Stone v. Life Time Fitness, Inc., 2016 Colo. App. LEXIS 1829

* Formatting in this case maybe different when finalized by the Court.

Stone v. Life Time Fitness, Inc., 2016 Colo. App. LEXIS 1829

Wendy Jane Stone, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Life Time Fitness, Inc., a Minnesota corporation doing business in the State of Colorado, d/b/a Life Time Fitness; Life Time Fitness Foundation; and LTF Club Operations Company, Inc., Defendants-Appellees.

Court of Appeals No. 15CA0598

COURT OF APPEALS OF COLORADO, DIVISION I

2016 Colo. App. LEXIS 1829

December 29, 2016, Decided

OPINION

[*1] City and County of Denver District Court No. 14CV33637 Honorable R. Michael Mullins, Judge

Opinion by JUDGE MILLER

Taubman and Fox, JJ., concur

Announced December 29, 2016

Charles Welton P.C., Charles Welton, Denver, Colorado, for Plaintiff-Appellant

Markusson Green & Jarvis, John T. Mauro, H. Keith Jarvis, Denver, Colorado, for Defendants-Appellees

¶ 1 In this action seeking recovery for personal injuries sustained at a fitness club, plaintiff, Wendy Jane Stone, appeals the summary judgment entered in favor of defendants, Life Time Fitness, Inc.; Life Time Fitness Foundation; and LTF Club Operations Company, Inc. (collectively, Life Time), on Stone’s negligence and Premises Liability Act (PLA) claims based on injuries sustained when she tripped on a hair dryer cord after washing her hands. The principal issue presented on appeal is whether the district court correctly ruled that Stone’s claims are contractually barred based on assumption of risk and liability release language contained in a member usage agreement (Agreement) she signed when she became a member of Life Time.

¶ 2 We disagree with the district court’s conclusion that the exculpatory provisions of the Agreement are valid as applied [*2] to Stone’s PLA claim. Consequently, we reverse the judgment as to that claim and remand the case for further proceedings. We affirm the district court’s judgment on the negligence claim.

I. Background

¶ 3 Stone was a member of a Life Time fitness club located in Centennial. According to the complaint, she sustained injuries in the women’s locker room after finishing a workout. Stone alleged that she had washed her hands at a locker room sink and then “turned to leave when she tripped on the blow dryer cord that was, unbeknownst to her, hanging to the floor beneath the sink and vanity counter top.” She caught her foot in the cord and fell to the ground, fracturing her right ankle.

¶ 4 Stone alleged that allowing the blow dryer cord to hang below the sink counter constituted a trip hazard and a dangerous condition and that, by allowing the condition to exist, Life Time failed to exercise reasonable care. She asserted a general negligence claim and also a claim under Colorado’s PLA, section 13-21-115, C.R.S. 2016.

¶ 5 Life Time moved for summary judgment, relying on assumption of risk and liability release language contained in the Agreement Stone signed when she joined Life Time. Life Time argued that the Agreement was [*3] valid and enforceable, that it expressly covered the type and circumstances of her injuries, and that it barred Stone’s claims as a matter of law. A copy of the Agreement appears in the Appendix to this opinion.

¶ 6 After full briefing, the district court granted Life Time’s motion, concluding that the Agreement was “valid and enforceable” and that Stone had released Life Time from all the claims asserted in the complaint.

II. Discussion

¶ 7 She contends that the district court, therefore, erred in entering summary judgment and dismissing her action.

A. Summary Judgment Standards

¶ 8 Summary judgment is appropriate if the pleadings and supporting documents establish that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Gagne v. Gagne, 2014 COA 127, ¶ 24; see C.R.C.P. 56(c). We review de novo an order granting a motion for summary judgment. Gagne, ¶ 24; see Ranch O, LLC v. Colo. Cattlemen’s Agric. Land Tr., 2015 COA 20, ¶ 12.

B. Negligence Claim

¶ 9 In her complaint, Stone alleged common law negligence and PLA claims, and she pursues both claims on appeal. The trial court’s summary judgment ruled in favor of Life Time without distinguishing between Stone’s negligence and PLA claims. It simply concluded that the [*4] exculpatory clauses in the Agreement were “valid and enforceable” and released Life Time from all claims asserted against it.

¶ 10 We turn to the negligence claim first because we may affirm a correct judgment for reasons different from those relied on by the trial court. English v. Griffith, 99 P.3d 90, 92 (Colo. App. 2004).

¶ 11 The parties agree that the PLA applies to this case. In section

13-21-115(2), the statute provides:

In any civil action brought against a landowner by a person who alleges injury occurring while on the real property of another and by reason of the condition of such property, or activities conducted or circumstances existing on such property, the landowner shall be liable only as provided in subsection (3) of this section.

The PLA thus provides the sole remedy against landowners for injuries on their property. Vigil v. Franklin, 103 P.3d 322, 328-29 (Colo. 2004); Wycoff v. Grace Cmty. Church of Assemblies of God, 251 P.3d 1260, 1265 (Colo. App. 2010). Similarly, it is well

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

Section 13-21-115(1), C.R.S. 2016, defines “landowner” as including “a person in possession of real property and a person legally responsible for the condition of real property or for the activities conducted or circumstances existing on real property.” In its answer, Life Time admitted that it owned and operated the club where Stone was injured and that the PLA governs her [*5] claims.

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

established that the PLA abrogates common law negligence claims against landowners. Legro v. Robinson, 2012 COA 182, ¶ 20, aff’d, 2014 CO 40.

¶ 12 Accordingly, albeit for reasons different from those expressed by the trial court, we conclude that Stone could not bring a claim for common law negligence, and the trial court therefore correctly ruled against her on that claim. We now turn to the effect of the exculpatory clauses in the Agreement on Stone’s PLA claim.

C. Application of Exculpatory Clauses to PLA Claim

¶ 13 As we understand Stone’s contentions, she does not dispute that the exculpatory language in the Agreement would preclude her from asserting claims under the PLA for any injuries she might sustain when working out on a treadmill, stationary bicycle, or other exercise equipment or playing racquetball. We therefore do not address such claims. Instead, Stone argues that the exculpatory clauses do not clearly and unambiguously apply to her injuries incurred after washing her hands in the women’s locker room. We agree.

1. Law

¶ 14 “Generally, exculpatory agreements have long been disfavored.” B & B Livery, Inc. v. Riehl, 960 P.2d 134, 136 (Colo. 1998). Determining the sufficiency and validity of an exculpatory agreement is a question of law for the court. Id.; Jones [*6] v. Dressel, 623 P.2d 370, 375 (Colo. 1981). This analysis requires close scrutiny of the agreement to ensure that the intent of the parties is expressed in clear, unambiguous, and unequivocal language. Chadwick v. Colt Ross Outfitters, Inc., 100 P.3d 465, 467 (Colo. 2004). Our supreme court has explained:

To determine whether the intent of the parties is clearly and unambiguously expressed, we have previously examined the actual language of the agreement for legal jargon, length and complication, and any likelihood of confusion or failure of a party to recognize the full extent of the release provisions.

Id.

¶ 15 Under Jones, a court must consider four factors in determining whether an exculpatory agreement is valid: (1) the existence of a duty to the public; (2) the nature of the service performed; (3) whether the contract was fairly entered into; and (4) whether the intention of the parties was expressed in clear and unambiguous language. 623 P.2d at 375.

2. Analysis

a. The First Three Jones Factors

¶ 16 The first three Jones factors provide little help for Stone’s position. The supreme court has specified that no public duty is implicated if a business provides recreational services. See Chadwick, 100 P.3d at 467 (addressing guided hunting services and noting that providers of recreational activities owe “no special duty [*7] to the public”); Jones, 623 P.2d at 376-78 (skydiving services); see also Hamill, 262 P.3d at 949 (addressing recreational camping services and noting supreme court authority).

¶ 17 With regard to the second factor, the nature of the services provided, courts have consistently deemed recreational services to be neither essential nor a matter of practical necessity. See Chadwick, 100 P.3d at 467; Hamill, 262 P.3d at 949; see also Brooks v. Timberline Tours, Inc., 941 F. Supp. 959, 962 (D. Colo. 1996) (snowmobiling not a matter of practical necessity), aff’d, 127 F.3d 1273 (10th Cir. 1997); Lahey v. Covington, 964 F. Supp. 1440, 1445 (D. Colo. 1996) (whitewater rafting not an essential service), aff’d sub nom. Lahey v. Twin Lakes Expeditions, Inc., 113 F.3d 1246 (10th Cir. 1997). Stone attempts to distinguish those cases by asserting that people join fitness centers “to promote their health, not for the thrill of a dangerous recreational activity.” She cites no authority for such a distinction, and we are not persuaded that such activities as camping and horseback riding, at issue in the cases cited above, are engaged in for a dangerous thrill as opposed to the healthful benefits of outdoor exercise. Consequently, the recreational nature of the services Life Time provides does not weigh against upholding or enforcing the Agreement.

¶ 18 With respect to the third factor, a contract is fairly entered into if one party [*8] is not at such an obvious disadvantage in bargaining power that the effect of the contract is to place that party at the mercy of the other party’s negligence. See Hamill, 262 P.3d at 949; see also Heil Valley Ranch, Inc. v. Simkin, 784 P.2d 781, 784 (Colo. 1989). Possible examples of unfair disparity in bargaining power include agreements between employers and employees and between common carriers or public utilities and members of the public. See Heil Valley Ranch, Inc., 784 P.2d at 784. However, this type of unfair disparity is generally not implicated when a person contracts with a business providing recreational services. See id.; see also Hamill, 262 P.3d at 949-50.

¶ 19 In evaluating fairness, courts also examine whether the services provided could have been obtained elsewhere. Hamill, 262 P.3d at 950. Nothing in the record indicates that Stone could not have taken her business elsewhere and joined a different fitness club or recreation center. Nor is there any other evidence that the parties’ relative bargaining strengths were unfairly disparate so as to weigh against enforcing the Agreement.

¶ 20 We therefore turn to the fourth prong of the Jones test – whether the intention of the parties was expressed in clear and unambiguous language. [*9]

b. The Fourth Jones Factor

¶ 21 The validity of exculpatory clauses releasing or waiving future negligence claims usually turns on the fourth Jones factor – whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language. Wycoff, 251 P.3d at 1263 (applying the Jones factors to a PLA claim). This case also turns on that factor.

¶ 22 The issue is not whether a detailed textual analysis would lead a court to determine that the language, even if ambiguous, ultimately would bar the plaintiff’s claims. Instead, the language must be clear and unambiguous and also “unequivocal” to be enforceable. Chadwick, 100 P.3d at 467; see also Threadgill v. Peabody Coal Co., 34 Colo. App. 203, 209, 526 P.2d 676, 679 (1974), cited with approval in Jones, 623 P.2d at 378.

¶ 23 We conclude that the Agreement fails this test for numerous reasons.

¶ 24 First, as explained by the New York Court of Appeals, “a provision that would exempt its drafter from any liability occasioned by his fault should not compel resort to a magnifying glass and lexicon.” Gross v. Sweet, 400 N.E.2d 306, 309 (N.Y. 1979), cited with approval in Jones, 623 P.2d at 378. Here, the Agreement consists of extremely dense fine print, for which a great many people would require a magnifying glass or magnifying reading glasses.

¶ 25 Second, the two clauses are replete with legal jargon, using phrases and terms such as “affiliates, subsidiaries, [*10] successors, or assigns”; “assumption of risk”; “inherent risk of injury”; “includes, but is not limited to”; and “I agree to defend, indemnify and hold Life Time Fitness harmless.” The use of such technical legal language militates against the conclusion that the release of liability was clear and simple to a lay person.

¶ 26 Third, the first of the two clauses relied on by Life Time bears the following heading: “under Chapter 458, 459, 460, or Chapter 461 ASSUMPTION OF RISK.” At oral argument, counsel for Life Time conceded that the reference to multiple chapters was ambiguous and confusing, and he could not explain to what the chapters referred. Our research has not enlightened us on the subject. Conscientious lay persons could reasonably have skipped over the fine print appearing under that heading, believing it did not apply to them because they would have no reason to understand that chapters 458, 459, 460, or 461 had any relevance to their situation. Thus, the assumption of risk heading was not clear and unambiguous.

¶ 27 Fourth, the dominant focus of the Agreement is on the risks of strenuous exercise and use of exercise equipment at the fitness center:

  • The opening paragraph [*11] of the Agreement contains the following warning: “All members are strongly encouraged to have a complete physical examination by a medical doctor prior to beginning any work out program or strenuous new activity. If I have a history of heart disease, I agree to consult a physician before becoming a Life Time Fitness member.”
  • Under the confusing assumption of risk heading, the first sentence states, “I understand that there is an inherent risk of injury, whether caused by me or someone else, in the use of or presence at a Life Time Fitness Center, the use of equipment and services at a Life Time Fitness Center, and participation in Life Time Fitness’ programs.”
  • There then follows a listing of types of risks, including the use of “indoor and outdoor pool areas with waterslides, a climbing wall area, ball and racquet courts, cardiovascular and resistance training equipment,” and other specified programs, as well as
  • “[i]njuries arising from the use of Life Time Fitness’ centers or equipment” and from activities and programs sponsored by Life Time; “[i]njuries or medical disorders resulting from exercise at a
  • Life Time Fitness center, including, but not limited to heart attacks, strokes, [*12] heart stress, spr [sic] broken bones and torn muscles or ligaments”; and “[i]njuries resulting from the actions taken or decisions made regarding medical or survival procedures.”

¶ 28 Fifth, the term “inherent risk of injury” that appears in the assumption of risk clause has been applied in various Colorado statutes and case law to address waivers of liability only for activities that are dangerous or potentially dangerous. Thus, the General Assembly has provided for releases from liability in circumstances such as activities involving horses and llamas, section 13-21-119, C.R.S. 2016; being a spectator at baseball games, section 13-21-120, C.R.S. 2016; agricultural recreation or agritourism activities (including hunting, shooting, diving, and operating a motorized recreational vehicle on or near agricultural land), section 13-21-121, C.R.S. 2016; skiing, section 33-44-109, C.R.S. 2016; and spaceflight activities, section 41-6-101, C.R.S. 2016. Significantly, not one of these statutory exemptions from liability extends to the use of locker rooms, rest rooms, or dressing rooms associated with these activities. Rather, the releases of liability extend only to the dangerous or potentially dangerous activities themselves.

¶ 29 Colorado’s published cases concerning the term “inherent risks” similarly concern dangerous or potentially [*13] dangerous activities. For example, the term “inherent risks” has been addressed in cases involving skiing, Graven v. Vail Assocs., Inc., 909 P.2d 514, 519 (Colo. 1995); horseback riding, Heil Valley Ranch, Inc., 784 P.2d at 782; medical procedures or surgical techniques, Mudd v. Dorr, 40 Colo. App. 74, 78-79, 574 P.2d 97, 101 (1977); and attendance at roller hockey games, Teneyck v. Roller Hockey Colo., Ltd., 10 P.3d 707, 710 (Colo. App. 2000). Thus, in reported cases, the term “inherent risks” has been limited to dangerous or potentially dangerous activities, rather than accidents occurring in more common situations, such as using locker rooms.

¶ 30 In light of this statutory and case law backdrop, the use of the inherent risk language in the assumption of risk clause, and the Agreement’s focus on the use of exercise equipment and facilities and physical injuries resulting from strenuous exercise, one could reasonably conclude that by signing the Agreement he or she was waiving claims based only on the inherent risks of injury related to fitness activities, as opposed to washing one’s hands. Indeed, Stone so stated in her affidavit submitted in opposition to the motion for summary judgment.

¶ 31 Sixth, Life Time contends that the only relevant language we need consider is that set forth in the second exculpatory clause, labeled “RELEASE OF LIABILITY.” That provision begins [*14] by stating that “I waive any and all claims or actions that may arise against Life Time . . . as a result of any such injury.” (Emphasis added.) The quoted language, however, is the first use of the term “injury” in the release of liability clause. So the scope of the release can be determined only by referring back to the confusing assumption of risk clause. It is not surprising then that Life Time’s counsel characterized the release’s reference to “such injury” as “squirrely.” In any event, all of the ambiguities and confusion in the assumption of risk clause necessarily infect the release clause.

¶ 32 Seventh, the exculpatory clauses repeatedly use the phrases “includes, but is not limited to” and “including and without limitation,” as well as simply “including.” The repeated use of these phrases makes the clauses more confusing, and the reader is left to guess whether the phrases have different meanings. The problem is compounded by conflicting views expressed by divisions of this court on whether the similar phrase “including, but not limited to” is expansive or restrictive. Compare Maehal Enters., Inc. v. Thunder Mountain Custom Cycles, Inc., 313 P.3d 584, 590 (Colo. App. 2011) (declining to treat the phrase as restrictive and citing Bryan A. Garner, A Dictionary of Modern [*15] Legal Usage 432 (2d ed. 1995)), with Ridgeview Classical Sch. v. Poudre Sch. Dist., 214 P.3d 476, 483 (Colo. App. 2008) (declining to conclude that the phrase took the statute out of the limiting rule of ejusdem generis). For purposes of deciding this case we need not resolve this conflict; the relevance of the conflict for present purposes is that it creates another ambiguity.

¶ 33 That ambiguity – expansive versus restrictive – is critical because nothing in the Agreement refers to risks of using sinks or locker rooms. The assumption of risk clause refers to the “risk of loss, theft or damage of personal property” for the member or her guests while “using any lockers” at a Life Time fitness center. That is quite a separate matter, however, from suffering a physical injury in a locker room.

¶ 34 Significantly, when Life Time intends to exclude accidental injuries occurring in locker rooms, it knows how to draft a clear waiver of liability doing so. In Geczi v. Lifetime Fitness, 973 N.E.2d 801, 803 (Ohio Ct. App. 2012), the plaintiff entered into a membership agreement with Life Time in 2000 (eleven years before Stone entered into the Agreement), which provided in relevant part:

[T]he undersigned agrees to specifically assume all risk of injury while using any of the [*16] Clubs[‘] facilities, equipment, services or programs and hereby waives any and all claims or actions which may arise against LIFE TIME FITNESS or its owners and employees as a result of such injury. The risks include, but are not limited to

. . . .

(4) Accidental injuries within the facilities, including, but not limited to the locker rooms, . . . showers and dressing rooms.

Id. at 806. Life Time chose not to include similar language in the Agreement signed by Stone.

c. The Agreement Is not Clear, Unambiguous, and Unequivocal

¶ 35 Based on the foregoing discussion, and after scrutinizing the exculpatory clauses, we conclude that the Agreement uses excessive legal jargon, is unnecessarily complex, and creates a likelihood of confusion or failure of a party to recognize the full extent of the release provisions. See Chadwick, 100 P.3d at 467. Accordingly, the Agreement does not clearly, unambiguously, and unequivocally bar Stone’s PLA claim based on the injuries she alleges she sustained after she washed her hands in the women’s locker room.

III. Conclusion

¶ 36 The judgment on Stone’s negligence claim is affirmed, the judgment on her PLA claim is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings on that claim.

JUDGE [*17] TAUBMAN and JUDGE FOX concur.


Colorado Premises Liability Act

COLORADO REVISED STATUTES

TITLE 13. COURTS AND COURT PROCEDURE

DAMAGES AND LIMITATIONS ON ACTIONS

ARTICLE 21.DAMAGES

PART 1. GENERAL PROVISIONS

C.R.S. 13-21-115 (2015)

13-21-115. Actions against landowners

(1) For the purposes of this section, “landowner” includes, without limitation, an authorized agent or a person in possession of real property and a person legally responsible for the condition of real property or for the activities conducted or circumstances existing on real property.

(1.5) The general assembly hereby finds and declares:

(a) That the provisions of this section were enacted in 1986 to promote a state policy of responsibility by both landowners and those upon the land as well as to assure that the ability of an injured party to recover is correlated with his status as a trespasser, licensee, or invitee;

(b) That these objectives were characterized by the Colorado supreme court as “legitimate governmental interests” in Gallegos v. Phipps, No. 88 SA 141 (September 18, 1989);

(c) That the purpose of amending this section in the 1990 legislative session is to assure that the language of this section effectuates these legitimate governmental interests by imposing on landowners a higher standard of care with respect to an invitee than a licensee, and a higher standard of care with respect to a licensee than a trespasser;

(d) That the purpose of this section is also to create a legal climate which will promote private property rights and commercial enterprise and will foster the availability and affordability of insurance;

(e) That the general assembly recognizes that by amending this section it is not reinstating the common law status categories as they existed immediately prior to Mile Hi Fence v. Radovich, 175 Colo. 537, 489 P.2d 308 (1971) but that its purpose is to protect landowners from liability in some circumstances when they were not protected at common law and to define the instances when liability will be imposed in the manner most consistent with the policies set forth in paragraphs (a), (c), and (d) of this subsection (1.5).

(2) In any civil action brought against a landowner by a person who alleges injury occurring while on the real property of another and by reason of the condition of such property, or activities conducted or circumstances existing on such property, the landowner shall be liable only as provided in subsection (3) of this section. Sections 13-21-111, 13-21-111.5, and 13-21-111.7 shall apply to an action to which this section applies. This subsection (2) shall not be construed to abrogate the doctrine of attractive nuisance as applied to persons under fourteen years of age. A person who is at least fourteen years of age but is less than eighteen years of age shall be presumed competent for purposes of the application of this section.

(3) (a) A trespasser may recover only for damages willfully or deliberately caused by the landowner.

(b) A licensee may recover only for damages caused:

(I) By the landowner’s unreasonable failure to exercise reasonable care with respect to dangers created by the landowner of which the landowner actually knew; or

(II) By the landowner’s unreasonable failure to warn of dangers not created by the landowner which are not ordinarily present on property of the type involved and of which the landowner actually knew.

(c) (I) Except as otherwise provided in subparagraph (II) of this paragraph (c), an invitee may recover for damages caused by the landowner’s unreasonable failure to exercise reasonable care to protect against dangers of which he actually knew or should have known.

(II) If the landowner’s real property is classified for property tax purposes as agricultural land or vacant land, an invitee may recover for damages caused by the landowner’s unreasonable failure to exercise reasonable care to protect against dangers of which he actually knew.

(3.5) It is the intent of the general assembly in enacting the provisions of subsection (3) of this section that the circumstances under which a licensee may recover include all of the circumstances under which a trespasser could recover and that the circumstances under which an invitee may recover include all of the circumstances under which a trespasser or a licensee could recover.

(4) In any action to which this section applies, the judge shall determine whether the plaintiff is a trespasser, a licensee, or an invitee, in accordance with the definitions set forth in subsection (5) of this section. If two or more landowners are parties defendant to the action, the judge shall determine the application of this section to each such landowner. The issues of liability and damages in any such action shall be determined by the jury or, if there is no jury, by the judge.

(5) As used in this section:

(a) “Invitee” means a person who enters or remains on the land of another to transact business in which the parties are mutually interested or who enters or remains on such land in response to the landowner’s express or implied representation that the public is requested, expected, or intended to enter or remain.

(b) “Licensee” means a person who enters or remains on the land of another for the licensee’s own convenience or to advance his own interests, pursuant to the landowner’s permission or consent. “Licensee” includes a social guest.

(c) “Trespasser” means a person who enters or remains on the land of another without the landowner’s consent.

(6) If any provision of this section is found by a court of competent jurisdiction to be unconstitutional, the remaining provisions of the section shall be deemed valid.

HISTORY: Source: L. 86: Entire section added, p. 683, § 1, effective May 16.L. 90: (1.5), (3.5), (5), and (6) added and (3) and (4) amended, p. 867, § 1, effective April 20.L. 2006: (2) amended, p. 344, § 1, effective April 5.

Editor’s note: Subsections (5)(a) and (5)(c), as they were enacted in House Bill 90-1107, were relettered on revision in 2002 as (5)(c) and (5)(a), respectively.

RECENT ANNOTATIONS

A seller of property pursuant to an installment land contract is not a “landowner” and not responsible for injury to a third party on the property despite being the record title holder of the property if the seller is not in possession of the property at the time of the injury and is not otherwise legally responsible for the conditions, activities, or circumstances on the property pursuant to the contract. Lucero v. Ulvestad, 2015 COA 98, — P.3d — [published July 16, 2015].

ANNOTATION

Law reviews. For article, “Legal Aspects of Health and Fitness Clubs: A Healthy and Dangerous Industry”, see 15 Colo. Law. 1787 (1986). For article, “The Landowners’ Liability Statute”, see 18 Colo. Law. 208 (1989). For article, “The Changing Boundaries of Premises Liability after Gallegos”, see 18 Colo. Law. 2121 (1989). For article, “Recreational Use Of Agricultural Lands”, see 23 Colo. Law. 529 (1994). For article, “The Colorado Premises Liability Statute”, see 25 Colo. Law. 71 (May 1996). For article, “Stealth Statute: The Unexpected Reach of the Colorado Premises Liability Act”, see 40 Colo. Law. 27 (March 2011).

Constitutionality. The phrase “deliberate failure to exercise reasonable care” found in subsection (3)(c) is not unconstitutionally vague. Giebink v. Fischer, 709 F. Supp. 1012 (D. Colo. 1989).

This section does not violate article II, § 6, of the state constitution since that provision is a mandate to the judiciary and not the legislature. Giebink v. Fischer, 709 F. Supp. 1012 (D. Colo. 1989).

This section does not violate article V, section 25 of the state constitution since this provision applies uniformly to all landowners. Giebink v. Fischer, 709 F. Supp. 1012 (D. Colo. 1989).

This section does not violate equal protection since the provision of limited protection to landowners is reasonably related to the protection of the state economy. Giebink v. Fischer, 709 F. Supp. 1012 (D. Colo. 1989).

Unconstitutionality. This section violates both the federal and state constitutional guarantees of equal protection of the laws. Gallegos v. Phipps, 779 P.2d 856 (Colo. 1989); Klausz v. Dillion Co., Inc., 779 P.2d 863 (Colo. 1989) (disagreeing with Giebink v. Fischer cited above) (decided prior to 1990 amendments).

The Colorado Premises Liability Act provides the exclusive remedy against a landowner for physical injuries sustained on the landowner’s property. Henderson v. Master Klean Janitorial, Inc., 70 P.3d 612 (Colo. App. 2003); Vigil v. Franklin, 103 P.3d 322 (Colo. 2004); Anderson v. Hyland Hills Park & Recreation Dist., 119 P.3d 533 (Colo. App. 2004); Sweeney v. United Artists Theater Circuit, 119 P.3d 538 (Colo. App. 2005).

Section applies to conditions, activities, and circumstances on a property that the landowner is liable for in its capacity as a landowner. Defendant, in its capacity as a landowner, was responsible for the activities conducted and conditions on its premises, including the process of assisting a customer with loading a freezer he had purchased from defendant. Larrieu v. Best Buy Stores, L.P., 2013 CO 38, 303 P.3d 558.

This section preempts the common law creation of both landowner duties and defenses to those duties. Consequently, the open and obvious danger doctrine cannot be asserted by a landowner as a defense to a premises liability law suit. Vigil v. Franklin, 103 P.3d 322 (Colo. 2004).

Section does not require that damages resulting from landowner’s negligence be assessed without regard to negligence of the injured party or fault of a nonparty. Union Pac. R.R. v. Martin, 209 P.3d 185 (Colo. 2009).

Section does not abrogate statutorily created defenses, which were available to landowners before the 2006 amendment and afterward. The trial court correctly allowed defendants’ affirmative defenses of comparative negligence and assumption of the risk. Tucker v. Volunteers of Am. Colo. Branch, 211 P.3d 708 (Colo. App. 2008), aff’d on other grounds sub nom. Volunteers of Am. v. Gardenswartz, 242 P.3d 1080 (Colo. 2010).

Premises Liability Act never expressly excluded the statutory defense of comparative negligence from its coverage, and limiting the statutory protection provided to landowners would tend to increase liability rather than protect landowners from liability. DeWitt v. Tara Woods Ltd. P’ship, 214 P.3d 466 (Colo. App. 2008) (decided under law in effect prior to 2006 amendment).

Statute does not have to expressly bar waiver by contract for the contract provision to be invalid because it is contrary to public policy. Stanley v. Creighton Co., 911 P.2d 705 (Colo. App. 1996).

Holding title to property is not dispositive in determining who is a landowner under subsection (1). Wark v. U.S., 269 F.3d 1185 (10th Cir. 2001).

The term “landowner” is no more expansive than the common law definition. Wark v. U.S., 269 F.3d 1185 (10th Cir. 2001).

A landowner is any person in possession of real property and such possession need not necessarily be to the exclusion of all others. Therefore, for purposes of this section, a landowner can be an independent contractor. Pierson v. Black Canyon Aggregates, Inc., 48 P.3d 1215 (Colo. 2002).

This section offers its protection to a person who is legally conducting an activity on the property or legally creating a condition on the property. Such person or entity is responsible for the activity or condition and, therefore, prospectively liable to an entrant onto the property. Pierson v. Black Canyon Aggregates, Inc., 48 P.3d 1215 (Colo. 2002); Wycoff v. Grace Cmty. Church, 251 P.3d 1260 (Colo. App. 2010).

Defendant is not a “landowner” where there is no evidence that it was in possession of the sidewalk or that it was responsible for creating a condition on the sidewalk or conducting an activity on the sidewalk that caused plaintiff’s injuries. Jordan v. Panorama Orthopedics & Spine Ctr., PC, 2013 COA 87, — P.3d –.

The test for determining if a victim is an invitee is whether she or he was on the premises to transact business in which the parties are mutually interested. Grizzell v. Hartman Enters., Inc., 68 P.3d 551 (Colo. App. 2003).

Trial court erred in ruling that plaintiff was defendant’s licensee rather than invitee. Therefore, jury instructions minimized the duties defendant owed to plaintiff under the Premises Liability Act. Wycoff v. Seventh Day Adventist Ass’n, 251 P.3d 1258 (Colo. App. 2010).

If the victim was on the premises at an employee’s invitation for either the employee’s benefit, victim’s benefit, or their mutual benefit, then she or he was a licensee or trespasser not an invitee. Grizzell v. Hartman Enters., Inc., 68 P.3d 551 (Colo. App. 2003).

Volunteers are generally classified as licensees. Grizzell v. Hartman Enters., Inc., 68 P.3d 551 (Colo. App. 2003); Rieger v. Wat Buddhawararam of Denver, Inc., 2013 COA 156, 338 P.3d 404.

So long as a landowner retains possession of its property, it cannot delegate the duties imposed on it by subsection (1). Jules v. Embassy Props., Inc., 905 P.2d 13 (Colo. App. 1995).

When a landowner is vicariously liable under the nondelegability doctrine for acts or omissions of other defendants, the trial court should instruct the jury to determine the respective shares of fault of the landowner and the other defendants. But, in entering a judgment, the court shall aggregate the fault of the landowner with any other defendants for whom the landowner is vicariously liable. Reid v. Berkowitz, 2013 COA 110M, 315 P.3d 185.

But possession of property is not dependent upon title and need not be exclusive. Under this section, a party not an owner or lessee may nevertheless be a “landowner” if the party either maintains control over the property or is legally responsible for either the condition of the property or for activities conducted on the property. Henderson v. Master Klean Janitorial, Inc., 70 P.3d 612 (Colo. App. 2003).

However, a contractor who would otherwise be categorized as a “landowner” during time of work on property is not liable if, at the time of the accident in question, the contractor was neither in possession of the property nor conducting any activity related to the property. In such a case, the plaintiff is not required to prove that defendant contractor had actual knowledge of the alleged dangerous condition. Land-Wells v. Rain Way Sprinkler & Lands., 187 P.3d 1152 (Colo. App. 2008); Collard v. Vista Paving Corp., 2012 COA 208, 292 P.3d 1232.

Contractor who had a legal responsibility for the condition of the premises and who was potentially liable for injuries resulting from that condition held to be a “landowner” for purposes of this section. Henderson v. Master Klean Janitorial, Inc., 70 P.3d 612 (Colo. App. 2003).

When a public entity provides a public building for public use, it owes a nondelegable duty to protect invitees from an unreasonable risk to their health and safety due to a negligent act or omission in constructing or maintaining the facility. Springer v. City & County of Denver, 13 P.3d 794 (Colo. 2000).

Owner of property adjacent to public sidewalk does not have a duty to pedestrians to clear sidewalk of snow merely because it complied with snow removal ordinance from time to time and on a voluntary basis in order to avoid the imposition of penalties. Burbach v. Canwest Invs., LLC, 224 P.3d 437 (Colo. App. 2009).

Snow removal ordinance does not make public sidewalks the “property of” adjacent property owners. The court therefore properly granted summary judgement since owner of property adjacent to public sidewalk was not legally responsible for the condition of the sidewalk. Burbach v. Canwest Invs., LLC, 224 P.3d 437 (Colo. App. 2009).

A landlord retaining sufficient control over an area or instrumentality has a duty to exercise due care in maintaining that area or instrumentality. Nordin v. Madden, 148 P.3d 218 (Colo. App. 2006).

In effect, this section establishes two separate elements for landowner liability: (1) Breach of a duty to use reasonable care to protect against a danger on the property, and (2) actual or constructive knowledge of the danger. Sofford v. Schindler Elevator Corp., 954 F. Supp. 1459 (D. Colo. 1997).

Statute’s requirement that the landowner “knew or should have known” of the danger can be satisfied by actual or constructive knowledge. Lombard v. Colo. Outdoor Educ. Ctr., 187 P.3d 565 (Colo. 2008).

Plaintiff presented sufficient evidence to overcome defendant’s motion for summary judgment on the issue of knowledge because, as the builder, defendant had actual or constructive knowledge of the violation of a building code provision that was intended to ensure the safety of those on the premises, such as plaintiff. Lombard v. Colo. Outdoor Educ. Ctr., 187 P.3d 565 (Colo. 2008).

Plaintiff may overcome summary judgment on the issue of a landowner’s unreasonable failure to exercise reasonable care by presenting evidence that the landowner violated a statute or ordinance that was intended to protect the plaintiff from the type of injury plaintiff suffered. Lombard v. Colo. Outdoor Educ. Ctr., 187 P.3d 565 (Colo. 2008).

A plaintiff may recover against the landowner pursuant to the statute only and not under any other theory of negligence. The language of the premises liability statute makes clear that a party may no longer bring a negligence per se claim against a landowner to recover for damages caused on the premises. Lombard v. Colo. Outdoor Educ. Ctr., 187 P.3d 565 (Colo. 2008).

Building code violation may be evidence that owners failed to use reasonable care. Trial court did not err in tendering to a jury an instruction that included this statement, while rejecting other jury instructions that misstated the relationship between the common law and the premises liability act. Lombard v. Colo. Outdoor Educ. Ctr., Inc., 266 P.3d 412 (Colo. App. 2011).

No lessor liability for injuries. Under this section, as under common law, a lessor who has transferred possession and control over the leased premises to a lessee has no liability for injuries resulting from a dangerous condition of the premises absent proof as to one of the exceptions. Perez v. Grovert, 962 P.2d 996 (Colo. App. 1998).

Under this section, a landlord who has transferred control of the premises to a tenant is no longer a “person in possession” of the real property and is not liable for injuries resulting from a danger on the premises unless the landlord had actual knowledge of the danger before the transfer. Wilson v. Marchiondo, 124 P.3d 837 (Colo. App. 2005).

And no landowner liability for injuries occurring on that portion of an easement exclusively owned, maintained, and controlled by easement holder. deBoer v. Jones, 996 P.2d 754 (Colo. App. 2000); deBoer v. Ute Water Conservancy Dist., 17 P.3d 187 (Colo. App. 2000).

The reservation of the right of inspection and the right of maintenance and repairs is generally not a sufficient attribute of control to support imposition of tort liability on the lessor for injuries to the tenant or third parties. Wilson v. Marchiondo, 124 P.3d 837 (Colo. App. 2005).

This section does not reflect an intention to extend the application of the premises liability doctrine to the negligent supply of a chattel by a landowner. Geringer v. Wildhorn Ranch, Inc., 706 F. Supp. 1442 (D. Colo. 1988).

This section does not apply to ski accident cases which are governed by the Ski Safety Act, article 44 of title 33, C.R.S. Calvert v. Aspen Skiing Co., 700 F. Supp. 520 (D. Colo. 1988).

This section would apply to ski accident cases which involve dangerous conditions that are not ordinarily present at ski areas since the Ski Safety Act, article 44 of title 33, C.R.S., protects skiers against only those dangerous conditions that are commonly present at ski areas. Giebink v. Fischer, 709 F. Supp. 1012 (D. Colo. 1989).

Claim of spectator injured by flying puck at hockey rink governed by this section. The common law “no duty” rule for injuries suffered by spectators at sporting events was superceded by this section. Teneyck v. Roller Hockey Colo., Ltd., 10 P.3d 707 (Colo. App. 2000).

Subsection (2) does not apply when plaintiff is a co-owner of the area where the injuries were sustained, because the injury could not have occurred on the real property of another. Acierno v. Trailside Townhome Ass’n, Inc., 862 P.2d 975 (Colo. App. 1993).

Jury instructions presenting a general negligence theory with regard to an invitee was not prejudicial error, even if there is a meaningful difference between a failure to exercise reasonable care, in the instruction, and an unreasonable failure to exercise reasonable care, from the statute. Lawson v. Safeway, Inc., 878 P.2d 127 (Colo. App. 1994); Thornbury v. Allen, 991 P.2d 335 (Colo. App. 1999).

Because plaintiff is a landowner, trial court should have applied the standard of care in this section rather than the standard of care for operators of amusement devices contained in the jury instructions. Anderson v. Hyland Hills Park & Recreation Dist., 119 P.3d 533 (Colo. App. 2004).

The provisions of this act do not apply to the common areas of a townhome complex that are owned by a townhome owners association, because the townhome owners have a continuing right of access to the common areas in the townhome complex by virtue of their status as owners, regardless of whether the association has given consent. Trailside Townhome Ass’n, Inc. v. Acierno, 880 P.2d 1197 (Colo. 1994).

Rather, the relationship between the townhome owners association and the townhome owners is controlled by the duties specified in the operative documents creating the townhome complex and the association, to the extent those duties are consistent with public policy. Trailside Townhome Ass’n, Inc. v. Acierno, 880 P.2d 1197 (Colo. 1994).

Under this section, a tenant is classified as an invitee, as a customer of the landlord in a continuing business relationship that is mutually beneficial, regardless of the particular activity in which the tenant was engaged when injured. Maes v. Lakeview Assocs., Ltd., 892 P.2d 375 (Colo. App. 1994), aff’d, 907 P.2d 580 (Colo. 1995); Pedge v. RM Holdings, Inc., 75 P.3d 1126 (Colo. App. 2002).

Plaintiff who paid admission was invitee and not a social guest. Social hosts do not typically require their guests to sign permission slips and pay for their hospitality. Wycoff v. Grace Cmty. Church, 251 P.3d 1260 (Colo. App. 2010).

Cyclist was an invitee at the time of the accident. While there was no evidence that cyclist was on a bike path in response to landowner’s express representation that the public was requested, expected, or intended to enter or remain on the property, there was evidence of an implied representation of this through “Bicycle Path, No Motorized Vehicles” signs. Nelson v. United States, 20 F. Supp. 3d 1108 (D. Colo. 2014).

Cyclist was a licensee where there was evidence of a course of conduct and usage in connection with a bike path before cyclist’s accident that showed that the landowner knew that people were using the path for recreational purposes and did not affirmatively preclude them from its use. Nelson v. United States, 20 F. Supp. 3d 1108 (D. Colo. 2014).

A social guest of a tenant is a licensee absent a showing that the guest entered the premises to transact business with the landlord or that the landlord represented that the guest was expected to enter or remain. Wilson v. Marchiondo, 124 P.3d 837 (Colo. App. 2005).

Contractor with legal responsibility for the condition of the premises owes an employee of a lessor of the premises a duty of care which this section imposes upon a landowner with respect to an invitee. Henderson v. Master Klean Janitorial, Inc., 70 P.3d 612 (Colo. App. 2003).

The liability of a landowner to a licensee under this section is to be limited to situations in which the landowner possesses an active awareness of the dangerous condition. Wright v. Vail Run Resort Cmty. Ass’n, 917 P.2d 364 (Colo. App. 1996); Grizzell v. Hartman Enters., Inc., 68 P.3d 551 (Colo. App. 2003).

Attractive nuisance doctrine applies to all children, regardless of their classification within the trespasser-licensee-invitee trichotomy. S.W. v. Towers Boat Club, Inc., 2013 CO 72, 315 P.3d 1257.

Summary judgment in favor of landlord proper in absence of any evidence concerning landlord’s knowledge of alleged defect. Casey v. Christie Lodge Owners Ass’n, 923 P.2d 365 (Colo. App. 1996).

Section covers claims for negligent supervision and retention when a claim relates to the condition of property. Casey v. Christie Lodge Owners Ass’n, 923 P.2d 365 (Colo. App. 1996).

Section does not abrogate claims that also arise under dog bite statute. Plaintiff bitten by defendant’s dogs on property where defendant qualified as a “landowner” could bring a claim under this section. Legro v. Robinson, 2012 COA 182, 328 P.3d 238, aff’d on other grounds, 2014 CO 40, 325 P.3d 1053.

The term “consent” includes both express and implied consent. The fact that the term “express or implied” is used with respect to an “invitee” but not with respect to a “licensee” or a “trespasser” does not preclude implied consent from being sufficient to make one entering property a “licensee” and not a “trespasser”. Corder v. Folds, 2012 COA 174, 292 P.3d 1177.

 


Suit against a city for construction retaining wall in City Park identifies defenses to be employed to protect park patrons.

Remember each state (and sometimes city) has different state immunity acts. This analysis only applies to Dallas Texas. What is interesting is city could be held liable for gross negligence.

Mitchell v. City of Dallas, 855 S.W.2d 741; 1993 Tex. App. LEXIS 1714

State: Texas

Plaintiff: Saundra Harris Mitchell and Jan P. Mitchell, Individually and as Next Friends of Ashley J. Harris

Defendant: City of Dallas

Plaintiff Claims: City failed to warn park users of the steep drop-off and failed to construct a fence or other barrier around this dangerous area

Defendant Defenses: Texas Tort Claims Act

Holding: Reversed and remanded for trial

Year: 1993

State tort claims acts very greatly from state to state. In many states, it is impossible to sue the state and in others, it is quite easy. Some states limit the amount of recovery and the type of claims, in others not so much. If you work for a city, county or state as part of the parks, recreation or open space program, it will be beneficial to learn your state’s tort claim act and your requirements under it.

In this case, the City of Dallas, Texas, the defendant constructed a 15’ to 25’ retaining wall to stop erosion next to a creek. The top of the wall was next to a sidewalk and a restroom. The plaintiff minor was riding his bicycle on the sidewalk when he fell off and over the wall.

The plaintiff through his mother and father sued the city for his injuries. At the trial court level the city filed a motion for summary judgment and won. The plaintiff’s appealed.

Several issues in the decision dealing with the intricacies of the Texas Tort Claims Act will be skipped in this review because it applies solely to Texas.

Summary of the case

The first interesting issue was whether the claims of the plaintiff were governed by common law or statute. Meaning did the Texas law on land owners apply or did the law that existed prior to the statute concerning landowners apply. Said another way, did the ability to establish and create city parks occur because it was a proprietary function of a city. State statutes state that “operation of parks and zoos is a governmental function.”

The difference between a proprietary function and a governmental function will define the different claims and possible recoveries that are available. In this case, the appellate court held that the park was covered by the statute and the creation, care; maintenance of the park was governmental. As such, claims had to come under the Texas Tort Claims Act.

The next issue was the standard of care owed by the city to park users. The plaintiff claimed they were invitees, and as such, owed a higher standard of care than a trespasser. An invitee is a person the landowner invites to the land and receives a benefit from the invites’ presence on the land. The plaintiff argued that because they paid taxes, they were invitees.

There are three definitions of people coming upon the land; Trespassers, Licensees and Invitees. A landowner owes little duty to a trespasser, only owes a licensee a duty to refrain from wilful, wanton or gross negligence, and owes an invite the highest degree of care.

However, the payment of taxes argument did not fly with the court. Under the statute, the standard of care owed by a city to park users was that of a licensee.

The duty owed by the City to park users under the Texas Tort Claims Act is the duty that a private person owes to a licensee. An owner or occupier of land must refrain from injuring a licensee by willful, wanton, or gross negligence. An owner or occupant must also warn a licensee of any dangerous condition, or make the condition reasonably safe, if the land owner has actual knowledge of the dangerous condition, and the licensee does not.   

Under the law of Texas the city, to be liable, must be grossly negligent.

Gross negligence is defined as “such an entire want of care as to establish that the act or omission was the result of actual conscious indifference to the rights, safety, or welfare of the person affected.

In a motion for summary judgment, the party opposing the motion must only create a question about how the law applies to the facts to have the motion denied rather than prove any issues. The city to win on a motion for summary judgment must conclusively negate at least one of the essential elements of the plaintiff’s case to win. Here, the plaintiff’s created a question as to whether the construction of the wall was done in a wilful, wanton or grossly negligent manner.

The next issue was whether the city had notice of the defective condition. The city presented three affidavits from officials saying they had never heard of problems with the wall. However, the court found that knowledge was more than affirmatively not knowing about problems.

The City relies on affidavits from three park officials to show that it lacked actual knowledge of any dangerous condition. The affidavits state that the City had no prior notice of a defect, dangerous condition, or similar accident. However, lack of notice from third parties does not conclusively negate actual knowledge. The fact that the owner or occupier of premises  created a condition that posed an unreasonable risk of harm may support an inference of knowledge.

Knowledge can be anyone in the employee of the city.

In conclusion, the court stated:

The establishment and maintenance of municipal parks are governmental functions under the Texas Tort Claims Act. The City is immune from liability for any claims involving the design of the gabion wall at Hamilton Park. However, the City is not immune from liability for claims based on the construction or maintenance of the wall. The duty owed by the City to park users is the same duty owed by a private person to a licensee.

We hold that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment. There are genuine fact issues concerning (1) gross negligence 5 in the construction and maintenance of the gabion wall, and (2) the failure to warn of or correct a dangerous condition. 6 We sustain the Mitchell’s second and third points of error.

5  The duty owed to a licensees being a duty to refrain from injuring by willful, wanton, or gross negligence.

6  The licensor must also warn of a dangerous condition, or make it reasonably safe, if the licensor has actual knowledge of the condition and the licensee does not have such knowledge.

So Now What?

The most important thing to take away from this decision is the vast differences between state tort claims act. In some states, this same fact situation would not create liability and in some states very few of the state tort claims defenses would work.

Of interest was the issue that the city to be found liable had to be found wilful, wanton or grossly negligent. The decision does not state whether if a jury finds the city was wilful, wanton or grossly negligent if increased damages are available to the plaintiff. Most state tort claims acts specifically deny additional damages.

Also not discussed whether the Texas Recreational Use Statute applied to parks. Since parks are free, many states include state, county and city land in the definition of land protected by recreational use statutes. In most states, this is the first and best defense to claims arising from parks and open space.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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You can’t sue for a danger which you could have seen when biking on someone’s land

Besides riding a BMX course before it is open is not smart.

Cottom v. USA Cycling, Inc, 2002 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 6745 (W.D. Mich. 2002)

Plaintiff: Bradley J. R. Cottom and Melissa Cottom

Defendant: USA Cycling, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: the danger which injured the plaintiff was Open and Obvious

Holding: for the defendant on its motion for summary judgment

 

In this Federal District Court case from Michigan, the court discusses the open and obvious rule applied to a mountain biker on someone else’s land. In this case, the plaintiff entered upon an unfinished BMX or dirt bike track being built by USA Cycling, Inc. and was injured in loose dirt. Because the condition of the track was open and obvious, he could not recover from the defendant.

The plaintiff was a fairly experienced BMX rider. He had seen a dirt track being built and went over to investigate. He saw construction workers as well as cyclists on the track. Talking to one construction worker, he as assured the track was safe. He rode around the track once without incident. On the second lap, he fell when he hit a rock or slipped on loose gravel and hyperextended his knee and broke his leg.

Summary of the case

Under Michigan’s law, the plaintiff was identified as a licensee. A licensee is someone who:

…is a person who is privileged to enter the land of another by virtue of the possessor’s consent. A landowner owes a licensee a duty only to warn the licensee of any hidden dangers the owner knows or has reason to know of, if the licensee does not know or have reason to know of the dangers involved. The landowner owes no duty of inspection or affirmative care to make the premises safe for the licensee’s visit.

The other two categories describing people on another’s land are trespasser and invitee. A trespasser is there without any benefit for the land owner generally, and an invitee is one who is there for the benefit to the landowner and at the bequest of the landowner.

The defense is whether the danger that injured the plaintiff was hidden or open and obvious.

USA Cycling [defendant] argues that because the condition of the track was open and obvious, it did not owe Cottom [plaintiff] a duty of protection or warning. USA Cycling notes that Cottom was able to observe the track prior to riding, that he rode around the track one time without falling, and that he was able to get a feel for the track conditions prior to his accident. Thus, according to USA Cycling, there were no hidden dangers present and it cannot be held liable for Cottom’s accident.

To prove the danger that injured the plaintiff was not open and obvious the plaintiff must complete a two-step test. Plaintiff must prove that the defendant should have known of the potentially dangerous condition and that the plaintiff did not know about the dangerous condition. The court stated the plaintiff failed to prove the second part of the test because there is no requirement to safeguard licensees from dangers that are open and obvious because those dangers come with their own warnings. The open and obvious test is an objective one, whether a reasonable person in the position of the plaintiff would have foreseen the danger.

…there is no duty to take steps to safeguard licensees from conditions that are open and obvious, for “such dangers come with their own warning. A danger is open and obvious if “‘an average user with ordinary intelligence [would] have been able to discover the danger and the risk presented upon casual inspection.”

The plaintiff’s experience, visual review of the track and one lap without incident defeated his claim.

Cottom, an experienced BMX cyclist, was able to casually inspect the track and the track conditions before his accident by watching other bikers on the track and then riding on the track once himself. A reasonable person in this position would foresee the dangers the track presented, making the condition of the track open and obvious. In fact, most Americans have ridden bicycles in their youth and know that bike riders lose control of their bikes in loose dirt or that a rock will cause a bike to tip over.

First, the unpacked, gravelly condition of the track surface did not make the likelihood of injury higher than an ordinary, complete bike track. It is just as difficult for an ordinarily prudent person to ride a bike on a race track of loose dirt without losing control of the bike or falling as it is on any other dirt track. Second, there was not a high potential for severe harm. Thousands of people ride bikes every day, and many of them fall while riding their bikes on sidewalks, bike paths, tracks or trails. Bumps, bruises, and scrapes, or occasionally broken bones or more serious injuries, are the normal incidents of bike riding, especially BMX bike riding as in this case.

Because the plaintiff was able to inspect the track himself, had seen other bikers on the track and ridden the track once before falling on this second lap the plaintiff had a chance to see any dangers. The danger that cased the injury, therefore, was open and obvious and the defendant did not owe any greater duty to the defendant licensee.

Once this burden was met by the defendant the only option left to the plaintiff was to argue the danger was unreasonable. Whether there were special aspects of the danger that created or differentiated the risk. The court explained the differences this way.

For example, a pothole in a parking lot presents an open and obvious risk for which the premise’s owner would not normally be liable if someone were to trip and fall because of the hole. An unguarded, 30-foot-deep pit might present an unreasonable risk, however, because of the danger of death or severe injury.

The plaintiff was unable to argue that a rock on a dirt track was an unreasonable danger.

Thousands of people ride bikes everyday, and many of them fall while riding their bikes on sidewalks, bike paths, tracks or trails. Bumps, bruises, and scrapes, or occasionally broken bones or more serious injuries, are the normal incidents of bike riding, especially BMX bike riding as in this case.

The risks of the track were ordinary, not an unguarded deep pit. Nor was he able to prove the person who gave him the assurance that the track was safe was an employee of the defendant or that the person providing the warning had any greater knowledge about the track than the plaintiff.

The court granted the defendants motion for summary judgment.

So Now What?

This decision besides explaining the landowner’s duty for hidden dangers and the defense of open and obvious danger has great language in it for any cycling decision. The court sets forth facts that falling is a part of cycling. “Bumps, bruises, and scrapes or occasionally broken bones or more serious injures” are normal for bike riders. If you are a land owner, bike rental company, or cycling retailer, this is important language to keep available or even incorporate into your release.

If you are a land owner offering your land to someone, you should review your risks with an attorney specializing in real estate. You have multiple defenses available to you so you can allow people the opportunity to recreate. The first is all states have a statute that provides indemnity for landowners who allow others to recreate for free. These laws are called Recreational Use statutes. They differ wildly from state to state and the amount of protections they provide. Make sure you understand what you must and must not do to qualify for this protection.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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

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