Release upheld in Ohio to stop negligence claims for indoor ski jumping. However, gross negligence claims survived.Posted: June 11, 2018
Motions by the defendant eliminated a lot of the claims of the plaintiff; however, the reckless claims are always a pain used to negotiate a settlement. If the judge bought the idea, maybe the plaintiff can get the jury to buy the idea.
State: Ohio, Court of Common Pleas, Summit County, Civil Division
Plaintiff: Michael A. Cantu, et al,
Defendant: Flytz Gymnastics, Inc., et al,
Plaintiff Claims: Negligence, willful, wanton and reckless action and Product Liability
Defendant Defenses: Release, Assumption of the Risk and the Statute of Repose
Holding: For the Defendant and the Plaintiff
Recreation activities have moved indoors for more than 75 years. Now, all sorts of outdoor recreation activities have moved indoors and created additional activities and variations of those activities.
This decision concerns injuries received when the plaintiff jumped into a foam pit. The plaintiff and friends were there to practice skiing jumps. When the plaintiff landed he became a quadriplegic and sued for negligence, gross negligence and product liability claims.
The plaintiff and his friends decided to go to the defendant’s facility to practice skiing flips. The facility had a foam pit where the participants could land. While using a springboard to go over a vault the plaintiff landed head first in the pit sustaining a spinal cord injury rendering him a quadriplegic.
The plaintiff was a minor and had been driven to the facility by his mother. Both, he and his mother signed the release to participate in the activity. His mother claimed the form was long, and she did not read it. (The release was one page.)
Kristine Cantu testified that, consistent with her practice related to any other sports release or waiver, she “never read them” because they were “usually lengthy.” Although she indicated that the Flytz Release and Waiver Form was also lengthy, the Court notes that the form is one page long,….
The plaintiff and his parents admitted they had signed releases before, knew that the activities were risky and had participated in other risky activities and had been injured doing so.
The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, and this is the decision of the court.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
Ohio allows a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue. See States that allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue and Zivich v. Mentor Soccer Club, Inc., 696 N.E.2d 201, 82 Ohio St.3d 367 (1998).
The release in question described the risks of the activity and included the risks and resulted in the plaintiff suffered, “including permanent disability, paralysis and death, which may be caused.”
A release is a contract and under Ohio law to be valid a contract must be “clear, unequivocal and unambiguous and it must be specific enough to cover only those claims of which the participant would be aware.” The court found this release met those requirements.
The plaintiffs argued the they were fraudulently induced to sign the release. A release signed by fraudulent inducement is voidable upon proof of the fraud. However, that fraud must be than saying you were misled if a reading of the contract would have shown that was not the case.
A person of ordinary mind cannot say that he was misled into signing a paper which was different from what he intended to sign when he could have known the truth by merely looking when he signed…. If a person can read and is not prevented from reading what he signs, he alone is responsible for his omission to read what he signs.”
The court found there was no fraud because the release itself was clear and there was no evidence from the plaintiff of any act or action that was fraudulent by the defendants.
The court granted the defendants motion for summary judgment to the negligence claims of the plaintiff.
The court also would have granted summary judgment to the defendants because the plaintiff assumed the risk of his injuries.
The Ohio Supreme Court has held that individuals engaged in recreational or sports activities “assume the ordinary risks of the activity and cannot recover for any injuries unless it can be shown that the other participant’s actions were either ‘reckless’ or ‘intentional’ as defined in Sections 500 and 8A of the Restatement of Torts 2d.”. “The doctrine of primary assumption of risk prevents a, Plaintiff from setting forth a prima facie case of negligence.” “Primary assumption of the risk relieves a recreation provider from any duty to eliminate the risks that are inherent in the activity…because such risk cannot be eliminated.”
The defense is not affected on whether or not the participant was able to appreciate the inherent dangers in the activity.
To defeat a primary assumption of risk defense the plaintiff must be able to prove the defendant’s conduct was reckless or intentional, and it does not matter if it is adults or minors organized or unorganized, supervised or unsupervised.
The plaintiff could not prove the actions of the defendant were reckless or intentional.
Under the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk, a, Plaintiff who voluntarily engages in a recreational activity or sporting event assumes the inherent risks of that activity and cannot recover for injuries sustained in engaging in the activity unless the defendant acted recklessly or intentionally in causing the injuries.
However, this part of the decision treads a narrow classification of the facts because the court found the plaintiff had pled enough facts for the reckless or intentional conduct claims to survive. The plaintiff pleaded and argued facts along with his expert witness “Defendant level of supervision and safety procedures, and whether, Defendant’s actions or inactions rose to the level of recklessness.”
The plaintiff’s expert argued the defendant failed to:
…ensure that Michael Cantu possessed an adequate level of performer readiness to safely participate in the intended activity,” “failing to provide adequate supervision of the open gym participants,” “failing to instruct Michael Cantu on how to land safely in a loose foam landing pit,” and “failing to provide a reasonably safe physical environment for the intended gymnastics activity,” specifically directing attention to the violative nature of the foam pit. Report at 3-6. Dr. George opines, among other things, that, given these violations and conduct, Defendants actions were “grossly inadequate” reckless and that, Defendants exhibited “willful and wanton” disregard for caution.
The final claim was a product liability claim arguing the foam pit was defective. The defendant argued the statute of repose applied.
The statute of repose is a statute that says if a claim against a product has not occurred in the first ten years after its creation, then no claims can be made after that period of time.
…no cause of action based on a product liability claim shall accrue against the manufacturer or sup-plier of a product later than ten years from the date that the product was delivered to its first purchaser or first lessee who was not engaged in a business in which the product was used the component in the production, construction, creation, assembly, or rebuilding of another product.
The foam pit had been constructed in 2000, and the plaintiff’s injury occurred in 2011. Consequently, the ten-year statute of repose had run preventing the plaintiff’s product liability claim.
The court granted the defendants motion for summary judgment for all claims of the plaintiff except for the claim of recklessness, which could lead to punitive damages.
So Now What?
Foam pits, trampolines, free fall towers join climbing walls indoors as types of activities or training for outdoor recreation activities are popping up everywhere. What used to be confined to Olympic training venues can now be accessed on the corner with a credit card.
We are going to see more of these types of actions. Like any recreational activity, they advertise, make promises, and are still in a growing mode both in the number of locations and the learning process in how their liability will evolve.
Copyright 2018 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529
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Michael A. Cantu, et al, Plaintiffs vs. Flytz Gymnastics, Inc., et al, Defendants.
CASE NO. CV-2014-01-0317
State of Ohio, Court OF Common Pleas, Summit County, Civil Division
2016 Ohio Misc. LEXIS 12186
June 2, 2016, Filed
CORE TERMS: summary judgment, reckless, wanton, willful, gymnastics, waiver form, moving party, nonmoving party, pit, releasee, liability claim, recreational activities, issue of material fact, genuine, foam, claims of negligence, repose, sports, genuine issue, initial burden, punitive damages, recklessness, inducement, indemnity, matter of law, fact remains, loss of consortium, inherent risks, assumption of risk, proprietor’
JUDGES: [*1] TAMMY O’BRIEN, JUDGE
OPINION BY: TAMMY O’BRIEN
The matters before the Court are, Defendant, Flytz Gymnastics, Inc.’s Motion for Summary Judgment filed on January 29, 2016, and, Defendant, John King’s Motion for Summary Judgment filed on January 29, 2016., Plaintiffs filed Separate Briefs in Opposition to these motions on March 4, 2016. Both, Defendants, Flytz Gymnastics, Inc. (“Flytz”) and John King (“King”), filed Reply briefs on March 21, 2016. For the reasons which follow, the Court GRANTS IN PART AND DENIES IN PART, Defendants’ Motions for Summary Judgment.
The instant action arises out of an incident which occurred on August 22, 2011. On that day, Plaintiff Michael Cantu, sustained catastrophic personal injury when he attempted to use a spring board to go over a vault at Flytz Gymnastics and landed head first into a foam block pit. See, Plaintiffs’ Amended Complaint., Plaintiff sustained a spinal cord injury which left him a quadriplegic. See, Plaintiffs’ Amended Complaint.
Plaintiffs, Michael Cantu and his parents, have sued Flytz and its owner, King, alleging that they are liable for his injury., Plaintiffs have alleged that Flytz was negligent with respect to the “open [*2] gym night” attended by Michael Cantu and his friends and that this negligence resulted in Michael’s injury., Plaintiffs have further alleged that the conduct of Flytz and its employees, including King, was willful, wanton and reckless. In addition, Plaintiffs have brought a product liability claim against Flytz under R.C. 2307.71 et seq., Plaintiff’s parents, Aaron and Kristine Cantu, have also asserted a loss of consortium claim.
On the day in question, Michael was with a group of friends when one of them suggested that the group go to Flytz. Michael Cantu depo. at 57. This friend had been to Flytz before to practice his skiing flips. Id. at p. 43. Michael Cantu testified that the group intended to use the trampoline to practice ski tricks. Id. at 43, 63 and 93. Michael’s mother, Kristine Cantu, drove the group to Flytz.
Cantu and his friends were given Nonmember Release and Waiver Forms to read and sign. Because Michael was a minor, his mother signed the form on his behalf. Flytz Motion for Summary Judgment Exhibit B at pp. 32 and 33. Both Michael and his mother have acknowledged that neither of them read the entire form before Kristine signed it. Exhibit A at 69 and 103; Exhibit B at 34 and 35.
Subsequent [*3] to his injury, Kristine Cantu claimed that, had she read the release, she would never have allowed her son to participate in the activities. However, there is undisputed testimony from both Kristine and Michael Cantu that, throughout his life, Michael Cantu participated in many sports activities and many recreational activities, and that his mother signed release forms on his behalf in the past. Flytz Motion, Exhibit A at 18, 103; Flytz Motion, Exhibit Bat 15-16.
Plaintiff Michael Cantu, was involved in many sports and recreational activities and both he and his mother testified that they were aware that, inherent in those activities, there was always the risk of injury. Michael had previously participated in football, karate, volleyball and golf, and was interested in skiing, snowboarding and skateboarding. In fact, Plaintiff acknowledged he had sustained prior sports injuries. Flytz Motion, Exhibit B at 13-18.
Defendant Flytz moves for summary judgment on several bases which include the, Plaintiffs’ execution of a Release and Waiver form, the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk, lack of evidence of willful and wanton conduct by the, Defendants, and the statute of repose., Defendant [*4] King also moves for summary judgment.
B. Law and Analysis:
In reviewing, Defendants’ Motions for Summary Judgment, the Court must consider the following: (1) whether there is no genuine issue of material fact to be litigated; (2) whether in viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to the non-moving party it appears that reasonable minds could come to but one conclusion; and (3) whether the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Dresher v. Burt, 75 Ohio St.3d 280, 662 N.E.2d 264 (1996); Wing v. Anchor Media, L.T.D., 59 Ohio St.3d 108, 570 N.E.2d 1095 (1991). If the Court finds that the non-moving party fails to make a sufficient showing on an essential element of the case with respect to which it has the burden of proof, summary judgment is appropriate. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L.E.2d 265 (1986).
Civ.R. 56(C) states the following, in part, in regards to summary judgment motions:
Summary judgment shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, written admissions, affidavits, transcripts
of the evidence in the pending case, and written stipulations of fact, if any timely filed in the action, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.
Where a party seeks summary judgment on the ground that the nonmoving party cannot [*5] prove its case, the moving party bears the initial burden of informing the trial court of the basis for the motion, and identifying those portions of the record that demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact on the essential element(s) of the nonmoving party’s claims. Dresner, 75 Ohio St.3d at 293. The Dresner court continued, the moving party cannot discharge its initial burden under Civ.R. 56 simply by making a conclusory assertion that the nonmoving party has no evidence to prove its case. Rather, the moving party must be able to specifically point to some evidence of the type listed in Civ.R. 56(C) which affirmatively demonstrates that the nonmoving party has no evidence to support the nonmoving party’s claims. If the moving party fails to satisfy its initial burden, the motion for summary judgment must be denied. However, if the moving party has satisfied its initial burden, the nonmoving party then has a reciprocal burden outlined in Civ.R. 56(E) to set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial and, if the nonmovant does not so respond, summary judgment, if appropriate, shall be entered against the nonmoving party.
Banks v. Ross Incineration, 9th App. No. 98CA007132 (Dec. 15, 1999).
In this case, [*6] as demonstrated below, this Court finds that summary judgment is appropriate as to the, Plaintiffs’ claims of negligence, but finds that a genuine issue of material fact exists as to, Plaintiffs’ claims of reckless and wanton conduct and punitive damages.
2. Release and Waiver of Liability, Assumption of Risk, and Indemnity Agreement (“Release and Waiver”).
The Release and Waiver Form signed by, Plaintiff Kristine Cantu, is entitled, “Nonmember/Special Event/Birthday Party Activity, Release and Waiver Form.” Flytz Motion, Exhibit C. After the name of the person and contact information, the verbiage of the release and waiver form warns that “this activity involves risks of serious bodily injury, including permanent disability, paralysis and death.” Id.
Kristine Cantu testified that, consistent with her practice related to any other sports release or waiver, she “never read them” because they were “usually lengthy.” Kristine Cantu depo. at 15-16. Although she indicated that the Flytz Release and Waiver Form was also lengthy, the Court notes that the form is one page long, as is shown in part below:
Release and Waiver of Liability, Assumption of Risk, and Indemnity Agreement
In consideration [*7] of participating in the activities and programs at FLYTZ GYMNASTICS, INC., I represent that I understand the nature of this activity and that I am qualified, in good health, and in proper physical condition to participate in such activity. I acknowledge that if I believe event conditions are unsafe, I will immediately discontinue participation in this activity. I fully understand that this activity involves risks of serious bodily injury, including permanent disability, paralysis and death, which may be caused by my own actions, or inactions, those of others participating in the event, the condition in which the event takes place, or the negligence of the “releasees” named below, and that there may be other risks either not known to me or not readily foreseeable at this time and I fully accept and assume all risks and all responsibility for losses, cost and damages I incur as a result of my participation in the activity.
I hereby release, discharge, and covenant not to sue FLYTZ GYNMASTICS, INC., its respective administrators, directors, agents, officers, volunteers, and employees, other participants, any sponsors, advertisers and if applicable, owners and lessors of premises on which [*8] the activity takes place (each considered one of the “RELEASEES” herein) from all liability, claims, damages, losses or damages, on my account caused, or alleged to be caused, in whole, or in part, by the negligence of the “releasees” or otherwise, including negligent rescue operations and further agree that if, despite this release, waiver of liability and assumption of risk, I, or anyone on my behalf makes a claim against any of the Releasees, I will indemnify, save and hold harmless each of the Releasees from any loss, liability, damage or cost which may incur as a result of such claim.
I have read the RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABIITY, ASSUMPTION OF RISK AND INDEMNITY AGREEMENT, understand that I have given up substantial rights by signing it and have signed it freely and without any inducement or assurance of any nature and intend it to be a complete and unconditional release of all liability to the greatest extent allowed by law and agree that if any portion of this agreement is held to be invalid the balance, notwithstanding, shall continue in full force and effect.
The form specifically acknowledges that the activities and programs at Flytz involved “risks of serious bodily injury, [*9] including permanent disability, paralysis and death which may be caused” by the releasee’s actions or by the actions of others. It further identifies that “there may be risks either not known” or “not readily foreseeable” and that the releasee “accepts and assumes all risks for losses and damages.” Id. The form further releases claims of negligence by Flytz and includes a covenant not to sue, as well as indemnity and hold harmless provisions. The release was signed by Kristine Cantu on behalf of her son and indicated that she understood all the risks involved.
It is well established in Ohio that participants in recreational activities and the proprietor of a venue for such an activity are free to enter into contracts designed to relieve the proprietor from responsibility to the participant for the proprietor’s acts of negligence. See, Bowen v. Kil-Kare, Inc. (1992), 63 Ohio St.3d 84, 585 N.E.2d 384; Zivich v. Mentor Soccer Club, Inc. 82 Ohio St.3d 367, 696 N.E.2d 201, 1998-Ohio-389. As noted by the Ninth District Court of Appeals, in order to be upheld, the contract must be clear, unequivocal and unambiguous and it must be specific enough to cover only those claims of which the participant would be aware. Levine v. Gross, 123 Ohio App.3d 326, 330, 704 N.E.2d 262 (9th Dist. 1997). In the instant action, the Release and Waiver Form signed by Kristine Cantu clearly meets these requirements.
Plaintiffs argue [*10] that the intake clerk, Stacey King, did not specifically advise Kristine that, by signing the forms, she would be absolving Flytz of liability for injuries sustained by her son, by his negligence or the negligence of others., Plaintiffs attempt to circumvent the Release and Waiver by alleging it is unenforceable because of fraud in the inducement. They argue that Kristine Cantu was induced to sign the form upon misrepresentations made by Stacey King.
The Court notes that, Plaintiffs have not pled fraud in their Amended Complaint. Even if, Plaintiffs can be found to have properly pled a claim of fraud in the inducement, a release obtained by fraudulent inducement is merely voidable upon proof of fraud. Holler v. horror Corp., (1990), 50 Ohio St.3d 10, 14 at ¶ 1 of the syllabus. “A person of ordinary mind cannot say that he was misled into signing a paper which was different from what he intended to sign when he could have known the truth by merely looking when he signed…. If a person can read and is not prevented from reading what he signs, he alone is responsible for his omission to read what he signs.” Haller, supra at 14. In the instant action, there is no evidence of fraud. The Court finds that, Plaintiffs were advised of [*11] serious inherent risks by virtue of the Release and Waiver Form. Accordingly, the Court GRANTS summary judgment on any claims of negligence.
3. Primary Assumption of Risk.
Even without the Release and Waiver, this Court would also find that the, Defendants are entitled to summary judgment related to the, Plaintiffs’ claims of negligence under the doctrine of primary assumption the risk.
The Ohio Supreme Court has held that individuals engaged in recreational or sports activities “assume the ordinary risks of the activity and cannot recover for any injuries unless it can be shown that the other participant’s actions were either ‘reckless’ or ‘intentional’ as defined in Sections 500 and 8A of the Restatement of Torts 2d.” Marchetti v. Kalish (1990), 53 Ohio St.3d 95, 559 N.E.2d 699, syllabus. “The doctrine of primary assumption of risk prevents a, Plaintiff from setting forth a prima facie case of negligence.” Aber v. Zurz, 9th Dist No. 23876, 2008-Ohio-778, ¶9. “Primary assumption of the risk relieves a recreation provider from any duty to eliminate the risks that are inherent in the activity…because such risk cannot be eliminated.” (Citations omitted.) Bastian v. McGannon, 9th Dist. Lorain No. 07CA009213, 2008-Ohio – l149, ¶11.
As noted by the Ohio Supreme Court, the determining fact in such cases is the conduct of the defendant, “not the [*12] participant’s or spectator’s ability or inability to appreciate the inherent dangers of the activity.” Gentry v. Craycraft, 101 Ohio St.3d 141, 802 N.E.2d 1116, 2004-Ohio-
379, ¶9. To survive a primary assumption of risk claim, the, Plaintiff must prove the defendant’s conduct was reckless or intentional. Furthermore, “the reckless/intentional standard of liability applies regardless of whether the activity was engaged in by children or adults, or was unorganized, supervised, or unsupervised.” Gentry, supra at ¶8.
In the instant action, there can be no dispute that, Plaintiff Michael Cantu was engaged in a recreational activity at the time of his injury. Likewise, there can be no dispute that a fall, like that sustained by Michael, is an inherent risk in gymnastics, particularly when one is using a springboard to go over a piece of equipment. As such, there can be no recovery by, Plaintiffs unless it can be shown that Flytz’s actions were either “reckless” or “intentional.” Gentry, supra at ¶6 quoting Marchetti, supra at syllabus; see also, Mainv. Gym X-Treme, 10th Dist. No. 11A0-643, 2102-Ohio-1315 (Under the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk, a, Plaintiff who voluntarily engages in a recreational activity or sporting event assumes the inherent risks of that activity and cannot recover for injuries sustained in engaging in the activity [*13] unless the defendant acted recklessly or intentionally in causing the injuries. Id. at ¶9.)
Accordingly, Defendants entitled to summary judgment related to the, Plaintiffs’ claims of negligence under the doctrine of primary assumption the risk. However, because the, Plaintiffs also claim that, Defendants acted in a reckless, willful and wanton manner, this does not end the analysis.
3. Reckless or Intentional Conduct and Punitive Damages.
The Supreme Court of Ohio has held that there can be no liability for injuries arising out of sporting or recreational activities unless the defendant was reckless or intentionally injured the, Plaintiff. Marchetti v. Kalish, 53 Ohio St.3d 95, 96-98, 559 N.E.2d 699 (1990). In this case, the Court finds that there are genuine issues of material fact as to whether or not, Defendants engaged in recklessness or willful or wanton conduct which resulted in injury to Michael Cantu.
All parties cite to testimony which appears to create genuine issues of material fact related to the instructions given by the, Defendants, Michael Cantu’s responding behavior, Defendant level of supervision and safety procedures, and whether, Defendants actions or inactions rose to the level of recklessness.
Plaintiffs have also cited the testimony [*14] of their expert, Gerald S. George, PhD. Dr. George reviewed industry rules and regulations and examined the facts and evidence in this case. Dr. George admitted that under “appropriate conditions, gymnastics is a reasonably safe and healthy activity for young people.” He, however, cautioned that “in the absence of appropriate safeguards, however, gymnastics becomes an unreasonably dangerous activity. Report at p. 2. Dr. George opines that, Defendants violated a number of safety regulations including “failing to ensure that Michael Cantu possessed an adequate level of performer readiness to safely participate in the intended activity,” “failing to provide adequate supervision of the open gym participants,” “failing to instruct Michael Cantu on how to land safely in a loose foam landing pit,” and “failing to provide a reasonably safe physical environment for the intended gymnastics activity,” specifically directing attention to the violative nature of the foam pit. Report at 3-6. Dr. George opines, among other things, that, given these violations and conduct, Defendants actions were “grossly inadequate” reckless and that, Defendants exhibited “willful and wanton” disregard for caution. [*15]
Upon this examination, the Court determines that genuine issues of material fact related to, Defendants’ alleged recklessness and/or willful and wanton conduct exist. Therefore, summary judgment is inappropriate on this issue. Because a question of fact remains on the issue of reckless and/or willful and wanton conduct, summary judgment on the issue of punitive damages is also denied.
4. Ohio’s Product Liability Statute, R.C. 2307.71et seq.
Defendants have also moved for summary judgment on the, Plaintiffs’ product liability claim related to the foam pit into which Michael Cantu fell., Defendants argue that this claim is barred by the statute of repose. This Court agrees.
The statute of repose applicable to claims of product liability, R.C. 2305.10 (C) (1) provides:
Except as provided in division (C)(2), (3), (4), (5), (6), and (7) of this section or in Section 2305.19 of the Revised Code, no cause of action based on a product liability claim shall accrue against the manufacturer or supplier of a product later than ten years from the date that the product was delivered to its first purchaser or first lessee who was not engaged in a business in which the product was used the component in the production, construction, creation, assembly, or rebuilding of another [*16] product.
The evidence demonstrated that the foam pit was constructed in 2000, and that there were no modifications to the pit at any time thereafter. John King depo. at 61, 67 and 85., Plaintiff’s accident occurred on August 22, 2011, 11 years after the installation of the foam pit. Pursuant to the specific language of R.C. 2305.10 (C) (1), Plaintiffs’ product liability claim is barred by the statute of repose.
From review of, Plaintiff’s brief, Plaintiffs appear to have abandoned this argument. Also, as discussed above, claims for negligence have been released by the, Plaintiffs. However, even barring that analysis, the statute of repose also applies to the, Plaintiffs’ product liability claim, and this claim is, therefore, barred.
The claims for loss of consortium by Michael Cantu’s parents, and punitive damages claim are directed at both, Defendants. A cause of action that is based upon loss of consortium is a derivative claim. Messmore v. Monarch Mach Tool Co., 11 Ohio App.3d 67 (9th Dist., 1983). As this Court has determined that, Plaintiff Michael Cantu is not entitled to recovery on negligence claims, the same applies to his parents. However, as genuine issues of material fact remain on the issues of reckless and/or willful and wanton conduct, as well [*17] as on punitive
damages, this Court denies summary judgment to both defendants on the loss of consortium and punitive damages claims.
Upon due consideration, after review of the briefs of the parties, the applicable law, exhibits, testimony and other evidence, the Court GRANTS, Defendants’ Motions for Summary Judgment as a matter of law on, Plaintiffs’ negligence claims. However, the Court finds that genuine issues of material fact remain as to whether, Defendants were reckless or acted in a willful or wanton manner. Accordingly the Court DENIES summary judgment as it pertains to, Plaintiffs’ claims of recklessness, and their claims for punitive damages.
The Final Pretrial previously schedule on July 22, 2016 at 8:30 AM, as well as the trial date of August 1, 2016, are confirmed.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
Attorneys Terrance P. Gravens/Kimberly A. Brennan
Attorney Michael W. Czack
The plaintiff also admitted that he knew the risks of mountain biking and as such were contributorily negligent which barred his claims against the park owner.
State: Indiana, Court of Appeals of Indiana
Plaintiff: (At Trial) Richard Kaler
Defendant: (At Trial) Hoosier Mountain Bike Association, Inc., City of Indianapolis, and Indy Parks and Recreation
Plaintiff Claims: Premises Liability
Defendant Defenses: No liability and Contributory Negligence
Holding: For the Defendants (at Trial)
Crashing while mountain biking is an inherent risk under Indiana’s law. The plaintiff, an experienced mountain biker could not recover from the park because he knew and had crashed mountain biking and his knowledge of mountain biking also made him contributorily negligent. Contributory negligence under Indiana Law is a complete bar to recovery when suing a municipality.
This decision the parties in the heading is reversed. The plaintiff is listed second in this case at the appellate court heading and the defendants are listed first. The reason is the defendants are appealing the trial court’s ruling and they the defendants are prosecuting the case to the appellate court. Few states work this way in titling their decisions.
The City of Indianapolis, through its Indy Parks and Recreation department owns Town Run Trail Park. It has numerous mountain bike trails through the park which are managed by the Hoosier Mountain Bike Association.
The plaintiff had been mountain biking for five or six years. An Eagle Scout had created a berm in the park as part of a “merit badge” in the park. While riding the berm the plaintiff crashed and sued.
He described himself as an “experienced” and “better than average” bicyclist. Although he was familiar with the trails at Town Run, he had not been on the mountain-bike trail since the berm had been constructed several months earlier. “Oftentimes,” Kaler would “try to get an idea of the technical requirements of the trail” and would step off his bike, especially if he saw something within his view “as a danger.”
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
All states have Premises Liability statutes. These statutes set out the duties of land owners relative to people on their land. If the land owner fails to meet those duties, the landowner is liability. An injury to a person on someone’s land is called a premises liability claim.
The plaintiff mountain biker brought a premises liability claim for his injuries. To win a premises liability claim in Indiana the plaintiff must prove the landowner.
(a) Knows or by the exercise of reasonable care would discover the condition, and should realize that it involves an unreasonable
risk of harm to such invitees, and
(b) Should expect that they will not discover or realize the danger, or will fail to protect themselves against it, and
(c) Fails to exercise reasonable care to protect them against the danger.
The plaintiff failed to prove this to the appellate court on two different arguments. First, the plaintiff’s experience as a mountain bike showed he knew that crashing was a possibility mountain biking, and he crashed often.
He admitted that a fall “was just a general consequence of the sport.” Although he had ridden the trail the first time without any problems, when Kaler decided to make a second run, it was getting dark, but he was insistent that he “wanted to ride the higher grade because [he] knew it was more challenging.” At no point, did Kaler step off his bike and inspect the berm’s high grade prior to riding it in the approaching darkness. Accordingly, pursuant to Kaler’s own statements, the City could objectively and reasonably have expected an experienced bicyclist to realize the risks a beginner to intermediate trail would present and take appropriate precautions.
Second he had ridden the wooden berm once before that day, electing to take a lower ride through the berm. The second time he went faster taking the higher edge of the berm when he crashed.
The plaintiff could not prove that actual or constructive knowledge that the City knew the trail created an unreasonable risk of harm to the plaintiff. Not because of the lack of the cities’ knowledge, but because crashing was part of the sport. Therefore, there was no unreasonable risk. The plaintiff had testified that crashing was part of the sport.
As the expectation of a bicycle crash is a risk inherent to riding trails, it cannot serve to establish the sort of unreasonable risk of harm contemplated in the first Burrell element.
Having the plaintiff admit crashing was part of the sport, the court held that while mountain biking crashing was an inherent risk of the sport. If a risk is inherent to the sport, then you could not sue for injuries from an inherent risk.
The second defense brought by the City on appeal was the plaintiff was contributorily negligent. Contributory negligence
“[c]ontributory negligence is the failure of a person to exercise for his own safety that degree of care and caution which an ordinary, reasonable, and prudent person in a similar situation would exercise.
If you can prove the plaintiff was responsible for his own injuries, then the defendant is not liable. In some states, this could act to reduce the plaintiff’s damages. In Indiana, it was a complete bar to the plaintiff’s claims.
Reviewing the testimony of the plaintiff, the court found that the plaintiff was not completely free of all negligence. Meaning the plaintiff was also negligent and therefore, barred from suing for his claims.
So Now What?
Two great ideas came out of this for land owners in Indiana. The first is crashing is an inherent risk of the mountain biking. Most mountain bikers already knew this; however, having a court make the statement is great.
Second premises liability statute in Indiana has been interpreted to allow the defendant to introduce the knowledge and skill of the plaintiff as a defense to the plaintiff’s claims and as a denial of his claims.
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Hoosier Mountain Bike Association, Inc., City of Indianapolis, and Indy Parks and Recreation,1 Appellants-Defendants, v. Richard Kaler, Appellee-Plaintiff.
1 On February 23, 2017, Hoosier Mountain Bike Association, Inc. filed a notice of settlement with Richard Kaler and, as part of the settlement, dismissed this appeal. Accordingly, Hoosier Mountain Bike Association, Inc. is no longer a party in this cause. We will still include facts with respect to the Hoosier Mountain Bike Association, Inc. where necessary for our decision.
Court of Appeals Case No. 49A04-1604-CT-865
COURT OF APPEALS OF INDIANA
73 N.E.3d 712; 2017 Ind. App. LEXIS 133
March 23, 2017, Decided
March 23, 2017, Filed
PRIOR HISTORY: [**1] Appeal from the Marion Superior Court. The Honorable Cynthia J. Ayers, Judge. Trial Court Cause No. 49D04-1209-CT-35642
COUNSEL: ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANTS: Donald E. Morgan, Lynne D. Hammer, Kathryn M. Box, Office of Corporation Counsel, Indianapolis, Indiana.
ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEE: John F. Townsend, III, Townsend & Townsend, LLP, Indianapolis, Indiana.
JUDGES: Riley, Judge. Crone, J. and Altice, J. concur.
OPINION BY: Riley
[*714] Riley, Judge.
STATEMENT OF THE CASE2
2 We held oral argument in this cause on March 7, 2017, in the Indiana Court of Appeals Courtroom in Indianapolis, Indiana. We thank both counsel for their advocacy.
P1 Appellants-Defendants, the City of Indianapolis and Indy Parks and Recreation (the City),3 appeal the trial court’s denial of their motion for summary judgment with respect to Appellee-Plaintiff’s, Richard Kaler (Kaler), claims of negligence after Kaler sustained injuries in riding the City’s mountain bike trail at Town Run Trail Park.
3 For all practical purposes, Appellant is the City of Indianapolis as the City’s Indy Parks and Recreation department cannot be sued outside the Access to Public Records Act context. See City of Peru v. Lewis, 950 N.E.2d 1, 4 (Ind. Ct. App. 2011) (noting that units of local government, but not their individual departments, are suable under Indiana law), trans. denied.
P2 We reverse.
P3 The City presents us with four issues on appeal, which we consolidate and restate as follows:
(1) Whether a genuine issue of material fact precluded the entry of summary judgment on Kaler’s claim of premises liability; and
(2) Whether a genuine issue of material fact precluded the entry of summary judgment based on the City’s claim that Kaler was contributorily negligent.
FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY [**2]
P4 The City of Indianapolis owns and operates the Town Run Trail Park through its Indy Parks and Recreation department. The Hoosier Mountain Bike Association, Inc. (HMBA) is responsible for maintaining the trails, which have a difficulty rating from beginner through intermediate. In the spring of 2011, an Eagle Scout, as part of his merit badge project, built a new technical trail feature along Town Run’s mountain bike trail. The feature can best be described as a banked wooden turn, also known as a berm. A rider, approaching the berm, has three options for completing the turn. First, riders can avoid the berm by staying on the dirt path on its left side. Second, riders can elect to enter the berm and ride it on the low grade, or third, riders can negotiate the turn by riding the berm’s more challenging high grade. The entrance onto the wooden turn is fully tapered with the ground, while the exit is only partially tapered. A rider [*715] choosing the low grade would exit the berm with a “little jump” off the end of the feature. (City’s App. Vol. II, pp. 100-01). A rider exiting on the high grade would have to make a two-foot jump back down to the trail.
P5 By July 9, 2011, Kaler had been mountain [**3] biking for approximately four to five years. He described himself as an “experienced” and “better than average” bicyclist. (City’s App. Vol. II, pp. 90, 91). Although he was familiar with the trails at Town Run, he had not been on the mountain bike trail since the berm had been constructed several months earlier. “Oftentimes,” Kaler would “try to get an idea of the technical requirements of the trail” and would step off his bike, especially if he saw something within his view “as a danger.” (City’s App. Vol. II, p. 89). He understood that “on a mountain bike trail there’s multiple paths that you can take, one being more dangerous or less dangerous than another.” (City’s App. Vol. II, p. 89). In fact, Kaler had ridden a “fairly sophisticated” trail before which had a “four or five foot drop.” (City’s App. Vol. II, pp. 95, 96). While riding a mountain bike, Kaler was “never  a casual rider. [He] always enjoyed the obstacles[.]” (City’s App. Vol. II, p. 100). He “expected to get in a wreck at least every other time [he] rode, and [he] would routinely fall off the bike over obstacles.” (City’s App. Vol. II, p. 95). “[I]t was just a general consequence of the sport.” (City’s App. Vol. II, [**4] p. 95).
P6 On July 9, 2011, Kaler and his girlfriend took their first trip on the trail. The mountain bike trail is shaped as a “figure 8,” with an approximate length of 6 miles. (City’s App. Vol. II, p. 92). When he first approached the berm, Kaler “took the low grade” on the feature. (City’s App. Vol. II, p. 95). As he approached the end of the turn, Kaler could see “there was a drop” so he “pull[ed] up on the fork and [did] a little bunny hop[.]” (City’s App. Vol II, pp. 102, 101). On their second trip around the course, Kaler’s girlfriend decided to take a shorter loop back to the trailhead. She was not as “adventurous” as Kaler and was concerned about getting back to the trailhead before dusk. (City’s App. Vol II, p. 92). Despite the approaching darkness, Kaler “wanted to ride the higher grade because [he] knew it was more challenging.” (City’s App. Vol. II, p. 101). He reached the berm again around 9:30 p.m. Feeling “capable of riding that high line,” Kaler sped up and rode the berm “as high as [he] could possibly ride it with [his] skill set.” (City’s App. Vol. II, p. 101). As he was near the end of the berm’s high grade, he “just saw [him]self lose control  and just knew he was dropping.” [**5] (City’s App. Vol. II, p. 101). Kaler “didn’t see the drop, [nor] was he aware of the drop” at the end of the high grade turn, instead he “thought it tapered off.” (City’s App. Vol. II, p. 104). Due to the fall, Kaler sustained lacerations to his spleen and kidney. After calling his mother and girlfriend to inform them that he had crashed, he rode his bicycle back to the trail head. That evening, Kaler and his girlfriend went out for dinner.
P7 Around 1:30 a.m. on the following morning, Kaler went to the hospital where he was diagnosed with lacerations to his spleen and kidney. On discharge, Kaler was offered physical therapy but refused it because he “didn’t feel it was necessary.” (City’s App. Vol. II, p. 99). Kaler’s recovery did not last long and he participated in a 100-mile bicycle ride later that summer.
P8 On September 7, 2012, Kaler filed his Complaint against the City, sounding in premises liability. On August 21, 2015, the City filed its motion for summary judgment. (City’s App. Vol II, p. 46). In turn, Kaler submitted his response to the City’s motion, as well as his designation of evidence. On January 6, 2016, the trial court [*716] conducted a hearing on the City’s motion for summary [**6] judgment. On February 2, 2016, the trial court issued its Order, summarily denying the motion. The trial court certified its Order for interlocutory appeal and the City sought this court’s permission to appeal. We granted the request and accepted the interlocutory appeal on May 19, 2016.
P9 Additional facts will be provided as necessary.
DISCUSSION AND DECISION
I. Standard of Review
P10 Summary judgment is appropriate only when there are no genuine issues of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Ind. Trial Rule 56(C). “A fact is material if its resolution would affect the outcome of the case, and an issue is genuine if a trier of fact is required to resolve the parties’ differing accounts of the truth . . . , or if the undisputed facts support conflicting reasonable inferences.” Williams v. Tharp, 914 N.E.2d 756, 761 (Ind. 2009).
P11 In reviewing a trial court’s ruling on summary judgment, this court stands in the shoes of the trial court, applying the same standards in deciding whether to affirm or reverse summary judgment. First Farmers Bank & Trust Co. v. Whorley, 891 N.E.2d 604, 607 (Ind. Ct. App. 2008), trans. denied. Thus, on appeal, we must determine whether there is a genuine issue of material fact and whether the trial court has correctly applied the law. Id. at 607-08. In doing so, we consider all of [**7] the designated evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Id. at 608. The party appealing the grant of summary judgment has the burden of persuading this court that the trial court’s ruling was improper. Id. When the defendant is the moving party, the defendant must show that the undisputed facts negate at least one element of the plaintiff’s cause of action or that the defendant has a factually unchallenged affirmative defense that bars the plaintiff’s claim. Id. Accordingly, the grant of summary judgment must be reversed if the record discloses an incorrect application of the law to the facts. Id.
P12 We observe that in the present case, the trial court did not enter findings of fact and conclusions of law in support of its judgment. Special findings are not required in summary judgment proceedings and are not binding on appeal. AutoXchange.com. Inc. v. Dreyer and Reinbold, Inc., 816 N.E.2d 40, 48 (Ind. Ct. App. 2004). However, such findings offer this court valuable insight unto the trial court’s rationale for its review and facilitate appellate review. Id.
II. Premises Liability
P13 In support of its argument that the trial court erred in denying its motion for summary judgment, the City relies on Burrell v. Meads, 569 N.E.2d 637 (Ind. 1991), and Pfenning v. Lineman, 947 N.E.2d 392 (Ind. 2011). In Burrell,4 [*717] Indiana’s seminal case for premises liability, [**8] our supreme court imposed a three-part test to determine a landowner’s liability for harm caused to an invitee5 by a condition of its land. Under the Burrell test, a landowner can be held responsible only if the landowner:
(a) Knows or by the exercise of reasonable care would discover the condition, and should realize that it involves an unreasonable risk of harm to such invitees, and
(b) Should expect that they will not discover or realize the danger, or will fail to protect themselves against it, and
(c) Fails to exercise reasonable care to protect them against the danger.
Burrell, 569 N.E.2d at 639-40.
4 We acknowledge that on October 26, 2016, our supreme court redrew the premises liability landscape with its decision in Rogers v. Martin, 63 N.E.3d 316, 321 (Ind. 2016), in which the court issued a new test with respect to the situation where an invitee’s injury occurs not due to a dangerous condition of the land but due to claims involving activities on the land. In Rogers, our supreme court distinguished Burrell as follows:
When a physical injury occurs as a condition of the land, the three elements described in the Restatement (Second) of Torts Section 343 accurately describe the landowner-invitee duty. And because Burrell involved an injury due to a condition on the land, it accordingly framed the landowner-invitee duty broadly.  [W]hile Section 343 limits the scope of the landowner-invitee duty in cases involving injuries due to conditions of the land, injuries could also befall invitees due to activities on a landowner’s premises unrelated to the premises’ condition–and that landowners owe their invites the general duty of reasonable care under those circumstances too.
Rogers, 63 N.E.3d at 322-23. Because Kaler’s injury occurred when riding a mountain bike trail feature, we find the cause more properly analyzed pursuant to Burrell [**9] as it involved a condition of the land.
5 All parties agree that Kaler is an invitee of the City.
P14 On May 18, 2011, our supreme court issued Pfenning v. Lineman, 947 N.E.2d 392 (Ind. 2011), which applied the Burrell test in the realm of premises liability while participating in sports activities. In Pfenning, Cassie Pfenning was injured by a golf ball at a golf outing when she was sixteen years old. Id. at 396. At the time of the incident, Pfenning drove a beverage cart and after making several trips around the golf course “was suddenly struck in the mouth by a golf ball while driving the beverage cart on the cart path approaching the eighteenth hole’s tee pad from its green.” Id. at 397. The ball was a low drive from the sixteenth tee approximately eighty yards away. Id. The golfer’s drive traveled straight for approximately sixty to seventy yards and then severely hooked to the left. Id. The golfer noticed the roof of another cart in the direction of the shot and shouted “fore.” Id. But neither the plaintiff nor her beverage-serving companion heard anyone shout “fore.” Id. After hearing a faint yelp, the golfer ran in the direction of the errant ball and discovered the plaintiff with injuries to her mouth, jaw, and teeth. Id.
P15 Pfenning brought, among others, a premises liability claim against the Elks, the fraternal lodge that owned and [**10] operated the golf course. Id. at 405. Finding that the injury arose from a condition on the premises, the supreme court turned to Burrell in its articulation of the contours of the Elks’ duty. Id. at 406. In applying the Burrell test, the court held that the two first aspects of premises liability were not established by the designated evidence. Id. at 407. First, turning to the second element–the discovery or realization of danger–the court concluded that “for the purpose of our premises liability jurisprudence, the issue here is  whether the Elks objectively should have expected that [Pfenning] would be oblivious to the danger or fail to protect herself from it.” Id. at 406. In applying this principle the court found “no genuine issue of fact to contravene the objectively reasonable expectation by the Elks that persons present on its golf course would realize the risk of being struck with an errant golf ball and take appropriate precautions.” Id. Addressing Burrell‘s first element–unreasonable [*718] risk of harm–the Pfenning court reasoned that “the risk of a person on a golf course being struck by a golf ball does not qualify as the ‘unreasonable risk of harm’ referred to in the first two components of the Burrell three-factor [**11] test.” Id.
P16 Likewise, here, we conclude that the designated evidence does not satisfy the Burrell requirements with respect to the duty component of premises liability. Initially, we find that it was objectively reasonable for the City under the facts of this case to expect Kaler to appreciate the risks of riding the trail and take suitable protections. The trail’s difficulty was advertised as appropriate for beginner through intermediate. Kaler’s own deposition characterized himself as an “experienced” bicyclist, who had ridden “a fairly sophisticated” trail before and who “always enjoyed the obstacles.” (City’s App. Vol. II, pp. 91, 95, 100). He conceded that to “try to get an idea of the technical requirements of the trail,” he would get off his bike, especially if he noticed something “as a danger.” (City’s App. Vol. II, p. 89). He admitted that a fall “was just a general consequence of the sport.” (City’s App. Vol. II, p. 95). Although he had ridden the trail the first time without any problems, when Kaler decided to make a second run, it was getting dark but he was insistent that he “wanted to ride the higher grade because [he] knew it was more challenging.” (City’s App. Vol. [**12] II, p. 101). At no point did Kaler step off his bike and inspect the berm’s high grade prior to riding it in the approaching darkness. Accordingly, pursuant to Kaler’s own statements, the City could objectively and reasonably have expected an experienced bicyclist to realize the risks a beginner to intermediate trail would present and take appropriate precautions.
P17 We also conclude that the designated evidence fails to establish that the City had actual or constructive knowledge of a condition on the trail that involved an unreasonable risk of harm to Kaler. Kaler’s own deposition unequivocally affirms that being involved in a bicycle crash “was just a general consequence of the sport.” (City’s App. Vol. II, p. 95). In fact, Kaler “expected to get in a wreck at least every other time [he] rode, and [he] would routinely fall off the bike over obstacles.” (City’s App. Vol. II, p. 95). As the expectation of a bicycle crash is a risk inherent to riding trails, it cannot serve to establish the sort of unreasonable risk of harm contemplated in the first Burrell element. See Pfenning, 947 N.E.2d at 407.
P18 Finding that the designated evidence conclusively established that two of the elements of the premises liability [**13] test are not satisfied, we conclude that the trial court erred by denying summary judgment to the City. We reverse the trial court’s decision and now find summary judgment for the City.
II. Contributory Negligence
P19 Next, the City maintains that Kaler is foreclosed from any recovery because of his failure to exercise the care a reasonable, prudent mountain biker should have exercised. It should be noted that Kaler brought his claim against the City, a governmental entity, and therefore, his claim falls under the common law defense of contributory negligence, as the Indiana Comparative Fault Act expressly excludes application to governmental entities. See I.C. § 34-51-2-2. Consequently, even a slight degree of negligence on Kaler’s part, if proximately contributing to his claimed damages, will operate as a total bar to his action for damages against the City, even though, as against nongovernmental defendants, any fault of Kaler would only operate to reduce the damages he might obtain.
[*719] P20 A plaintiff is contributorily negligent when the plaintiff’s conduct “falls below the standard to which he should conform for his own protection and safety.” Funston v. School Town of Munster, 849 N.E.2d 595, 598 (Ind. 2006). Lack of reasonable care that an ordinary person would [**14] exercise in like or similar circumstances is the factor upon which the presence or absence of negligence depends. Id. Expressed another way, “[c]ontributory negligence is the failure of a person to exercise for his own safety that degree of care and caution which an ordinary, reasonable, and prudent person in a similar situation would exercise.” Id. at 599. Contributory negligence is generally a question of fact and is not an appropriate matter for summary judgment “if there are conflicting factual inferences.” Id. “However, where the facts are undisputed and only a single inference can reasonably be drawn therefrom, the question of contributory negligence becomes one of law.” Id.
P21 In Funston, the plaintiff sued the school after incurring injuries caused by a fall when he leaned backwards while sitting on the top row of a set of bleachers. Id. at 599. Funston had been at the gym for about four hours, watching two basketball games while sitting on lower rows on other sets of identical bleachers. Id. For the third game, he moved to the top row of one of the bleachers. Id. It was clearly visible that there was no back railing for spectators sitting on the top row, but Funston leaned back anyway because he “thought there [**15] was something back there[.]” Id. Our supreme court concluded that Funston was contributorily negligent as a matter of law, finding that:
It certainly is understandable that [Funston] would be distracted as he engaged his attention on his son’s basketball game. But being understandable does not equate with being completely free of all negligence.
Id. at 600.
P22 In his deposition, Kaler affirmed that in trying to build a skill, it would not be unusual for him “to get off [his] bike and look at the  obstacles.” (City’s App. Vol. II, p. 89). He also acknowledged that he knew the berm’s high grade would be challenging because he had just started riding high berms and had never ridden a berm as steep as the one at Town Run. As he approached the end of the turn during his first ride on the berm, Kaler could see “there was a drop[.]” (City’s App. Vol. II, p. 103). After a successful first run on the berm’s low grade, Kaler decided to ride the feature again. Despite the approaching darkness, he planned to ride the berm’s high grade as high as he possibly could because it would be “really cool to ride it and get that speed[.]” (City’s App. Vol. II, p. 101). Notwithstanding the coolness factor, Kaler conceded [**16] that riding obstacles posed a risk of bodily injury as crashes were a general consequence of the sport. Typically, to get an idea of the technical requirements of a trail, the biker “would get off his bike.” (City’s App. Vol. II, p. 89).
P23 Based on the designated evidence, we cannot conclude that Kaler was “completely free of all negligence.” See id. Kaler knew and understood the precautions a reasonably prudent mountain biker should take–inspect the feature prior to riding it–but chose not to follow them. There is no evidence that the jump from the high grade was obscured from view and Kaler conceded that he could have anticipated the drop from the high grade had he taken the precaution a reasonable bicyclist riding an unfamiliar trail would take. Accordingly, we find Kaler contributorily negligent.
P24 Based on the foregoing, we hold that there is no genuine issue of material fact that precludes the entry of summary judgment in the City’s favor on Kaler’s claim of premises liability; and Kaler was contributorily negligent when riding the City’s mountain bike trail at Town Run.
P26 Crone, J. and Altice, J. concur
Mississippi decision requires advance planning and knowledge of traveling in a foreign country before taking minors there.Posted: May 23, 2016
Based upon this Mississippi decision a greater burden is not placed upon groups taking minor’s out of the country. Those requirements are to research all the possible risks the student may face and to include those risks in the release.
State: Mississippi: Court of Appeals of Mississippi
Plaintiff: Deliah Colyer, as Natural Mother and Next Friend of Marshuan Braxton, Deceased, and on Behalf of all Wrongful Death Beneficiaries of Marshuan Braxton, Deceased
Defendant: First United Methodist Church of New Albany and John Does 1-15
Plaintiff Claims: negligence
Defendant Defenses: no negligence and release
Holding: for the plaintiff
This case concerns a young man who died during a mission trip to Costa Rica. A mission trip is where US citizens, generally go to a third world (or in their mind’s third-world country and perform public service. In this case, the mission was to fly to Costa Rica and construct a sanctuary in Villa Briceno.
The trip was led by the associate pastor of the defendant church. The trip had nine adults and six minors, including the deceased. There were also another four adults and one minor from another church on the trip.
The participants or their parents had to sign a “New Albany First United Methodist Church Youth Medical / Parent Consent form and a Parental Consent form. Braxton also signed a document entitled “Int. Missionary Profile and Release of Claim.”
On the way to the site after landing, the group stopped to pick up lunch. The group then proceeded to a beach to have lunch. The group split up into several smaller groups and went different directions along the beach. The deceased and another boy and two adults when to a rock formation and climbed it. A large wave crashed over them and swept the deceased off the rock into the ocean. Two people were able to swim back to the rock and eventually get out of the ocean.
A lawsuit was filed by the deceased mother, who was not the guardian of the deceased. The trial court, in Mississippi called the circuit court, dismissed the case and the plaintiff’s filed this appeal.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
The court reviewed what was required in Mississippi to prove a negligence claim. “The elements of a prima facie case of negligence are duty, breach, causation, and damages.”
The first issue was the duty owed by the church to the deceased. The defendants admitted that they owed a duty to the deceased; however, the defendant argued that duty was diminished due to the age of the deceased, 17. However, the court found under Mississippi law the age of the victim was not at issue. The duty was the same under the law to anyone who was not an adult. The issue was one for the jury to decide what constituted proper and adequate supervision over the deceased.
The court also gave credence to the idea that the church failed to supervise the deceased by not researching the ocean and rocks first.
Additionally, Colyer alleges other acts of negligence: (1) failure to research the dangers of the Pacific coast and (2) allowing the children, including Braxton, to go onto a dangerous rock structure on the coast of the Pacific Ocean without any knowledge of oceanic activities in Costa Rica.
The next issue was whether the documents signed by the deceased family were valid. The court determined the legal issue in a very scary way.
The deceased’s grandmother was his guardian and signed the documents. However, a guardian does acquire all the legal interests in a minor that a parent has. The guardian has legal control and responsibility of the minor but may not have any other valid interest. In this case, the mother still maintained a recognizable interest in the deceased, a consortium type of claim loss of love, future earnings in some states, etc. She is the plaintiff in the case, and thus the release was not written broadly enough, in fact, probably could not be written broadly enough, for the release to stop the mother’s lawsuit, when it was signed by the guardian. The guardian can sign for the minor but not the parents. One adult cannot sign away another adult’s right to sue.
It is undisputed that the parties in this appeal are not the same parties that executed the waivers. It appears that one of the waivers was signed by Howell, who was Braxton’s grandmother. She signed a “parental consent form,” but she is not a party to this action. Braxton, a seventeen-year-old minor at the time, appeared to have signed the release waiver.
The court then looked into this issue. First because the deceased was a minor, he could not, by law sign the contract (release).
The defendant argued that because the mother was a third party beneficiary of the contract to send the deceased on the trip, she was bound by the contract. However, the court referred to basic contract law that said there was no meeting of the minds. Because the mother did not sign the contract or was not mentioned in the contract she did not have the requirements necessary to be a party to the contract. Therefore, she was not bound by the contract.
The appellate court overruled the trial court find the release did not meet the necessary requirements to stop a lawsuit under Mississippi law.
There was a concurring opinion this decision. That means one of the judges agreed with the decision but wanted to emphasize some point of the law or agreed with the decision overall but for a different legal reasoning. The concurring decision put more emphasize the duties owed to the deceased.
In this case, a duty clearly arose from the relationship between Braxton, a seventeen-year-old minor, and Amanda, the associate pastor and leader of FUNA’s youth mission trip. At the very least, FUNA, by and through its employee, Amanda, bore a duty to use ordinary care to plan and supervise this international mission trip composed of church members to Costa Rica and its shores on the Pacific Ocean. As the facts of this case reflect, a duty also arose and existed to supervise Braxton on the rock formations of the Costa Rica Pacific coastline.
Consequently, the concurring decision believed there was a real issue as to whether the church through its employee, failed to warn against the risk of the beaches and Pacific Ocean. Then the judge seemed to have piled on for failing to check US State Department for travel advisories.
…but she admitted to failing to check with the United States State Department online travel advisory warnings, or any other travel advisories, as to any unsafe beach, tide, or surf conditions in Costa Rica.
(Since when as the state department issued warnings about beaches, the ocean or surf?)
In planning and supervising this trip, a duty existed to warn of the hidden dangers and perils not in plain view that FUNA and its mission trip leader, Amanda, knew, or should have known, existed. Additionally, once the tide rose and the large waves knocked the adults down, Amanda bore a duty to supervise and warn Braxton of the dangerous conditions.
The concurring opinion then addressed the releases in the case. The courts’ reasoning on why the releases where void is because they contained no language warning of the risks of the trip, specifically the risk of the ocean.
The waivers contained no language regarding the liability or risks of recreational activities such as hiking, swimming, or rock climbing on Costa Rica’s beaches on the Pacific Ocean or the risks of the dangerous riptides and dangerous ocean surf.
This requirement is occurring more frequently lately. The courts want to see a list of the risks that can cause injury to the plaintiff in the release. That means there must be more than the legalese necessary for the release to be valid under state law, there must be a list of the risks to the plaintiff. More importantly the risks must include the risk that caused injury to the plaintiff.
The concurring opinion also found that the requirements for a release under Mississippi law had not been met.
Public policy prohibits the use of preinjury waivers of liability for personal injury due to future acts of a defendant’s own negligence. (waiver unenforceable where it did not express intent of student to accept any heightened exposure to injury caused by malfeasance of instructor’s failure to follow safety guidelines); For a waiver to be valid and enforceable, it must not be ambiguous, and it must be specific in wording as to the liability. Waivers will be strictly construed against the defendant. When a waiver contains ambiguous language, it cannot be construed as a waiver of liability for injuries that result from the negligence of the defendant.
Here the lack of information in the release about the risks of the trip and the ocean would have made the release unenforceable according to the concurring judge.
So Now What?
The first issue of concern is the court gave the plaintiff’s a lot of room to bring in far-flung claims of negligence to the trial. Basically, if this stands, you will have to have gone to a site and researched the risks of the site and getting to and from a site before ever taking kids from Mississippi there.
Although this is considered normal when in the outdoors, it has not been the standard of care for travel in communities, cities or normal life. Even though the defendant worked with a local missionary before the trip, the court thought that might not have been enough. The employee of the defendant in charge of the trip had not been to the site and examined it where the deceased died.
The release issue is next and creates a nightmare for recreation providers. If a minor is under the court-ordered control of a guardian, both the guardian and the minor’s parent, at least in Mississippi, must sign the release as both have an interest that can be used to sue for the minor’s injuries or as in this case, death.
Overall, the appellant decision is scary in the burdens it places upon people organizing trips for minors, which leave the country or possibly even go next door. The entire trip must be researched in advance, the risks researched and examined, and those risks must be provided to the minors and their parents traveling on the trip, or included in the release.
The overview of the case sums the issue up. A hazardous condition was sitting on a rock near the ocean.
It was an error to grant appellee church summary judgment in a wrongful-death suit filed by the appellant, a deceased minor’s mother, because there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the church adequately supervised the minor, whether the child should have been warned of a known hazardous condition, and whether the minor was negligently allowed to engage in dangerous activity….
What is not brought up in this decision is whether or not the release, if valid, would have stopped the suit.
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Deliah Colyer, as Natural Mother and Next Friend of Marshuan Braxton, Deceased, and on Behalf of all Wrongful Death Beneficiaries of Marshuan Braxton, Deceased, Appellant v. First United Methodist Church of New Albany and John Does 1-15, APPELLEES
COURT OF APPEALS OF MISSISSIPPI
2016 Miss. App. LEXIS 160
March 29, 2016, Decided
PRIOR HISTORY: [*1] COURT FROM WHICH APPEALED: UNION COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT. DATE OF JUDGMENT: 09/22/2014. TRIAL JUDGE: HON. ROBERT WILLIAM ELLIOTT. TRIAL COURT DISPOSITION: SUMMARY JUDGMENT GRANTED TO APPELLEES.
DISPOSITION: REVERSED AND REMANDED.
COUNSEL: FOR APPELLANT: JOSHUA A. TURNER.
FOR APPELLEES: WILTON V. BYARS III, JOSEPH LUKE BENEDICT.
JUDGES: BEFORE IRVING, P.J., CARLTON AND JAMES, JJ. LEE, C.J., BARNES AND FAIR, JJ., JOIN THIS OPINION. WILSON, J., JOINS THIS OPINION IN PART. CARLTON, J., SPECIALLY CONCURRING.
OPINION BY: JAMES
NATURE OF THE CASE: CIVIL – WRONGFUL DEATH
BEFORE IRVING, P.J., CARLTON AND JAMES, JJ.
JAMES, J., FOR THE COURT:
P1. This case arises out of a wrongful-death action filed by Deliah Colyer on behalf of her deceased son, Marshuan Braxton. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of First United Methodist Church of New Albany. On appeal, Colyer argues that the trial court erred by granting summary judgment. Finding error, we reverse and remand this case for a trial.
P2. On June 20, 2009, Braxton, along with other minors and adult chaperones, flew from Memphis, Tennessee, to Costa Rica on a mission trip. Braxton, a seventeen-year-old, was expecting to begin his senior year at New Albany High School when classes [*2] resumed for the 2009-2010 school year. The purpose of the mission trip was to construct a sanctuary in Villa Briceno, Costa Rica, and conduct other mission activities. The trip was led by Amanda Gordon, associate pastor of First United Methodist Church of New Albany, Mississippi (FUNA). Amanda coordinated the trip with missionary Wil Bailey through the regional United Methodist missions group. There were fifteen members on the mission trip from FUNA, with nine adults and six minors. Five other individuals, four adults and one minor, from First United Methodist Church of Brandon, Mississippi, also joined.
P3. Before leaving for the mission trip, Elnora Howell, Braxton’s legal guardian and grandmother, signed two documents before a notary public as a condition of Braxton participating. These documents included a New Albany First United Methodist Church Youth Medical / Parent Consent form and a Parental Consent form. Braxton also signed a document entitled “Int. Missionary Profile and Release of Claim” that contained warnings about the dangers associated with participating in the mission trip.
P4. The group arrived in San Isidro, Costa Rica, on June 20. On June 21, 2009, the group left [*3] San Isidro to travel to the worksite in Villa Briceno. Since they expected to ride on the bus for several hours, Bailey suggested they stop for lunch at a scenic site on their way to Villa Briceno. The group stopped and ate at a roadside café. After leaving the café, they stopped at the Dominicalito, a beach, located near the Pacific Ocean. The weather was clear, and there were a few picnic tables in the area. A few locals were also there. The group intended to go on a brief excursion and take photographs. The bus driver suggested two or three areas on the beach for the group to visit.
P5. The group separated into two or three smaller groups and headed to the suggested areas. Braxton, Mattie Carter, and Josh Creekmore, along with adult chaperones, Sam Creekmore and Mike Carter, went to a rock formation and climbed onto it to observe crabs. The adults eventually climbed down and walked behind the rock formation. Braxton, Mattie, and Josh stayed up top and continued to observe the crabs. While Braxton, Mattie, and Josh were still up top, a large wave crashed into the rock formation and knocked them into the ocean.
P6. Mike and Sam immediately climbed back on the rock formation and saw [*4] Braxton, Mattie, and Josh swimming with their heads above water. The wave current, however, began to wash the minors away from the rock formation. Sam instructed them to swim around the rocks into an inlet area to reach safety on the beach. Mike climbed down closer to the water level. A second wave rose and knocked Mike into the ocean, and the current took him in the opposite direction of Braxton, Mattie, and Josh. Mike was eventually rescued by a local Costa Rican resident that had a life jacket and rope. Braxton, unfortunately, disappeared into the water before Mike was rescued. Mattie and Josh, however, were able to swim out onto the beach after being in the water for about five minutes.
P7. Adam Gordon and his wife, Amanda, went to a different area of the beach, but because of the distance and obstructions blocking their view they were unable to see the minors. Adam testified that he was knocked down by a wave at the same time that the wave reached the area where Braxton, Josh, and Mattie were located. Amanda was standing nearby and saw the wave approaching Adam. Amanda yelled to her husband and then saw the wave knock him down. According to the Gordons, only one or two minutes [*5] passed before they had turned the corner of the taller rock formation and could see the rock where Braxton had been located. And it was at that time that they saw Mattie and Josh getting out of the water and Mike being rescued. However, according to Josh, fifteen to twenty minutes passed between Adam being knocked down by the large wave and the minors being swept into the water by another large wave.
P8. The mission-trip members immediately began to seek help after seeing people on the beach reacting and in the water. The locals contacted emergency services by telephone, and residents in the area helped. The ambulance and local authorities arrived. Thereafter, everyone at the beach began to look for Braxton. The mission-trip group stayed on the beach for over three hours after the incident until darkness ended their search. Regrettably, Braxton’s body was found the next day and identified by Amanda, Adam, and Sam.
P9. The complaint was filed on November 10, 2011, in the Circuit Court of Union County, Mississippi. FUNA filed its answer and defenses on March 16, 2012, and, after conducting discovery, filed it motion for summary judgment on March 5, 2014. A hearing was [*6] held on April 28, 2014, and resulted in the circuit court granting Colyer’s request for additional time to conduct discovery. Colyer conducted additional discovery and depositions followed by the parties providing supplemental briefing. Another hearing was held on September 16, 2014. After considering all of the sworn evidence and the arguments of counsel, the circuit court found that no genuine issue of material fact existed to support Colyer’s claims of negligence. The circuit court entered an order granting FUNA’s motion for summary judgment on September 23, 2014.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
P10. [HN1] We review the trial court’s grant or denial of summary judgment under a de novo standard. Moss Point Sch. Dist. v. Stennis, 132 So. 3d 1047, 1049-50 (P10) (Miss. 2014).
[HN2] Summary judgment is appropriate and shall be rendered if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Importantly, the party opposing summary judgment may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of his pleadings, but his response, by affidavit or as otherwise provided in this rule, must set forth specific [*7] facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. If he does not so respond, summary judgment, if appropriate, will be entered against him.
Karpinsky v. Am. Nat’l Ins., 109 So. 3d 84, 88 (P10) (Miss. 2013) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). “[T]he evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the party against whom the motion has been made.” One S. Inc. v. Hollowell, 963 So. 2d 1156, 1160 (P6) (Miss. 2007).
I. The trial court erred by granting summary judgment, as genuine issues of material fact existed.
P11. Colyer alleges that FUNA was negligent and FUNA owed a duty to supervise Braxton while the group was on the mission trip. FUNA’s position is that no negligence existed and that summary judgment was proper. [HN3] The elements of a prima facie case of negligence are duty, breach, causation, and damages. Grisham v. John Q. Long V.F.W. Post, No. 4057 Inc., 519 So. 2d 413, 416 (Miss. 1988); Burnham v. Tabb, 508 So. 2d 1072, 1074 (Miss. 1987). Colyer contends that FUNA owed a duty to Braxton to provide ordinary care while supervising him during this trip. Colyer alleges that the duty was breached, and that the negligent acts or omissions of FUNA caused the death of Braxton.
P12. FUNA agrees that a duty was owed to supervise Braxton, but FUNA contends that Braxton’s age at the time of his death diminishes that duty. Nevertheless, our supreme court has held that [HN4] adequacy of supervision is a question for the jury. Summers v. St. Andrew’s Episcopal Sch., 759 So. 2d 1203, 1215 (PP48-50) (Miss. 2000); see also James v. Gloversville Enlarged Sch. Dist., 155 A.D.2d 811, 548 N.Y.S.2d 87, 88-89 (N.Y. App. Div. 1989). Therefore, [*8] regardless of Braxton’s age, a jury must decide what constitutes proper and adequate supervision. See Todd v. First Baptist Church of W. Point, 993 So. 2d 827, 829 (P12) (Miss. 2008).
P13. There are also disputed facts regarding whether it was reasonable to expect Amanda to give Braxton warning after she witnessed her husband being knocked down by a wave. And we have determined that [HN5] “[c]ontradictory statements by a witness go to the weight and credibility of that witness[‘s] testimony, not its sufficiency, and a summary judgment motion does not place the trial court in the role of weighing testimony and determining the credibility of witnesses.” Jamison v. Barnes, 8 So. 3d 238, 245 (P17) (Miss. Ct. App. 2008) (citation omitted).
P14. Additionally, Colyer alleges other acts of negligence: (1) failure to research the dangers of the Pacific coast and (2) allowing the children, including Braxton, to go onto a dangerous rock structure on the coast of the Pacific Ocean without any knowledge of oceanic activities in Costa Rica.
P15. We conclude that there are genuine issues of material fact as to whether FUNA provided ordinary care while supervising Braxton during this trip, and so we reverse the grant of summary judgment.
II. The trial court erred in granting summary judgment by considering the waivers of Howell and Braxton.
P16. Even though Colyer [*9] raised this issue, it does not appear that the judge considered the waiver. In his opinion, the judge stated:
[The plaintiff] claims that the defendant is liable for the wrongful death of Marshuan Braxton, who die[d] from drowning during a mission trip to Costa Rica on June 21, 2009. Viewing the facts in a light most favorable to the plaintiff, the court finds no genuine issues of material fact exist[ ] to support [the] plaintiff’s claim of negligence against the defendant. Therefore, this Court finds as a matter of law [the] defendant’s motion to dismiss shall be granted.
P17. FUNA admits that it does not appear that the court relied on the release. However, FUNA states that the waivers are valid and bar recovery. It is undisputed that the parties in this appeal are not the same parties that executed the waivers. It appears that one of the waivers was signed by Howell, who was Braxton’s grandmother. She signed a “parental consent form,” but she is not a party to this action. Braxton, a seventeen-year-old minor at the time, appeared to have signed the release waiver.
P18. [HN6] Pursuant to Mississippi Code Annotated section 93-19-13 (Rev. 2013), Braxton could not legally sign a contract of this nature to waive liability.1 Braxton’s contract [*10] was not legally binding because of his age and the nature of the contract. FUNA also alleges that the wrongful-death beneficiaries are bound by the contract of Braxton since they are third-party beneficiaries of Braxton’s contract. [HN7] “[O]rdinary contract principals require a meeting of the minds between the parties in order for agreements to be valid.” Am. Heritage Life Ins. v. Lang, 321 F.3d 533, 538 (5th Cir. 2003) (internal quotations and citations omitted). A contract cannot bind a nonparty. E.E.O.C. v. Waffle House Inc., 534 U.S. 279, 308, 122 S. Ct. 754, 151 L. Ed. 2d 755 (2002).
1 [HN8] “All persons eighteen (18) years of age or older, if not otherwise disqualified, or prohibited by law, shall have the capacity to enter into binding contractual relationships affecting personal property. Nothing in this section shall be construed to affect any contracts entered into prior to July 1, 1976. In any legal action founded on a contract entered into by a person eighteen (18) years of age or older, the said person may sue in his own name as an adult and be sued in his own name as an adult and be served with process as an adult.” See also Garrett v. Gay, 394 So. 2d 321, 322 (Miss. 1981).
P19. The two waivers executed in this case are not binding on Colyer and the trial court was correct in not giving any effect to these two waivers in its opinion.
P20. There is sufficient evidence before this Court [*11] to show that genuine issues of material fact exist as to whether FUNA’s supervision was negligent. Therefore, the trial court’s grant of summary judgment is reversed, and this case is remanded for a trial.
P21. THE JUDGMENT OF THE UNION COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT IS REVERSED, AND THIS CASE IS REMANDED FOR A TRIAL. ALL COSTS OF THIS APPEAL ARE ASSESSED TO THE APPELLEES.
LEE, C.J., IRVING, P.J., BARNES AND FAIR, JJ., CONCUR. WILSON, J., CONCURS IN RESULT ONLY WITHOUT SEPARATE WRITTEN OPINION. CARLTON, J., SPECIALLY CONCURS WITH SEPARATE WRITTEN OPINION, JOINED BY LEE, C.J., BARNES AND FAIR, JJ.; WILSON, J., JOINS IN PART. GRIFFIS, P.J., DISSENTS WITHOUT SEPARATE WRITTEN OPINION. ISHEE AND GREENLEE, JJ., NOT PARTICIPATING.
CONCUR BY: CARLTON
CARLTON, J., SPECIALLY CONCURRING:
P22. I specially concur with the majority’s opinion in this case, and I write specially to address the material questions of fact raised herein. With respect to the negligence claims raised, the question as to whether a duty to warn arose from the relationship between the parties constitutes a question of law. See Pritchard v. Von Houten, 960 So. 2d 568, 579 (P27) (Miss. Ct. App. 2007). Questions of law are reviewed de novo. Id. at 576 (P20). However, the questions as to causation and foreseeability include material [*12] questions of fact. P23. In this case, a duty clearly arose from the relationship between Braxton, a seventeen-year-old minor, and Amanda, the associate pastor and leader of FUNA’s youth mission trip. At the very least, FUNA, by and through its employee, Amanda, bore a duty to use ordinary care to plan and supervise this international mission trip composed of church members to Costa Rica and its shores on the Pacific Ocean. As the facts of this case reflect, a duty also arose and existed to supervise Braxton on the rock formations of the Costa Rica Pacific coastline. Accordingly, I find that genuine issues of material fact exist as to whether FUNA, through its employee, Amanda, negligently failed to warn of dangerous conditions that she knew or should have known existed on the beaches of Costa Rica’s Pacific Ocean edge, and whether Amanda, as the mission-trip leader, negligently planned and supervised this international mission trip. See Garrett v. Nw. Miss. Junior Coll., 674 So. 2d 1, 3 (Miss. 1996).2
2 In Garrett, 674 So. 2d at 3, the Mississippi Supreme Court relied upon Roberts v. Robertson County Board of Education, 692 S.W.2d 863, 870 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1985), where the Tennessee Court of Appeals imposed a duty of care upon a high-school vocational teacher “to take those precautions that any ordinarily reasonable and prudent person would take to protect his [*13] shop students from the unreasonable risk of injury.”
P24. In Pritchard, 960 So. 2d at 579 (P27),3 we recognized that “[a]n important component of the existence of a duty is that the injury is reasonably foreseeable.” The Pritchard court further explained:
A defendant charged with a duty to exercise ordinary care must only take reasonable measures to remove or protect against foreseeable hazards that he knows about or should know about in the exercise of due care. Such a defendant must safeguard against reasonable probabilities, and is not charged with foreseeing all occurrences, even though such occurrences are within the range of possibility. A defendant whose conduct is reasonable in light of the foreseeable risks will not be found liable for negligence.
Id. at (P29) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted); see also Donald v. Amoco Prod. Co., 735 So. 2d 161, 175 (P48) (Miss. 1999). While duty constitutes an issue of law, causation is generally a question of fact for the jury. Brown v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., No. 06-CV-199, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 40816, 2007 WL 1657417, at *4 (S.D. Miss. June 4, 2007).
3 The court in Pritchard, 960 So. 2d at 579 (P27), found that a vocational teacher “has the duty to take those precautions that any ordinary reasonable and prudent person would take to protect his shop students from the unreasonable risk of injury.”
P25. In Foster ex rel. Foster v. Bass, 575 So. 2d 967, 972 (Miss. 1990), the supreme court stated that “in order to recover for an injury to a [*14] person or property, by reason of negligence or want of due care, there must be shown to exist some obligation or duty toward the plaintiff which the defendant has left undischarged or unfulfilled.” Issues of fact as to foreseeability and breach of duty preclude summary judgment. See Summers ex rel. Dawson v. St. Andrew’s Episcopal Sch. Inc., 759 So. 2d 1203, 1214 (PP48-51) (Miss. 2000) (reversing summary judgment on negligent-supervision claim because issues of fact as to foreseeability existed).
P26. In this case, the record reflects that Amanda served as both the associate minister and youth minister at FUNA. Amanda testified that she was responsible for planning the trip to Costa Rica and that she recruited others to participate in this international mission trip. She provided that she had led youth mission trips before and had traveled with youth groups internationally before. Amanda testified that she had consulted with team leaders from another church who had traveled to Costa Rica on youth mission trips, but she admitted to failing to check with the United States State Department online travel advisory warnings, or any other travel advisories, as to any unsafe beach, tide, or surf conditions in Costa Rica. She also admitted to not instructing or warning Braxton or any other youth [*15] about beach safety or about the dangerous surf or riptides of Coast Rica’s Pacific Coast.4
4 Compare Rygg v. Cnty. of Maui, 98 F. Supp. 2d 1129, 1132-33 (D. Haw. 1999).
P27. Geographically, Costa Rica sits between the Carribean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. The record reflects that the youth group was on the Pacific Ocean side of Costa Rica, and that Braxton and other members of the mission team began climbing on volcanic-rock formations that were separated from the shore by shallow water. Braxton and Josh climbed on and over the rock formation to the Pacific Ocean side, and then they climbed down by the Pacific Ocean’s edge, where they saw some crabs. While watching the crabs, waves from the Pacific Ocean knocked Braxton and Josh off of the rock formation, into the ocean, and into the current of the dangerous riptides. Josh explained that the waves knocked them into different currents.
P28. Regarding the traumatic events, Josh testified that he was standing on the rock formation with Braxton when a wave knocked them off of the rock and into the water. Josh testified that two more waves hit them as they tried to climb back onto the rock. Josh recalled getting pushed back under water after the second wave hit. When he came back [*16] to the surface, Braxton was grabbing his back, and the water had pushed the two of them close enough to the rock that they had fallen off of that they could try to climb back up. When the water from the wave subsided, they slid back down into the water, and Josh and Braxton then became separated by different currents. Josh testified that he was pushed into a current separate from Braxton, taking them in different directions. Josh recalled looking back and watching Braxton climb onto a smaller rock. When a third wave hit them, he and Braxton went under water again, and when he came back up, he could no longer see Braxton. Josh testified that prior to the trip, no one warned him of unsafe tide, surf, waves, or other conditions existing on the Pacific Ocean coast of Costa Rica. He also testified that he brought a swim suit with him on the trip.
P29. The record contains pictures of the location where Braxton was knocked off of the volcanic-rock formation and into the Pacific Ocean. Josh described the top of the rock that he and Braxton climbed on as twenty feet high above the water, and stated that he and Braxton were on the ocean side of the formation, ten feet from the top, when the wave [*17] swept them off. Josh provided that water completely surrounded the rock on all sides, separating the rock from dry sand by approximately thirty to forty feet of ankle-deep water on one side. Josh explained that the water was deeper on the ocean side of the rock where he and Braxton were knocked in the water.
P30. Josh testified that he recalled Adam, a grown man who weighed approximately 340 pounds, slipping into the water before the wave hit him and Braxton. Adam testified that he was knocked down by a seven-to-eight-foot wave. Josh recalled that Adam was swept into the water about fifteen to twenty minutes before a different wave swept him and Braxton into the ocean.
P31. The record reflects existing material questions of fact as to whether the church, through its mission-trip leader and employee, Amanda, negligently breached its duty to Braxton, a minor, to plan and supervise this international mission trip and to warn Braxton of the dangerous beach and surf conditions on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast. Therefore, the trial court erred in granting summary judgment since triable issues of material fact exist in this case. In planning and supervising this trip, a duty existed to warn of [*18] the hidden dangers and perils not in plain view that FUNA and its mission trip leader, Amanda, knew, or should have known, existed. Additionally, once the tide rose and the large waves knocked the adults down, Amanda bore a duty to supervise and warn Braxton of the dangerous conditions.
P32. The trial court’s decision failed to address the Youth Medical/Parental Consent form waivers or their applicability in this case. However, the enforceability of the waivers was argued on appeal, and I write briefly to address this issue. Jurisprudence reflects that the preinjury waivers herein are unenforceable with respect to the negligence claims for wrongful death raised in this case against the church for its negligence in planning, supervising, and failing to warn of the dangerous beach and ocean conditions on this mission trip to Costa Rica. See Ghane v. Mid-S. Inst. of Self Def. Shooting Inc., 137 So. 3d 212, 221-22 (P23) (Miss. 2014). The language in the waivers in this case applied to church-mission-related activities and related risks. The waivers contained no language regarding the liability or risks of recreational activities such as hiking, swimming, or rock climbing on Costa Rica’s beaches on the Pacific Ocean or the risks of the dangerous riptides and dangerous ocean surf. [*19] Public policy prohibits the use of preinjury waivers of liability for personal injury due to future acts of a defendant’s own negligence. See Turnbough v. Ladner, 754 So. 2d 467, 469 (P8) (Miss. 1999) (waiver unenforceable where it did not express intent of student to accept any heightened exposure to injury caused by malfeasance of instructor’s failure to follow safety guidelines); Rice v. Am. Skiing Co., No. CIV.A.CV-99-06, 2000 Me. Super. LEXIS 90, 2000 WL 33677027, at *2 (Me. Super. Ct. May 8, 2000). For a waiver to be valid and enforceable, it must not be ambiguous and it must be specific in wording as to the liability. See Turnbough, 754 So. 2d at 469 (P8). Waivers will be strictly construed against the defendant. Id. When a waiver contains ambiguous language, it cannot be construed as a waiver of liability for injuries that result from the negligence of the defendant. Id. at 470 (P9).
P33. As stated, the evidence in the record reflects material questions of fact exist as to foreseeability and breach of duty for negligent failure to plan and supervise the mission trip and failure to warn of the dangerous beach and surf conditions of Costa Rica’s Pacific coast.5 Therefore, summary judgment must be reversed and the case remanded.
5 Compare Diamond Crystal Salt Co. v. Thielman, 395 F.2d 62, 65 (5th Cir. 1968) (plaintiff was injured on a guided tour of a mine where “the danger was not obvious, and if the dangerous condition [*20] had in fact been observed it would not have been appreciated by persons of ordinary understanding”); see also Martinez v. United States, 780 F.2d 525, 527 (5th Cir. 1986) (duty to warn at shallow swimming area of federal park); Wyatt v. Rosewood Hotels & Resorts LLC, 47 V.I. 551, 2005 WL 1706134, at *4-5 (D.V.I. 2005).
LEE, C.J., BARNES AND FAIR, JJ., JOIN THIS OPINION. WILSON, J., JOINS THIS OPINION IN PART.
Lloyd v. Bourassa, 2002 Me. Super. LEXIS 132
C. Gary Lloyd, Plaintiff v. Tom Bourassa, Sugarloaf Mountain Corp., and United States Cycling, Inc. d/b/a National Off-Road Bicycle Association, Defendants
Civil Action Docket No. 01-CV-039
Superior Court of Maine, Hancock County
2002 Me. Super. LEXIS 132
August 20, 2002, Decided
August 21, 2002, Filed and Entered
SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Affirmed by, Remanded by, Sub nomine at Lloyd v. Sugarloaf Mt. Corp., 2003 ME 117, 2003 Me. LEXIS 131 (Sept. 25, 2003)
DISPOSITION: [*1] Plaintiff’s motion for judgment on pleadings denied. Motions for summary judgment filed by defendants U.S.A. Cycling and Sugarloaf granted. Judgment granted to defendants on Counts II and III of plaintiff’s amended complaint.
CORE TERMS: cycling, membership, summary judgment, sponsor, bicycle, successors, mandatory, off-road, counterclaims, collision, promoter, mountain, collectively, indirectly, genuine, assigns, travel, entities, sport, waive, heirs, wanton negligence, willful, law enforcement agencies, matter of law, own negligence, issue of material fact, legal representatives, successors in interest, property owners
JUDGES: Ellen A. Gorman.
OPINION BY: Gorman
On June 22, 1995, C. Gary Lloyd applied for membership in “USCF . NORBA . NCCA.” After filling in some identifying information on the first page of the application form, Lloyd placed his signature on the second page, under a section entitled “Acknowledgment of Risk and Release of Liability.” That section contained the following language:
Please accept this as my application for membership and a USCF, NORBA and/or NCCA license.
I acknowledge that cycling is an inherently dangerous sport in which I participate at my own risk and that the United States Cycling Federation, Inc. is a non-profit corporation formed to advance the sport of cycling, the efforts of which directly benefit me. In consideration of the agreement of the USCF to issue a license to me, hereby on behalf of myself, my heirs, assigns and personal representatives, I release and forever discharge the USCF, its employees, agents, members, [*2] sponsors, promoters and affiliates from any and all liability, claim, loss, cost or expense, and waive and promise not to sue on any such claims against any such person or organization, arising directly or indirectly from or attributable in any legal way to any negligence, action or omission to act of any such person or organization in connection with sponsorship, organization or execution of any bicycle racing or sporting event, including travel to and from such event, in which I may participate as a rider, team member or spectator.
On August 11, 1995, with his NORBA membership in hand, Lloyd traveled to Kingfield, Maine to participate in a mountain biking event sponsored by the Sugarloaf Mountain Corporation known as the Widowmaker Challenge. At Kingfield, Lloyd signed the Official Entry Form, which included the following language under the heading of “Athlete’s Entry & Release Form 1“:
I fully realize the dangers of participating in a bicycle race and fully assume the risks associated with such participation including, by way of example, and not limitations, the following: the dangers of collision with pedestrians, vehicles, other racers and fixed or moving objects; the [*3] dangers arising from surface hazards, equipment failure, inadequate safety equipment and weather conditions; and the possibility of serious physical and/or mental trauma or injury associated with athletic cycling competition.
I hereby waive, release and discharge for myself, my heirs, executors, administrators, legal representatives, assigns, and successors in interest (hereinafter collectively “successors”) any and all rights and claims which I have or which may hereafter occur to me against the sponsors of this event, the National Off-Road Bicycle Association, the promoter and any promoting organization(s), property owners, law enforcement agencies, all public entities, and special districts and…. through or by which the events will be held for any and all damages which may be sustained by me directly or indirectly in connection with, or arising out of, my participation in or association with the event, or travel to or return from the event . . . .
I agree, for myself and successors, that the above representations are contractually binding, and are not mere recitals, and that should I or my successors assert my claim in contravention of this agreement, I or my successors shall [*4] be liable for the expenses incurred (including legal fees) incurred by the other party or parties in defending, unless the other parties are financially adjudged liable on such claim for willful and wanton negligence.
1 To avoid confusion, the “release” signed in June shall be referred to as the “Membership Release,” and the release signed in August shall be referred to as the “Event Release.”
Lloyd registered to participate in both the cross-country race and the downhill challenge. While completing a mandatory practice run on August 11, 1995, Lloyd was involved in a collision with another participant, Tom Bourassa.
On August 10, 2001, Lloyd filed suit against Bourassa, Sugarloaf Mountain Corporation, and United States Cycling Federation d/b/a National Off-Road Bicycle Association, asserting negligence claims against all three. Soon thereafter, Lloyd learned that he had failed to name the appropriate corporate defendant, and filed a motion to amend the complaint. Over objection, that motion was granted, [*5] and U.S.A. Cycling, Inc. replaced United States Cycling Federation d/b/a National Off-Road Bicycle Association.
In their Answers, both Sugarloaf and U.S.A. Cycling responded that Lloyd’s claims were barred by the releases quoted above. In addition, both asserted Counterclaims against Lloyd for breaching the terms of the releases. Both demanded Lloyd be held liable for any expenses they incurred in defending his suit.
On January 25, 2002, Lloyd filed a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings with respect to Defendants’ Counterclaims and Affirmative Defenses of Release and Waiver. Sugarloaf Mountain Corporation opposed that motion and filed its own Motion for Summary Judgment on March 11, 2002. U.S.A. Cycling also opposed the plaintiff’s motion, and filed its Motion for Summary Judgment on April 11, 2002. All of the motions requested that the court review the language of the releases and determine whether and how it affected the outcome of this suit. A hearing on all three motions was held on July 3, 2002. Any findings included below are based upon the properly submitted affidavits and statements of material fact. Specifically excluded from that category is the affidavit form Attorney [*6] Greif.
1. Plaintiff’s Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings
The plaintiff argues that he is entitled to judgment on the defendants’ counterclaims and on their affirmative defenses of release and waiver because “the release, 2” by its terms, does not apply to U.S.A. Cycling, does not apply to the facts of this case, does not protect the defendants from their own negligence, and is unenforceable as contrary to public policy.
2 Plaintiff did not address the language of the Membership Release in his motion.
In considering a motion for judgment on the pleadings, the court is required to accept all of the responding party’s pleadings as true, and draw all reasonable inferences in its favor. Judgment is only appropriate if the responding party can prove no set of facts that would entitle it to relief. The plaintiff has failed to meet that burden.
Applicability to U.S.A. Cycling
In support of his first assertion, Lloyd argued that, because the Event Release does not mention U.S.A. Cycling, [*7] that defendant is not within the category of potentially released entities. With its response to this motion, U.S.A. Cycling filed an affidavit by Barton Enoch to establish that NORBA, a named sponsor of the Widowmaker, was the off-road division of U.S.A. Cycling, Inc. The clear language of the Entry Release covers sponsors, including U.S.A. Cycling d/b/a NORBA.
As mentioned above, Lloyd applied for membership in the United States Cycling Federation (USCF) and NORBA in June 1995. Soon thereafter, USCF merged into a new corporation, U.S.A. Cycling, Inc, that assumed all of its rights and responsibilities. By signing the Membership Release, Lloyd released U.S.A. Cycling, Inc. from responsibility for any accidents that might occur during his participation in any race events it sponsored.
Definition of Event
Lloyd has argued that the strictly construed language of the Event Release does not cover accidents that occur during the training run. In support of this argument, he has cited Doyle v. Bowdoin College, 403 A.2d 1206 (Me. 1979.) In that case, the Law Court said “releases absolving a defendant of liability for his own negligence must expressly spell out [*8] ‘with the greatest particularity’ the intention of the parties contractually to extinguish negligence liability.” Doyle, at 1208. Contrary to the plaintiff’s assertions, the language of the Event Release does precisely that:
I hereby waive, release and discharge for myself, my heirs, executors, administrators, legal representatives, assigns, and successors in interest (hereinafter collectively “successors”) any and all rights and claims which I have or which may hereafter occur to me against the sponsors of this event, the National Off-Road Bicycle Association, the promoter and any promoting organization(s), property owners, law enforcement agencies, all public entities, and special districts and properties . . . . through or by which the events will be held for any and all damages which may be sustained by me directly or indirectly in connection with, or arising out of, my participation in or association with the event, or travel to or return from the event . . . . (emphasis added)
All parties have agreed that the training run was a mandatory part of the event. To interpret the Event Release in such a convoluted fashion that it excludes a mandatory part of the [*9] event from the term “event” defies logic and is contrary to the intent of the parties as demonstrated by the plain language of the release. Hardy v. St. Clair, 1999 ME 142, 739 A.2d 368.
Although releases of liability are “traditionally disfavored,” in Maine that disfavor has resulted in strict interpretation rather than prohibition. Doyle v. Bowdoin College, Id. The cases cited by plaintiff in support of his contrary argument are from other jurisdictions and do not accurately describe the law in Maine. When asked to consider the issue raised here, both Maine state courts and the First Circuit have consistently enforced the language of releases. See, e.g., Hardy v. St. Clair, 1999 ME 142, 739 A.2d 368; McGuire v. Sunday River Skiway Corp., 1994 WL 505035 (D.Me.)(Hornby, J.), aff’d 47 F.3d 1156 (1st Cir. 1995). Despite his reference to a “contract of adhesion,” Lloyd was not compelled to sign either release. He chose to sign both because he wanted to participate in an inherently risky sport. He is free to make such choices, but must also accept responsibility for what happens as a result [*10] of that choice.
For the reasons stated above, plaintiff’s motion for judgment on the pleadings is denied.
2. Defendants’ Motions for Summary Judgment
The Law Court has addressed motions for summary judgment on many occasions:
In reviewing a summary judgment, we examine the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonprevailing party to determine whether the record supports the conclusion that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the prevailing party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. (citation omitted) In testing the propriety of a summary judgment, we accept as true the uncontroverted facts properly appearing in the record. (citation omitted)
Champagne v. Mid-Maine Med. Ctr., 1998 ME 87, P5, 711 A.2d 842, 844. The issue is not whether there are any disputes of fact, but whether any of the disputes involve a “genuine” issue of “material” fact. See Rule 56(c). After reviewing the record provided with these standards in mind, the court must conclude that there are no genuine issues of disputed fact.
Both Lloyd and the defendants agree that Lloyd was required to complete a practice run in order to participate [*11] in the Widowmaker Challenge. All of them agree that Lloyd signed both releases before he took that mandatory run, and all agree that he was involved in a collision with another bicyclist during that run. As was discussed above, the practice run and any problems encountered during it are covered by the terms of the releases Lloyd signed. The Membership Release contains express language releasing claims arising from negligence. The Entry Release contains express language describing the types of accidents or dangers covered by the release, including “the dangers of collision with … other racers.” The collision between Lloyd and Bourassa was precisely the type of accident contemplated by the parties and waived by Lloyd in both releases.
Lloyd has failed to refer to any evidence in the record that might support his theory that that the Event Release should be seen as a substitution or novation of the Membership Release. Without such evidence, the court may not presume that the parties intended that one contract be substituted for the other.
Lloyd has asserted that the reference in the Event Release to an exception for “willful and wanton negligence” precludes summary judgment. However, [*12] no such tort has yet been recognized in Maine, so no jury could be asked to determine whether the defendants had acted with willful or wanton negligence. That exception is inapplicable in this jurisdiction. In addition, that language refers only to the portion of the Release that discusses the defendants’ right to recover expenses, including legal fees. On the record presented, there are no material issues of disputed fact concerning the language of the releases.
U.S.A. Cycling was a sponsor and Sugarloaf was a promoter of the race. As a matter of law, the court finds that the mandatory practice run was included within the language of the Releases, that the releases are clear and unambiguous, and that the accident Lloyd claims falls entirely within the types of harms contemplated by the parties at the time the releases were signed. There is nothing left to be litigated on either plaintiff’s Complaint against defendants U.S.A. Cycling and Sugarloaf, or on their Counterclaims against him.
For the reasons stated above, the court finds that the releases signed by Lloyd individually and collectively bar any civil action against either U.S.A. Cycling, d/b/a NORBA or against Sugarloaf for [*13] the injuries Lloyd allegedly sustained on August 11, 1995. Summary judgment on plaintiff’s Complaint is granted to U.S.A. Cycling, d/b/a NORBA and to Sugarloaf. In addition, summary judgment against Lloyd on their Counterclaims is granted to both U.S.A. Cycling, d/b/a NORBA and. Within thirty (30) days, counsel for these defendants shall submit proof of expenses, including attorney fees, incurred in defense of this action.
Plaintiff’s motion for judgment on the pleadings is denied. The motions for summary judgment filed by defendants U.S.A. Cycling and Sugarloaf are granted. Judgment is granted to those defendants on Counts II and III of plaintiff’s amended complaint.
The Clerk is directed to incorporate this Order in the docket by reference, in accordance with M.R.Civ.P. 79(a).
DATED: 20 August 2002
Ellen A. Gorman