Pennsylvania wrongful death statute is written in a way that a split court determined the deceased release prevented the surviving family members from suing.Posted: April 10, 2017
Plaintiff argued that because she did not sign the release, the release did not apply to her. However, the court found that the release was written broadly enough that it covered the plaintiff’s suit as well as finding that the release included enough assumption of risk language that the deceased knowingly assume the risk.
Valentino v. Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC, 2016 PA Super 248; 2016 Pa. Super. LEXIS 663
State: Pennsylvania, Superior Court of Pennsylvania
Plaintiff: Michele Valentino, as Administratrix of the Estate of Derek Valentino, Deceased, and Michele Valentino, in her Own Right,
Defendant: Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC
Plaintiff Claims: inattentive to the needs of the contestants, failed to inspect or maintain the event course, failed to warn of or remove dangerous conditions, failed to properly plan or organize the event, failed to follow safety standards, and failed to properly train and supervise its employees, outrageous acts, gross negligence, recklessness, and punitive damages.
Defendant Defenses: release
Holding: for the defendant
This is an interesting case, because the Pennsylvania, wrongful death statute is written in a way that almost prevented a release from stopping a claim by a widow. The decision was also in front of the entire court of appeals and was a split decision.
This case centers on the Philadelphia triathlon. The deceased signed up for the triathlon electronically in January. While signing up for the triathlon, he signed a release to enter the race electronically.
At the start of the triathlon the deceased entered the water and never finished the swim part of the race. His body was found the following day by divers.
On June 26, 2010, at approximately 8:30 a.m., Mr. Valentino entered the Schuylkill River to begin the first part of the Triathlon. He never completed the swimming portion of the competition or any other part of the race. The following day, on June 27, 2010, divers retrieved his body from the Schuylkill River.
The widow of the deceased, the plaintiff, filed a complaint under the Pennsylvania wrongful death statute. Most states have a wrongful-death statute. The wrongful-death statute is the specific ways that the survivors can sue the person who caused the death of a loved one.
After filing the original complaint the plaintiff then filed an amended complaint. The defendant filed objections which the trial court upheld arguing that the complaint failed to state facts, which would allow the court or jury to reach a claim of outrageous acts, gross negligence or recklessness and thus award punitive damages.
The defendant filed an additional motion for summary judgment which the court granted dismissing all the claims of the plaintiff. The plaintiff then appealed the dismissal of her claims.
Most appellate courts may have anywhere from 3 to 15 or more judges sitting on the appellate court. When appeals are filed, judges are then assigned to these cases. Not all judges are assigned to every case. The majority the time a case is heard by three Appellate Ct. judges.
The decision in this case was split. Three judges affirmed the trial court’s order concerning some motions. However, two of the members of the appellate court concluded that the release executed by the deceased did not apply to his widow, the plaintiff, because she was not a sign release.
…however, two of the three members of the petite panel concluded that the liability waiver executed by Mr. Valentino did not apply to Appellant because she was not a signatory to the agreement.
The defendant then petitioned the court for hearing en banc. En banc means in front of the entire panel of the appellate court. The entire panel agreed to hear the case again specifically looking at five specific issues set forth below. In this case en banc meant in front of nine judges.
Consequently, this Court vacated summary judgment in favor of Appellee as to Appellant’s wrongful death claims.5 Thereafter, both Appellant and Appellee requested reargument en banc. By order filed on March 11, 2016, this Court granted en banc reargument and withdrew our opinions of December 30, 2015. We now address the following questions:
1. Whether the [trial c]ourt erred in sustaining the [p]reliminary [o]bjections  where, when the material facts set forth in the [a]mended [c]omplaint, as well as all reasonable inferences deducible therefrom, are accepted as true, it cannot be said with certainty that [Appellee’s] actions were not sufficiently reckless, outrageous and/or egregious to warrant an award of punitive damages?
2. Whether the [trial c]ourt erred [*8] in sustaining the [p]reliminary [o]bjections  and striking para-graph[s] 22(a), (c), (e), and (m) of the [a]mended [c]omplaint where these averments, and the [a]mended [c]omplaint in general, were sufficiently specific to enable [Appellee] to respond and prepare a defense?
3. Whether the [trial c]ourt erred in granting [Appellee’s] second [m]otion for [s]ummary [j]udgment where the issue of waiver and release was previously decided in the [o]rder of January 29, 2013 that denied [Appellee’s] first [m]otion for [s]ummary [j]udgment, and the [c]ourt was precluded by the coordinate jurisdiction rule from revisiting the question?
4. Whether the [trial c]ourt erred in granting [Appellee’s] [m]otion for [s]ummary [j]udgment where, when the record is viewed in the light most favorable to [Appellant], questions of fact remain as to whether the purported release in question was effectively executed by the decedent and, if it was, whether it was enforceable?
5. Whether the [trial c]ourt erred in granting [Appellee’s] [m]otion for [s]ummary [j]udgment where the report issued by Mark Mico fully and adequately addressed the questions of duty, breach of duty and causation and, in addition, he was fully qualified to render opinions in these regards?
Only the fourth and fifth issues that the court identified, are relevant to us. The first is whether or not the decedent effectively executed an electric agreement and whether not the case should be dismissed because of the release.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
The court first looked at the issue punitive damages and defined punitive damages were under Pennsylvania law. Pennsylvania like most of the states, defines punitive damages for acts that are outrageous because of an evil motive or recklessness or an indifference towards the rights of others.
In Pennsylvania, “[p]unitive damages may be awarded for conduct that is outrageous, because of the defendant’s evil motive or his reckless indifference to the rights of others.” As the name suggests, punitive damages are penal in nature and are proper only in cases where the defendant’s actions are so outrageous as to demonstrate willful, wanton or reckless conduct.” To support a claim for punitive damages, the plaintiff must show that the defendant had a subjective appreciation of the risk of harm to which the plaintiff was exposed and that the defendant acted, or failed to act, in conscious disregard of that risk. “Ordinary negligence, involving inadvertence, mistake or error of judgment will not support an award of punitive damages.”
The plaintiff argued in her amended complaint that the defendant was inattentive to the needs of the contestants, failed to inspect and maintain the course, failed to warn or remove dangerous conditions, failed to properly plan or organize the event, failed to follow safety standards and failed to properly train and supervise its employees.
…inattentive to the needs of the contestants, failed to inspect or maintain the event course, failed to warn of or remove dangerous conditions, failed to properly plan or organize the event, failed to follow safety standards, and failed to properly train and supervise its employees
The court looked at these allegations and held that they simply argued simple negligence, and none of the allegations rose to the level to be outrageous, evil or showing an indifference the welfare of others. The court sustained, upheld, dismissal of the gross negligence claims against the defendant.
These allegations, however, averred nothing more than ordinary negligence arising from inadvertence, mistake, or error in judgment; they do not support a claim involving outrageous behavior or a conscious disregard for risks confronted by Triathlon participants. Hence, the trial court correctly dismissed
The next issue important to us, is whether or not the plaintiff can contractually waive liability for reckless or intentional conduct.
Appellant next maintains that a plaintiff cannot contractually waive liability for reckless or intentional conduct and that, as a result, the liability waiver executed in this case is incapable of extinguishing such claims. Appellant also asserts that, pursuant to our prior decision in Pisano, a decedent’s liability waiver is ineffective as to non-signatory third-party wrongful death claimants. Lastly, Appellant claims that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment because she offered the testimony of a qualified expert to address lingering questions of Appellee’s duty, breach of duty, and injury causation.
The first major argument made by the plaintiff was there were two different releases presented to the court in different motions filed by the defendant. One was two pages long I will was 2 ½ pages long.
Appellant draws our attention to differences between the version of the liability waiver introduced in support of Appellee’s first motion for summary judgment and the version submitted in support of its second motion. Appellant notes that the second version was two and one-half pages in length while the first version was only two pages. Appellant also notes that the second version bore the date “2011” while the event occurred in 2010. Lastly, the second version included the words “Yes, I agree to the above waivers” above the signature line while the first version did not.
However, the court found that this was not an issue, and both pieces of evidence were the same release. The defendant hired a third-party firm to administer the sign up for the event and the execution of the release by the participants. The principle of the third-party firm testified that once the release is signed it is stored electronically and in storing the document it is shrunk so that when it is presented a second time it is actually a different size but the identical document.
The record shows that Appellee retained the services of ACTIVE Network (ACTIVE) to implement the online registration process for the Triathlon. ACTIVE implemented the required specifications for online registration, including guidelines for specific waiver and assumption of the risk language, supplied by Appellee and USA Triathlon (USAT), the national governing body of the sport of triathlon. USAT sanctioned the Triathlon because Appellee followed USAT registration guidelines.
According to Mr. McCue’s affidavit, “ACTIVE’s computer system condenses older registration and waiver documents for storage purposes, making any printed version of the older retained registration and waiver documents appear smaller than when they were viewed online by the reader/registrant.”
The third-party also demonstrated that there was no way the participant could’ve entered the race without a bib. The only way to get a bib was to sign the release.
Appellee also demonstrated that no one could participate in the Triathlon without registering online, a process that could not be completed without the execution of a liability waiver.
The plaintiff next argued that the release is unenforceable against claims of reckless or intentional conduct. However, the court quickly dismissed this, by referring to its earlier ruling that the complaint did not allege facts to support a claim of reckless or intentional conduct.
The next issue centered on the definition and wording of the Pennsylvania wrongful death statute. To be successful in the plaintiff’s Pennsylvania wrongful death claim, the plaintiff must show that the actions of the defendant were tortious. Because the release was validly executed by the deceased, and it showed that he knowingly and voluntarily assume the risk of taking part in the competition, the deceased assumed of the risk and eliminated the tortuous act of the defendant.
Here, Mr. Valentino, in registering online for the Triathlon, executed a detailed liability waiver under which he expressly assumed the risk of participating in the Triathlon and agreed to indemnify Appellee for liability stemming from his involvement in the event. The valid liability waiver executed by Mr. Valentino was available to support Appellee’s claim that Mr. Valentino knowingly and voluntarily assumed the risk of taking part in the competition and that, therefore, Appellee’s actions were not tortious. Since Appellant’s wrongful death claims required her to establish that Appellee’s conduct was tortious, the trial court did not err in granting summary judgment in favor of Appellee.
The plaintiff argued that a prior decision by the court had invalidated releases for wrongful-death claims. The court distinguished that prior decision from this one because the prior decision required arbitration of the claims and that the decedent in that case had not signed the actual agreement. In that case the husband of the deceased when putting her in a nursing home signed all the paperwork. The deceased did not sign a release or arbitration agreement.
A liability waiver, however, operates quite differently from an arbitration clause. By executing a liability waiver, the decedent signatory acknowledges and assumes identified risks and pledges that the defendant will not be held liable for resulting harms. If the decedent executes the waiver in a knowing, intelligent, and voluntary manner (as here), the waiver is deemed valid and it shifts the risk of loss away from the defendant and onto the decedent. In effect, an enforceable waiver under which the decedent assumes specified risks transforms the nature of the defendant’s conduct vis-à-vis the decedent from tortious to non-tortious.
The court held that a release stops a claim under the Pennsylvania wrongful death statute when it is signed by the deceased.
Our conclusion that Appellee may rely on a liability waiver signed only by the decedent to defeat Appellant’s wrongful death claims is undiminished by Pennsylvania case law holding that a settlement and release agreement does not bind non-signatories.
Consequently, the court upheld the trial court’s dismissal of the claims against the plaintiff based upon the release.
So Now What?
Wrongful-death statutes are quite specific in how they must operate and how they are to be interpreted by the courts. You should look at your wrongful-death statute or have your attorney look at the wrongful-death statute for the state where your release will be argued to make sure that it passes or succeeds in stopping a wrongful-death claim. It would be extremely rare to find a release that did not stop the claims, absent proof of misrepresentation or fraud.
The second thing you need to do you always make sure you that your release covers not only all the defendants if you want to protect from any lawsuit but also includes all the possible plaintiffs who might sue you. This includes the deceased obviously but also a spouse and any children of the deceased. If the deceased is single, you want to make sure it includes any siblings or parents who may have a legal claim upon the deceased death.
The outcome would be pretty forgone in most states. However, nothing is ever set in stone in the law.
If you are interested in having me write your release, fill out this Information Form and Contract and send it to me.
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Jesus Espinoza, Jr., Plaintiff, v. Arkansas Valley Adventures, LLC; Defendant.
Civil Action No. 13-cv-01421-MSK-BNB
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLORADO
2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 136102
September 26, 2014, Decided
September 26, 2014, Filed
CORE TERMS: rafting, trip, undersigned, wrongful death, decedent’s, exculpatory provision, outfitter, exculpatory clause, summary judgment, white water, website, participating, genuine, raft, river, affirmative defense, material facts, misrepresentation, exculpatory, enforceable, unambiguous, whitewater, survived, heir, obstacles, matter of law, entitled to judgment, assumption of risk, burden of proof, personal representative
COUNSEL: [*1] For Jesus Espinoza, Jr., Plaintiff: William James Hansen, LEAD ATTORNEY, McDermott & McDermott, LLP, Denver, CO; George E. McLaughlin, Warshauer-McLaughlin Law Group, P.C., Denver, CO.
For Arkansas Valley Adventures, LLC, Defendant: Conor P. Boyle, Ryan L. Winter, Hall & Evans, LLC-Denver, Denver, CO.
JUDGES: Marcia S. Krieger, Chief United States District Judge.
OPINION BY: Marcia S. Krieger
OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT
THIS MATTER comes before the Court on the Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (# 17), the Plaintiff’s Response (# 22), and the Defendant’s Reply (# 26).
I. JURISDICTION AND ISSUES PRESENTED
Sue Ann Apolinar died on a white water rafting trip conducted by Defendant Arkansas Valley Adventures (“AVA”). This action is brought by Ms. Apolinar’s son, Jesus Espinoza, who asserts three claims related to his mother’s death: (1) negligent, careless, and imprudent operation of a raft resulting in wrongful death; (2) negligence and negligence per se; and (3) fraud and misrepresentation.
AVA moves for summary judgment on all three claims. It seeks to dismiss any “survivorship” claim premised on C.R.S. § 13-20-101 for lack of capacity. In addition, it seeks judgment in its favor on all of Plaintiff’s [*2] claims based on its affirmative defense that Ms. Apolinar released AVA from liability and assumed all risks prior to the rafting trip. The Court exercises jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. 1332. The issues are governed by Colorado law.
II. MATERIAL FACTS
Based upon the evidence submitted by the parties, which the Court construes most favorably to the Plaintiff, the material facts are summarized below. Where appropriate, the Court provides further explication explication in conjunction with its analysis.
Mr. Espinoza is Ms. Apolinar’s son. There is no evidence of record that an estate was created following Ms. Apolinar’s death or whether Mr. Espinoza acts in a fiduciary capacity for such estate.
AVA is a river outfitter licensed under C.R.S. § 33-32-104. It offers a number of river rafting trips of varying levels of difficulty. Among the trips it offers is “24 Hours in Brown’s Canyon,” which Ms. Apolinar booked based on her review of AVA’s website. She made reservations for herself, her significant other, her god-daughter, and Mr. Espinoza because “it looked like fun and was appropriate for [the group’s] level of experience.”
Before beginning the rafting trip, AVA required its participants to review and execute a document [*3] entitled “Rafting Warning, Assumption of Risk, and Release of Liability & Indemnification Agreement” (“Agreement”). Ms. Apolinar signed the Agreement for herself and for her minor son, Mr. Espinoza, on June 7, 2011 before beginning the trip.
On the second day of the trip, the raft carrying Ms. Apolinar capsized while navigating a rapid known as “Seidel’s Suck Hole.” Ms. Apolinar was ejected from the raft. An AVA guide pulled her back into the raft, but it capsized and ejected Ms. Apolinar, again. Ms. Apolinar was swept into a logjam, became entangled with the collection of tree logs and branches, and tragically drowned.
III. STANDARD OF REVIEW
Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure facilitates the entry of a judgment only if no trial is necessary. See White v. York Intern. Corp., 45 F.3d 357, 360 (10th Cir. 1995). Summary adjudication is authorized when there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and a party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Substantive law governs what facts are material and what issues must be determined. It also specifies the elements that must be proved for a given claim or defense, sets the standard of proof, and identifies the party with the burden of proof. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986); Kaiser–Francis Oil Co. v. Producer’s Gas Co., 870 F.2d 563, 565 (10th Cir. 1989). A factual dispute is “genuine” and summary judgment is precluded if [*4] the evidence presented in support of and opposition to the motion is so contradictory that, if presented at trial, a judgment could enter for either party. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. When considering a summary judgment motion, a court views all evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, thereby favoring the right to a trial. See Garrett v. Hewlett Packard Co., 305 F.3d 1210, 1213 (10th Cir. 2002).
If the movant has the burden of proof on a claim or defense, the movant must establish every element of its claim or defense by sufficient, competent evidence. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1)(A). Once the moving party has met its burden, to avoid summary judgment the responding party must present sufficient, competent, contradictory evidence to establish a genuine factual dispute. See Bacchus Indus., Inc. v. Arvin Indus., Inc., 939 F.2d 887, 891 (10th Cir. 1991); Perry v. Woodward, 199 F.3d 1126, 1131 (10th Cir. 1999). If there is a genuine dispute as to a material fact, a trial is required. If there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact, no trial is required. The court then applies the law to the undisputed facts and enters judgment.
AVA’s motion raises a straight forward issue — are Ms. Espinoza’s claims barred by the exculpatory and release provisions of the Agreement executed by Ms. Apolinar. However, before addressing that question, AVA asks that the Court clarify the capacity in which Mr. Espinoza [*5] brings this action.
As noted, Mr. Espinoza asserted three claims in the Amended Complaint: (1) negligent, careless, and imprudent operation of a raft resulting in wrongful death; (2) negligence and negligence per se; and (3) fraud and misrepresentation. None of these are brought for injuries to Mr. Espinoza1, only for the death of his mother.
1 Much of the parties’ argument addresses questions of Ms. Apolinar’s capacity to execute the Agreement for her son (then a minor), Mr. Espinoza. The Court need not address this debate because Mr. Espinoza is not asserting claims for injuries to him. He asserts claims for the death of his mother, which grow out of what she could have asserted had she survived, and therefore it is the Agreement that she executed for herself that is at issue.
Colorado law recognizes that claims can be brought on behalf of a decedent in two different capacities. The first type of claim is brought in a fiduciary capacity by the personal representative of the estate of the deceased person. C.R.S. § 13-20-101. Claims brought in this capacity are often referred to as “survival” claims. The personal representative “stands in the decedent’s shoes” in order to assert a claim that the [*6] decedent could have asserted had he or she been alive. The beneficiary of a survival claim is the decedent’s estate.
The second type of claim is brought by the decedent’s heir. Known as a wrongful death claim, it is created and limited by statute. C.R.S. § 13-21-201 et seq; see also Espinoza v. O’Dell, 633 P.2d 455, 462-466 (Colo. 1981). A wrongful death claim differs from a claim that a decedent could have asserted during his or her lifetime. A wrongful death claim arises only upon the decedent’s death, it addresses wrongful acts that caused the death, and the amount of recovery is limited by statute. C.R.S. § 13-21-203; Fish v. Liley, 120 Colo. 156, 208 P.2d 930, 933 (1949); Colorado Comp. Ins. Auth. v. Jorgensen, 992 P.2d 1156, 1164 n. 6 (Colo. 2000). To prove a wrongful death claim, an heir must establish that (1) the death of the decedent; (2) was caused by a wrongful act and 3) that the decedent would have been able to maintain an action for injuries, had the person survived. Stamp v. Vail Corp., 172 P.3d 437, 451 (Colo. 2007). A wrongful death claim is subject to the same limitations and defenses that would have applied to the claim had the decedent survived and brought the claim. Elgin v. Bartlett, 994 P.2d 411, 416 (Colo.1999); see also Lee v. Colo. Dep’t of Health, 718 P.2d 221, 233 (Colo.1986) ( comparative negligence of the decedent will reduce the recovery available in a wrongful death action brought by the decedent’s heirs).
The Amended Complaint does not clearly identify in what capacity Mr. Espinoza asserts the claims in this action, but in the absence [*7] of the representation that a probate estate has been created for Ms. Apolinar and that Mr. Espinoza is the appointed executor or personal representative, the Court assumes that he brings this action for wrongful death of his mother. Thus, the three claims are merely alternate theories of alleged wrongful conduct leading to wrongful death. With that clarification, the Court turns to AVA’s affirmative defense.
B. The Agreement
AVA argues that it is entitled to judgment on Mr. Espinoza’s wrongful death claim, regardless of the theory upon which it is premised, because Ms. Apolinar contractually released AVA from any claims and liability and assumed all risks associated with white water rafting. These arguments are in the nature of affirmative defenses upon which AVA bears the burden of proof. See Squires ex rel. Squires v. Goodwin, 829 F.Supp 2d 1062, 1071 (D. Colo. 2011).
There is no dispute that prior to the raft trip, AVA presented and Ms. Apolinar executed a two-page Agreement that provides in pertinent part:
2. Risks of Activity. The Undersigned agree and understand that taking part in the Activity can by HAZARDOUS AND INVOLVES THE RISK OF PHYSICAL INJURY AND/OR DEATH. The Undersigned acknowledge that the Activity is inherently dangerous and fully realize the [*8] dangers of participating in the Activity. The risks and dangers of the activity include, but are not limited to: choice of rafting course, . . . choice of outfitter, negligence of rafting or climbing or zip lining guides, changing weather conditions, changing water conditions, cold water immersion, hidden underwater obstacles, trees or other above water obstacles, . . . changing and unpredictable currents, drowning, exposure, swimming, overturning, . . . entrapment of feet or other body parts under rocks or other objects . . . . THE UNDERSIGNED ACKNOWLEDGE AND UNDERSTAND THAT THE DESCRIPTION OF THE RISKS LISTED ABOVE IS NOT COMPLETE AND THAT PARTICIPATING IN THE ACTIVITY MAY BE DANGEROUS AND MAY INCLUDE OTHER RISKS.
3. Release, Indemnification, and Assumption of Risk. In consideration of the Participant being permitted to participate in the activity, the Undersigned agree as follows:
(a) Release. THE UNDERSIGNED HEREBY IRREVOCABLY AND UNCONDITIONALLY RELEASE, FOREVER DISCHARGE, AND AGREE NOT TO SUE OR BRING ANY OTHER LEGAL ACTION AGAINST THE RELEASED PARTIES with respect to any and all claims and causes of action of any nature whether currently known or unknown, which the Undersigned [*9] or any of them, have or which could be asserted on behalf of the Undersigned in connection with the Participant’s participation in the Activity, including, but not limited to claims of negligence, breach of warranty, and/or breach of contract.
(b) Indemnification. The Undersigned hereby agree to indemnify, defend and hold harmless the Released Parties from and against any and all liability, cost, expense or damage of any kind or nature whatsoever and from any suits, claims or demands including legal fees and expenses whether or not in litigation, arising out of, or related to, Participant’s participation in the Activity. Such obligation on the part of the Undersigned shall survive the period of the Participant’s participation in the Activity.
(c) Assumption of Risk. The Undersigned agree and understand that there are dangers and risks associated with participation in the Activity and that INJURIES AND/OR DEATH may result from participating in the Activity, including, but not limited to the acts, omissions, representations, carelessness, and negligence of the Released Parties. By signing this document, the Undersigned recognize that property loss, injury and death are all possible while [*10] participating in the Activity. RECOGNIZING THE RISKS AND DANGERS, THE UNDERSIGNED UNDERSTAND THE NATURE OF THE ACTIVITY AND VOLUNTARILY CHOOSE FOR PARTICIPANT TO PARTICIPATE IN AND EXPRESSLY ASSUME ALL RISKS AND DANGERS OF THE PARTICIPATION IN THE ACTIVITY, WHETHER OR NOT DESCRIBED ABOVE, KNOWN OR UNKNOWN, INHERENT, OR OTHERWISE.
As noted earlier, Mr. Espinoza’s wrongful death claim is subject to the defenses that could have been asserted against Ms. Apolinar, had she lived and brought the claim. The issue is whether the exculpatory provision in Paragraph 3(a) or the assumption of risk provision in Paragraphs 2 and 3(c) of the Agreement would have barred Ms. Apolinar’s claims. If so, Mr. Espinoza’s wrongful death claim is similarly barred.
The Court begins with the exculpatory provision of the Agreement. Colorado law favors enforcement of contracts, but exculpatory provisions that shield one party from its future negligence must be carefully scrutinized.2 Whether an exculpatory provision is enforceable is a question of law. In order to determine whether an exculpatory clause is enforceable, courts evaluate the four “Jones factors”3: “(1) the existence of a duty to the public; (2) the nature [*11] of the service performed; (3) whether the contract was fairly entered into; and (4) whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language.”
2 Indeed, there are some types of conduct for which exculpatory clauses are never enforceable. For example, they cannot be used as a shield against a claim for willful and wonton negligence. See, e.g., Chadwick v. Colt Ross Outfitters, Inc., 100 P.3d 465, 467 (Colo.2004); Jones v. Dressel, 623 P.2d 370, 376 (Colo. 1981); Barker v. Colorado Region, 35 Colo. App. 73, 532 P. 2d 372 (1974).
3 These come from Jones v. Dressel, 623 P.2d 370, 376 (Colo. 1981). Although colloquially referred to as “factors,” they really are not treated as such — they are not weighed, compared or tallied. Instead, they might be better understood as situations in which an exculpatory clause should not be enforced.
1. Duty to the Public
This factor focuses on whether the party seeking to enforce the contract (here, AVA) provided such a necessary and important service to the public that the releasing party (Ms. Apolinar) could not reasonably be expected to refuse the service in order to avoid the exculpatory provision. Drawing from Tunkl v. Regents of University of California, 60 Cal. 2d 92, 32 Cal. Rptr. 33, 383 P.2d 441, 444 (1963), Colorado law recognizes that when a service has great importance to the public and it is a matter of practical necessity to some members of the public, then the provider of the service has undue bargaining power in setting the terms of the contract. [*12] In such case, an exculpatory agreement may be void as an adhesion contract. See Jones, 623 P. 2d at 376; Potter v. Nat’l Handicapped Sports, 849 F. Supp. 1407, 1409 (D. Colo. 1994).
By their nature, recreational activities generally are not considered necessary public services. Instead, participation in these activities is optional. See, e.g., Chadwick, 100 P.3d at 467; Mincin v. Vail Holdings, Inc.., 308 F.3d 1105, 1110 (10th Cir. 2002); Potter, 849 F. Supp. at 1409. Indeed, at least one court has specifically found that white water rafting activities are not necessary public services. See Lahey v. Covington, 964 F. Supp. 1440, 1445 (D. Colo 1996).
Mr. Espinoza does not dispute this authority. Instead, he argues that because white water rafting is regulated by Colorado statute, it has a public aspect4, and that enforcement of the exculpatory clause in the Agreement would frustrate the purposes of regulation. Mr. Espinoza is quite correct that white water rafting enterprises are regulated under the Colorado River Outfitter’s Act (CROA), C.R.S. § 33-32-101 et seq. CROA makes it “unlawful any river outfitter, guide, trip leader, or guide instructor to (i) violate CROA’s safety equipment provisions; (ii) operate a vessel in a careless or imprudent manner without due regard for river conditions or other attending circumstances, or in such a manner as to endanger any person, property, or wildlife; or (iii) operate a vessel with wanton or willful disregard for the safety of persons or property. [*13] An outfitter or guide that does not comply with CROA’s safety obligations commits a misdemeanor. § 33-32-107.
4 Presumably, this argument is based on a sentence found in Tunkl‘s explanation of the types of services that might create public duties: “It concerns a business of a type generally thought suitable for public regulation.” Tunkl, 383 P2d at 444.
The regulation of white-water rafting enterprises, however, does not change the nature of the service that AVA provides. White water rafting is a purely recreational activity, as compared to an essential or necessary one. The rafter is free to decline the service if the rafter is unwilling to accept the terms of the exculpatory clause. Indeed, since CROA was enacted, several courts have enforced exculpatory agreements protecting white water rafting operators. See Lahey, 964 F. Supp. at 1446; Forman v. Brown, 944 P2d 559, 563-64 (Colo. App. 1996).
Furthermore, enforcement of the exculpatory provision does not logically or practically have any impact on regulation under CROA. There is Colorado authority that recognizes that when a statute defines the scope of civil liability, individuals cannot contract around it; however, such authority is not instructive here.
In Stanley v. Creighton Co., 911 P.2d 705, 708 (Colo. App. 1996), the Colorado Court of Appeals compared the provision of the Colorado Premises Liability [*14] Act that made a landowner liable to invitees 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”5 with conflicting exculpatory language in a lease, “Lessor shall not be responsible for any damage or injury said Lessee may sustain from any cause whatsoever unless injury is a direct result of the Lessor’s gross negligence.” The Court characterized the issue of the validity of the lease’s exculpatory clause as implicating competing principles: freedom of contract and responsibility for damages caused by one’s own negligent acts. Stanley, at 706 (citing Heil Valley Ranch, Inc. v. Simkin, 784 P.2d 781 (Colo.1989)). Ultimately, it held that where the General Assembly has expressed its intent in an area of clear public policy, a contract to the contrary is invalid.
5 C.R.S. §13-21-115(3)(c)(I).
However, the Stanley-type situation is not present here. CROA does not address the scope of civil liability of rafting operators.6 Rather, it provides for the creation of safety standards that are enforceable by criminal penalty. See C.R.S. §§ 33-32-107,108. If the exculpatory provision of the Agreement were to bar Mr. Espinoza’s wrongful death claim, Colorado nevertheless could implement its public policy under CROA [*15] by prosecuting and punishing AWA under the CROA safety standards. In fact, the record reflects that CROA enforcement occurred in this case. The Colorado State Parks (“CSP”) conducted an investigation, and found that all required safety equipment was on the trip, all equipment to was in serviceable condition, and all of the guides were qualified as required by Colorado law. CSP concluded that other than filing a late written report that there were “[n]o other violations of Colorado law”.
6 In this respect, CROA differs from the statutory schemes in other states cited by Mr. Espinoza in his Response to the Motion for Summary Judgment because those statutes establish the limits on civil liability for recreational outfitters, rather than a public right enforced through criminal penalties. See W. Va. Code Ann. § 20-3B-5 (West) (“No licensed commercial whitewater outfitter or commercial whitewater guide acting in the course of his employment is liable to a participant for damages or injuries to such participant unless such damage or injury was directly caused by failure of the commercial whitewater outfitter or commercial whitewater guide to comply with duties placed on him by [statute or rule].”); Idaho Code Ann. § 6-1206 (West) (“No licensed [*16] outfitter or guide acting in the course of his employment shall be liable to a participant for damages or injuries to such participant unless such damage or injury was directly or proximately caused by failure of the outfitter or guide to comply with the duties placed on him by [statute or rule].”).
Because rafting is not a necessary, public service and its regulation is unaffected by the terms of the exculpatory provision, this factor does not compel a determination of unenforceability.
2. Nature of Service Performed
Somewhat duplicative of the first factor, the second concerns the nature of the service that was performed. An exculpatory provision can be invalidated when “the activity can be described as an essential service.” See Lahey, 964 F.Supp. at 1445. The parties agree that white-water rafting is not an essential service. Thus, this factor does not invalidate the exculpatory provision in the Agreement.
3. Whether the Agreement was Fairly Entered Into
The third factor focuses on whether the party benefitted by the exculpatory clause overreached the releasing party. Colorado law specifies that a contract is “fairly entered into” if neither party is so obviously disadvantaged with respect to bargaining power [*17] that he/she is placed at the mercy of the other party’s negligence.” Hamill v. Cheley Colorado Camps, Inc., 262 P.3d 945, 949 (Colo. App. 2011). Simply because a contract is on a printed form and is offered on a “take-it-or-leave-it basis” does not necessarily make it unfair, especially when similar services can be obtained by another provider. See Jones, 623 P.2d at 375; Mincin, 308 F.3d at 1111; Hamill, 262 P.3d at 949. Analysis with regard to this factor turns on the particular facts surrounding the execution of the Agreement.
Mr. Espinoza argues that AVA defrauded Ms. Apolinar at the time she selected and reserved seats for the rafting trip. He contends that on its website, AVA misrepresented that the trip was for beginners and was safe for families on its website. In particular, he contends that AVA represented that this trip included no rapids rated higher than Class III rapids, when in reality one rapid known as Seidel’s Suck Hole was a Class IV rapid. He states that had Ms. Apolinar known that Seidel’s Suck Hole was a Class IV rapid, she would not have selected the particular rafting trip, participated in the trip or signed the Agreement.
The Court recognizes that there is a genuine dispute as to the difficulty level of Seidel’s Suck Hole and assumes that it was a Class IV rapid for purposes of this motion. The Court [*18] further assumes that AVA did not disclose the severity of the rapid to Ms. Apolinar on its website or later when Ms. Apolinar signed the Agreement. The nature of the omitted information (severity of the rapid) arguably was material to questions of risk of injury or death. Even if viewed as misrepresentation by omission (failure to disclose Seidel’s Suck Hole as a class IV rapid) or false representation (that Seidel’s Suck Hole was a Class III rapid), there is no evidence that suggests that Ms. Apolinar relied on such designation in executing the Agreement.
The chronology of events shows two independent decisions by Ms. Apolinar. She viewed the website and booked the trip online before traveling to Colorado. But, Ms. Apolinar executed the Agreement after she arrived in Colorado before the trip began. There is no evidence in the record addressing the manner in which the Agreement was presented to Ms. Apolinar or any representations made to her by AVA before or at the time of its execution. There is no evidence, for example, that an AVA employee told Ms. Apolinar that the Agreement or release language was not important, was not accurate, would not be enforced, or did not mean what it said. [*19]
Turning to the Agreement, it both applied to all rafting trips (not just the one Ms. Apolinar had chosen) and it described the risks in the contexts of all rafting activity. It characterizes all rafting activity as “HAZARDOUS AND INVOLVES THE RISK OF PHYSICAL INJURY AND/OR DEATH” and it states that there are particular risks and dangers that cannot be anticipated including changing water conditions, obstacles, currents, etc. In capitalized print, it states that “THE UNDERSIGNED ACKNOWLEDGE AND UNDERSTAND THAT THE DESCRIPTION OF THE RISKS LISTED ABOVE IS NOT COMPLETE AND THAT PARTICIPATING IN THE ACTIVITY MAY BE DANGEROUS AND MAY INCLUDE OTHER RISKS”. It also contains an integration and merger clause. Paragraph (6)(c) states that the Agreement’s representations “supersede prior contracts, arrangements, communications or representations, whether oral or written, between the parties relating to the subject matter hereof.”
Assuming that AVA’s website portrayed, and Ms. Apolinar believed, that the rafting trip she booked was safe for families before participating, she was presented with an Agreement that contained comprehensive, even dire, descriptions of the risks she was undertaking. There is no evidence [*20] that Ms. Apolinar relied on the website information in lieu of the risks outlined in the Agreement at the time she signed the Agreement, nor any evidence that she was misled or overreached by AVA employees. Faced with stark representations of risk in the Agreement, Ms. Apolinar could have cancelled her reservation and declined to participate in the rafting trip. Thus, the Court finds that Ms. Apolinar fairly entered into the Agreement. On this record, the Court cannot find that she was either overreached or defrauded. See Squires v. Breckenridge Outdoor Educ. Ctr., 715 F.3d 867, 879 (10th Cir. 2013) (“Plaintiff has failed to provide any evidence that [her mother] relied on this misrepresentation in deciding to sign the Release.”).
4. Whether the Agreement is Clear and Unambiguous
The final “Jones factor” asks whether the exculpatory provision was clear and unambiguous. To evaluate this factor, a court “examine[s] 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.” See Chadwick, 100 P.3d at 467.
Mr. Espinoza argues that Agreement is not clear and unambiguous because it is broad, unduly long, and obscures the key terms. The Court disagrees.
First, at less than two [*21] pages, the Agreement “is not inordinately long or complicated.” See Brooks v. Timberline Tours, Inc., 127 F.3d 1273, 1275 (10th Cir. 1997); Lahey, 964 F. Supp. at 1445 (concluding that a release agreement of “just over one page” was “short”).
Second, the Agreement repeatedly and clearly states that the signor is releasing AVA from liability. The title of the document is “RAFTING WARNING, ASSUMPTION OF RISK, RELEASE OF LIABILITY AND INDEMNIFICATION AGREEMENT”. This is immediately followed by a directive, “PLEASE READ CAREFULLY BEFORE SIGNING. THIS IS A RELEASE OF LIABILITY & WAIVER OF LEGAL RIGHTS.”
The body of the Agreement contains six main paragraphs titled in boldface print. For example: 2. Risks of Activity” and “3. Release, Indemnification and Assumption of Risk.” Key portions are printed in all capital letters. For example, the “Release” clause indicates the signor’s agreement to “THE UNDERSIGNED HEREBY IRREVOCABLY AND UNCONDITIONALLY RELEASE, FOREVER DISCHARGE , AND AGREE NOT TO SUE OR BRING ANY OTHER LEGAL ACTION AGAINST THE RELEASED PARTIES with respect to any and all claims and causes of action of any nature whether currently known or unknown, which the undersigned of any of them have or which could be asserted on behalf of the Undersigned in connection with the Participant’s [*22] participation in the Activity.” There is no legal jargon that impairs the meaning of this or other provisions.
Third, the Agreement clearly expresses intent for the release to apply to claims based on injury or death resulting from white water rafter, including the type of circumstances that led to Ms. Apolinar’s death. It expressly states there is a risk of physical injury or death and lists specific risks such as “trees or other above water obstacles,” drowning, overturning, and “entrapment of feet or other body parts under rocks or other objects.” The Court finds that the Agreement clearly and unambiguously articulates the intent of the parties to release AVA from all liability resulting from Ms. Apolinar’s participation in the rafting trip.
As explained above, none of the Jones factors compels a finding that the Agreement’s exculpatory clause is invalid. Thus, as a matter of law, the exculpatory clause would have barred claims for injury to Ms. Apolinar, had she survived. Similarly, it bars wrongful death claims by Mr. Espinoza as her heir. C.R.S. § 13-21-202; see also Rowan v. Vail Holdings, Inc., 31 F.Supp.2d 889, 895 (D. Colo. 1998) (“Colorado courts interpreting the statute hold, consistent with the plain language of the statute, that the right to bring a wrongful [*23] death claim is dependent on the decedent’s ability to have brought the claim.”). Because this action is barred, it is not necessary to address the parties’ arguments as to the Agreement’s assumption of risk provisions. As a matter of law, AVA is entitled to dismissal of all claims with prejudice.
IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that AVA’s Motion for Summary Judgment (#17) is GRANTED. AVA is entitled to judgment on its affirmative defense as against all claims of the Plaintiff. The Clerk shall enter judgment in favor of the Defendant and against the Plaintiff on all claims and close this case.
Dated this 26th day of September, 2014.
BY THE COURT:
/s/ Marcia S. Krieger
Marcia S. Krieger
Chief United States District Judge
The Court did find that the camp was still in the custody and control of the minors during the assault which occurred three days after the youth had run away from the camp.
State: Idaho, United States District Court for the District of Idaho
Plaintiff: Vera Gadman
Defendant: Joseph Martin; Marshall Dittrich; Penelope James; and Phoenix Mountain Collaborative, LLC.
Plaintiff Claims: Negligence
Defendant Defenses: No duty
Holding: for the defendant
This case is about the escape of two boys from a summer program for “troubled” youth. These programs have achieved fame and notoriety based on various issues of successes and failures, as well as abuse. However, this legal issue is important to anyone who is taking care of youth at a camp… In this one two kids at the camp ran away and then assaulted a third party. The person the runaway kids assaulted then sued the camp for her injuries.
The defendant camp was operated in Montana. During one part of the session, the youth were rafting the Clark Fork River. The Clark Fork flows from Montana to Idaho. One night during the river trip the campers were on property owned by the defendant camp. The youth ran away.
Neither of the youth who ran away from the camp had a history of violence. They seemed to be enrolled in the program because of drug use and generally being really stupid kids. Both youth has been on a run-away watch a system developed by the camp and had their journals and shoes removed. However, their shoes were returned to them for the rafting trip.
The school had a “Run Watch Policy” which the court pointed out, quoted from and found the school had not followed. “Explorations will take all reasonable precautions pertinent to each individual student so as to reduce the possibility of their escape from our custody.”
The defendant camp filed a motion for summary judgment, and this decision is based on that motion.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
The defense was based on two theories.
1) they owed no duty to Ms. Gadman [plaintiff] and
2) the actions of Mr. Dittrich and Mr. Martin (youth runaways) were not foreseeable [to cause injury to the plaintiff] to either Explorations or Ms. James [defendants].
The determination under Idaho law as to whether the defendants owed a duty of care to the plaintiff’s when they are in charge of youth “who are dangerous or who have dangerous propensities“ is a two-part test.
The first part requires a determination of whether the supervising body actually has control over the individual in question, and then secondly, if so, a determination must be made whether the harm caused by the individual was foreseeable.
The court then looked at the first part of the test.
One who takes charge of a third person whom he knows or should know to be likely to cause bodily harm to others if not controlled is under a duty to exercise reasonable care to control the third person to prevent him from doing such harm.
The first part of the test is whether or not the supervising authority has actual control over the youth. Here the youth were not allowed to leave the camp without the camps or the youth’s parent’s permissions. Even though the youth had voluntarily, and without permission, left the campsite and been away from the camp for two days at the time of the attack, the court held the camp was still in control, for the purposes of the test, of the youth.
Ordinarily, there is no affirmative duty to assist or protect someone unless special circumstances exist. The analysis is not what is the relationship between the affected third party and the youth in this case, but the relationship between the youth and the camp. “Thus, the duty alleged in this case would have to arise from a supervisory relationship where Ms. James/Explorations exercised some level of control over Mr. Martin and Mr. Dittrich.”
The fact the youth ran away was not valid excuse or abrogation of control by the camp.
Explorations was responsible for the care and custody of the youth participants in its programs. The minor participants could not leave the program without their parents’ permission. When asked if the participants of the outdoor program were “free to leave,” Ms. James stated in her deposition that participants who were minor could only leave if they had their parents’ permission, otherwise they were not free to leave. Ms. James went on to state that the steps taken to assure participants do not leave are that “care is provided, oversight and care, with our instructor team the entire time the students are there.”
Most of this analysis was based on the camps Run Watch Policy and Run Watch Kit for leaders. Because the camp knew the kids would run away and prepared for it, they knew it was possible and consequently, the court felt they did not give up control over a kid when the kid did run. “The Court finds upon these undisputed facts that Mr. Martin and Mr. Dittrich were in the custody and control of Explorations at the time of the attack.”
The next issue was the foreseeability question. In this case, the question was not whether it was foreseeable that the kids would run away, but whether it was foreseeable, the kids would assault a third party.
Foreseeability, ‘contemplates more than the mere possibility of aggressive tendencies…. The concept of foreseeability is much more narrowly drawn in this circumstance, … i.e. violence, particularly of a sexual nature, toward members of the public … must be manifest or ostensible, and highly likely to occur.
The plaintiff argued the violent acts of the defendant were foreseeable because of the youth’s drug use and prior attendance at treatment facilities. However, the court did not agree with this.
Although the boys had struggled in various aspects of their lives before attending Explorations, there is nothing in their histories that was known to Explorations that made their actions on July 31, 2011 [date of the attack] foreseeable.
The theft of drugs by one participant who had run away in the past, nor the fact that the kids had been planning to run away did not change the court’s opinion of this. The planning though, was only discovered the history of the youth, after the youth had been caught. Both arguments by the plaintiffs were too speculative according to the court.
The court held therefore, that the defendant camp was not liable.
So Now What?
Although the defendant won this case, it was a close one. All camps should read this with the understanding that a minor that has been delivered to them by their parents are in their custody and control until they are delivered back to their parents.
Whether or not this can be moderated by contract, I’m not sure.
This case would have gone the other way if the youth had a history of violence. The defendant notified the boy’s parents and law enforcement within 90 minutes of the discovery the boys were missing. Even calling law enforcement did not change the issue of control.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
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Vera Gadman, Plaintiff, v. Joseph Martin; Marshall Dittrich; Penelope James; and Phoenix Mountain Collaborative, LLC., Defendants.
Case No. 2:13-CV-00327-EJL
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF IDAHO
2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 83883
June 17, 2014, Decided
June 17, 2014, Filed
CORE TERMS: foreseeable, violent, summary judgment, staff, violence, genuine, youth, ran, violent acts, deposition, non-moving, custody, owed, van, issue of material fact, adverse party, citation omitted, propensity, foreseen, commit, runaway, duty of care, undisputed, instructor, detention, outdoor, missing, assault, shoes, violent behavior
COUNSEL: [*1] For Vera Gadman, Plaintiff: James M Bendell, Grupp Law Office, Coeur D’Alene, ID.
For Marshall Dittrich, Defendant: Michael L Haman, LEAD ATTORNEY, Haman Law Office, Coeur d’Alene, ID.
For Penelope James, Phoenix Mountain Collaborative, LLC, Defendants: Mark A Ellingsen, LEAD ATTORNEY, WITHERSPOON KELLEY, Coeur d’Alene, ID.
JUDGES: Honorable Edward J. Lodge, U. S. District Judge.
OPINION BY: Edward J. Lodge
MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER
Pending before the Court in the above-entitled matter are Defendants’, Phoenix Mountain Collaborative, LLC and Penelope James, Motion for Summary Judgment and related Motions. The parties have filed their responsive briefing and the matters are ripe for the Court’s consideration.1 Having fully reviewed the record, the Court finds that the facts and legal arguments are adequately presented in the briefs and record. Accordingly, in the interest of avoiding further delay, and because the Court conclusively finds that the decisional process would not be significantly aided by oral argument, this matter shall be decided on the record before this Court without oral argument.
1 Mr. Dittrich filed a response to Plaintiff’s opposition to the Motion for Summary Judgment wherein [*2] he takes no position on the Motion but responds only to clarify the record. (Dkt. 17.)
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
In the summer of 2011, Defendants Joseph Martin and Marshall Dittrich were participants in a 52-day outdoor program known as the Big Sky Summer Adventure Program operated by Explorations in Trout Creek, Montana. Explorations is an entity that offers both full time residential programs and summer outdoor adventure programs for youths who may have struggled in the past either academically, socially, with interpersonal relationships, or with substance use/experimentation issues. Explorations also offers counseling sessions and life skills training. Explorations is owned and operated by Defendant Phoenix Mountain Collaborative, LLC.2 The Defendant Penelope James is the managing member of Explorations who reviews the applications for enrollment at Explorations’ camps.
2 The Court will refer to Phoenix Mountain Collaborative, LLC as “Explorations” in this Order. The Court also refers to both Ms. James and Explorations collectively as “Explorations” in this Order.
On July 29, 2011, the Explorations outdoor program was finishing a float trip down the Clark Fork River which runs [*3] from Montana to Idaho. That evening, around 10:00 p.m., the students and staff camped out on the Explorations’ property. The next morning around 8:00 a.m., an Explorations’ staff member noticed Mr. Martin and Mr. Dittrich were missing. A search was conducted but the boys were not found on the property. At 9:30 a.m. Ms. James notified local law enforcement and the boys’ parents that they had run away and were missing.
The location of the two boys was not known until July 31, 2011. On that day the Plaintiff, Vera Gadman, was driving her vehicle in Clark Fork, Idaho when she saw Mr. Martin and Mr. Dittrich, hitchhiking along Highway 200. Ms. Gadman stopped her car and offered them a ride. The boys asked Ms. Gadman to take them somewhere they could camp. After driving to a couple of locations, Ms. Gadman stopped at the east end of David Thompson Road and showed the boys where they could camp on a map. At that stop, Mr. Martin and Mr. Dittrich then brutally assaulted and battered Ms. Gadman including allegedly choking, strangling, and striking her in the head with a glass bottle, throwing and striking her with rocks, and committing other acts of violence and terror against her. (Dkt. 1 at [*4] ¶ 13.) As a result, Ms. Gadman claims she suffered serious physical and emotional injuries and incurred significant damages. Ms. Gadman has filed this action raising a negligence claim against the Defendants seeking to recover for the damages she suffered from the attack. Defendants Exploration and Ms. James have filed this Motion for Summary Judgment which the Court takes up in this Order.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
Motions for summary judgment are governed by Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Rule 56 provides, in pertinent part, that judgment “shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c).
The Supreme Court has made it clear that under Rule 56 summary judgment is mandated if the non-moving party fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element which is essential to the non-moving party’s case and upon which the non-moving party will bear the burden of proof at trial. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). [*5] If the non-moving party fails to make such a showing on any essential element, “there can be no ‘genuine issue of material fact,’ since a completely failure of proof concerning an essential element of the nonmoving party’s case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial.” Id. at 323.3
3 See also, Rule 56(e) which provides, in part: When a motion for summary judgment is made and supported as provided in this rule, an adverse party may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of the adverse party’s pleadings, but the adverse party’s response, by affidavits or as otherwise provided in this rule, must set forth specific facts showing that is a genuine issue for trial. If the adverse party does not so respond, summary judgment, if appropriate, shall be entered against the adverse party.
Moreover, under Rule 56, it is clear that an issue, in order to preclude entry of summary judgment, must be both “material” and “genuine.” An issue is “material” if it affects the outcome of the litigation. An issue, before it may be considered “genuine,” must be established by “sufficient evidence supporting the claimed factual dispute . . . to require a jury or judge to resolve the parties’ differing [*6] versions of the truth at trial.” Hahn v. Sargent, 523 F.2d 461, 464 (1st Cir. 1975) (quoting First Nat’l Bank v. Cities Serv. Co. Inc., 391 U.S. 253, 289, 88 S. Ct. 1575, 20 L. Ed. 2d 569 (1968)). The Ninth Circuit cases are in accord. See, e.g., British Motor Car Distributors, Ltd. v. San Francisco Automotive Industries Welfare Fund, 882 F.2d 371 (9th Cir. 1989).
According to the Ninth Circuit, in order to withstand a motion for summary judgment, a party
(1) must make a showing sufficient to establish a genuine issue of fact with respect to any element for which it bears the burden of proof; (2) must show that there is an issue that may reasonably be resolved in favor of either party; and (3) must come forward with more persuasive evidence than would otherwise be necessary when the factual context makes the non-moving party’s claim implausible.
Id. at 374 (citation omitted).
Of course, when applying the above standard, the court must view all of the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986); Hughes v. United States, 953 F.2d 531, 541 (9th Cir. 1992).
1. Motion for Extension of Time to File Statement of Genuine issues of Fact
Plaintiff’s Motion asks [*7] for leave of the Court to file a late Statement of Genuine Issues of Fact in response to the Motion for Summary Judgment. (Dkt. 23.) Plaintiff mistakenly failed to file the Statement of Fact as required by the rules. Defendants oppose the Motion arguing the proposed Statement of Facts fails to satisfy the requirements of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c) and Local Civil Rule 7.1. (Dkt. 24.) The Court has reviewed the briefing and materials on this issue and will grant the Plaintiff’s Motion and allow her to file the late Statement of Facts. While the filings is untimely, the Court finds the interests of justice are best served by deciding the Motion for Summary Judgments on its merits and there is little prejudice suffered by Defendants as a result of the late filing.
2. Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment
Explorations and Ms. James seek dismissal of the negligence claim against them arguing 1) they owed no duty to Ms. Gadman and 2) the actions of Mr. Dittrich and Mr. Martin were not foreseeable to either Explorations or Ms. James. (Dkt. 16.) Ms. Gadman opposes the Motion and asserts that a genuine issue of material fact exists as to whether Explorations and/or Ms. James owed [*8] a duty to her. (Dkt. 19.)
On the question of whether Ms. James and/or Explorations owed a duty of care to Ms. Gadman under Idaho law, both parties cite to and discuss Caldwell v. Idaho Youth Ranch, Inc., 132 Idaho 120, 968 P.2d 215 (Idaho 1998) but arrive at opposite conclusions. In Caldwell, the Idaho Supreme Court held that the Idaho Youth Ranch did not owe a duty of care to a third-party for the violent acts committed upon the third-party by a minor who had, several months prior, been released from an Idaho Youth Ranch program. There the court concluded that the minor was not in the custody or control of the Youth Ranch at the time he committed the violent acts upon the third-party.
In reaching this conclusion, the Idaho Supreme Court discussed the “duty owed by those in charge of persons who are dangerous or who have dangerous propensities,” quoting the duty is as described in the Restatement (Second) of Torts, § 319, which provides:
§ 319. Duty of Those in Charge of Person Having Dangerous Propensities. One who takes charge of a third person whom he knows or should know to be likely to cause bodily harm to others if not controlled is under a duty to exercise reasonable care to control the third [*9] person to prevent him from doing such harm.
Caldwell, 968 P.2d at 218 (quoting Restatement (Second) of Torts, § 319 (1977)). The court then identified the two components of the duty:
The first part requires a determination of whether the supervising body actually has control over the individual in question, and then secondly, if so, a determination must be made whether the harm caused by the individual was foreseeable.
Id. at 218-19. The parties in this case dispute both components — whether Ms. James/Explorations had control over the boys and whether the harm caused by the boys was foreseeable.
“No liability exists under the law of torts unless the person from whom relief is sought owed a duty to the allegedly injured party.” Jones v. Starnes, 150 Idaho 257, 245 P.3d 1009, 1012 (Idaho 2011) (quoting Vickers v. Hanover Constr. Co., Inc., 125 Idaho 832, 875 P.2d 929, 932 (Idaho 1994)). “Ordinarily, ‘there is no affirmative duty to act to assist or protect another absent unusual circumstances, which justifies imposing such an affirmative responsibility. An affirmative duty to aid or protect arises only when a special relationship exists between the parties.'” Rees v. State, Dept. of Health and Welfare, 143 Idaho 10, 137 P.3d 397, 402 (Idaho 2006) [*10] (quoting Coghlan v. Beta Theta Pi Fraternity, 133 Idaho 388, 987 P.2d 300, 311 (1999)) (citations omitted). “Determining when a special relationship exists sufficient to impose an affirmative duty requires an evaluation of ‘the sum total of those considerations of policy which lead the law to say that a particular plaintiff is entitled to protection.'” Id. (quoting Coghlan, 987 P.2d at 311 (quoting W. Prosser, Law of Torts 333 (3d ed. 1964))).
The general duty which arises in many relations to take reasonable precautions for the safety of others may include the obligation to exercise control over the conduct of third persons…. [Some] relationships are custodial by nature, requiring the defendant to control his charge and to guard other persons against his dangerous propensities…. The same rule has been applied to hospitals and psychotherapists who have charge of dangerous mental patients, and to those who have charge of dangerous criminals. … Yet, in the absence of the requisite relationship, there generally is no duty to protect others against harm from third persons.
Caldwell, 968 P.2d at 218 (quoting Sterling, 723 P.2d at 768-69) (citation omitted). “[T]he key to this duty is the supervising [*11] individual’s relationship to the supervised individual, rather than a direct relationship with the endangered person or class of persons.” Caldwell, 968 P.2d at 218 (discussing Sterling v. Bloom, 111 Idaho 211, 723 P.2d 755, 769 (Idaho 1986) superseded in part on other grounds by Idaho Code § 6-904A)). Thus, the duty alleged in this case would have to arise from a supervisory relationship where Ms. James/Explorations exercised some level of control over Mr. Martin and Mr. Dittrich.
The parties in this case disagree on the level of “control” Explorations had over the youths. Explorations argues that it provides “recreational programs and counseling for children” but maintains it is “not a state run juvenile detention center or institution.” (Dkt. 16 at 1, 9.) Participation in Exploration is voluntarily and there is no physical detention or connection to the criminal justice system. (Dkt. 16 at 2, 9.) Explorations’ briefing argues that the attendees may leave the Exploration program at any time. (Dkt. 16 at 9.)
Ms. Gadman counters that Explorations and Ms. James exercised supervisory control over the students such that a special relationship was formed which gives rise to a duty. (Dkt. 19.) Ms. Gadman [*12] points out that Ms. James testified in her deposition that students are not free to leave Explorations once they are enrolled, there had been kids in the past who had ran away from camp but were caught, and described the procedures Explorations had in place for preventing kids from escaping.
The Court finds facts in this case are distinct from those in Caldwell where it was undisputed that the violent offender had been released from the Idaho Youth Ranch several months before committing the murder. There the Idaho Supreme Court found the Idaho Youth Ranch did not have control over the offender such that a duty of care was owed. In contrast here, Explorations did have control over Mr. Martin or Mr. Dittrich and had not released them from its custody — they ran away.
Although it is not akin to a juvenile detention facility, Explorations was responsible for the care and custody of the youth participants in its programs. The minor participants could not leave the program without their parents’ permission. When asked if the participants of the outdoor program were “free to leave,” Ms. James stated in her deposition that participants who were minor could only leave if they had their parents’ [*13] permission, otherwise they were not free to leave.4 (Dkt. 19-10 at 12.) Ms. James went on to state that the steps taken to assure participants do not leave are that “care is provided, oversight and care, with our instructor team the entire time the students are there.” (Dkt. 19-10 at 13.)
4 Both Mr. Martin and Mr. Dittrich were seventeen at the time they were at Explorations.
Participants have ran away from Explorations in the past. Explorations has run away prevention measures called “Run Watch” which are written set of procedures and guidelines designed for responding to a runaway or missing student. (Dkt. 19-10 at 28-29) (Dkt. 19-6, Ex. F.) The Run Watch Policy states: “Explorations will take all reasonable precautions pertinent to each individual student so as to reduce the possibility of their escape from our custody.” (Dkt. 19-10 at 30) (Dkt. 19-6, Ex. F.) Under the Run Watch guidelines, one instructor in each group has a “run kit” which is intended to provide the instructor in pursuit of the student with whatever equipment that would be necessary to ensure the safety of the instructor. (Dkt. 19-10 at 30) (Dkt. 19-6, Ex. F.) A student is placed on Run Watch when: the student just [*14] had a run attempt; the student verbalized a threat to do so; the instructional team perceives a student to be a run threat; or escorts, operations directors, or a therapist suggests it. (Dkt. 19-6, Ex. F.) Explorations also has written procedures for handling the situations involving an “Accompanied Runaway” and an “Unaccompanied Runaway/Missing Student.” (DKt. 19-6, Ex. F.)
In this case, Explorations was aware the boys had planned to leave and actually took measures to thwart their plan by taking their shoes and journals. When their shoes were later returned, the boys executed their plan to run away from Explorations. The attack upon Ms. Gadman occurred two days after the boys left Explorations. While Explorations may not be akin to a juvenile detention facility, it is in charge of the custody and care of the children who are participating in its programs. This includes more than merely providing shelter, food, and programing. The relationship between Explorations and Mr. Dittrich and Mr. Martin was custodial. The Court finds upon these undisputed facts that Mr. Martin and Mr. Dittrich were in the custody and control of Explorations at the time of the attack. The Court next considers [*15] the second duty requirement: whether the harm caused by the individual was foreseeable.
B. Foreseeable Actions
“The question whether a risk of harm is foreseeable is generally a question for the trier of fact. Summary judgment is appropriate, however, if evidence is presented establishing the absence of any genuine issue of material fact concerning the general risk of harm.” Caldwell, 968 P.2d at 220 (citation omitted). Under the Idaho Tort Claims Act, “Foreseeability, ‘contemplates more than the mere possibility of aggressive tendencies…. The concept of foreseeability is much more narrowly drawn in this circumstance, … i.e. violence, particularly of a sexual nature, toward members of the public … must be manifest or ostensible, and highly likely to occur.'” Caldwell, 968 P.2d at 220 (quoting Harris v. State Dep’t of Health and Welfare, 123 Idaho 295, 847 P.2d 1156, 1160 (Idaho 1992)). In Caldwell, the Idaho Supreme Court recognized that “human behavior is difficult to predict with certainty, leading to the necessity for claimants to demonstrate that the harmful behavior should have been highly predictable based upon demonstrated past conduct.” 968 P.2d at 220 (citing cases).
Ms. Gadman argues [*16] Mr. Martin’s and Mr. Dittrich’s violent acts were foreseeable because both had a prior history of drug abuse and had previously attended treatment programs. (Dkt. 19.) Mr. Dittrich had also previously ran away from home and his school records include a history of “explosive and unpredictable behavior.” While at Explorations, Ms. Gadman points out that Mr. Martin had stole medications from an unlocked Explorations travel van which he ingested and then went an entire week without sleeping causing him to behave erratically and hallucinate. These factors known to Explorations, she argues, made their attack on her foreseeable.
i. Mr. Martin’s and Mr. Dittrich’s Prior Histories
Prior to attending Explorations, Mr. Martin had serious substance abuse issues that his parents knew of and he had been enrolled in different treatment programs. (Dkt. 19-8 at 7-16, 32-33.) Explorations and Ms. James were aware of Mr. Martin’s prior drug problems. In his deposition, Mr. Martin testified that after arriving at Explorations he talked with Ms. James about the problems that had brought him to the program including his prior drug use. (Dkt. 16-4 at 33-34.) Mr. Dittrich also had behavior issues having been [*17] previously kicked out of school, ran away from home, and had also previously attended treatment programs. (Dkt. 19-9 at 7-9.)
Prior to the assault on Ms. Gadman, however, neither Mr. Martin nor Mr. Dittrich had any criminal history. (Dkt. 16-4 at 39, 54) (Dkt. 18 at 56.) Mr. Martin testified in his deposition that he was “unaware” he had any type of propensity for violent behavior prior to the attack and stated he had never been violent before the incident with Ms. Gadman. (Dkt. 16-4 at 39-40.) Mr. Dittrich testified that neither he nor his parents ever told Explorations about any propensity for violence. (Dkt. 18 at 57.)
Although the boys had struggled in various aspects of their lives before attending Explorations, there is nothing in their histories that was known to Explorations that made their actions on July 31, 2011 foreseeable. (Dkt. 16-2, Aff. James.)
ii. Conduct at the Explorations Program
a. No Violent or Threatening Behavior
There is no evidence that either Mr. Martin or Mr. Dittrich engaged in any threatening or violent actions while at Explorations. In his deposition, Mr. Martin denied having committed any violent acts or threatening anyone while at the Explorations camp. [*18] (Dkt. 16-4 at 40-41.) Mr. Martin also testified he never observed Mr. Dittrich commit any violent acts or threaten anyone while he was at Explorations. (Dkt. 16-4 at 41.) In her affidavit, Ms. James states that she had not witnessed and there had been no reports that either boy had demonstrated any acts of aggression or violence to anyone at Explorations. (Dkt. 16-2 at ¶¶ 12-14.)
b. Mr. Martin’s Theft of Drugs
When he arrived at Explorations, Mr. Martin had been off drugs for less than two months. (Dkt. 16-4 at 46-47.) Mr. Martin stated he began using drugs again within a few days of being at Explorations by taking drugs located in the Explorations van. (Dkt. 16-4 at 18-19, 47-48, 62-63.) The Explorations’ staff learned that someone had taken drugs from the van and they confronted the group about it. (Dkt. 19-8 at 49-52.) At that time, Mr. Martin denied taking the drugs but testified that a couple of days before he ran away from camp he vaguely told one of the staff members that he had taken the drugs from the van and was “freaking out,” or “bugging out a little” and “hearing things.” (Dkt. 19-8 at 50-52, 64, 70.) Ms. James also testified that Mr. Martin had admitted to stealing pills [*19] from the Explorations van approximately ten days before he walked away from the program. (Dkt. 19-10 at 55-56.) Ms. James testified that after Mr. Martin admitted to taking the pills, she assumed that someone had ingested the pills. (Dkt. 19-10 at 106.) Mr. Martin testified that he had taken the drugs before Explorations knew of the boys’ plan to runaway. (Dkt. 19-10 at 97.)
The theft and taking of the medications from the Explorations’ van does not make the violence committed upon Ms. Gadman foreseeable. Clearly Mr. Martin’s behavior was out of line, but there were no indications that he would soon become aggressively violent such that the actions he took on July 31, 2011 were foreseeable to Explorations.5
5 In support of her response brief, Ms. Gadman has filed articles discussing the side effects of the drug Adderall, lack of sleep, and the connection between drugs and violence. (Dkt. 19, Ex. A, B, C.) Defendants have objected to the Court’s consideration of these exhibits arguing they are inadmissible. The Court agrees that the articles are not appropriate for consideration pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c).
As to the fact that Mr. Martin was hallucinating from the [*20] drugs, again the Court finds the undisputed facts do not give rise to anything that would have made Mr. Martins’ later violent actions foreseeable. Mr. Martin testified that after he had lied to the Explorations’ staff and repeatedly denied being the one who took the drugs, a day or two before they ran away he “mentioned” to staff that he was “freaking out” and “bugging out.” (Dkt. 19-8 at 51-53.) In describing what he told the Explorations’ staff, Mr. Martin testified that he “wouldn’t even call it a conversation. I mentioned I was freaking out a little” and that he “didn’t tell them I needed anything. I didn’t ask for help.” (Dkt. 19-8 at 52-53.) There is simply no basis from these facts from which Explorations could have predicted Mr. Martin would soon commit the violent assault upon Ms. Gadman. The fact that he stole drugs, ingested them, and was experiencing the side effects of the drugs does not make it highly predictable or likely that he would become violent; particularly since there was no known history of any violent behavior either prior to Mr. Martin attending Explorations program or while he was at the program.
c. The Plan to Run Away
Explorations’ field staff had learned [*21] of Mr. Dittrich’s and Mr. Martin’s plan to runaway on either July 19th or 20th. (Dkt. 19-10 at 40, 96.) Once they learned of the boys’ plan to leave, the Explorations’ staff confronted the boys about their plan and then instituted a lockdown. (Dkt. 19-8 at 22, 70-71) (Dkt. 19-9 at 19.) During the lockdown the two were separated in the campsite, the staff took away their shoes and journals, and did not allow them to talk to anyone else. (Dkt. 19-9 at 19.) Mr. Dittrich testified that they were later given back their shoes to use on the white-water rafting trip. (Dkt. 19-9 at 30-31.)
That they had planned to run away from Explorations and find drugs does not make their subsequent violent attack upon Ms. Gadman foreseeable. If anything, the plan and the drug use without any violence was consistent with the boys’ known histories. Ms. Gadman asserts that the violence was foreseeable because the boys would necessarily have to steal in order to obtain the drugs and other life necessities. The Court finds that argument is too speculative. In fact just the opposite proved to be true in light of the fact that the boys were given rides and marijuana from others when they were on the run all without [*22] them having to commit any violent acts. (Dkt. 19-9 at 37.)
Ms. Gadman also argues Mr. Dittrich’s second journal contained a list of items and supplies they would need when they left the program making the resulting assault foreseeable. (Dkt. 19 at 15.) (Dkt. 19-9 at 20-30, 78.) Mr. Dittrich testified that the staff at Explorations was not aware of his list. (Dkt. 18 at 78.) He further stated that the references to a knife, gun, and weapon in general were not intended to be used as a weapon against another person but for protection. (Dkt. 18 at 79-81.) Ms. Gadman asserts the staff should have looked at Mr. Dittrich’s second journal and discovered the “disturbing information.” (Dkt. 19 at 15.) This argument is also too speculative. The journal entries were started two to four days before the boys ran away and then later completed after the boys had left Explorations. (Dkt. 19-9 at 29.) While it may seem obvious in hindsight to argue that Explorations should have looked at Mr. Dittrich’s second journal, the fact remains that Explorations was not aware of the journal entries and there are no facts going to show that they should have foreseen any future violent acts by these boys.
C. [*23] Conclusion
The Court finds there is no genuine issue of material fact that supports a finding that Explorations and/or Ms. James could have foreseen the violent attack committed upon Ms. Gadman. Even considering the cumulative facts known by Explorations — i.e. the boys’ prior history, Mr. Martin’s theft and use of the drugs while at the camp, and their plan to run away — the violent assault on Ms. Gadman was not foreseeable. It is simply too attenuated to expect Explorations to have foreseen the attack based on what they knew about the boys prior to their running away.
Neither boy had any history of violent behavior or any criminal history. In reviewing both boys’ applications, Ms. James interviewed each of the boys’ parents, therapists, and educational consultants. None of these contacts conveyed any concerns that either boy was violent, likely because neither boy had any prior history of violence. While at Explorations, the boys did not commit any acts of violence or demonstrate any aggression. Although Explorations was aware of Mr. Martin’s history of substance abuse, that fact, even when considered in the context of the totality of the circumstances known by Explorations, does not [*24] make his later violent actions foreseeable. As to the fact that one of Mr. Dittrich’s schools had scored him at the highest end of “explosive and unpredictable behavior,” that notation was made eleven years before he attended the Explorations program. (Dkt. 19-10 at 80.) The Court finds the undisputed facts establish that the boys’ violent attack was not highly predictable or likely and, therefore, was not foreseeable. See Caldwell, 968 P.2d at 220.
It is notable that at the time they left the program the boys themselves had not even decided where they were going let alone contemplated attacking anyone. Mr. Martin testified that when they left Explorations his intention was just to get to a city so he could use drugs again but denied he had any intention of committing violence on anyone. (Dkt. 16-4 at 42.) It was not until after the boys had left Explorations that they discussed stealing a car and assaulting someone to get a car. (Dkt. 16-4 at 43-44.) If they themselves did not know or had not yet decided to commit a violent action, there certainly is no way the staff at Explorations could have foreseen the actions such that anyone could say the violence was “highly likely to occur.” [*25] Caldwell, 968 P.2d at 220 (citation omitted). Because there is no genuine issue of material fact in dispute that show Explorations and/or Ms. James could have foreseen the violent actions of Mr. Martin and Mr. Dittrich, the Court finds they did not owe a duty of care to Ms. Gadman. The Motion for Summary Judgment is granted.
NOW THEREFORE IT IS HEREBY ORDERED as follows:
1) Plaintiff’s Motion to Extend Time (Dkt. 23) is GRANTED.
2) Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. 16) is GRANTED. The claim against Defendants Phoenix Mountain Collaborative, LLC and Penelope James is HEREBY DISMISSED.
DATED: June 17, 2014
/s/ Edward J. Lodge
Honorable Edward J. Lodge
U. S. District Judge