed. The Estate argues that the superior court erred in granting summary judgment because the Release did not satisfy the six elements of our test for a valid waiver.

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

“We review grants of summary judgment de novo, determining whether the record presents any genuine issues of material fact.”1 “If the record fails to reveal a genuine factual dispute and the moving party was entitled to judgment as a matter of law, the trial court’s grant of summary judgment must be affirmed.”2 “Questions of contract interpretation are questions of law that we review de novo . . . .”3

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1 Donahue v. Ledgends, Inc., 331 P.3d 342, 346 (Alaska 2014) (citing Hill v. Giani, 296 P.3d 14, 20 (Alaska 2013)).2 Id. (citing Kelly v. Municipality of Anchorage, 270 P.3d 801, 803 (Alaska 2012)).3 Sengul v. CMS Franklin, Inc., 265 P.3d 320, 324 (Alaska 2011) (citing Norville v. Carr-Gottstein Foods Co., 84 P.3d 996, 1000 n.1 (Alaska 2004)).

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IV. DISCUSSION

Alaska Statute 09.65.290 provides that “[a] person who [*6] participates in a sports or recreational activity assumes the inherent risks in that sports or recreational activity and is legally responsible for . . . death to the person . . . that results from the inherent risks in that sports or recreational activity.” The statute does not apply, however, to “a civil action based on the . . . negligence of a provider if the negligence was the proximate cause of the . . . death.”4 Thus, in order to avoid liability for negligence, recreational companies must supplement the statutory scheme by having participants release them from liability through waivers.

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4 AS 09.65.290(c).

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Extrapolating from principles articulated in three earlier cases,5 we recently adopted, in Donahue v. Ledgends, Inc., a six-element test for finding effective waiver:

(1) the risk being waived must be specifically and clearly set forth (e.g. death, bodily injury, and property damage); (2) a waiver of negligence must be specifically set forth using the word “negligence”; (3) these factors must be brought home to the releasor in clear, emphasized language . . . ; (4) the release must not violate public policy; (5) if a release seeks to exculpate a defendant from liability for acts of negligence unrelated [*7] to inherent risks, the release must suggest an intent to do so; and (6) the release agreement must not represent or insinuate standards of safety or maintenance.6

The Estate argues that NOVA’s release does not satisfy this test. We analyze these six elements in turn and conclude that NOVA’s Release is effective.7

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5 See Donahue, 331 P.3d at 346-48 (discussing Ledgends, Inc. v. Kerr, 91 P.3d 960 (Alaska 2004); Moore v. Hartley Motors, Inc., 36 P.3d 628 (Alaska 2001); and Kissick v. Schmierer, 816 P.2d 188 (Alaska 1991)).6 Id. at 348. In Donahue, a woman sued a rock climbing gym after she broke her tibia by falling a few feet onto a mat at the instruction of an employee, and we concluded that the release barred her negligence claim. Id. at 344-45.7 Our review of the record reveals no genuine issues of material fact with respect to the existence and terms of the Release.

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A. The Release Specifically And Clearly Sets Forth The Risk Being Waived.

The Estate first argues that the Release was not a “conspicuous and unequivocal statement of the risk waived” because the Release was two-sided and the sides did not appear to incorporate each other.8 For support, the Estate cites an “analogous” Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) case from Florida for the proposition that “a disclaimer is likely inconspicuous where ‘there is nothing on the face of the writing to call attention to the back of the instrument.'”9 The Estate points out that the release in Donahue had two separate pages, and the participant initialed the first page and signed the second.10 The Estate also identifies Horsman’s confusion about whether the Release had one or two sides as evidence that the Release was not conspicuous, raising possible issues of material fact about whether Morton [*8] would have been aware of the other side or whether Cosgrove actually showed each participant both sides.11

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8 See Donahue, 331 P.3d at 348.9 The Estate quotes Rudy’s Glass Constr. Co. v. E. F. Johnson Co., 404 So. 2d 1087, 1089 (Fla. Dist. App. 1981) (citing Massey-Ferguson, Inc. v. Utley, 439 S.W.2d 57 (Ky. 1969); Hunt v. Perkins Mach. Co., 352 Mass. 535, 226 N.E.2d 228 (Mass. 1967)).10 See Donahue, 331 P.3d at 345.11 The Estate raises these arguments outside the context of Donahue, but we address them here.

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We note that Participants in a recreational activity need not read a release for it to be binding if the language of the release is available to them.12 We conclude that NOVA’s Release was sufficiently clear, even without an initial block on the first side. The signature page stated, “I have read, understood, and accepted the terms and conditions stated herein,” but no terms and conditions appeared on this side. A reasonable person, after reading the word “herein,” would be on notice that the document had another side.

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12 See Donahue, 331 P.3d at 349 (citing Lauvetz v. Alaska Sales & Serv., 828 P.2d 162, 164-65 (Alaska 1991)).

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The Estate also argues that NOVA’s Release “does not specifically and clearly set forth the risk that the NOVA instructors may have been negligently trained or supervised, or that they may give inadequate warning or instructions.” But NOVA’s Release, like the release in Donahue, “clearly and repeatedly disclosed the risk of the specific injury at issue”13 — here, death by drowning. Like the plaintiff in Donahue, the Estate, “[r]ather than focusing on [the] injury[,] . . . focuses on its alleged cause,”14 i.e., negligent training or instruction. But the [*9] Release covers this risk as well; it indemnifies the “Releasees” in capital letters from liability for injury or death, “whether arising from negligence of the Releasees or otherwise,” and specifically defines “Releasees” to include “employees.” In Donahue, we also observed that “[i]t would not be reasonable to conclude that [the defendant] sought a release only of those claims against it that did not involve the acts or omissions of any of its employees.”15 Thus, the Estate’s argument that NOVA’s Release “does not specifically and clearly set forth the risk that the NOVA instructors may have been negligently trained or supervised” is not persuasive.

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13 Id. at 348.14 Id. at 349.15 Id.

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B. The Release Uses The Word “Negligence.”

Donahue provides that “a waiver of negligence must be specifically set forth using the word ‘negligence.'”16 The Estate argues that the Release’s “references to negligence are inconsistent,” and therefore it does not fulfill our requirement that a release be “clear, explicit[,] and comprehensible in each of its essential details.”17 But we concluded in Donahue that similar language satisfied this element.

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16 Id. at 348.17 Kissick v. Schmierer, 816 P.2d 188, 191 (Alaska 1991) (quoting Ferrell v. S. Nev. Off-Road Enthusiasts, Ltd., 147 Cal. App. 3d 309, 195 Cal. Rptr. 90, 95 (Cal. App. 1983)).

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The release in Donahue provided: “I hereby voluntarily release, forever discharge, and agree to [*10] indemnify and hold harmless the [defendant] from any and all claims, demands, or causes of action, . . . including any such claims which allege negligent acts or omissions of [the defendant].”18 We emphasized that “[t]he phrase ‘any and all claims’ is thus expressly defined to include claims for negligence.”19

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18 Donahue, 331 P.3d at 345.19 Id. at 349.

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Here, the Release reads, in relevant part:

I . . . HEREBY RELEASE NOVA . . . WITH RESPECT TO ANY AND ALL INJURY, DISABILITY, DEATH, or loss, or damage to persons or property incident to my involvement or participation in these programs, WHETHER ARISING FROM NEGLIGENCE OF THE RELEASEES OR OTHERWISE, to the fullest extent permitted by law.

I . . . HEREBY INDEMNIFY AND HOLD HARMLESS all the above Releasees from any and all liabilities incident to my involvement or participation in these programs, EVEN IF ARISING FROM THEIR NEGLIGENCE to the fullest extent permitted by law.

NOVA’s Release uses the word “negligence” twice, and there is no material difference between the “any and all claims” language used in Donahue and the “any and all liabilities” language used here. We therefore conclude that the Release specifically set forth a waiver of negligence.

C. The Release Uses Simple Language And [*11] Emphasized Text.

Donahue provides that The intent of a release to waive liability for negligence “must be brought home to the releasor in clear, emphasized language.”20 The Estate argues that the Release fails to use clear language or adequately define the “activity” it covered and thus does not waive liability for negligence. This argument does not withstand the application of Donahue.

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20 Id. at 348.

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In Donahue, the clauses addressing negligence “[did] not appear to be ‘calculated to conceal'” and were “in a logical place where they [could not] be missed by someone who reads the release.”21 Here, the Release uses capital letters to highlight the clauses waiving negligence. Though the clauses fall near the bottom of the page, they were certainly “in a logical place where they [could not] be missed by someone who reads the release” from start to finish, and thus under Donahue they were not “calculated to conceal.” And though these clauses contain some legalese, ” releases should be read ‘as a whole’ in order to decide whether they ‘clearly notify the prospective releasor . . . of the effect of signing the agreement.'”22 The list of inherent risks uses very simple language: “cold weather,” “[m]y sense of balance,” [*12] “drowning,” “[a]ccidents or illnesses,” and “[f]atigue, chill and/or dizziness.”

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21 Id. at 350.22 Id. at 351 (quoting Kissick, 816 P.2d at 191).

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The Release extends to other activities such as “glacier hiking and ice climbing,” but any ambiguity is cleared up by the explicit list of inherent risks relating to whitewater rafting. We therefore conclude that the Release brings home to the reader its intent to waive liability for negligence using simple language and emphasized text.

D. The Release Does Not Violate Public Policy.

Donahue requires that “the release must not violate public policy.”23 Citing no legal authority, the Estate asserts that NOVA’s waiver “unquestionably violates public policy due to its vast scope.”

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23 Id. at 348.

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“Alaska recognizes that recreational releases from liability for negligence are not void as a matter of public policy, because to hold otherwise would impose unreasonable burdens on businesses whose patrons want to engage in high-risk physical activities.”24 In evaluating public policy arguments in the context of liability waivers, we have previously considered “[o]f particular relevance . . . the type of service performed and whether the party seeking exculpation has a decisive advantage in bargaining strength because of the essential nature [*13] of the service.”25 The type of service likely to inspire additional scrutiny on public policy grounds is “a service of great importance to the public, which is often a matter of practical necessity for some members of the public.'”26 Using this analysis, we deemed an all-terrain vehicle safety course “not an essential service,” meaning that “the class providers did not have a ‘decisive advantage of bargaining strength’ in requiring the release for participation in the class.”27

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24 Id. at 348 n.34 (citing Kissick, 816 P.2d at 191).25 Moore v. Hartley Motors, Inc., 36 P.3d 628, 631 (Alaska 2001) (citing Municipality of Anchorage v. Locker, 723 P.2d 1261, 1265 (Alaska 1986)).26 Id. (quoting Locker, 723 P.2d at 1265).27 Id. at 631-32 (citing Locker, 723 P.2d at 1265).

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Similarly, here, whitewater rafting, far from being a matter of practical necessity, is an optional activity, meaning that under Moore v. Hartley Motors, Inc., NOVA did not have an advantage in bargaining strength. We therefore conclude that the Release does not violate public policy.

E. The Release Suggests An Intent To Exculpate NOVA From Liability For Employee Negligence.

Donahue provides that “if a release seeks to exculpate a defendant from liability for acts of negligence unrelated to inherent risks, the release must suggest an intent to do so.”28 But regardless of whether acts of negligence are related to inherent risks, this requirement is met when “the injury and its alleged causes are all expressly covered [*14] in the release.”29 The Estate argues that the Release does not suggest an intent to exculpate NOVA from liability for employee negligence. We disagree.

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28 Donahue, 331 P.3d at 348.29 Id. at 352.

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As we have explained, the Release specifically covered employee negligence by including “employees” in the clause releasing NOVA from liability for negligence. Because the injury — death by drowning — and its alleged cause — employee negligence — are expressly included in the Release, it satisfies this Donahue element.30

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30 We further observe that the Release’s list of inherent risks tracks some of the Estate’s allegations about employee negligence. For example, the Estate alleged that NOVA “fail[ed] to preclude those participants who were not qualified to handle the rafting trip,” but the Release discloses that a participant’s “ability to swim . . . and/or follow instructions” was an inherent risk of the trip.

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The Estate correctly notes that the Donahue release specifically covered the risk of “inadequate warnings or instructions” from employees, unlike the general reference to employee negligence here.31 Ideally NOVA’s Release would include a more detailed description of the types of negligence it covers, such as “employee negligence” and “negligent training.” But doing so is not a requirement under Donahue. We therefore conclude that the Release suggests an intent to exculpate NOVA from liability for acts of employee negligence.32

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31 Donahue, 331 P.3d at 352.32 We therefore do not reach the question whether employee negligence is unrelated to inherent risks of guided whitewater rafting. See id. at 348.

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F. The Release Does Not Represent Or Insinuate Standards Of Safety Or Maintenance.

Donahue provides that “the release agreement must not represent or insinuate standards of safety or maintenance.”33 The [*15] Estate argues that the Release violates this element with the following statement: “the concessionaire has taken reasonable steps to provide you with appropriate equipment and/or skilled guides so you can enjoy an activity for which you may not be skilled.” But this statement is introduced by the word “[a]lthough” and falls within the same sentence as the disclosure that “this activity is not without risk.” This sentence is immediately followed by a sentence indicating that “[c]ertain risks cannot be eliminated without destroying the unique character of the activity.” And the Release goes on to list 11 risks inherent in whitewater rafting. Reading the Release as a whole, we cannot conclude that it represented or insinuated standards of safety or maintenance.

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33 Id.

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We noted that the release in Donahue “highlight[ed] the fallibility of [the defendant’s] employees, equipment, and facilities.”34 Here, though the Release does not — and was not required to under the Donahue elements — go that far, it does list as inherent risks “[l]oss of control of the craft” and “sinking of the craft,” raising the possibility of human error, fallible equipment, and adverse forces of nature. The Release also [*16] makes various references to the isolated, outdoor nature of the activity — listing “[c]hanging water flow,” “inclement weather,” and the “remote” location as inherent risks.

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34 Id. at 352.

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The Estate cites Ledgends, Inc. v. Kerr35 in support of its argument that the Release impermissibly both represents a standard of maintenance and tries to disclaim liability for failing to adhere to it. In Kerr, we concluded that a release that contained statements such as “[w]hile we try to make the [premises] safe” and “[w]hile we strive to provide appropriate equipment for people of all abilities and to keep the equipment in good condition” was invalid because, read as a whole, it did “not conspicuously and unequivocally alert” participants of its scope.36 We went on to hold that “[t]he representations in the release regarding the [defendant]’s own efforts toward safety suggest that the release was predicated on a presumption that the [defendant] would strive to meet the standards of maintenance and safety mentioned in the release.”37

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35 91 P.3d 960 (Alaska 2004). Like Donahue, Kerr also arose out of an injury at an indoor rock climbing gym. Id. at 961.36 Id. at 963-64.37 Id. at 963.

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But the Release in question here is dissimilar in key ways. Compared to the release in Kerr, which contained language representing safety standards throughout,38 NOVA’s Release [*17] contains only a single half-sentence to that effect, adequately disclaimed: “Although the concessionaire has taken reasonable steps to provide you with appropriate equipment and/or skilled guides so you can enjoy an activity for which you may not be skilled, this activity is not without risk. Certain risks cannot be eliminated without destroying the unique character of the activity.” And the release in Kerr was much broader — promising to “try to make the [premises] safe” — than NOVA’s Release, which promises merely that the company takes “reasonable steps to provide . . . appropriate equipment and/or skilled guides” while acknowledging in context that these precautions could not mitigate all the risks posed by a whitewater rafting trip. The Estate’s reliance on Kerr is thus misplaced, and we conclude that the Release does not represent or insinuate standards of safety or maintenance.

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38 Id. at 963-64.

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Because it satisfies the six Donahue elements, the Release effectively waived NOVA’s liability for negligence.

V. CONCLUSION

For the reasons explained above, we AFFIRM the superior court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of NOVA.

DISSENT BY: WINFREE

DISSENT

WINFREE, Justice, with whom CARNEY, Justice, joins, dissenting.

I respectfully [*18] dissent from the court’s decision affirming summary judgment in this case. I cannot agree with the court’s conclusions that the self-titled “Participant’s Acknowledgement [sic] of Risks”1 form actually is something other than what it calls itself — i.e., a “Release” form — and that it constitutes a valid release barring the Morton estate’s claims against NOVA River Runners.2 I would reverse the superior court’s decision, hold that the purported release is not valid under our precedent, and remand for further proceedings.

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1 The document is referred to by its title throughout, but the spelling has been changed to conform to our preferred style.2 The Participant’s Acknowledgment of Risks form signed by Stephen Morton is Appendix A to this dissent.

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The court’s application of the six factors we approved in Donahue v. Ledgends, Inc.3 ignores our prior case law from which these factors derived. Most salient to the factual situation and document at issue here is Ledgends, Inc. v. Kerr, affirming a superior court decision denying summary judgment based on a release document — titled “Release of Liability — Waiver of Claims” — that was far clearer, and certainly not less clear, than the purported release in this case.4 And although our prior cases about recreational releases have not focused on a document’s title, a title alerts a reader to the document’s purpose. In each case from which the Donahue factors derived, the [*19] document’s title clearly told the signer that the document was a release or that the signer was waiving legal claims. The release in Donahue was titled “Participant Release of Liability, Waiver of Claims, Assumption of Risks, and Indemnity Agreement — Alaska Rock Gym.”5 In Kerr the form was a “Release of Liability — Waiver of Claims.”6 The rider-safety school in Moore v. Hartley Motors, Inc. presented the participant a form that instructed “You Must Read and Sign This Consent Form and Release.”7 Only in Kissick v. Schmierer did the title of the document not contain the word “release,” but that form, provided by the U.S. Air Force, was a “Covenant Not to Sue and Indemnity Agreement”8 — a title giving notice that the signer was surrendering legal rights before participating in the activity. In contrast, an “Acknowledgment of Risks” in no way alerts a reader of the possibility of waiving all negligence related to an activity. A title indicating that a document will release or waive legal liability surely is a useful starting point for evaluating the validity of a recreational release.

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

3 331 P.3d 342, 348 (Alaska 2014).4 91 P.3d 960, 961 (Alaska 2004). The release language in Kerr was included as an appendix to our opinion. Id. at 963-64. The rejected release from Kerr is Appendix B to this dissent for ease of comparison with the purported release in this case.5 331 P.3d at 344.6 91 P.3d at 961.7 36 P.3d 628, 632 (Alaska 2001).8 816 P.2d 188, 190 (Alaska 1991).

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

Consistent with the principle that the purpose of contract interpretation is to give effect to the [*20] parties’ reasonable expectations,9 our prior cases require us to consider the agreement as a whole10 and to resolve “any ambiguities in pre-recreational exculpatory clauses . . . against the party seeking exculpation.”11 The agreement as a whole “must ‘clearly notify the prospective releasor or indemnitor of the effect of signing the release.'”12 Applying these directives to the Acknowledgment of Risks form, I conclude the document does not clearly apprise participants that they are surrendering all claims for negligence by NOVA, particularly claims based on inadequate training.

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

9 See Peterson v. Wirum, 625 P.2d 866, 872 n.10 (Alaska 1981). A release is a type of contract. See Moore, 36 P.3d at 630-31.10 Kerr, 91 P.3d at 962.11 Id. at 961 (citing Kissick, 816 P.2d at 191).12 Id. at 962 (quoting Kissick, 816 P.2d at 191).

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

As can be seen in Appendix A, the Acknowledgment of Risks form’s first indication that it might be anything more than what its title suggests appears approximately three-fourths of the way down a densely printed page that, up to that point, has mentioned only “inherent risks.” There the form asks participants for a self-evaluation of their abilities. After a line break, the form asks participants to certify that they are “fully capable of participating in these activities” and will “assume full responsibility for [themselves].” Then, without another line break or any heading to signify that the form is transitioning [*21] into a liability release rather than an acknowledgment of risks, the document sets out “release” language. While parts of this section are in capital letters, they are not in bold or otherwise set off from the dense text surrounding them. In short, considering the document as a whole, the apparent intent is to hide the release language at the very bottom of a dense, one-page document with a title completely unrelated to release of liability.

Additionally, the signature page in no way alerts the reader that operative release language is contained on another page, presumably the back side of that page. The short paragraph at the top, which the court relies on to hold that the form gave participants adequate notice of the release language, says only, “I have read, understood, and accepted the terms and conditions stated herein and acknowledge that this agreement shall be binding upon myself . . . .” While the court concludes that a reasonable person “would be on notice that the document had another side” solely because of the word “herein,” the court fails to explain its conclusion. In fact, Morton’s companion who was an experienced adventure traveler as well, Horsman, remembered the document [*22] consisting of only one page. As he put it, “[T]he way I read it is ‘conditions herein.’ Well, there’s not much herein . . . .”

In addition to the document’s overall structure, the Acknowledgment of Risks form fails to comply with several standards we previously have applied to recreational activity releases. Specifically, the mere inclusion of the word “negligence” in the release language is insufficient to make the Acknowledgment of Risks form a full release of all claims. The release we held invalid in Kerr also used the word “negligence,” but we agreed with the superior court that “[w]hen read as a whole” the purported release did “not clearly and unequivocally express an intent to release the Gym for liability for its own future negligence” with respect to all matters referenced in the release.13

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

13 Id. at 963.

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

The superior court’s Kerr decision, which we adopted and published as expressing our own view, highlighted the ineffectiveness of a release that did not “clearly alert climbers that they [were] giving up any claims that the Gym failed to meet the standards of maintenance and safety that the Gym specifically indicate[d] in the release that it [would] strive to achieve and upon which the release [*23] [might] have been predicated.”14 This is precisely what the Morton estate agues here: the Acknowledgment of Risks form promised participants that NOVA would provide adequately skilled guides but did not alert participants that they were giving up claims based on NOVA’s negligent failure to provide adequately skilled guides.

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

14 Id.

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

NOVA indicated in its Acknowledgment of Risks form that it had “taken reasonable steps to provide [a participant] with appropriate equipment and/or skilled guides so [the participant] can enjoy an activity for which [he] may not be skilled.” This is a representation that NOVA’s guides were adequately skilled to provide participants an enjoyable trip — not one fraught with danger.15 The Morton estate alleged in its complaint that NOVA’s guides were inadequately trained and did not properly screen participants to preclude those who were unable “to handle the rafting trip” from participating. Both specific allegations related to negligent training or failure to provide guides who were adequately skilled to assist unskilled participants to safely complete the trip. The Acknowledgment of Risks form, like the defective release in Kerr, can hardly be said to give a participants [*24] notice that the participants were surrendering claims related to negligent training or supervision.16

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

15 The release could be read as requiring NOVA to provide either “appropriate equipment” or “skilled guides” but not both. But a reasonable person with no skill in rafting would almost certainly infer that NOVA intended to provide both appropriate equipment and skilled guides on a trip with Class V rapids.16 See Kerr, 91 P.3d at 963 (holding that release did not bar negligent maintenance claim because release promised to “strive to achieve” safety standards).

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

The court concludes otherwise because the express statement that NOVA would provide skilled guides is in a sentence that also says rafting “is not without risk” and the Acknowledgment of Risks form then lists several inherent risks of rafting. But none of the listed risks is in any way related to unskilled guides or negligence in screening other participants.17 To the contrary, the enumerated risks focus on environmental and personal factors and include natural conditions, such as “[c]hanging water flow,” “presence of marine life,” and adverse weather; personal characteristics of the participant like “sense of balance, physical coordination, ability to swim, walk and/or follow instructions” and “[f]atigue, chill and/or dizziness, which may diminish [the participant’s] reaction time and increase the risk of accident”; and the risk of an accident “occurring in remote places where there are no available medical facilities.” The Acknowledgment of Risks form does not include — as the release in Donahue did — risks related to other participants’ “limits”18 or to employees’ “inadequate warnings [*25] or instructions” that might lead to injury.19 In other words, the Acknowledgment of Risks form did not meet the fourth characteristic of a valid release — it did not suggest an intent to release NOVA from liability for negligent acts unrelated to inherent risks.20

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

17 In contrast, the valid release we discussed in Donahue explicitly listed in the inherent risks of climbing several types of possible negligence: “improperly maintained equipment,” “displaced pads or safety equipment, belay or anchor or harness failure,” “the negligence of other climbers or spotters or visitors or participants who may be present,” “participants giving or following inappropriate ‘Beta’ or climbing advice or move sequences,” and “others’ failure to follow the rules of the [Rock Gym] . . . .” Donahue v. Ledgends, Inc., 331 P.3d 342, 350 n.46 (Alaska 2014) (alteration in original).18 Id.19 See id. at 352 (holding that release at issue “expressly covered” both the type of injury “and its alleged causes,” namely “‘inadequate warnings or instructions’ from Rock Gym instructors”).20 The court states that it “do[es] not reach the question of whether employee negligence is unrelated to inherent risks of guided whitewater rafting.” It is hard to see how negligent training or providing inadequately skilled guides would ever be related to an inherent risk of guided whitewater rafting.

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

I also disagree with the court’s holding that a release is necessarily valid when it sets out the risk of a specific injury — death by drowning in this case — but not its specific cause — negligent training and the provision of unskilled guides. In Donahue we rejected the participant’s argument that the release did not specifically and clearly set out the risks being waived because the release not only warned of a risk of falling but also cautioned that instructors and other employees could, through their negligence, cause falls or other types of injury.21 Here the only mention of employee negligence, buried at the bottom of a densely written, single-spaced document, is a description only in the most general terms. This type of general waiver simply does not specifically and clearly set out a waiver of the risk on which the Morton estate’s claim is based. The Morton estate alleges that [*26] Morton’s death by drowning was not due solely to the inherent risks of whitewater rafting the release listed, but rather to the provision of unskilled guides who did not adequately screen other participants. The document’s general language fails to specifically and clearly set out the risk of negligence alleged here.

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

21 Donahue, 331 P.3d at 348-49.

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

Today’s decision allows intentionally disguised pre-recreational activity exculpatory releases and effectively lowers the bar for their validity. Because the release does not meet the standards adopted in the precedent Donahue relied on — and because if the “Release” in Kerr was an invalid release, the “Participant’s Acknowledgment of Risks” Morton signed must be an invalid release — I respectfully dissent from the court’s opinion concluding otherwise.


A fly-fishing lawsuit, a first.

Montana Federal Court covers a lot of interesting legal issues for the OR industry in this decision. However, defendant is in a tough position because the statutes provide no help, he can’t use a release and probably like most fly-fishing guides; he believes he won’t be sued.

McJunkin v. James Yeager d/b/a Jim Yeager Outfitters, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 169321

State: Montana

Plaintiff: Charles P. McJunkin, deceased, by and through his executor and personal representative, Rhett McJunkin, and Rhett McJunkin, executor and personal representative, on behalf of the heirs of Charles P. McJunkin

Defendant: James Yeager d/b/a Jim Yeager Outfitters

Plaintiff Claims: negligence, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and loss of consortium

Defendant Defenses: Montana Recreation Responsibility Act

Holding: Split, mostly for the defendant

Year: 2018

Summary

At the end of a float fly fishing trip, the boat hit a rock throwing the deceased into the river. While attempting to get the deceased back in the boat the deceased partner fell in. The deceased yelled to grab her because she could not swim. The defendant grabbed the girlfriend and maneuvered the boat through rapids.

The deceased drowned, (supposedly). Neither were wearing PFDs.

Facts

Yeager is a professional fishing guide and outfitter. On July 17, 2014, Yeager took a paying client, Charles P. McJunkin on a guided fishing trip in a raft on the Stillwater River. As Yeager was guiding and operating the raft, McJunkin fell into the river and drowned. McJunkin was 81 years old at the time of his death.

McJunkin had gone on similar guided fishing trips with Yeager for approximately 20 years. In fact, in the week preceding the July 17, 2014 accident, McJunkin had floated and fished the Stillwater River three times with Yeager. On each occasion, Yeager put-in at the Johnson Bridge Fishing Access, and used the Swinging Bridge Fishing Access Site for a take-out at the end of the day. The Swinging Bridge take-out is approximately one-quarter mile above a set of rapids known as the Beartooth Drop. Yeager had never floated through the Beartooth Drop with McJunkin.

On the date of the accident, Yeager was guiding McJunkin and his partner, Julia Garner (“Garner”). The plan was to again float from Johnson Bridge to the Swinging Bridge take-out. The river conditions encountered by Yeager that day were characteristic of, and consistent with conditions he previously encountered on that stretch of the river. Yeager approached the Swinging Bridge take-out in the same manner as he had on the three earlier days of fishing. As he approached the take-out, the raft crossed an underwater shelf of rocks. When the rear of the raft passed the shelf, the boat rocked and McJunkin fell into the water. Although the raft was equipped with personal floatation devices (PFDs), McJunkin was not wearing one at the time.

McJunkin swam toward the raft, and Yeager attempted to position the raft so that McJunkin could grab ahold of the side. During this process, the party floated past the Swinging Bridge take-out. To complicate matters further, as Yeager attempted to pull McJunkin into the raft, Garner fell into the water. The parties dispute what caused Garner’s fall. Plaintiffs contend Yeager accidentally hit her with an oar. Yeager indicated he didn’t know what caused her to fall in, testifying “I don’t know if I hit a rock or a wave or whatever, Julie went in.” Garner yelled to Yeager that she could not swim. Yeager made the split-second decision to let go of McJunkin and attempt to save Garner, fearing she would drown otherwise. Yeager was able to pull her back into the raft as they entered the Beartooth Drop. Meanwhile, McJunkin lost contact with Yeager and the raft and floated through the rapid. He ultimately did not survive.

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

Only the legal issues affecting fly fishing or the outdoor industry will be reviewed. This decision is a result of both parties filing motions for summary judgment, so there is no chronological hierarchy of how the decision is written. Each motion is tackled by the judge in the order to make the following arguments more manageable.

A few things to remember. Montana does not allow an outfitter or guide to use a release. See Montana Statutes Prohibits Use of a Release.

Both parties filed motions concerning the Montana Recreation Responsibility Act (MRRA). The MRRA is similar to the Wyoming Recreational Safety Act, both of which are solely assumption of the risk statutes and weak overall. The plaintiff argued the MRRA was unconstitutional on several grounds, all of which were denied. The defendant argued the MRRA should bar the plaintiff’s claims which were also denied.

The first issue was inherent risks under the MRRA are not defined per activity or in general.

Under the plain language of the MRRA, a risk must satisfy two requirements to constitute an “inherent risk” and thus fall within the Act’s protection. There must be (1) a danger or condition that is characteristic of, or intrinsic to the activity, and (2) the danger or condition must be one that cannot be prevented by the use of reasonable care. Mont. Code Ann. § 27-1-752(2).

This leaves a monstrous gap in the protection it affords, in fact, does not afford outfitters and guides in Montana any real protection.

The court did not agree that the MRRA was broad enough to protect the defendant in this case.

Here, there are genuine issues of material fact regarding whether the risk encountered by McJunkin was an inherent risk to the sport of float fishing, or whether Yeager could have prevented the risk using reasonable care. Yeager’s expert opined that drowning is an inherent risk of floating in a raft on a river, and McJunkin’s death was a result of that inherent risk. But Plaintiffs’ expert states the risk of drowning can be prevented by the use of reasonable care. Plaintiffs’ expert also opined that Yeager increased the risks to McJunkin, and failed to adhere to industry standards by not taking basic safety precautions and not having a plan or equipment to retrieve McJunkin from the water.

Because there was a genuine issue of material fact (a mix of plausible opinions) the MRRA was not broad or strong enough to stop the plaintiff’s claims and the defendant’s motion failed.

The plaintiff argued the MRRA was void because it was vague, it did not define inherent risk.

The void-for-vagueness doctrine chiefly applies to criminal statutes, but can apply to civil laws as well. Civil statutes, however, generally receive less exacting vagueness scrutiny. The United States Supreme Court has held “[t]o find a civil statute void for vagueness, the statute must be so vague and indefinite as really to be no rule or standard at all.” The Montana Supreme Court has similarly declared that a statute is unconstitutionally vague on its face only if it is shown “that the statute is vague ‘in the sense that no standard of conduct is specified at all.'” “[P]erfect clarity and precise guidance are not required.” A statute is not vague “simply because it can be dissected or subject to different interpretations.”

The plaintiff also argued that because the MRRA did not define risk that it was void.

A person of common intelligence can understand the risks associated with river sports or activities. There is no indication McJunkin would not have been able to appreciate such risks, including the potential risk involved in floating and fishing. Indeed, in their depositions Plaintiffs were able to articulate risks associated with floating on a river, such as falling out of the boat and drowning.

The plaintiff argued they should be able to sue for negligent infliction of emotional distress (“NEID”).

To constitute ‘serious’ or ‘severe,’ the emotional distress must be ‘so severe no reasonable person could be expected to endure it.'” The question of whether the threshold level of emotional dis-tress can be found is for the Court to determine. (“It is for the court to determine whether on the evidence severe [serious] emotional distress can be found; it is for the jury to determine whether, on the evidence, it has in fact existed.”).

In Feller, the Montana Supreme Court considered several factors in determining whether there is sufficient evidence of severe emotional distress, including: (1) whether the plaintiff had any physical manifestations of grief; (2) whether counseling was sought or recommended; (3) whether the plaintiff took medication or the use of medication dramatically increased; (4) whether the plain-tiff had continuous nights of sleeplessness or days without appetite; (5) whether the plaintiff maintained close relationships with family members and friends; (6) the duration of the emotional dis-tress; and (7) the circumstances under which the infliction incurred, including whether the plaintiff witnessed the distressing event.

The plaintiff also argued they should be able to sue for loss of consortium.

Montana law recognizes loss of consortium claims by an adult child of an injured parent. In Stucky, the Montana Supreme Court held an adult child must meet the following two-part test to establish a claim for loss of parental consortium: “1) a third party tortuously caused the parent to suffer a serious, permanent and disabling mental or physical injury compensable under Montana law; and 2) the parent’s ultimate condition of mental or physical impairment was so overwhelming and severe that it has caused the parent-child relationship to be destroyed or nearly destroyed.”

In establishing a loss of parental consortium claim, the plaintiff may present evidence of the following factors, which the jury may consider in determining both whether the two-part test has been satisfied, and what damages are appropriate: “the severity of injury to the parent; the actual effect the parent’s injury has had on the relationship and is likely to have in the future; the child’s age; the nature of the child’s relationship with the parent; and the child’s emotional, physical and geographic characteristics.”

The court then looked at the issue of abnormally dangerous. A finding of that an activity is abnormally dangerous brings more damages and fewer requirements to prove part of the negligence of the defendant.

“Whether an activity is abnormally dangerous is a question of law.” No court has held float fly fishing is an abnormally dangerous activity, and this Court declines Plaintiffs’ invitation to be the first to do so.

So Now What?

A statute that protects defendants based on assumption of the risk does so because it identifies specific risk and broadens the definitions of what an inherent risk is. An example would be the Colorado Skier Safety Act. That act describes the inherent risk of skiing and then adds dozens of more risk, which are beyond the normal scope of inherent.

Both the MRRA and the Wyoming Recreational Safety Act statutorily defines the common law but does nothing to broaden or strengthen the common law. They could better be defined as politically pandering, an attempt by a politician to make constituents feel better by giving them something, which, in reality, has no value.

The fly-fishing outfitter was caught in Montana’s lack of available defenses, no statutory protection and no availability of a release. He might be able to strengthen his defenses by having his clients sign an Assumption of the Risk Document. He also might offer them PFDs.

Furthermore, remember in most whitewater or cold-water deaths drowning is not the cause of the death. Most people die of a heart attack. risk or Wikipedia: Cold Shock Response.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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McJunkin v. James Yeager d/b/a Jim Yeager Outfitters, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 169321

McJunkin v. James Yeager d/b/a Jim Yeager Outfitters, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 169321

Charles P. Mcjunkin, deceased, by and through his executor and personal representative, Rhett Mcjunkin, and Rhett Mcjunkin, executor and personal representative, on behalf of the heirs of Charles P. Mcjunkin, Plaintiffs, vs. James Yeager d/b/a Jim Yeager Outfitters, Defendant.

CV 17-12-BLG-TJC

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF MONTANA, BILLINGS DIVISION

2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 169321

September 28, 2018, Decided

September 28, 2018, Filed

COUNSEL: [*1] For Charles P. McJunkin, deceased, by and through his executor and personal representative, Rhett McJunkin, Rhett McJunkin, executor and personal representative, on behalf of the heirs of Charles P. McJunkin, Plaintiffs: Philip L. McGrady, LEAD ATTORNEY, McGRADY LAW, Whitefish, MT.

For James Yeager, doing business as, Jim Yeager Outfitters, Defendant: Ross Daniel Tillman, LEAD ATTORNEY, John M. Newman, BOONE KARLBERG, P.C., Missoula, MT.

JUDGES: TIMOTHY J. CAVAN, United States Magistrate Judge.

OPINION BY: TIMOTHY J. CAVAN

OPINION

ORDER

Rhett McJunkin, as personal representative of the estate of Charles P. McJunkin, and on behalf of the heirs of Charles P. McJunkin (“Plaintiffs”), brings this action against Defendant James Yeager, doing business as Jim Yeager Outfitters (“Yeager” or “Defendant”), in relation to a fatal boating accident that occurred on the Stillwater River near Columbus, Montana. Plaintiffs assert claims for negligence, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and loss of consortium. (Doc. 1.)

Presently before the Court are Plaintiffs’ Motion to Amend the Complaint (Doc. 23), Plaintiffs’ Motion for Partial Summary Judgment Regarding the Constitutionality of the Montana Recreation Responsibility Act [*2] (Doc. 28), and Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 31). The motions are fully briefed and ripe for the Court’s review.

Having considered the parties’ submissions, the Court finds Plaintiffs’ Motion to Amend should be DENIED, Plaintiff’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment should be DENIED, and Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment should be GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND1

1 The background facts set forth here are relevant to the Court’s determination of the pending motions for summary judgment and are taken from the parties’ submissions and are undisputed except where indicated.

Yeager is a professional fishing guide and outfitter. On July 17, 2014, Yeager took a paying client, Charles P. McJunkin (“McJunkin”), on a guided fishing trip in a raft on the Stillwater River. As Yeager was guiding and operating the raft, McJunkin fell into the river and drowned. McJunkin was 81 years old at the time of his death.

McJunkin had gone on similar guided fishing trips with Yeager for approximately 20 years. In fact, in the week preceding the July 17, 2014 accident, McJunkin had floated and fished the Stillwater River three times with Yeager. On each occasion, Yeager put-in at the Johnson Bridge Fishing Access, and used the Swinging Bridge Fishing Access Site for a take-out at the end of the day. The Swinging Bridge take-out is approximately one-quarter mile above a set [*3] of rapids known as the Beartooth Drop. Yeager had never floated through the Beartooth Drop with McJunkin.

On the date of the accident, Yeager was guiding McJunkin and his partner, Julia Garner (“Garner”). The plan was to again float from Johnson Bridge to the Swinging Bridge take-out. The river conditions encountered by Yeager that day were characteristic of, and consistent with conditions he previously encountered on that stretch of the river. Yeager approached the Swinging Bridge take-out in the same manner as he had on the three earlier days of fishing. As he approached the take-out, the raft crossed an underwater shelf of rocks. When the rear of the raft passed the shelf, the boat rocked and McJunkin fell into the water. Although the raft was equipped with personal floatation devices (PFDs), McJunkin was not wearing one at the time.

McJunkin swam toward the raft, and Yeager attempted to position the raft so that McJunkin could grab ahold of the side. During this process, the party floated past the Swinging Bridge take-out. To complicate matters further, as Yeager attempted to pull McJunkin into the raft, Garner fell into the water. The parties dispute what caused Garner’s fall. Plaintiffs [*4] contend Yeager accidentally hit her with an oar. Yeager indicated he didn’t know what caused her to fall in, testifying “I don’t know if I hit a rock or a wave or whatever, Julie went in.” Garner yelled to Yeager that she could not swim. Yeager made the split-second decision to let go of McJunkin and attempt to save Garner, fearing she would drown otherwise. Yeager was able to pull her back into the raft as they entered the Beartooth Drop. Meanwhile, McJunkin lost contact with Yeager and the raft and floated through the rapid. He ultimately did not survive.

II. LEGAL STANDARD FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

[HN1] Summary judgment is appropriate where the moving party demonstrates the absence of a genuine issue of material fact and entitlement to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). Material facts are those which may affect the outcome of the case. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986). A dispute as to a material fact is genuine if there is sufficient evidence for a reasonable fact-finder to return a verdict for the nonmoving party. Id. “Disputes over irrelevant or unnecessary facts will not preclude a grant of summary judgment.” T.W. Elec. Serv., Inc. v. Pac. Elec. Contractors Ass’n, 809 F.2d 626, 630 (9th Cir. 1987).

[HN2] The party seeking summary judgment always bears the initial burden of establishing the absence of a genuine [*5] issue of material fact. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. The moving party can satisfy this burden in two ways: (1) by presenting evidence that negates an essential element of the nonmoving party’s case; or (2) by demonstrating that the nonmoving party failed to make a showing sufficient to establish an element essential to that party’s case on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial. Id. at 322-23. If the moving party fails to discharge this initial burden, summary judgment must be denied and the court need not consider the nonmoving party’s evidence. Adickes v. S. H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 159-60, 90 S. Ct. 1598, 26 L. Ed. 2d 142 (1970).

[HN3] If the moving party meets its initial responsibility, the burden then shifts to the opposing party to establish that a genuine issue as to any material fact actually does exist. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586, 106 S. Ct. 1348, 89 L. Ed. 2d 538 (1986). In attempting to establish the existence of this factual dispute, the opposing party must “go beyond the pleadings and by ‘the depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file,’ designate ‘specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324 (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e)). The opposing party cannot defeat summary judgment merely by demonstrating “that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 586; Triton Energy Corp. v. Square D Co., 68 F.3d 1216, 1221 (9th Cir. 1995) (“The mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the [*6] nonmoving party’s position is not sufficient.”) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252).

III. DISCUSSION

A. Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment Related to the Montana Recreation Responsibility Act

Plaintiffs assert Yeager’s negligence caused McJunkin’s death. Yeager contends Plaintiffs’ negligence claim fails as a matter of law because it is barred by Montana’s Recreation Responsibility Act (the “MRRA”), Mont. Code Ann. § 27-1-751, et seq. Thus, Yeager argues summary judgment on the negligence claim is warranted.

Plaintiffs counter that the MRRA is unconstitutionally vague, and violates the constitutional guarantee of equal protection and right to full legal redress. Plaintiffs, therefore, move for partial summary judgment declaring the MRRA unconstitutional. Plaintiffs further assert that even if the MRRA is constitutional, there are genuine issues of material fact which preclude summary judgment.

1. Yeager’s Motion for Summary Judgment under the MRRA

[HN4] The MRRA limits the liability of recreational opportunity providers for injuries resulting from the inherent risks of sports or recreational opportunities.2 Specifically, the MRRA provides in relevant part:

(1) A person who participates in any sport or recreational opportunity assumes the inherent risks in [*7] that sport or recreational opportunity, whether those risks are known or unknown, and is legally responsible for all injury or death to the person and for all damage to the person’s property that result from the inherent risks in that sport or recreational opportunity.

(2) A provider is not required to eliminate, alter, or control the inherent risks within the particular sport or recreational opportunity that is provided.

(3)(a) Sections 27-1-751 through 27-1-754 do not preclude an action based on the negligence of the provider if the injury, death, or damage is not the result of an inherent risk of the sport or recreational opportunity.

Mont. Code. Ann. § 27-1-753.

2 “Sport or recreational opportunity” is defined broadly in the MRRA as “any sporting activity, whether undertaken with or without permission, include but not limited to baseball, softball, football, soccer, basketball, bicycling, hiking, swimming, boating, hockey, dude ranching, nordic or alpine skiing, snowboarding, snow sliding, mountain climbing, river floating, whitewater rafting, canoeing, kayaking, target shooting, hunting, fishing, backcountry trips, horseback riding and other equine activity, snowmobiling, off-highway vehicle use, agritourism, an on-farm educational opportunity, and any similar recreational activity.” Mont. Code. Ann. § 27-1-752(4).

The MRRA defines “Inherent risks” as:

[T]hose dangers or conditions that are characteristic of, intrinsic to, or an integral part of any sport or recreational activity and that cannot be prevented by the use of reasonable care.

Mont. Code Ann. § 27-1-752(2).

[HN5] When interpreting a statute, a court is required to look to the plain meaning of the words. Clarke v. Massey, 271 Mont. 412, 897 P.2d 1085, 1088 (1995). A court will only resort to the legislative history of a statute if the legislative intent cannot be determined from the statute’s plain wording. Id. “[T]he office of judge is simply to ascertain and declare what is in terms or in substance contained therein, not to insert [*8] what has been omitted or to omit what has been inserted.” Mont. Code Ann. § 1-2-101.

Yeager maintains that the statute has a simple, straight-forward application to the facts of this case. He argues McJunkin’s death was caused by drowning; falling out of a boat and drowning is an inherent risk of fishing from a raft; therefore, Plaintiffs’ negligence claim is barred under the MRRA as a matter of law. In short, Yeager asserts because the injury in this case involved drowning while fishing from a raft, the MRRA precludes Plaintiffs’ claim. (Doc. 32 at 15.)

Yeager reads the MRRA much too broadly. Construing the statute in this fashion would immunize providers of recreational activities from their own negligence. The Court finds that such a construction would be contrary to the statute’s plain words, the legislative intent in enacting the legislation, and would likely render the MRRA unconstitutional.

[HN6] Under the plain language of the MRRA, a risk must satisfy two requirements to constitute an “inherent risk” and thus fall within the Act’s protection. There must be (1) a danger or condition that is characteristic of, or intrinsic to the activity, and (2) the danger or condition must be one that cannot be prevented [*9] by the use of reasonable care. Mont. Code Ann. § 27-1-752(2). Therefore, the MRRA does not insulate a provider from all risks which are characteristic of, or intrinsic to the activity. It only provides protection for those risks which cannot be prevented with the use of reasonable care. In order to make this determination, it is necessary to look at the facts and circumstances of each case and the specific risk or condition involved.

Wyoming has a similar “Recreation Safety Act.” Wyo. Stat. Ann. §§ 1-1-121 through 1-1-123. Like the MRRA, the Wyoming Act provides that “[a]ny person who takes part in any sport or recreational opportunity assumes the inherent risk in that sport or recreational opportunity, whether those risks are known or unknown . . . .” Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-1-123(a). It also similarly states that a provider of the “recreational opportunity is not required to eliminate, alter, or control the inherent risks” of the activity. Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-1-123(b). One critical difference between the two acts, however, is the definition of an inherent risk. The MRRA and the Wyoming Act both define inherent risk to mean “those dangers or conditions which are characteristic of, intrinsic to, or an integral part” of the activity. Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-1-122(a)(i). But the Wyoming Act’s definition does not also include the MRRA’s requirement [*10] that the risk “cannot be prevented by the use of reasonable care.”

Nevertheless, the construction of the Wyoming Act is instructive as far as the similarities go. Courts which have construed and applied the Wyoming statute have rejected the broad, general interpretation advanced by Yeager in this case. To determine what risks are inherent, decisions under the Wyoming Act have consistently required that a court “go beyond a broad characterization and inquire into the specific circumstances of both [the plaintiff’s] actions and those of the recreation provider.” Creel v. L & L, Inc., 2012 WY 124, 287 P.3d 729, 736 (Wyo. 2012).

In Cooperman v. David, 214 F.3d 1162 (10th Cir. 2000), for example, the plaintiff was injured during a guided horseback trail ride. The injury occurred when the plaintiff’s saddle slipped around to the belly of the horse, causing the plaintiff to fall to the ground. The defendant moved for summary judgment under the Wyoming Recreation Safety Act, arguing that a slipping saddle is an inherent risk of horseback riding. In determining the application of the Act, the Tenth Circuit made clear that the risk in question must be not be evaluated broadly or generally, but in the context of the specific factual setting presented.

Horseback riding undoubtedly carries some inherent risk [*11] that the rider will fall off the horse and get injured. A horse could stumble on an uneven path, or rear, or simply begin to gallop for no apparent reason. All of these risks clearly would qualify as inherent risks of horseback riding. Simply because some risks are inherent in horseback riding, however, does not mean that all risks of falling from a horse are necessarily inherent; instead, it is necessary to look factually at the specific risk to which the rider was exposed. When 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 rider was exposed. And, we must evaluate the risk at the greatest level of specificity permitted by the factual record. See Madsen, 31 F.Supp.2d at 1328 (“The Court believes that one must look to the specific facts of a case to see whether there is a duty, and not simply look to the abstract character of the risk.”).

Cooperman, 214 F.3d at 1167.

The same evaluation must be conducted under the MRRA. It is not enough to find that falling out of a boat and drowning is a general risk of fishing from a raft; therefore, drowning is an inherent risk in fishing. Although there may be circumstances where the risk of drowning [*12] cannot be prevented with the use of reasonable care, it is undoubtedly true the risk may be prevented in many other circumstances.

Therefore, each case must be examined in light of the specific factual context of the case to determine whether the specific risk involved could have been prevented using reasonable care. As the Wyoming Supreme Court points out, “[s]ome risks may occur from the choices a recreation provider makes on behalf of the participant and from the conditions in which the recreational opportunity is provided. Thus, atypical or uncharacteristic risks can arise even in those specific sports the Wyoming legislature clearly intended to exempt from liability for inherent risks.” Dunbar v. Jackson Hole Mtn. Resort Corp., 392 F.3d 1145, 1148–49 (10th Cir.2004).

In addition, Yeager’s broad interpretation of the MRRA would effectively immunize providers of a recreational opportunity from their own negligence. If providers were protected from all fishing-related drownings under the MRRA, they would be relieved of liability where the death was caused by negligence, or even by willful or wanton misconduct. For example, it would apply not only to situations where a participant falls out of a raft and drowns without negligent conduct by the provider; it would [*13] also apply where the provider negligently causes a raft to collide with a bridge abutment or other known obstruction in the river.

Such an application would be contrary to the legislative intent of the MRRA, which expressly provides that the Act does not “preclude an action based on the negligence of the provider. . . .” Mont. Code Ann. § 27-1-753. As recognized under the Wyoming Act, the “intent behind the Recreation Safety Act was not to preclude parties from suing for a provider’s negligence, it was merely to stop people from suing providers for those risks that were inherent to a sport.” Madsen v. Wyoming River Trips, 31 F.Supp.2d 1321, 1328 (D. Wyo. 1999).

Finally, construing the MRRA as Yeager urges would likely render the Act unconstitutional. [HN7] Statutes should be construed “to avoid an unconstitutional interpretation if possible.” Hernandez v. Bd. of Cty. Comm’rs, 2008 MT 251, 345 Mont. 1, 189 P.3d 638, 642 (Mont. 2008). The Montana Supreme Court found a prior version of Montana’s Skier Responsibility Act unconstitutional because it prohibited a skier “from obtaining legal recourse against an operator even if the injury is proximately caused by the negligent or even intentional actions of the operator.”3
Brewer v. Ski-Lift, Inc., 234 Mont. 109, 762 P.2d 226, 230 (Mont. 1988). The Court found that although the state had a legitimate interest in protecting the economic vitality of the ski industry, there was no rational relationship [*14] between that purpose and requiring that skiers assume all risks for injuries regardless of the presence of negligence by the ski area operator. Id. at 230. See also, Oberson v. U.S. Dept. of Ag., Forest Serv., 2007 MT 293, 339 Mont. 519, 171 P.3d 715 (Mont. 2007) (snowmobile liability statute’s gross negligence standard, which relieved snowmobile operators from their negligent conduct, violated equal protection).

3 The statute at issue in Brewer barred recovery from a ski area operator if the skier suffered an injury resulting “from participating in the sport of skiing.” Brewer, 762 P.2d at 229 (citing Mont. Code Ann. § 23-2-736(1)).

The purpose of the MRRA is substantially the same as the skier and snowmobile liability statutes — protection of providers of recreational activities from liability for risks over which the provider has no control. Under Yeager’s interpretation of the MRRA, providers of float fly fishing would be immune from liability for drownings, even when caused by the provider’s own negligence. Under Brewer and Oberson, such a construction would violate Plaintiffs’ rights to equal protection, due process, and access to the courts.

Therefore, whether the MRRA protects a provider of recreational opportunities from certain risks cannot be determined by looking at the broad, abstract character of the risk. Instead, the specific facts and circumstances in each case must be examined to determine whether the risk involved can be prevented by the use of reasonable care. If so, the MRRA does not [*15] shield the provider from liability.

That being established, the determination of whether McJunkin’s drowning resulted from an inherent risk of floating and fly fishing is not appropriate for summary judgment. While there may be cases where there are no genuine issue of material fact, and the issue may be appropriately decided as a matter of law, [HN8] the determination of whether a risk is an inherent risk is generally a factual determination for the jury to decide. See e.g. Mead v. M.S.B., Inc., 264 Mont. 465, 872 P.2d 782, 788-89 (Mont. 1994) (holding whether an inherent risk had been established under the Skier Responsibility Act was a question of fact to be resolved by the trier of fact); Cooperman, 214 F.3d at 1169 (noting the question of what is an inherent risk is normally a question of fact for the jury); Halpern v. Wheeldon, 890 P.2d 562, 566 (Wyo. 1995) (“when genuine issues of material fact exist, it is proper to present the issue to the jury of whether a risk is inherent to a particular activity.”).4

4 At the time the Halpern case was decided, the Wyoming Act’s definition of inherent risk was similar to the MRRA. It was defined as “any risk that is characteristic of or intrinsic to any sport or recreational opportunity and which cannot reasonably be eliminated, altered or controlled.” Halpern, 890 P.2d at 564. The highlighted portion of the definition was subsequently removed by the Wyoming legislature.

Here, there are genuine issues of material fact regarding whether the risk encountered by McJunkin was an inherent risk to the sport of float fishing, or whether Yeager could have prevented the risk using reasonable care. Yeager’s expert opined that drowning [*16] is an inherent risk of floating in a raft on a river, and McJunkin’s death was a result of that inherent risk. But Plaintiffs’ expert states the risk of drowning can be prevented by the use of reasonable care. Plaintiffs’ expert also opined that Yeager increased the risks to McJunkin, and failed to adhere to industry standards by not taking basic safety precautions and not having a plan or equipment to retrieve McJunkin from the water.

Accordingly, the Court finds there are genuine issues of material fact regarding whether the risks encountered by McJunkin could have been prevented by the use of reasonable care.

As such, Yeager’s Motion for Summary Judgment is DENIED as to Count I of the Complaint.

2. Plaintiffs’ Motion for Summary Judgment

McJunkin challenges the constitutionality of the MRRA on due process and equal protection grounds. [HN9] Statutes are presumed to be constitutional, and “the party challenging the constitutionality of a statute bears the burden of proving the statute unconstitutional beyond a reasonable doubt.” Globe v. Montana State Fund, 2014 MT 99, 374 Mont. 453, 325 P.3d 1211, 1216 (Mont. 2014). “‘The question of constitutionality is not whether it is possible to condemn, but whether it is possible to uphold the legislative action . . . .'” Davis v. Union Pac. R. Co., 282 Mont. 233, 937 P.2d 27, 31 (1997) (quoting Fallon County v. State 231 Mont. 443, 753 P.2d 338, 340 (Mont. 1988). “[E]very [*17] possible presumption must be indulged in favor of the constitutionality of the Act.” Id. Thus, courts “will construe a statute to further, rather than to frustrate, the Legislature’s intent according to the plain meaning of the statute’s language.” In re Custody and Parental Rights of D.S., 2005 MT 275, 329 Mont. 180, 122 P.3d 1239, 1243 (Mont. 2005). See also Hernandez, 189 P.3d at 642 (stating it is the court’s duty “to avoid an unconstitutional interpretation if possible”).

a. The MRRA is not Unconstitutionally Vague

Plaintiffs argue the MRRA is unconstitutionally vague on its face, and as applied. Plaintiffs contend the MRRA purports to limit liability for injuries that result from inherent risks, but it does not define “inherent risk” in any clear manner. Thus, Plaintiffs argue there is no fair way to apply the statute because it is unclear what constitutes an “inherent risk.”

[HN10] The void-for-vagueness doctrine chiefly applies to criminal statutes, but can apply to civil laws as well. Civil statutes, however, generally receive less exacting vagueness scrutiny. Vill. of Hoffman Estates v. Flipside, Hoffman Estates, 455 U.S. 489, 498-99, 102 S. Ct. 1186, 71 L. Ed. 2d 362 (1982). The United States Supreme Court has held “[t]o find a civil statute void for vagueness, the statute must be so vague and indefinite as really to be no rule or standard at all.” Boutilier v. INS, 387 U.S. 118, 123, 87 S. Ct. 1563, 18 L. Ed. 2d 661 (1967). The Montana Supreme Court has similarly declared that a statute is unconstitutionally [*18] vague on its face only if it is shown “that the statute is vague ‘in the sense that no standard of conduct is specified at all.'” In re Custody, 2005 MT 275, 329 Mont. 180, 122 P.3d 1239, 1243 (Mont. 2005). “[P]erfect clarity and precise guidance are not required.” Id. A statute is not vague “simply because it can be dissected or subject to different interpretations.” Montana Media, Inc. v. Flathead Cty., 2003 MT 23, 314 Mont. 121, 63 P.3d 1129, 1140 (Mont. 2003).

Here, the Court finds the MRRA is not unconstitutionally vague on its face. Section 27-1-752(2) plainly provides a standard for assessing what constitutes an “inherent risk.” The standard is established with common, readily-understood terms, and it incorporates the familiar negligence standard of reasonable care. Mont. Code Ann. § 27-1-752(2).

Further, contrary to Plaintiffs’ argument, the fact the MRRA does not specifically enumerate the risks inherent in each of the 30 recreational activities listed in the statute does not make the Act unconstitutional. [HN11] The Montana Supreme Court has recognized that even if a term in a statute is not exhaustively defined, and allows the court some discretion in determining whether the evidence presented satisfies the statute, the statute will not be rendered unconstitutionally vague. See In re Custody, 122 P.3d at 1243 (holding that although § 41-3-423(2)(a) did not contain an exhaustive list of conduct that constitutes the term “aggravated circumstances,” [*19] the statute was not void for vagueness). Moreover, even the more specific recreational liability statutes that Plaintiffs uses for comparison, provide non-exclusive lists of inherent risks. See e.g. Mont. Code Ann. § 23-2-702(2) (“‘Inherent dangers and risks of skiing’ means those dangers or conditions that are part of the sport of skiing, including: . . .”); § 23-2-822(2) (“Risks inherent in the sport of off-highway vehicle operation include . . .”); § 27-1-726(7) (“‘Risks inherent in equine activities’ means dangers or conditions that are an integral part of equine activities, including but not limited to: . . .”).

The Court further finds the MRRA is not unconstitutionally vague as applied. A person of common intelligence can understand the risks associated with river sports or activities. There is no indication McJunkin would not have been able to appreciate such risks, including the potential risk involved in floating and fishing. Indeed, in their depositions Plaintiffs were able to articulate risks associated with floating on a river, such as falling out of the boat and drowning. Therefore, McJunkin could have understood that the MRRA may limit Yeager’s liability for accidents on the river.

Accordingly, the Court finds the MRRA is not [*20] void for vagueness.

b. The MRRA Does Not Violate the Constitutional Guarantee of Equal Protection

Plaintiffs also argue the MRRA violates the constitutional guarantee of equal protection in two ways. First, Plaintiffs assert the Act eliminates any theory of negligence on the part of recreational providers, essentially excusing them from the consequences of their own negligence. Second, Plaintiffs argue the MRRA arbitrarily treats certain groups of recreationalists differently. Plaintiffs assert that participants in activities covered by the MRRA are treated differently from those participating in activities covered under other activity-specific recreation statutes because the MRRA is vague, whereas the other statutes are not. Plaintiffs further assert the MRRA treats recreationists covered by the Act differently because the MRRA attempts to resurrect the “secondary” assumption of risk defense, and inserts a “primary” assumption of risk defense.

i. The MRRA Does not Eliminate All Theories of Negligence

As discussed above, although a provider is not liable for, or required to eliminate, alter, or control inherent risks under the MRRA, the provider still owes a duty of care for risks that [*21] can be prevented by the use of reasonable care. Thus, the Court finds the MRRA continues to permit negligence claims against a provider if the risk could have been prevented by the use of reasonable care. Thus, the MRRA does not violate Plaintiffs’ equal protection rights by immunizing providers from their own negligence.

ii. The MRRA Does Not Arbitrarily Treat Groups of Recreationists Differently

The MRRA is drawn broadly and defines “sport or recreational opportunity” by reference to a non-exhaustive list of 30 activities. Mont. Code. Ann. § 27-1-752(4). Some of the listed activities are also covered by their own activity-specific recreation liability statutes, such as skiing, snowmobiling and off-road vehicle use. Id.; §§ 23-2-651, et seq.; 23-2-702, et seq.; 23-2-822. Therefore, the MRRA goes on to exclude those activities from its scope. Mont. Code Ann § 27-1-754 (stating the MRRA does “not apply to duties, responsibilities, liability, or immunity related to” activities that are already subject to an activity-specific recreational statute).

Plaintiffs assert that this statutory scheme causes different groups of recreationists to be treated differently. Specifically, Plaintiffs assert the recreationists who fall under the MRRA are disadvantaged in several [*22] respects.

First, Plaintiffs argue the MRRA’s alleged vagueness only affects the subset of recreationists who participate in activities covered by the Act. Whereas, recreationists engaging in other sports, such as skiing or snowmobiling, have specific notice of their rights and the provider’s responsibilities. The Court has determined, however, that the MRRA is not unconstitutionally vague. Further, as noted above, even the activity-specific recreation statutes that specifically identify certain inherent risks do so in a non-exhaustive fashion. Thus, there is no significant difference in treatment between the recreationists who fall under the MRRA, and those who fall under other recreational statutes with respect to notice.

Next, Plaintiffs assert the MRRA departs from other recreational statutes by attempting to revive the “secondary” assumption of risk defense and by suggesting a “primary” assumption of risk defense. Historically, Montana has not used the terms “primary” and “secondary” assumption of risk. Nevertheless, legal commentators have explained [HN12] “primary” assumption of risk refers to the concept of duty, and “secondary” assumption of risk refers to contributory negligence.
[*23] See Dan B. Dobbs, et al., Dobbs’ Law of Torts § 238 (2d ed. 2018) (“[T]he term ‘primary assumption of risk’ is used to indicate the no-duty or no-breach conception and its attendant complete-bar effect; and the term ‘secondary assumption of risk’ is used to indicate the contributory negligence conception.”); 65A C.J.S. Negligence § 398 (2018) (“Primary assumption of risk limits the duty which a person owes to another. Secondary assumption of risk, on the other hand, which is a type of contributory negligence and is an affirmative defense, may be raised by the defendant after the plaintiff has met the burden of showing that the defendant breached a legal duty owed to the plaintiff.”); W. Page Keeton, et al., Prosser and Keeton on the Law of Torts § 68, 480-81 (5th Ed. 1984) (stating “primary” assumption of risk “is really a principle of no duty,” and explaining that under the duty perspective, “the plaintiff voluntarily enters into some relation with the defendant, with knowledge that the defendant will not protect him against one or more future risks that may arise from the relation . . . the legal result is that the defendant is simply relieved of the duty which would otherwise exist.”).

With regard to [*24] “secondary” assumption of risk, Plaintiffs assert the MRRA, “unlike any other recreation act in Montana,” resurrects the “secondary” assumption of risk defense, without articulating any specific inherent risks the participant would be assuming. (Doc. 29 at 15.) As Yeager points out, however, the MRRA is in fact similar to the other recreation statutes in that they also provide that the participant assumes the risks inherent in the particular activity. See e.g. Mont. Code Ann. § 23-2-736(4) (“A skier shall accept all legal responsibility for injury or damage of any kind to the extent that the injury or damage results from inherent dangers and risks of skiing.”); § 23-2-822 (1) (“An off-highway vehicle operator shall accept all legal responsibility for injury or damage of any kind to the extent that the injury or damage results from risks inherent in the sport of off-highway vehicle use. . . .”); 23-2-654(3) (“A snowmobiler shall accept all legal responsibility for injury or damage of any kind to the extent that the injury or damage results from risks inherent in the sport of snowmobiling.”). Further, as discussed in regard to Plaintiff’s vagueness challenge, the MRRA does not fail to put participants on notice of the inherent [*25] risks they are assuming. As such, recreationists participating in activities that fall under the MRRA are not on significantly different legal footing than participants in other recreational activities. Finally, Plaintiffs contend the MRRA’s suggestion of a “primary” assumption of risk defense amounts to an end-run around comparative negligence. As used here, the assumption of risk terminology in the MRRA refers to a principle of no duty. In Halpern v. Wheeldon, 890 P.2d 562, 565 (Wyo. 1995), the Wyoming Supreme Court found the assumption of risk language in the Wyoming Recreation Safety Act, “was intended to limit the duty to which a provider owes to a participant.” The Court explained that because primary assumption of risk was only intended to limit the provider’s duty, it did not affect the comparative negligence scheme. Id. Likewise, here, the Court finds the assumption of risk language in the MRRA affects only the provider’s duty. It does not revive contributory negligence or undermine Montana’s comparative negligence law. Moreover, as noted, the other activity-specific recreation statutes contain similar assumption of risk language. Thus, recreationists are treated the same under both the MRRA and other activity-specific recreation [*26] statutes, and there is no violation of equal protection.

c. The MRRA Does Not Unconstitutionally Interfere With the Right to Trial by Jury

Finally, Plaintiffs argue the MRRA infringes upon the province of the jury by injecting questions of ultimate fact into preliminary legal questions. As discussed above, however, whether McJunkin’s death was the result of an inherent risk of float fly fishing, and whether it could have been prevented by the use of reasonable care, are jury questions. Thus, the Court finds the MRRA does not unconstitutionally interfere with Plaintiffs’ fundamental right to trial by jury.

B. Yeager’s Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiffs’ Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress Claim

Yeager contends Plaintiffs’ claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress (“NEID”) fails as a matter of law because there is insufficient evidence for a jury to find Plaintiffs suffered serious or severe emotional distress.5 The Court agrees.

5 Yeager also asserts Plaintiffs’ NIED claim fails because there is no actionable predicate act of negligence since the MRRA bars Plaintiffs’ negligence claim. As discussed, however, the Court has found there are disputed issues of material fact regarding Plaintiff’s negligence claim. Accordingly, Yeager’s argument fails in this regard.

[HN13] Under Montana law, an independent cause of action for NIED arises “under circumstances where serious or severe emotional distress to the plaintiff was the reasonably foreseeable consequence of the defendant’s negligent act or omission.” Sacco v. High Country Ind. Press, Inc., 271 Mont. 209, 896 P.2d 411, 426 (Mont. 1995). [*27] “To constitute ‘serious’ or ‘severe,’ the emotional distress must be ‘so severe no reasonable person could be expected to endure it.'” Feller v. First Interstate Bancsystem, Inc., 2013 MT 90, 369 Mont. 444, 299 P.3d 338, 344 (Mont. 2013). The question of whether the threshold level of emotional distress can be found is for the Court to determine. Sacco, 896 P.2d at 425 (“It is for the court to determine whether on the evidence severe [serious] emotional distress can be found; it is for the jury to determine whether, on the evidence, it has in fact existed.”) (quoting Restatement (Second) of Torts, § 46, comment j at 78).

In Feller, the Montana Supreme Court considered [HN14] several factors in determining whether there is sufficient evidence of severe emotional distress, including: (1) whether the plaintiff had any physical manifestations of grief; (2) whether counseling was sought or recommended; (3) whether the plaintiff took medication or the use of medication dramatically increased; (4) whether the plaintiff had continuous nights of sleeplessness or days without appetite; (5) whether the plaintiff maintained close relationships with family members and friends; (6) the duration of the emotional distress; and (7) the circumstances under which the infliction incurred, including whether the plaintiff witnessed the distressing event. Feller, 299 P.3d at 345.

Here, the Court finds [*28] Plaintiffs have not presented evidence of the type of emotional distress necessary to demonstrate serious or severe compensable emotional distress. Rhett McJunkin and Charles McJunkin, Jr. testified at deposition that they have both experienced grief, trouble sleeping and have had nightmares. Rhett McJunkin also testified he took sleep medication approximately one year after the accident, but could not recall what the medication was, who prescribed the medication, or how long own long it was taken. Rhett McJunkin also stated he has also experienced “angst” and “anxiety,” and Charles McJunkin, Jr. indicated his focus has been affected.

Nevertheless, there is no indication of any physical manifestation of grief, and neither has sought counseling, taken or increased medication to manage their emotional distress, have suffered a loss of appetite, are unable to maintain close family relationships, and neither witnessed the accident. The Court finds that consideration of the Feller factors does not lead to the conclusion that Plaintiffs’ emotional distress rises to the level where severe emotional distress may be found.

The Court certainly sympathizes with Plaintiffs’ grief for their loss [*29] of their father. Nevertheless, their testimony does not show their emotional distress was so severe that “no reasonable person could be expected to endure it.” Feller, 299 P.3d at 344.

Accordingly, Yeager’s Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED on Count II of the Complaint.

C. Yeager’s Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiffs’ Loss of Consortium Claim

Yeager argues Plaintiffs’ loss of consortium claim also fails as a matter of law because there is insufficient evidence to support the claim.6 The Court finds there are disputed issues of material fact that preclude summary judgment.

6 Yeager again asserts Plaintiffs’ loss of consortium claim fails because there is no actionable predicate act of negligence. As discussed, this argument is again rejected because there are disputed issues of material fact regarding Plaintiffs’ negligence claim.

[HN15] Montana law recognizes loss of consortium claims by an adult child of an injured parent. N. Pac. Ins. Co. v. Stucky, 2014 MT 299, 377 Mont. 25, 338 P.3d 56, 61 (Mont. 2014). In Stucky, the Montana Supreme Court held an adult child must meet the following two-part test7 to establish a claim for loss of parental consortium: “1) a third party tortuously caused the parent to suffer a serious, permanent and disabling mental or physical injury compensable under Montana law; and 2) the parent’s ultimate condition of mental or physical impairment was so overwhelming and severe that it has caused the parent-child relationship to be destroyed or nearly destroyed.” Id. at 66.

7 The Court adopted the two-part test from Keele v. St. Vincent Hosp. & Health Care Ctr., 258 Mont. 158, 852 P.2d 574 (Mont. 1993), which recognized parental loss of consortium claims by minor children. The Montana Supreme Court stated it found no reason to adopt a different standard for an adult child’s claim of loss of parental consortium. Stucky, 338 P.3d at 65. The Court specifically rejected adopting the more stringent “extraordinarily close and interdependent relationship” test from Hern v. Safeco Ins. Co. of Ill., 2005 MT 301, 329 Mont. 347, 125 P.3d 597 (Mont. 2005), which applies to loss of consortium claims brought by the parent of an adult child.

[HN16] In establishing a loss of parental consortium claim, the plaintiff [*30] may present evidence of the following factors, which the jury may consider in determining both whether the two-part test has been satisfied, and what damages are appropriate: “the severity of injury to the parent; the actual effect the parent’s injury has had on the relationship and is likely to have in the future; the child’s age; the nature of the child’s relationship with the parent; and the child’s emotional, physical and geographic characteristics.” Id.

Stucky involved an injury to a parent, rather than the death of a parent. Nevertheless, an adult child’s loss of a parent would readily meet the requirements established in Stucky for the maintenance of a consortium claim. The fact McJunkin died is sufficient to establish the first prong of the test, which requires serious permanent injury. Second, death is obviously an injury so “overwhelming and severe” as to destroy the parent-child relationship. Thus, the second prong of the test is clearly established.

Yeager points out that Plaintiffs are in their late 50’s/early 60’s, they lived hundreds of miles away from their father, received no financial support from him, and saw him only occasionally. Plaintiffs counter that they had [*31] a tight bond with their father, and that Charles McJunkin, Jr. talked to his father on a regular basis. This is evidence for the jury to assess. Stucky, 338 P.3d at 65.

Accordingly, the Court finds there are disputed issues of material fact that preclude summary judgment on Plaintiffs’ loss of consortium claim. Yeager’s Motion for Summary Judgment as to Count III of the Complaint is therefore, DENIED.

III. MOTION TO AMEND COMPLAINT

Plaintiffs have also filed a Motion to Amend the Complaint. (Doc. 23.) Plaintiffs seek to add a new theory of liability to the existing negligence claim. In particular, Plaintiffs seek to add the theory of strict liability based upon an abnormally dangerous activity. Yeager opposes the motion, arguing Plaintiffs were not diligent in moving to amend, and the proposed amendment is futile.

On June 1, 2017, the Court issued a Scheduling order setting the deadline to amend pleadings for July 3, 2017. (Doc. 20.) Plaintiffs filed the instant motion seeking leave to amend on November 29, 2017. (Doc. 23.)

[HN17] In situations where the deadline for amendments to pleadings has passed, a party must show good cause for not seeking leave to amend within the Court’s scheduling order. Fed.R.Civ.P. 16(b)(4) (“[a] schedule may [*32] only be modified for good cause and with the judge’s consent”); Coleman v. Quaker Oats Co., 232 F.3d 1271, 1294 (9th Cir. 2000).

In Johnson v. Mammoth Recreations, Inc., 975 F.2d 604, 609 (9th Cir. 1992), the Ninth Circuit explained that “[u]nlike Rule 15(a)’s liberal [HN18] amendment policy which focuses on the bad faith of the party seeking to interpose an amendment and the prejudice to the opposing party, Rule 16(b)’s ‘good cause’ standard primarily considers the diligence of the party seeking the amendment.” Good cause to excuse noncompliance with the scheduling order exists if the pretrial schedule “cannot reasonably be met despite the diligence of the party seeking the extension.” Id. (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 16 Advisory Committee’s Notes (1983 Amendment)).

Prejudice to the opposing party may provide an additional reason to deny a motion to amend, but “the focus of the inquiry is upon the moving party’s reasons for seeking modification.” Id. at 609. “If that party was not diligent, the inquiry should end.” Id.; see also In re Western States Wholesale Natural Gas Antitrust Litigation, 715 F.3d 716, 737 (9th Cir. 2013) (upholding denial of motion to amend where “the party seeking to modify the scheduling order has been aware of the facts and theories supporting amendment since the inception of the action”).

[HN19] If good cause exists for seeking amendment after the scheduling order’s deadline, the Court then turns to Rule 15(a) to determine whether amendment should be allowed. [*33] “Although Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(a) provides that leave to amend ‘shall be freely given when justice so requires,’ it ‘is not to be granted automatically.'” In re Western States, 715 F.3d at 738 (quoting Jackson v. Bank of Hawaii, 902 F.2d 1385, 1387 (9th Cir.1990)). Under Rule 15(a), the Ninth Circuit directs that courts consider the following five factors to assess whether to grant leave to amend: “(1) bad faith, (2) undue delay, (3) prejudice to the opposing party, (4) futility of amendment; and (5) whether plaintiff has previously amended his complaint.” Id. Each of these factors is not given equal weight, however. “Futility of amendment can, by itself, justify the denial of a motion for leave to amend.” Bonin v. Calderon, 59 F.3d 815, 845 (9th Cir. 1995).

A. Lack of Diligence

As noted above, Plaintiffs seek to amend the Complaint to include an additional theory of strict liability. The Court finds that Plaintiffs did not act diligently in seeking to amend the Complaint. The motion to amend was filed nearly five months after the Court’s deadline to amend pleadings. Plaintiffs’ explanation for the delay is that the additional theory of liability is premised upon Yeager’s expert report, which they did not receive until November 13, 2017.

The Court finds, however, that Plaintiffs were aware of the facts and theories supporting the amendment long prior to receipt of [*34] Yeager’s expert report. The expert report did not provide any new facts, but rather offered opinion evidence that fly fishing from a raft is inherently dangerous, and that the danger cannot be eliminated by reasonable precautions. But Plaintiffs have been aware that Yeager intended to raise an inherent risk defense since Yeager filed his answer on March 6, 2017, and raised the MRRA as an affirmative defense. (Doc. 4 at 7.) Yeager also filed a Preliminary Pretrial Statement approximately six months before the expert report was produced that put Plaintiffs on further notice of this theory of defense. (See Doc. 18 at 6) (stating that “[f]alling out of a raft on a river is a danger that cannot be prevented by the use of reasonable care.”) Therefore, Plaintiffs’ argument that they did not possess information supporting the abnormally dangerous activity theory of liability until after they received the expert report is not persuasive. See Bonin, 59 F.3d at 845 (holding a motion to amend may be denied “where the movant presents no new facts but only new theories and provides no satisfactory explanation for his failure to fully develop his contentions originally”).

B. Futility of Amendment

Even if the Court found “good cause,” under [*35] Rule 16, application of the Rule 15 factors dictate denial of the motion to amend. Although there is no indication Plaintiffs are acting in bad faith, or that amendment would unduly prejudice Yeager, the Court has found undue delay. Moreover, the Court finds the amendment would be futile.

In seeking to impose strict liability, Plaintiffs conflate the concept of inherent risk with an abnormally dangerous activity. The activity at issue here — fly fishing from a raft — is not the kind of activity that has been recognized as abnormally dangerous. [HN20] Simply because an activity has inherent risks, does not mean the activity is abnormally dangerous for purposes of strict liability. A comparison of activities that are considered abnormally dangerous illustrates the point. See e.g. Beckman v. Butte-Silver Bow Cty., 2000 MT 112, 299 Mont. 389, 1 P.3d 348 (Mont. 2000) (trenching); Sunburst Sch. Dist. No. 2 v. Texaco, Inc., 2007 MT 183, 338 Mont. 259, 165 P.3d 1079 (Mont. 2007) (operating a gas refinery near residences and a school); Ulmen v. Schwieger, 92 Mont. 331, 12 P.2d 856 (Mont. 1932) (highway construction); and Stepanek v. Kober Const., 191 Mont. 430, 625 P.2d 51 (Mont. 1981) (construction scaffolding). The Court does not find the characteristics and risks of fly fishing equate in any meaningful way with these types of activities.8

8 Likewise, the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 519, which has been adopted by the Montana Supreme Court, identifies the following as abnormally dangerous activities: “Water collected in quantity in unsuitable or dangerous place,” “Explosives in quantity in a dangerous place,” “Inflammable liquids in quantity in the midst of a city,” “Blasting, in the midst of a city,” “Pile driving, with abnormal risk to surroundings,” “Release into air of poisonous gas or dust,” “Drilling oil wells or operating refineries in thickly settled communities,” and “production of atomic energy.” Again, these activities are of a wholly different nature than float fly fishing.

“Whether an activity is abnormally dangerous is a question of law.” Chambers v. City of Helena, 2002 MT 142, 310 Mont. 241, 49 P.3d 587, 591 (Mont. 2002), overruled on other grounds, Giambra v. Kelsey, 2007 MT 158, 338 Mont. 19, 162 P.3d 134 (Mont. 2007). No court has held float fly fishing is an abnormally dangerous activity, and [*36] this Court declines Plaintiffs’ invitation to be the first to do so.

In addition, the Court has determined the MRRA is constitutional and applies to Plaintiff’s negligence claim. The MRRA limits a recreational provider’s liability. Mont. Code Ann. § 27-1-752(3); 27-1-753. The Montana Legislature enacted the MRRA to protect recreational providers from liability for injuries that are caused by the very characteristics of a particular activity that make it attractive to participants. 2009 Mt. Laws Ch. 331 (H.B. 150), preamble. The Legislature specifically intended to limit providers’ liability and to discourage claims based on damages that result from inherent risks in a sport or activity. Id. The Legislature enacted the MRRA to further the State’s interest in maintaining the economic viability of Montana’s sports and recreational industries. Id.

Imposing strict liability would eviscerate the purpose of the MRRA. Instead of limiting recreational provider’s liability for inherent risks, it would render them strictly liable for those risks. See Christian v. Atl. Richfield Co., 2015 MT 255, 380 Mont. 495, 358 P.3d 131, 150 (Mont. 2015) (“A claim based upon strict liability for the conduct of an abnormally dangerous activity . . . means that the defendant is liable for harm resulting from the activity, even [*37] if the defendant acted with reasonable care.”). In short, it would accomplish the exact opposite of what the MRRA was intended to do.

Therefore, because Plaintiffs have not shown good cause for their delay in seeking amendment, and because the amendment would be futile, Plaintiffs’ Motion to Amend the Complaint is DENIED.

IV. CONCLUSION

For the foregoing reasons, the Court ORDERS as follows: (1) Plaintiffs’ Motion to Amend (Doc. 23) is DENIED;

(2) Plaintiffs’ Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Doc. 28) is DENIED; and

(3) Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 31) is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.

IT IS ORDERED.

DATED this 28th day of September, 2018.

/s/ Timothy J. Cavan

TIMOTHY J. CAVAN

United States Magistrate Judge


Whitewater rafting release upheld by the Alaska Supreme Court.

Language in the release stated the defendant would and had done their best to keep people adequate… that language almost voided the release. Don’t put in a release information that can be used against you!

Langlois v. Nova River Runners, Inc., 2018 Alas. LEXIS 31

State: Alaska, Supreme Court of Alaska

Plaintiff: Vanessa L. Langlois, Personal Representative of the Estate of Stephen J. Morton

Defendant: Nova River Runners, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: Wrongful Death and multiple theories of Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2018

Summary

The deceased died whitewater rafting. Alaska has a six-prong test to determine if a release is valid. Here, the plaintiff argued the release in question failed on every point.

The Alaskan Supreme Court disagreed; however, on a few of the issues, the court struggled to have this release meet the requirements needed.

Facts

The defendant operated whitewater raft trips on Six Mile Creek near Hope, Alaska. The deceased signed a release prior to going rafting. No one could remember if the deceased read both sides of the release, however, ample time was given so the release could have been read.

The release is a 2-sided document. One side is labeled Participants Acknowledgment of Risk. The other side is where the participants acknowledge they have read the release.

The raft trip consists of three canyons. After the first two canyons, the participants are given an opportunity to get off the trip because the third canyon is the hardest. The deceased did not leave the trip. Sometime in the canyon is raft capsized, and the decedent died.

The spouse of the deceased brought his lawsuit on her behalf and as the executor (personal representative) of the estate. The trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims after the defendant filed a motion for summary judgment based on the release signed by the deceased. The plaintiff appealed.

The decision was heard by the Alaska Supreme Court. Alaska does not have an intermediate appellate court so appeals from the trial court go to the Supreme Court.

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

Alaska has a statute, Alaska Statute 09.65.290, that protects recreational defendants from liability from the inherent risks of the activity. The court recognized the statute is weak and stated that business in Alaska must supplement their protection by using a release.

The Alaska Supreme Court decided one prior decision concerning releases Donahue v. Ledgends, Inc., 2014 Alas. LEXIS 153, See Alaskan Supreme Court upholds releases for climbing gym and sets forth requirements on how releases will be upheld in AK. The court relied on its prior decision in Donahue to support its decision here.

In Donahue, the court created a six-part test to test the validity of a release.

…(1) the risk being waived must be specifically and clearly set forth (e.g. death, bodily injury, and property damage); (2) a waiver of negligence must be specifically set forth using the word “negligence”; (3) these factors must be brought home to the releasor in clear, emphasized language . . . ; (4) the release must not violate public policy; (5) if a release seeks to exculpate a defendant from liability for acts of negligence unrelated to inherent risks, the release must suggest an intent to do so; and (6) the release agreement must not represent or insinuate standards of safety or maintenance.

The plaintiff argued the release in this case did not satisfy the requirements set forth in Donahue.

The first argument was the release was not conspicuous and unequivocal because the release was two sided, and the sides did not appear to incorporate or be connected to each other.

The court did not agree with the argument because whether or not it was two different documents and whether or not the deceased read both sides was irrelevant because he signed the document. “We note that Participants in a recreational activity need not read a release for it to be binding if the language of the release is available to them.

The next argument was different.

The Estate also argues that NOVA’s Release “does not specifically and clearly set forth the risk that the NOVA instructors may have been negligently trained or supervised, or that they may give inadequate warning or instructions.”

The court found that the language in the release was broad enough to cover this claim.

However, the Release covers this risk as well; it indemnifies the “Releasees” in capital letters from liability for injury or death, “whether arising from negligence of the Releasees or otherwise,” and specifically defines “Releasees” to include “employees.”

The court also found that in Donahue,

…we also observed that “[i]t would not be reasonable to conclude that [the defendant] sought a release only of those claims against it that did not involve the acts or omissions of any of its employees.”

The plaintiffs then argued that a release must use the word negligence in it. This is a requirement of many states. Here, however, the argument failed because the release did use the term negligence, several times. The plaintiff’s argued that each time the word negligence was used, it was used in a way that was different from the prior ways so the release was not clear and explicit.

Next the plaintiff’s argued the language was not clear and did not adequately define the activity. The court found this release used capital letters to highlight the clauses waiving negligence, and the negligence clause was not concealed from view.

The clause contained some legalese; however, releases should be read “as a whole” to determine whether or not the language in the release “clearly notify the prospective releasor of the effect of signing the agreement.”

The release was a general release in that it also included release language for glacier hiking and ice climbing. However, the inherent risks outlined in the release were the risks of whitewater rafting. With that risk language, the court found the reader would know they were signing a release.

Based on that language it is obvious the release would fail for ice climbing and glacier hiking?

The plaintiff’s argued the release violated public policy. However, the court outlined Alaska’s definition of public policy in relation to recreation activities.

In evaluating public policy arguments in the context of liability waivers, we have previously considered “[o]f particular relevance . . . the type of service performed and whether the party seeking exculpation has a decisive advantage in bargaining strength because of the essential nature of the service.”25 The type of service likely to inspire additional scrutiny on public policy grounds is “a service of great importance to the public, which is often a matter of practical necessity for some members of the public.

A release for recreational activities does not violate public policy in Alaska.

The plaintiffs also argued the “release suggests an intent to exculpate nova from liability for employee negligence.

The court said, yes it does and that is OK. However, the court also specifically identified weaknesses in the release in this area. However, the weaknesses were not enough to void the release.

Ideally NOVA’s Release would include a more detailed description of the types of negligence it covers, such as “employee negligence” and “negligent training.” But doing so is not a requirement under Donahue. We therefore conclude that the Release suggests an intent to exculpate NOVA from liability for acts of employee negligence.

The plaintiffs also argued the defendants violated their own requirements set forth in the release. The release stated:

“…the concessionaire has taken reasonable steps to provide you with appropriate equipment and/or skilled guides so you can enjoy an activity for which you may not be skilled.”

The court worked around this stating the language before and after this [stupid] section defined the risks of the activity, which should have shown the deceased that no matter what steps taken, there were still risks. The court stated, read as a whole, the release outlined numerous risks of whitewater rafting.

The plaintiff argued a case out of Florida, which also had numerous safety standards the defendant promised to meet and had not, should be controlling here. The court had been struggling through four paragraphs eventually concluded.

NOVA’s Release contains only a single half-sentence, to that effect, adequately disclaimed: “Although the concessionaire has taken reasonable steps to provide you with appropriate equipment and/or skilled guides so you can enjoy an activity for which you may not be skilled, this activity is not without risk. Certain risks cannot be eliminated without destroying the unique character of the activity.” And the release in Kerr was much broader — promising to “try to make the [premises] safe” — than NOVA’s Release, which promises merely that the company takes “reasonable steps to provide . . . appropriate equipment and/or skilled guides” while acknowledging in context that these precautions could not mitigate all the risks posed by a whitewater rafting trip. The Estate’s reliance on Kerr is thus misplaced, and we conclude that the Release does not represent or insinuate standards of safety or maintenance.

The court found the release met all the six requirements needed in Alaska to be a release and upheld the trial court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims.

So Now What?

If your release, and I hope, it does, covers more than one page, make sure the pages connect or relate to each other. First, if on just one piece of paper, at the bottom of each page put in the footer, “Please Read Other Side.” If the release is more than two pages, besides the admonition to read the other side include page numbers on the document.

Write the document so it flows. You don’t have to have a heading at the top of each page. The two different headings in this case raised the argument it was two separate and unrelated documents. If the document were two different documents, then the first page should have had a signature line also, which is what the plaintiff argued. With no signature line, the first page of the document was a separate document and could not be held against the deceased.

If the writing flows, the paragraph or idea continues on the next page, then this would have been a non-issue.

Next you have to write your release to cover not only could happen but will happen, and it is all tied back to your employees. Always protect your employees and write the release broadly so it covers all the possible actions or acts an employee could take that may lead to a claim.

Never create in your release in a way for the plaintiff to sue you. Never make promises, never say you operate at a level, never say you use the best or even adequate anything. That language in this release almost was enough to defeat the release, and it was obvious the court struggled to find a very weak argument to beat this part of the plaintiff’s claims.

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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