Brian Moore, as Personal Representative on behalf of the Estate of Bernard P. Rice, deceased, Plaintiff, vs. North America Sports, Inc., et al., Defendants.
CASE NO. 5:08cv343/RS/MD
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF FLORIDA, PANAMA CITY DIVISION
2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 134557
June 26, 2009, Decided
June 26, 2009, Filed
CORE TERMS: summary judgment, decedent, affirmative defenses, online, registration, fault, box, tortfeasor, choice of law, necessary to complete, sanctioning, registered, printout, Black’s Law Dictionary, last act, material fact, nonmoving party, sole cause, concurrent tortfeasors, health care providers, undisputed, off-campus, designated, causation, lawsuit, movant’s, waived, willful, usage, medical attention
COUNSEL: [*1] For BRIAN MOORE, AS PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE ON BEHALF OF THE ESTATE OF BERNARD P. RICE, DECEASED, Plaintiff: DIANA SANTA MARIA, LEAD ATTORNEY, AS PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE ON BEHALF OF THE ESTATE OF BERNARD P. RICE, DECEASE, FORT LAUDERDALE, FL; DOROTHY CLAY SIMS, LEAD ATTORNEY, LAW OFFICE OF DOROTHY CLAY SIMS ESQ, OCALA, FL; JOEL S PERWIN, LEAD ATTORNEY, JOEL S PERWIN PA – MIAMI FL, MIAMI, FL; JOHN N BOGGS, BOGGS & FISHEL – PANAMA CITY FL, PANAMA CITY, FL.
For NORTH AMERICA SPORTS INC, doing business as WORLD TRIATHLON CORPORATION, doing business as IRONMAN TRIATHLON, doing business as FORD IRONMAN FLORIDA, formerly known as IRONMAN NORTH AMERICA, USA TRIATHLON, A FOREIGN COMPANY, Defendants: JASON BERNARD ONACKI, LEAD ATTORNEY, COLE SCOTT & KISSANE PA – PENSACOLA FL, PENSACOLA, FL; LARRY ARTHUR MATTHEWS, LEAD ATTORNEY, MATTHEWS & HIGGINS LLC, PENSACOLA, FL; SHANE MICHAEL DEAN, DEAN & CAMPER PA – PENSACOLA FL, PENSACOLA, FL.
JUDGES: RICHARD SMOAK, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
OPINION BY: RICHARD SMOAK
Before me are Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment on the Affirmative Defenses of Release (Doc. 46); Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment and Memorandum in Support (Doc. 79); Plaintiff’s Motion for [*2] Partial Dismissal or for Partial Summary Judgment on the Defendants’ Sixth Affirmative Defense, Alleging Comparative Fault of Bay County Emergency Medical Services (Doc. 86); Plaintiff’s Motion in Limine to Exclude Reference of any Fault on the part of Bay County EMS or any other Non Party (Doc. 125); and Plaintiff’s Motion for Leave to File Reply (Doc. 144).
I. STANDARD OF REVIEW
The basic issue before the court on a motion for summary judgment is “whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 251-252, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 2512, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986). The moving party has the burden of showing the absence of a genuine issue as to any material fact, and in deciding whether the movant has met this burden, the court must view the movant’s evidence and all factual inferences arising from it in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 90 S. Ct. 1598, 26 L. Ed. 2d 142 (1970); Fitzpatrick v. City of Atlanta, 2 F.3d 1112, 1115 (11th Cir. 1993). Thus, if reasonable minds could differ on the inferences arising from undisputed facts, then a court should deny summary judgment. Miranda v. B & B Cash Grocery Store, Inc., 975 F.2d 1518, 1534 (11th Cir. 1992) (citing Mercantile Bank & Trust v. Fidelity & Deposit Co., 750 F.2d 838, 841 (11th Cir. 1985)). However, a mere ‘scintilla’ of evidence supporting the nonmoving party’s position will not suffice; there must be enough of a showing that the [*3] jury could reasonably find for that party. Walker v. Darby, 911 F.2d 1573, 1577 (11th Cir. 1990) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 251, 106 S. Ct. at 2512).
Decedent, Bernard Rice, registered online in Montana, and participated in the 2006 Ford Ironman Florida Triathlon held in Panama City Beach, Florida on November 4, 2006. Defendant contends that Rice signed numerous waivers to participate in the race; Plaintiff denies that Rice signed any waivers. Decedent experienced distress in the swim course approximately half-way into the second 1.2 mile lap of the 2.4 mile swim course. He received medical attention, but the timing and nature of medical attention are in dispute. Rice died on November 7, 2006.
III. DUTY OWED TO PLAINTIFF
a. Assumption of Risk
Defendants contend that Rice voluntarily assumed the risk of participating in the 2006 Ford Ironman Florida Triathlon. “When a participant volunteers to take certain chances he waives his right to be free from those bodily contacts inherent in the chances taken.” Kuehner v. Green, 436 So. 2d 78, 80 (Fla. 1983). However, it is the jury’s function to determine whether a participant should have anticipated the particular risk, and whether the defendant made the activity as safe as possible. Id; O’Connell v. Walt Disney World Co., 413 So. 2d 444, 447 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1982). Therefore, summary judgment is not appropriate on this issue.
b. Sanctioning Body
Defendant [*4] USA Triathlon argues that it had no duty as the sanctioning organization of the 2006 Ford Ironman Florida Triathlon. Defendants cite authority from Illinois, Massachusetts, and New York. In order for a sanctioning organization, or sponsoring organization, to be liable, it must have some control over the event. See Nova Southeastern University, Inc. v. Gross, 758 So. 2d 86 (Fla. 200) (university had duty to graduate student placed in specific off-campus internship which it knew to be unreasonably dangerous); D’Attilio v. Fifth Avenue Business Ass’n, Inc., 710 So.2d 117 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1998) (the party with control over land owes a duty, jury question whether defendant that coordinated and sponsored a fair on city streets, where city controlled amount of law enforcement, had a duty); Rupp v. Bryant, 417 So.2d 658 (Fla. 1982) (Principal and teacher had a duty to injured student because had the authority to control activities of school club even at a meeting held off-campus); Ass’n for Retarded Citizens-Volusia, Inc. v. Fletcher, 741 So.2d 520, 526 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1999) (camp sponsor could be found negligent for falling to tell lifeguard camper suffered from seizures). It is a question of fact for the jury whether Defendant USA Triathlon had sufficient control over the 2006 Ford Ironman Florida Triathlon because of its sanction of the event to have a duty to the participants. Summary judgment is not appropriate.
Defendant moves for summary judgment based on [*5] the waivers decedent allegedly executed. Plaintiff moves for summary judgment on Defendants’ third and fourth affirmative defenses which read as follows.
THIRD AFFIRMATIVE DEFENSE
53. On November 6, 2005, and prior to Plaintiff’s claim in this action accruing, Decedent waived any and all claims against USAT and NA Sports. A copy of the waiver is attached as Exhibit “A.” Decedent also entered two additional waivers during race registration. Unsigned copies of the waivers entered by Decedent are attached as Exhibits “B” (although designated as a 2007 waiver, it is otherwise the same as the 2006 waiver executed by Decedent) and “C.” By entering these waivers, Decedent waived the Plaintiff’s ability to bring the claims in the instant lawsuit. Fla.R.Civ.P. § 1.110(d).
FOURTH AFFIRMATIVE DEFENSE
54. On November 6, 2005, and prior to accrual of Plaintiff’s claims in this action, Decedent entered a release of any and all claims against USAT and NA Sports relating to the 2006 Ford Ironman Triathlon. A copy of the release is attached as Exhibit “A.” Decedent also entered two additional releases during race registration. Unsigned copies of the releases entered by Decedent are attached as Exhibits “B” (although [*6] designated as a 2007 release, it is otherwise the same as the 2006 release executed by Decedent) and “C.” By entering these releases, Decedent has precluded Plaintiff’s claims in the instant lawsuit. Fla.R.Civ.P. § 1.110(d).
a. Choice of Law
First, the choice of law governing the waiver must be determined, because the applicable law might not support enforcement of the waiver, which would make the waivers irrelevant. As for the appropriate contract law to apply, the parties agree that Florida choice of law analysis is applicable.
See Klaxon Co. v. Stentor Elec. Mfg. Co., 313 U.S. 487, 496, 61 S. Ct. 1020, 1021, 85 L. Ed. 1477 (1941). Both parties also agree that under Florida law, “lex loci contractus” provides that the laws of the jurisdiction where the contract was executed govern interpretation of the substantive issues regarding the contract. Prime Ins. Syndicate, Inc. v. B.J. Handley Trucking, Inc., 363 F.3d 1089, 1091 (11th Cir. 2004). The determination of where a contract was executed is fact-intensive and requires a determination of “where the last act necessary to complete the contract [was] done.” Id. at 1092-93 (quoting Pastor v. Union Cent. Life Ins. Co., 184 F.Supp.2d 1301, 1305 (S.D. Fla. 2002)). The last act necessary to complete a contract is the offeree’s communication of acceptance to the offeror. Id. (citing Buell v. State, 704 So.2d 552, 555 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1997)). Here, it is undisputed that the last act necessary to complete the contract occurred in Montana.
Plaintiff points to Montana law, which states, “All contracts [*7] which have for their object, directly or indirectly, to exempt anyone from responsibility for his own fraud, for willful injury to the person or property of another, or for violation of law, whether willful or negligent, are against the policy of the law.” Mont. Code Ann. § 28-2-702 (2007). However, Plaintiff fails to take into account that first the applicable choice-of-law must be determined, and then the contract is interpreted according to that state’s substantive law. See Charles L. Bowman & Co. v. Erwin, 468 F.2d 1293, 1295 (5th Cir. 1972); See Shapiro v. Associated Intern. Ins. Co., 899 F.2d 1116, 1118 (11th Cir. 1990).
Defendants point to Montana law, which states, “A contract is to be interpreted according to the law and usage of the place where it is to be performed or, if it does not indicate a place of performance, according to the law and usage of the place where it is made.” Mont. Code Ann. § 28-3-102 (2007). The race occurred in Florida; therefore, Florida law applies. In Florida, waivers or exculpatory clauses, although not looked upon with favor, are valid and enforceable if the intent to relieve a party of its own negligence is clear and unequivocal. Banfield v. Louis, 589 So.2d 441, 444-45 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1991) (citing L. Luria & Son, Inc. v. Alarmtec Int’l Corp., 384 So.2d 947 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1980); O’Connell v. Walt Disney World Co., 413 So.2d 444 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1982); Middleton v. Lomaskin, 266 So.2d 678 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1972)).
b. Online Waivers
On November 6, 2005, Rice registered online for the 2006 Ford Ironman Florida Triathlon, which includes two waivers. In order to properly execute both waivers, the participant had [*8] to check two separate boxes. While both sides agree that Rice registered himself online, it is in dispute whether the boxes were checked. The first waiver only applies to the active.com website, which advertises various races and allows participants to fill out online registrations. However, the website has nothing to do with the actual race and is not a party to this suit. The second online waiver applies to Defendants. Defendants contend that the online registration could not be completed unless the boxes were checked, but Plaintiff contends that the printout from the online registration provided by Defendants does not contain any checked boxes (or any boxes). Whether the online wavier was properly executed is clearly in dispute.
Defendants provide a printout showing an electronic signature. However, in order to properly execute the waiver, the waivers state that the participant must check the box. Defendants fail to provide any evidence to show a connection between checking the box and an electronic signature appearing in the printout. This lack of evidence leaves us just short of the finish line. Had a proper showing been made, summary judgment for the Defendants might have been [*9] warranted. Whether the online wavier was properly executed is a material fact for the jury to decide.
c. Onsite Registration
Defendants claim that Rice would have been required to sign two additional waivers in order to complete the onsite registration and be allowed to participate. Defendants do not provide signed copies of these waivers, only blank copies. Plaintiff denies that Rice signed any waiver on the day of the race. The fact that Defendants cannot provide a signed waiver does not exclude testimony on this matter; it merely goes to the weight of the evidence for the jury to consider.
V. BAY MEDICAL
Plaintiff moves for dismissal, or summary judgment, on Defendants’ sixth affirmative defense, which alleges that Bay Medical Emergency Medical Services was “the sole cause or contributing cause of the injuries and harm alleged by Plaintiff.” Plaintiff repeats the exact same argument in its Motion in Limine to Exclude Reference of any Fault on the part of Bay County EMS or any other Non Party (Doc. 125). Plaintiff argues that this is not an affirmative defense, but rather is a traditional basis for denying causation, on the ground that another entity was solely at fault. An affirmative [*10] defense is a defendant’s assertion of facts and arguments that, if true, will defeat the plaintiff’s claim, even if all the allegations in the complaint are true. Black’s Law Dictionary (8th ed. 2004). Defendants contend that Florida Statute § 768.81(3) permits a defendant to apportion fault to a non-party whose negligence contributed to the plaintiff’s injury or death.
The Florida Supreme Court held that “apportion[ing] the loss between initial and subsequent rather than joint or concurrent tortfeasors…cannot be done.” Stuart v. Hertz Corp., 351 So.2d 703, 706 (Fla. 1977). Concurrent tortfeasors are two or more tortfeasors whose simultaneous actions cause injury to a third party. Black’s Law Dictionary (8th ed. 2004). Here, Defendants and Bay Medical Emergency Medical Services are not concurrent tortfeasors, because their actions could not have occurred simultaneously. Florida law clearly states:
“[O]riginal tortfeasor is liable to victim not only for original injuries received as result of initial tort, but also for additional or aggravated injuries resulting from subsequent negligence of health care providers, even though original tortfeasor and subsequently negligent health care providers are independent tortfeasors. Ass’n for Retarded Citizens-Volusia, Inc. v. Fletcher, 741 So.2d 520, 526 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1999).
Therefore, Defendants’ sixth affirmative defense is dismissed. [*11] Defendants are not entitled to include Bay Medical Emergency Medical Services on the verdict form for the jury’s consideration, but Defendants are permitted to argue that Bay Medical Emergency Medical Services were the sole cause of the injuries and harm alleged by Plaintiff as it relates to causation.
IT IS ORDERED:
1. Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment on the Affirmative Defenses of Release (Doc. 46) is denied.
2. Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment and Memorandum in Support (Doc. 79) is denied.
3. Plaintiff’s Motion for Partial Dismissal or for Partial Summary Judgment on the Defendants’ Sixth Affirmative Defense, Alleging Comparative Fault of Bay County Emergency Medical Services (Doc. 86) is granted.
4. Plaintiff’s Motion in Limine to Exclude Reference of any Fault on the part of Bay County EMS or any other Non Party (Doc. 125) is denied as moot.
5. Plaintiff’s Motion for Leave to File Reply (Doc. 144) is denied as moot.
ORDERED on June 26, 2009.
/s/ Richard Smoak
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
If you are getting ready for your summer recreation business it is always a good idea to make sure your paperwork is up to date and ready to go. This is a checklist to help you check your release and make sure your release is doing more than wasting paper.
Not all of these clauses mentioned in the checklist may be needed. However, some of them are critical and they may all be modified based on your activity, program, employees, and ability to undertake the risks. Some changes are always needed based on your activities, your guests and the state or local you are working in.
I’ve divided this checklist into three major parts:
- Required for your Release to be Valid: What is absolutely required
- Needed: What you should have for your release to be valid in most states
- What Your Release Cannot Have: What you should never have in your document
There are some subsections also that are fairly self-explanatory. This will probably not be in all releases, but may be required in your release based on what you are trying to accomplish or what you are doing.
Required for your Release to be Valid
Contract: A release is a contract. The legal requirements required in your state for your electronic or piece of paper release to be a contract.
Notice of Legal Document: Does your release someplace on its face, give notice to the person signing it that they are signing a release or a legal document? Courts want to see that the guest knew they were giving up some legal rights.
Parties: You have to identify who is to be protected by the release and who the release applies too. That means the correct legal names as well as any business name.
Assumption of Risk Language: Does your release contain language that explains the risk of the activities the release is designed to protect litigation against. This is any area that is growing in release law.
Agreement to Assume Risks: Do your release have language that states the signor agrees to assume the risk. Assumption of the Risk is the second defense after your release in stopping a lawsuit.
Magic Word: Negligence: Does your release have the signor give up their right to sue for negligence? The required language and how it must be explained is getting more specific in all states and yet is different in most states.
Plain Language: Is the release written so that it can be understood? Is it written in plain English?
Venue: Does your release have a Venue Clause?
Jurisdiction: Does your release have a Jurisdiction Clause?
Signatures: Does your release have a place for the signor to date and sign the release. For a contract to be valid it must have a signature, or if electronic acknowledgment.
Continuing Duty to Inform: Information to complete the continuing duty to inform for manufacturers
Items that may be Needed Dependent upon the Purpose of the Release
Parental Release: Signature of Parent or Guardian AND correct legal language signing away a minor’s right to sue.
Statement the Signor has conveyed the necessary information to minor child
Statement the Signor will continue to convey necessary information to a minor child
Reference to any Required Statute
Signor has viewed the Website
Signor has viewed the Videos
Signor has read the additional information
Notice the Release is a Legal Document:
Notice of Legal Consequence: Does your release state there may be legal consequences to the signor upon signing?
Opening/Introduction: Does your release have an opening or introduction explaining its purpose
Assumption of Risk Language
Minor Injuries Noticed
Major Injuries Noticed
Signor is Capable of Assuming Risks
Risks identified that are not normally Not Associated with Activity
Drug & Alcohol Statement
Company Right to Eject/Refuse
Signor is in Good Physical Condition
Able to Undertake the activity
Good Mental Condition
Release Protects Against
Lost Personal Property
Loss of Life
First party costs
Third party costs
Enforceability of the Release Post Activity
Language Dependent on How the Release is to be Used
Product Liability Language
Release of Confidential Medical Information
Rental Agreement Clause
SAR & Medical Issues
Permission to release medical information
Waiver of medical confidentiality
Waiver of HIV status
Items I include in the releases I write
How Release is to be interpreted
Statement as to Insurance
Signor has Adequate Insurance
Incidental issues covered
Signor has Previous Experience
Signor Read and Understood the Contract
Agreement that the document has been read
Agreement that the signor agrees to the terms
What Your Release Cannot Have
Places to Initial: This just requires more effort on your staff to check and is not legally required.
Small Print: If a judge can’t read it, then it does not exist.
Attempting to Hide your Release: You attempt to hide your release; the judge will act like he or she never found it. The below are all examples of attempting to hide a release.
No heading or indication of the legal nature
Release Hidden within another document
Important sections with no heading or not bolded: No hiding your release
Multiple pages that are not associated with each other: splitting up your release is hiding it.
No indication or notice of the rights the signor is giving up: Some day the statement I did not understand it will resonate with a judge. This prevents that.
Most Importantly, had your Release Updated Recently
Has your release been reviewed by an attorney in the past year or do you work with an attorney that updates you on changes you need to make to your release? The law concerning releases is changing constantly, more now than ever before. In the past two years I’ve made a dozen tweaks to how I write a release based on those legal changes. If your release has not been updated, you may no longer have a release.
Remember: Nothing in your marketing program invalidates your release. Does your marketing not create liability not covered in your release? Is your marketing directed to the correct people that your release was written for?
I see franchises or businesses with multiple locations using the same release at all locations. You may be losing out on an opportunity, worse setting yourself up to lose 90% of the time.Posted: January 31, 2018
If one of the states you have a location has better laws supporting the use of a release than your home state, change the jurisdiction and venture clause to that state. On top of getting better release law you’ll be less likely to have a jurisdiction and venue fight. If your jurisdiction and venue clause have no relationship to the defendant, the accident or location, you are probably going to have one anyway.
Jurisdiction and venue clauses are important in a release. Plaintiff’s are working harder at voiding the jurisdiction and venue clause in releases when they have little or no real relationship with where the accident happened.
If you are writing releases for a business with multiple locations, you might look at the jurisdiction and venue clause in each location in relation to the law of the location and the chances the plaintiff will be successful in his or her attempt to void the jurisdiction and venue clause.
I argue, plead and write a lot about jurisdiction and venue clauses. They are the second most important clause in a release after the negligence clause. (See Jurisdiction and Venue (Forum Selection clauses) are extremely important in your releases.) A venue clause states where any lawsuit is going to be held, and the jurisdiction identifies the law to be applied. These sections or clauses have to have a relation to the location of the accident. (See Your Jurisdiction and Venue clause must be relevant to the possible location of the accident. Screw this up and you can void your release as occurred in this ski racing case.)
At the same time, not all states support releases the same way. Several states do not allow the use of releases. (See States that do not Support the Use of a Release.) Some states allow 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 every state treats releases differently. Some making it much harder to write a release correctly then others.
On top of that you want to create a barrier, if possible, to a lot of litigation by making a lawsuit difficult for the plaintiff. Making the plaintiff find an attorney and litigate in a state where they do not live makes filing a lawsuit much more difficult. Many plaintiffs will spend years trying to sue in their own state. In Moki Mac River Expeditions v. Drugg, 221 S.W.3d 569; 2007 Tex. LEXIS 188; 50 Tex. Sup. J. 498, the plaintiff’s filed a lawsuit in Texas in 2001 and six years later the Texas Supreme Court dismissed it and sent it to Arizona where the trip occurred, and the accident happened.
Jurisdiction and venture clauses are critically important in a good release.
At the same time, cookie-cutter law is not good, even in some releases. In reviewing the reports of a fatality, the other day, I found the business release on line. The release had a jurisdiction and venue clause which sent the lawsuit back to California where the company office was. The fatality occurred in Colorado. Colorado and California law on releases is similar, both are supportive of releases and both allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue.
The company had more than seventy facilities in North America, including several in states where releases are void. The home office is based in California, although that took some work to find, with a Utah area code for a phone number. On a hunch, I checked with the Utah Secretary of State and found several companies and corporations with the same name. Guessing, either the business started in Utah and moved to California or the business is based in Utah and using an office in California for the basis for jurisdiction and venue in its release.
If the latter is the case, the lawsuit, even with the release, it would be easy to bring suit in Utah and argue the lawsuit should be there.
Worse, the operations are franchised from a Utah or California home office, and the business is owned by a different group of entities or people within each state. Colorado has several companies with the name. Alternatively, every time the company opens a location it creates an LLC for each location.
Each of these creates the possibility of a good argument for voiding the jurisdiction and venue clause in the agreement. There is a better relationship between the parties, plaintiff and defendant, and more reasons to sue where the accident happened.
Either way, as you can see there are numerous ways to argue, successfully or not that the jurisdiction and venue clause should be ignored in a specific case.
What does this lead too? If the plaintiff’s attorney does a little investigation, they can start and make a good argument that the jurisdiction and venue clause should be in a different location, then where it says. Those arguments would be:
- The location of the jurisdiction and venue clause has nothing to do with the location of the accident or the defendant’s location. (See Your Jurisdiction and Venue clause must be relevant to the possible location of the accident. Screw this up and you can void your release as occurred in this ski racing case.)
- The location of the defendant is not where the jurisdiction and venue clause states the defendant is located. The defendant is the company created in and located in the state where the accident happened. (The franchise or each operation is a separate LLC argument.)
- The defendant is using this state for its jurisdiction and venue clause to take advantage of good state law on jurisdiction and venue or to avoid bad law on releases. (The common argument that is made.)
Whatever reason you need to write the jurisdiction and venue clause in a release, now days it has to have a greater relationship with the accident location because it will come under greater scrutiny that it did a few years ago.
Blanket cookie cutter releases will not work in the future. Plaintiffs have determined new ways to force possible defendants to come to their location to defend a lawsuit.
Make sure you understand the law of the state where you think you want the lawsuit or the law of the state where the lawsuit could be and pick the one with the greatest chance of success based on the law concerning releases and the issues of jurisdiction and venue.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
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Your Jurisdiction and Venue clause must be relevant to the possible location of the accident. Screw this up and you can void your release as occurred in this ski racing case.Posted: April 3, 2017
This is not the first decision I’ve read where the United States Ski Association (USSA) had its release laughed out of court. The court found ZERO legal arguments for the jurisdiction and venue clause in the release used.
State: Vermont, United States District Court for the District of Vermont
Plaintiff: Brian J Tierney
Defendant: Okemo Limited Liability Company, d/b/a Okemo Mountain Resort, and The United States Ski and Snowboard Association,
Plaintiff Claims: alleging negligent installation of safety netting during a downhill alpine ski race
Defendant Defenses: Release
Holding: for the plaintiff
The United States Ski Association (USSA) has members sign a release online before they can participate in any USSA as a ski race. Ski areas rely on this release when holding USSA sanctioned races. The USSA release, however, is a poorly written document and time after time the ski areas, and the USSA lose a lawsuit by a plaintiff because they relied on the USSA release.
The number-one reason why the USSA as a release is thrown out by the courts is the jurisdiction and venue clause. Jurisdiction is the law that will be applied case and venue is the actual location of where the trial will be held. The USSA release says the jurisdiction for any case is Colorado. The problem is unless the accident occurred in Colorado; no other relationship exists between Colorado and the parties to the lawsuit.
The USSA is based, located, in Utah. In this case, the defendant ski area was located in Vermont. There were zero relationships between the USSA in Utah the ski area in Vermont and the injured plaintiff who was from New York, and the state of Colorado.
Consequently, the court throughout the jurisdiction and venue clause and found as 99% of most courts would that the location of the lawsuit should be Vermont, the place where the accident happened.
Vermont, however, does not recognize releases. (See States that do not Support the Use of a Release.).
The plaintiff argued the release was invalid because a copy with his signature could not be produced. The plaintiff signed and agreed to the documentation, including the release when he became a member of the USSA. The plaintiff argued in court that he did not remember signing or agreeing to the release. However, the USSA could show through their IT expert the only way that the plaintiff could have become a member of the USSA was by signing the release. You either had to click on and accept the release, or you could go no further in signing up to be a member of the USSA.
The plaintiff was injured while competing in amateur downhill ski race at the defendant ski area at Okemo Mountain resort. The USSA sanctioned the race. To be eligible to participate in the race a person had to be a USSA member, had to have conducted a visual inspection of course, and had to have taken at least two official training runs prior to the race.
The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment based on the release. This ruling denied the motion for summary judgment.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
The court first commented on the jurisdiction and venue issue.
The release also contained a choice-of-law provision, which stated that it would be “construed in accordance with, and governed by the substantive laws of the State of Colorado, without reference to principles governing choice or conflict of laws.”
The court then went through the various arguments of the plaintiff and defendant concerning the motion to dismiss, first off, with the plaintiff’s argument that he never remembered signing the release could not have signed release. The court termed the online release as a clip wrap release. This means that the release could not have been rejected by the plaintiff because the website only allows you to go forward after clicking yes to the release.
Because the click-wrap technology does not permit the customer to continue to use the website, unless he or she clicks on the required box on the screen, courts have accepted proof of use at the site as evidence of the customer’s agreement.
The court stated that generally clip wrap releases are upheld. The court went through several different decisions where clip-wrap releases had been decided. The court concluded that the plaintiff had to have signed the release because the plaintiff admitted that he had been charged for his USSA membership on his credit card and received an email about his membership from the USSA. “Plaintiff admits that he received a confirmation email from USSA and that his credit card statement reflects a payment for his USSA membership.”
The court then went into the choice of law clause. That means the jurisdiction and venue clause. A choice of law clause is not a clause that is controlled strictly by the contract.
Whenever there is a decision based on what law shall apply the law where the accident happened or where the court is sitting is the law that is applied to determine what law will apply. In many cases, such as this one, the choice of law decision leans toward granting the choice of law to the place where the test is being determined.
“The validity of a contractual choice-of-law clause is a threshold question that must be decided not under the law specified in the clause, but under the relevant forum’s choice-of-law rules governing the effectiveness of such clauses.” As this is a diversity action, the court looks to Vermont’s choice-of-law rules to determine which law applies.
A jurisdiction and venue clause is also not solely determined based on the four corners of the document. Meaning, just because you have a jurisdiction and venue clause in the document does not mean that is what is going to be upheld by the court. Here the court applied the choice of laws test as set forth in Vermont to determine what law should apply in governing where the suit in the law to be applied is suit to take place.
Simply put the court found there was no relationship between the choice of law clause in the release and the parties or where the accident occurred. The test for what choice of law applies a substantial relationship test. That means that the law that should be applied should be the one that has the greatest relationship to the parties and or the location of the incident giving rise to the lawsuit. In this case the court found, there was no relationship to the parties of the transaction. Plaintiff was a resident of New York the USSA was a Utah corporation, and the defendant ski area was a defendant was a Vermont location.
The arguments made by the USSA as an aid to justify Colorado’s choice of law clause were just plain weak. They argued that the majority of their races occurred in Colorado and that there was a good chance that the plaintiff would race in Colorado. The court found neither of those arguments to be persuasive.
The chosen state of Colorado has no “substantial relationship” to the parties or the transaction. Plaintiff is a resident of New York. USSA is a Utah corporation and Okemo is a Vermont entity. The incident in question did not occur in Colorado. The only facts Defendants have offered in sup-port of applying Colorado law to this case are: (1) Colorado is home to more USSA member clubs than any other state and hosts the majority of USSA’s major events, and (2) there was a possibility that Plaintiff could have competed in Colorado at some point during the relevant ski season. The court finds that such a tenuous and hypothetical connection does not vest in the state of Colorado a substantial relationship to the parties or specific transaction at issue in this case.
The court did find that Vermont had a substantial and significant interest in the transaction. The defendant was based in Vermont. The accident occurred in Vermont. The plaintiff was issued a lift ticket by the defendant ski area that required all disputes to be litigated in Vermont. The plaintiff participated in the inspection and training runs as well as the race in Vermont.
In contrast, Vermont’s relationship to the parties and transaction is significant. Okemo is a Vermont corporation, the competition was held in Vermont, Plaintiff was issued a lift ticket by Okemo requiring all disputes to be litigated in Vermont, Plaintiff participated in inspection and training runs in Vermont, and Plaintiff’s injury occurred in Vermont.
(Of note is the fact the court looked at the writing on the lift ticket as a quasi-contract. Rarely are lift tickets anything more than simple “signs” providing warnings rather than contracts or quasi contracts. See Lift tickets are not contracts and rarely work as a release in most states.)
The court then took apart the choice of law provision in the USSA release. It found no substantial relationship of the parties to the transaction in Colorado. The minimal facts offered by the USSA to support Colorado did not establish a reasonable basis for choosing Colorado.
The court also reasoned that finding Colorado as the applicable choice of law would violate a fundamental policy of Vermont law, which is releases for skiing or void under Vermont law.
First, applying Colorado law would undoubtedly produce a result contrary to a fundamental policy of Vermont. Whereas exculpatory clauses in ski contracts have been held to be enforceable under Colorado law, courts applying Vermont law consistently hold such re-leases to be void as contrary to important public policies of the state.
The court also found the Vermont had a materially greater interest in case then Colorado. Colorado’s interest in the case is minimal. Vermont had a great interest in applying Vermont law to issues, transactions and accidents that occur in Vermont. Skiing is a significant and important recreational activity in Vermont, and the Vermont Supreme Court has repeatedly stated that they have a significant interest in holding ski resorts responsible for skier safety in Vermont.
Second, Vermont has a “materially greater interest” than Colorado in the determination of this issue.4 Colorado’s interest in this case is minimal. The fact that Plaintiff may have competed there in the course of the relevant ski season and that USSA hosts many events in that state does not create a significant interest in a case concerning a Vermont ski race. Conversely, Vermont’s interest is plain. Vermont has a general interest in having its laws apply to contracts governing transactions taking place within the state. Vermont also has a significant interest in the conduct at issue here. Skiing is an important recreational activity for Vermonters and those visiting the state, and the Vermont Supreme Court has repeatedly noted its interest in holding ski resorts responsible for skier safety.
The court then held the choice of law provision in the USSA release did not control, and the Vermont law would apply to this case.
Under Vermont law releases for skiing activities are unenforceable. (See Federal court voids release in Vermont based on Vermont’s unique view of release law). The Vermont Supreme Court had determined that it was a violation of public policy under Vermont law to allow ski area to use a release to avoid liability for its own negligence. The court used a totality of the circumstances test to make the determination that the ski areas had the greater responsibility and the greater ability to keep its patrons out of harm’s way.
The Court concluded that “ultimately the determination of what constitutes the public interest must be made considering the totality of the circumstances of any given case against the backdrop of current societal expectations.” It then went on to make its public policy determination largely on the basis of two factors derived from the seminal case of Tunkl v. Regents of University of California, 383 P.2d 441 (Cal. 1963): (1) ski areas are open to the general public without regard to special training or ability, and (2) the longstanding rule that premises owners are in the best position to assure for the safety of their visitors.
(Using Tunkl to void a release seems to be an extremely odd reading of Tunkl. The Tunkl decision is a California case setting forth requirements for Assumption of the Risk.)
The court also looked at the difference between skiing in Vermont participating in a ski race. Here too though, the Vermont Supreme Court already ruled. The Vermont Supreme Court found that there was really no difference between ski racing and skiing in Vermont, and the releases would be void in both cases.
There had been Vermont decisions upholding release law based on restricted access to the race or because total control for the majority the control for the welfare of the racers was in the racer’s hands. These decisions concerned motorcycle racing.
The defendant argued that ski racing was much like motorcycle racing in Vermont. However, the court found that although membership in the motorcycle racing was restricted, it was not restricted in the ski racing case. Any person could become a member of the USSA, and any person could race, as long as they inspected the course and made two runs and. That effectively was not a bar to anyone participating in the race.
The Court saw “no salient distinctions between [its case] and making clear that, under Vermont law, ski areas and sport event organizers will not be absolved from liability by virtue of an exculpatory clause even in the context of amateur racing.
The court in evaluating the release law and ski areas in Vermont determined that the cases were based on a premise’s liability argument. Premise’s liability says that the owner of the land has a duty to inform guests of the risks on the land. This responsibility included eliminating any known risks or risk the by the landowner should discover. It did not find in the motorcycle cases that a premise’s liability relationship existed because the risk was largely in control of the racer on the motorcycle.
Consequently, the court ruled that the release was invalid under Vermont law, and dismissed the defendant’s motion for summary judgment.
So Now What?
I suspect that USSA wanted to take advantage of the Colorado Statute that allows a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue: Colorado Revised Statutes 13-22-107. Colorado’s release law is clearer and there is no issue with a release stopping suits by ski areas. Utah has mixed issues with releases and ski areas. However, to use Colorado as the site of the lawsuit, there must be a nexus to the state of Colorado, not just one created on paper.
Not only must the language stating the jurisdiction and venue be correct; the clause must also contain the reasoning why the jurisdiction and venue should be in a location other than location where the accident happened. In this case that would mean that there was an agreement between the parties that outlined all the reasons why the lawsuit should be brought back to Utah would be the only state, based on the contractual law of Utah.
I doubt there is any way that you could really write a release based on the law of a state that had no relationship, no nexus, to the accident or the parties in the case.
Vermont was the obvious answer, and that is what the court found. They might’ve been able also argued New York law, which would’ve been better than Vermont law. However, that would require them to litigate a case wherever the people who are racing in their events are located.
To be effective the jurisdiction and venue claw must have a nexus to either the parties in the case of the place of the accident occurred. USSA could move to Colorado, and that would provide a much better argument that Colorado law could apply. The USSA could argue that since they’re facing litigation from across the United States that they need to have one law apply to their releases and lawsuits, and that law should be the law where the located.
Whenever you’re stretching the jurisdiction and venue clause, you need to make sure that you incorporate in the clause all the legal reasons for picking the venue where the clause says the accident or location will occur. You just can’t state venue, and jurisdiction will be here.
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