Pennsylvania Supreme Court upholds use of an express assumption of the risk agreement to bar a claim for wrongful death during a triathlonPosted: January 27, 2020
The court defined the written agreement, signed electronically, as an assumption of the risk agreement, even though a lower court had called it a liability waiver.
State: Pennsylvania, Supreme 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: Pennsylvania Wrongful Death Statute
Defendant Defenses: Express Assumption of the Risk Agreement
Holding: For the Defendant
Pennsylvania Supreme Court upholds release to stop claims under PA’s wrongful-death statute. Since the deceased assumed the inherent risks of the sport, that removed the duty of the defendant triathlon therefore, the triathlon could not be negligent. No negligence, no violation of the wrongful-death statute.
In 2010, Triathlon organized a multi-sport-event, comprised of swimming in the Schuylkill River, cycling for more than fifteen miles, and running for more than three miles. To compete in the event, each participant was required to register, pay a fee, and execute electronically a liability waiver agreement that included an assumption of the risk provision (“Agreement”). On January 24, 2010, Decedent complied with these requisites by electronically registering as a participant in the triathlon and executing the Agreement.
The triathlon took place on June 26, 2010. At approximately 8:30 a.m., Decedent entered the Schuylkill River to begin the first segment of the race. Tragically, Decedent never completed the swimming portion of the competition. Divers retrieved Decedent’s body from the river the next day after he presumably drowned while participating in the triathlon.
The trial court and the appellate court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims based on the express assumption of the risk agreement signed by the deceased. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania granted the plaintiff’s appeal which resulted in this decision.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
The release or wavier used in this agreement is not included in the decision. One small section is quoted, which speaks to the risks the participants in the triathlon must assume. Which makes sense since the court refers to the agreement as an express assumption of the risk agreement rather than a release or waiver.
Pennsylvania follows the Restatement Second of Torts in defining assumption of the risk.
The assumption of the risk doctrine, set forth in Section 496A of the Restatement Second of Torts, provides that “[a] plaintiff who voluntarily assumes a risk of harm arising from the negligent or reckless conduct of the defendant cannot recover for such harm.” Restatement Second of Torts, § 496A. Comment c(1) to Section 496A provides that the express assumption of the risk “means that the plaintiff has given his express consent to relieve the defendant of an obligation to exercise care for his protection, and agrees to take his chances as to injury from a known or possible risk.” Id. at cmt. c(1). Notably, the Comment goes on to state that “[t]he result is that the defendant, who would otherwise be under a duty to exercise such care, is relieved of that responsibility, and is no longer under any duty to protect the plaintiff.”
Under Pennsylvania law, “when a plaintiff assumes the risk of an activity it elminates the defendants duty of care”. When the deceased signed the valid agreement and expressly assumed the risks inherent in the triathlon, the decedent extinguished the defendant triathlon’s duty of care.
If there is no duty to the deceased there cannot be any negligence. Existence of a duty and a breach of that duty is the first of four steps to prove negligence.
A negligent act is required to be successful under Pennsylvania’s wrongful-death statute.
Accordingly, once Decedent extinguished Triathlon’s duty of care by expressly assuming all risks in the inherently dangerous sporting event, his heir could not resurrect that duty of care after his death. To do so would afford a decedent’s heirs more rights than those possessed by a decedent while alive.
There were three dissents in the decision. The dissents argued the Pennsylvania wrongful death statute voided the waiver. Since the right of the plaintiff under the wrongful-death statute was a right of a survivor, and the decedent could not sign away a survivor’s rights, the release, waiver or assumption of the risk agreement was void.
So Now What?
You can breathe a little easier in Pennsylvania when using releases signed electronically. It is important to make sure you include assumption of the risk language in your release to make sure the possible plaintiff assumes those risks if the court throws out the release or finds another way to sue the document to defend you.
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Valentino v. Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC, 209 A.3d 941 (Pa. 2019)
Michele Valentino, as Administratrix of the Estate of Derek Valentino, Deceased, and Michele Valentino, in Her Own Right, Appellant
Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC, Appellee
No. 17 EAP 2017
Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
June 18, 2019
Argued: May 15, 2018
Appeal from the Judgment of Superior Court entered on November 15, 2016 at No. 3049 EDA 2013 affirming the Order entered on September 30, 2013 in the Court of Common Pleas, Philadelphia County, Civil Division at No. 1417 April Term, 2012. Jacqueline F. Allen, Judge
Craig A. Falcone, Esq., Sacchetta & Falcone, for Appellant Michele Valentino, as Admin. of the Estate of Derek Valentino, etc.
Barbara Axelrod, Esq., The Beasley Firm, L.L.C., for Appellant Amicus Curiae Pennsylvania Association for Justice.
Heather M. Eichenbaum, Esq., Spector Gadon & Rosen, P.C., for Appellee Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC.
SAYLOR, C.J., BAER, TODD, DONOHUE, DOUGHERTY, WECHT, MUNDY, JJ.
AND NOW, this 18th day of June, 2019, the Court being evenly divided, the Order of the Superior Court is AFFIRMED.
Justice Wecht did not participate in the consideration or decision of this matter.
OPINION IN SUPPORT OF AFFIRMANCE
This Court granted allocatur to determine whether an express assumption of the risk agreement executed by triathlon participant Derek Valentino (“Decedent”) serves as a defense to a wrongful death claim commenced against the Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC (“Triathlon”) by Decedent’s heir (“Appellant”), who was not a signatory to the agreement. The Superior Court held that Decedent’s express assumption of the risks inherent in participation in the sporting event eliminated Triathlon’s duty of care, thereby rendering Triathlon’s conduct non-tortious. Absent tortious activity, the Superior Court concluded that the wrongful death claim brought by Decedent’s heir could not succeed as a matter of law because the Wrongful Death Act premises recovery upon “the wrongful act or neglect or unlawful violence or negligence of another.” 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301. Accordingly, the Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s order granting summary judgment in favor of Triathlon. For the reasons set forth herein, we would affirm the judgment of the Superior Court and adopt its astute legal analysis.
Preliminarily and as explained in more detail infra, we respectfully note that the Opinions in Support of Reversal (both hereinafter collectively referred to as “OISR”) ignore the issue for which we granted allocatur and, instead, attempt to reverse the judgment of the Superior Court on grounds not encompassed by this appeal. Specifically, the OISR would sua sponte hold that express assumption of the risk agreements are void and unenforceable in violation of public policy in cases involving claims brought pursuant to the Wrongful Death Act, 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301. The OISR reaches this conclusion notwithstanding that no party to this appeal challenges the validity of the agreement on public policy grounds or otherwise. We decline to engage in this judicial overreaching and proceed to address the merits of the issue before us.
We begin with a brief recitation of the facts. In 2010, Triathlon organized a multi-sport-event, comprised of swimming in the Schuylkill River, cycling for more than fifteen miles, and running for more than three miles. To compete in the event, each participant was required to register, pay a fee, and execute electronically a liability waiver agreement that included an assumption of the risk provision (“Agreement”). On January 24, 2010, Decedent complied with these requisites by electronically registering as a participant in the triathlon and executing the Agreement.
The executed Agreement stated that Decedent understood “the physical and mental rigors associated with triathlon,” and “that running, bicycling, [and] swimming
… are inherently dangerous and represent an extreme test of a person’s physical and mental limits.” Appellee’s Motion for Summary Judgment Ex. G, dated Aug. 5, 2013. The Agreement further acknowledged Decedent’s understanding that “participation involves risks and dangers which include, without limitation, the potential for serious bodily injury, permanent disability, paralysis and death … and other undefined harm or damage which may not be readily foreseeable[.]” Id. The Agreement provided that Decedent was aware “that these Risks may be caused in whole or in part by [his] own actions or inactions, the actions or inactions of others participating in the Event, or the acts, inaction or negligence of [the Triathlon].” Id.
Germane to this appeal, the Agreement stated that Decedent “expressly assume[d] all such Risks and responsibility for any damages, liabilities, losses or expenses” resulting from his participation in the event. Id. (emphasis added). The Agreement also included a provision stating that Decedent further agreed that if he or anyone on his behalf “makes a claim of Liability against any of the Released Parties, [Decedent] will indemnify, defend and hold harmless each of the Released Parties from any such Liability which any [sic] may be incurred as the result of such claim.” Id. 
The triathlon took place on June 26, 2010. At approximately 8:30 a.m., Decedent entered the Schuylkill River to begin the first segment of the race. Tragically, Decedent never completed the swimming portion of the competition. Divers retrieved Decedent’s body from the river the next day after he presumably drowned while participating in the triathlon. On April 12, 2012, Decedent’s widow, Michele Valentino, both in her own right and as administratrix of her husband’s estate (referred to as “Appellant” herein), asserted wrongful death and survival claims against various defendants, including Triathlon. Only the wrongful death claim is at issue in this appeal. Appellant subsequently amended her complaint and the defendants filed preliminary objections. On July 27, 2012, the trial court sustained the defendants’ preliminary objections and struck all references in the complaint that referred to outrageous acts, gross negligence, recklessness, and punitive damages, holding that these averments were legally insufficient as the facts alleged demonstrated only ordinary negligence. The trial court further struck particular paragraphs of the amended complaint on grounds that they lacked specificity.
In December of 2012, following the various defendants’ filing of an answer and new matter, the defendants moved for summary judgment, asserting the Agreement as an affirmative defense. The trial court denied summary judgment, finding that questions of material fact remained regarding the existence of the Agreement. Appellant thereafter stipulated to the dismissal of all defendants except Triathlon. Once discovery was completed, Triathlon again moved for summary judgment. Concluding that the evidence at that point in the proceedings demonstrated that the Agreement was among Decedent’s possessions and was valid and enforceable, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Triathlon.
Prior to the trial court issuing its Pa.R.A.P. 1925(a) opinion explaining its rationale for granting summary judgment in favor of Triathlon, the Superior Court, in an unrelated matter, decided the case of Pisano v. Extendicare Homes, Inc., 77 A.3d 651 (Pa. Super. 2013), which held that a non-signatory wrongful death claimant was not bound by an arbitration agreement signed by a decedent. Id. at 663. On April 14, 2012, shortly after Pisano was decided, the trial court issued its Pa.R.A.P. 1925(a) opinion in this matter and urged the Superior Court to vacate its order granting summary judgment in favor of Triathlon based on that decision.
Relying upon Pisano, Appellant argued to the Superior Court that Decedent’s Agreement with Triathlon does not apply to her as a non-signatory and, thus, has no preclusive effect upon her wrongful death claims asserted against Triathlon. In response, Triathlon contended that Decedent’s assumption of the risks inherent in participation in the event relieved its duty of care, thereby rendering Triathlon’s conduct non-tortious as a matter of law. The Triathlon maintained that, absent tortious activity, a wrongful death claim could not succeed because the Wrongful Death Act premises recovery upon “the wrongful act or neglect or unlawful violence or negligence of another.” 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301.
Initially, on December 30, 2015, a divided panel of the Superior Court reversed the trial court’s order in part, holding that under Pisano, Decedent’s Agreement was not applicable to Appellant because she was not a signatory to the contract. The Superior Court thereafter granted en banc argument and withdrew its panel decision.
On November 15, 2016, an en banc Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s order granting Triathlon summary judgment in a published decision. Valentino v. Phila. Triathlon, LLC, 150 A.3d 483 (Pa. Super. 2016). Preliminarily, the Superior Court acknowledged that because a wrongful death claim is not derivative of a decedent’s cause of action, “a decedent may not compromise or diminish a wrongful death claimant’s right of action without consent.” Id. at 493. Nevertheless, the Superior Court went on to hold that “a third-party wrongful death claimant is subject to substantive defenses supported by the decedent’s actions or agreements where offered to relieve the defendant, either wholly or partially, from liability by showing that the defendant’s actions were not tortious.” Id.
The Superior Court found that the available substantive defense here was Decedent’s contractual assumption of the risks inherent in participation in the triathlon.
The assumption of the risk doctrine, set forth in Section 496A of the Restatement Second of Torts, provides that “[a] plaintiff who voluntarily assumes a risk of harm arising from the negligent or reckless conduct of the defendant cannot recover for such harm.” Restatement Second of Torts, § 496A. Comment c(1) to Section 496A provides that the express assumption of the risk “means that the plaintiff has given his express consent to relieve the defendant of an obligation to exercise care for his protection, and agrees to take his chances as to injury from a known or possible risk.” Id. at cmt. c(1). Notably, the Comment goes on to state that “[t]he result is that the defendant, who would otherwise be under a duty to exercise such care, is relieved of that responsibility, and is no longer under any duty to protect the plaintiff.” Id.
Pennsylvania case law illustrates that one’s assumption of the risks inherent in a particular activity eliminates the defendant’s duty of care. SeeHughes v. Seven Springs Farm Inc., 563 Pa. 501, 762 A.2d 339, 343 (2000) (explaining that under Section 496A of the Restatement Second of Torts, where the plaintiff assumes the risk of harm, the defendant is under no duty to protect the plaintiff from such risks); Carrender v. Fitterer, 503 Pa. 178, 469 A.2d 120, 125 (1983) (explaining that one’s assumption of the risk of injury is simply another way of expressing the lack of duty on the part of the defendant to protect against such risks); Thompson v. Ginkel, 95 A.3d 900, 906 (Pa. Super. 2014) (citation omitted) (acknowledging that the assumption of the risk doctrine is a function of the duty analysis required in all negligence actions).
Relying on this substantive tort law, the Superior Court in the instant case held that by knowingly and voluntarily executing a valid agreement expressly assuming the risks inherent in participating in the sporting event, Decedent extinguished Triathlon’s duty of care, thereby rendering its conduct not tortious. Valentino, 150 A.3d at 493. As noted, the intermediate appellate court concluded that absent tortious conduct, Appellant’s wrongful death claim could not survive as a matter of law; thus, the trial court did not err in granting summary judgment in favor of Triathlon. Id.
The Superior Court in the instant case readily distinguished Pisano on the ground that it did not involve an agreement to assume all risks inherent in a particular activity, which would serve to eliminate the duty element of the wrongful death action against the alleged tortfeasor. Acknowledging Pisano’s principle that a third party’s right of action in a wrongful death claim is an independent statutory claim of a decedent’s heirs and is not derivative of a decedent’s right of action, the Superior Court emphasized that “a wrongful death claim still requires a tortious injury to succeed.” Valentino, 150 A.3d at 493. The Superior Court cogently explained that Pisano does not undermine the fundamental principle that a statutory claimant in a wrongful death action has the burden of proving that the defendant’s tortious conduct caused the decedent’s death. It opined that this cannot occur where the
decedent assumed all risks inherent in participating in the activity and thereby abrogated any duty the putative tortfeasor may have had. Id.
Similarly, the Superior Court distinguished this Court’s decision in Buttermore v. Aliquippa Hospital, 522 Pa. 325, 561 A.2d 733 (1989), upon which Appellant had relied. Valentino, 150 A.3d at 495. In that case, James Buttermore was injured in an automobile accident and signed a release in settlement of his claim against the tortfeasors for the sum of $25,000, agreeing to release all persons from liability. Buttermore, 561 A.2d at 734. The issue on appeal to this Court was whether Buttermore’s wife, who was not a signatory to the settlement agreement, had an independent right to sue the tortfeasors for loss of consortium. Id. at 735. Acknowledging that the release applied to all tortfeasors, including the defendants, this Court held that one could not bargain away the rights of others who were not a party to the contract. Id. Because Buttermore’s wife was not a party to her husband’s settlement agreement and because she sought to sue in her own right for loss of consortium, we held that she had an independent cause of action, unaffected by her husband’s settlement agreement. Id. at 736.
The Superior Court below distinguished Buttermore, finding that unlike the express assumption of the risk agreement here, the settlement agreement in Buttermore did not extinguish a requisite element of the wife’s loss of consortium claim. Valentino, 150 A.3d at 496. Stated differently, unlike the express assumption of the risk agreement in the instant case, nothing in the settlement agreement in Buttermore precluded the finding that the defendants acted tortiously.
We agree with the Superior Court’s application of well-settled tort law and its conclusion that the assumption of the risk agreement entered into between Decedent and the Triathlon operates much differently than the settlement agreement in Buttermore and the arbitration agreement in Pisano, as the latter agreements do not preclude a finding that the defendant acted tortiously. We further agree with the intermediate appellate court that a decedent’s valid assumption of the risk agreement does not negate his heir’s right to commence a wrongful death lawsuit, but it “can support a defense asserting that the alleged tortfeasor owed no duty to the decedent.” Valentino, 150 A.3d at 494.
Accordingly, once Decedent extinguished Triathlon’s duty of care by expressly assuming all risks in the inherently dangerous sporting event, his heir could not resurrect that duty of care after his death. To do so would afford a decedent’s heirs more rights than those possessed by a decedent while alive. Such a result not only defies logic, but also the statutory requisites for a wrongful death claim. As there is no genuine issue of material fact and it is clear that Triathlon is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, we would affirm the judgment of the Superior Court, which affirmed the trial court order granting summary judgment in Triathlon’s favor. See Pa.R.C.P. 1035.2 (providing that summary judgment is appropriate only when there is no genuine issue as to any material fact or when a party which will bear the burden of proof has failed to present evidence sufficient to present the issue to the jury).
As noted, regarding the OISR’s sua sponte public policy declaration, our primary objection is that the issue of whether the express assumption of the risk agreement violates public policy is not properly before the Court; thus, the grant of relief on this claim cannot serve as a means to disturb the judgment of the Superior Court.
SeeSteiner v. Markel, 600 Pa. 515, 968 A.2d 1253, 1256 (2009) (holding that an appellate court may not reverse a judgment on a basis that was not properly raised and preserved by the parties).
Additionally, we observe that the OISR declares the express assumption of the risk agreement violative of the public policy set forth in the Wrongful Death Act, i.e., to compensate family members of victims of tortious conduct, without any explanation as to how tortious conduct can exist in the absence of a duty of care. Further, the OISR seeks to invalidate not all express assumption of the risk contracts, but only those relating to wrongful death claims, based upon the public policy set forth in the Wrongful Death Act. Accordingly, under the OISR’s reasoning, express assumption of the risk agreements would generally be valid to preclude a participant’s ordinary negligence claims against the purveyor of an inherently dangerous sport or activity, but would be invalid where a participant’s injuries were fatal and his heirs sought recovery for wrongful death. Thus, a participant who suffered grievous non-fatal injury would have no redress, but his family would have redress if the participant succumbed to his injuries.
This result is untenable as there is no evidence to suggest that it is the public policy of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to elevate the rights of victims’ heirs over those of the victims themselves or to immunize wrongful death claims from ordinary and readily available defenses. In fact, not only did the General Assembly premise recovery in wrongful death on the precise tortious conduct that caused the decedent’s fatal injuries, but directed expressly that a wrongful death action “may be brought, under procedures prescribed by general rules.” 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301(a). There is simply no provision in the Wrongful Death Act that renders an heir’s entitlement to relief absolute. Had the Legislature intended that mandate, it would have so directed.
Moreover, it is not the role of this Court to create the public policy of this Commonwealth. Instead, “public policy is to be ascertained by reference to the laws and legal precedents and not from general considerations of supposed public interest.” Burstein v. Prudential Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co., 570 Pa. 177, 809 A.2d 204, 207 (2002) (quoting Eichelman v. Nationwide Ins. Co., 551 Pa. 558, 711 A.2d 1006, 1008 (1998)). We have held that “only dominant public policy” justifies the invalidation of a contract and in the “absence of a plain indication of that policy through long governmental practice or statutory enactments, or violations of obvious ethical or moral standards, the Court should not assume to declare contracts contrary to public policy.” Burstein, 809 A.2d at 207. Significantly, we have acknowledged that in such circumstances, “courts must be content to await legislative action.” Id.
The OISR fails to heed this warning. By declaring the public policy of this Commonwealth, untethered to legislative fiat and in a case where the issue is not before us, the OISR comes dangerously close to displacing the legislative process with judicial will. Accordingly, we would affirm the judgment of the Superior Court, which affirmed the order granting summary judgment in favor of the Triathlon. While the facts of this case are most tragic, this Court may not afford relief where the law does not so provide.
Chief Justice Saylor and Justice Todd join this opinion in support of affirmance.
OPINION IN SUPPORT OF REVERSAL
The question before the Court is whether the Superior Court erred when it determined
a pre-injury exculpatory waiver signed by a triathlon participant provides a complete defense to claims brought by the participant’s non-signatory heirs pursuant to the Wrongful Death Act, 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301. We would find the waiver is unenforceable against the heirs and does not preclude their wrongful death action. We would therefore reverse the Superior Court’s decision and remand to the trial court for further proceedings.
In 2010, appellee Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC, organized the Philadelphia Insurance Triathlon Sprint (the Triathlon). The Triathlon consisted of three events: (1) a 0.5 mile swim; (2) a 15.7 mile bicycle race; and (3) a 3.1 mile run. The swim portion of the Triathlon took place in the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As a participant in the Triathlon, Decedent, Derek Valentino, registered as a participant for the Triathlon and executed a Waiver and Release of Liability (the Waiver) by affixing his electronic signature to an online registration form.
On race day, at approximately 8:30 a.m., Decedent entered the Schuylkill River for the swim portion of the Triathlon, but he did not complete the swim and, on the following day, his body was recovered from the Schuylkill River. There is no dispute Decedent drowned in the river while participating in the Triathlon. SeeValentino v. Phila. Ins. Co., No. 120401417, 2014 WL 4796614, at *1 (Pa. Com. Pl. Aug. 26, 2014).
Appellant Michele Valentino filed a lawsuit in her individual capacity and as Administratrix of the Estate of Derek Valentino, against several defendants, including appellee, asserting survival claims on Decedent’s behalf and wrongful death claims on her own behalf and that of her children. See Amended Complaint at ¶¶ 26-28, 34-36, citing 42 Pa.C.S. § 8302 (Survival Act provides “[a]ll causes of action or proceedings, real or personal, shall survive the death of the plaintiff or of the defendant …”); Amended Complaint at ¶¶29-33, 37-41, citing 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301(a), (b) (Wrongful Death Act provides spouse, children or parents of decedent can bring action “to recover damages for the death of an individual caused by the wrongful act or neglect or unlawful violence or negligence of another”). In response to preliminary objections, the trial court entered orders striking from the complaint all references to outrageous acts, gross negligence and recklessness. The trial court also struck appellant’s claim for punitive damages. Remaining in the case were several allegations of ordinary negligence, specifically, that appellee failed to: make a
reasonable inspection of the premises and event course; remove or take measures to prevent dangerous conditions; follow rules, regulations, policies and procedures governing safety standards; properly train the Triathlon’s agents, servants and employees with respect to safety rules, regulations, policies and procedures; properly supervise the Triathlon’s employees to ensure the Triathlon was conducted in a reasonable and safe manner; properly construct or design a safe event route to avoid dangerous conditions; regulate or control the number of individuals participating in each phase of the race simultaneously; have proper rules, regulations, policies and procedures for the timely recognition and response of event participants in distress and need of rescue; and have adequate safety personnel on hand for each aspect of the event. Seeid. at ¶ 22(b), (d) & (f) – (l).
Thereafter, appellee filed an answer with new matter, claiming Decedent was sufficiently negligent himself to completely bar appellant’s recovery, or alternatively, to reduce appellant’s recovery in accordance with the amount of comparative negligence attributed to Decedent. See Answer with New Matter at ¶43, citing Comparative Negligence Act, 42 Pa.C.S. § 7102. In addition, appellee asserted the complete defense of assumption of risk, claiming it owed no duty to Decedent or his survivors based on Decedent’s execution of the Waiver. Id. at ¶¶44, 46.
a. Summary Judgment
On September 30, 2013, the trial court granted appellee’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed all of appellant’s remaining claims with prejudice. On appellant’s motion for reconsideration, the court opined summary judgment on the survival action was proper based on the Waiver. Valentino, 2014 WL 4796614, at *2. The court reversed itself regarding appellant’s wrongful death action, and opined that claim should be remanded for further proceedings based on the Superior Court’s decision in Pisano v. Extendicare Homes, Inc., 77 A.3d 651, 663 (Pa. Super. 2013), appeal denied, 624 Pa. 683, 86 A.3d 233 (Pa. 2014) (resident-decedent’s contractual agreement with nursing home to arbitrate all claims was not binding on non-signatory wrongful death claimants). Id. at *3. In recommending the wrongful death action be remanded, the trial court observed “a decedent can contract away his own right to recover in court under a survival action, [but] he cannot similarly alienate the rights of third parties to recover in their own wrongful death actions.” Id.
b. Superior Court
A divided en banc panel of the Superior Court subsequently affirmed summary judgment on all claims. Valentino v. Phila. Triathlon, LLC, 150 A.3d 483 (Pa. Super. 2016). The majority reasoned that, for a decedent’s heirs to recover damages in a wrongful death action, there must be an underlying tortious act by the defendant. See id. at 492-93, quotingKaczorowski v. Kalkosinski, 321 Pa. 438, 184 A. 663, 664 (1936) (“… a right to recover must exist in the party injured when he died in order to entitle[ ] those named in the act to sue…. [W]here the deceased would have been barred by contributory negligence, or by the statute of limitations, the parties suing for his death are likewise barred.”) (internal citations omitted). The majority further held its own decision in Pisano, which allowed non-signatory wrongful death claimants to file a court action despite their decedent’s execution of an arbitration
agreement, is limited to the facts of that case. Id. at 493. The majority opined an heir’s right to recover for her decedent’s wrongful death is dependent upon the existence of a tortious act that caused the death, stating “while a third party’s wrongful death claim is not derivative of the decedent’s right of action, a wrongful death claim still requires a tortious injury to succeed.” Id. Underpinning the en banc majority’s analysis was its position that arbitration and settlement agreements “bind[ ] only the parties to the agreement while the [liability waiver] extends to non-signatory third-parties.” Id. at 497 n.9. The en banc majority considered the Waiver to be an express assumption of all risks which eliminated any legal duty otherwise owed to anyone by appellee, creating a complete bar to tort liability. Id.
Appellant filed a petition for allowance of appeal and this Court granted review of two questions:
Whether the Superior Court erred when it determined that a waiver of liability form, executed solely by the decedent, and stating the signer assumes all risks of participation in a triathlon, also binds his heirs, thereby precluding them from bringing a wrongful death action?
Whether the defense of assumption of risk should be abolished except in those situations where it is specifically permitted by the Comparative Negligence Act?
Valentino v. Phila. Triathlon, LLC, 641 Pa. 515, 168 A.3d 1283 (2017) (per curiam ).
Our standard and scope of review on appeal from summary judgment are well-established. “[A]n appellate court may reverse the entry of summary judgment only where it finds that the trial court erred in concluding that the matter presented no genuine issue as to any material fact and that it is clear that the moving party was entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Phillips v. Cricket Lighters, 576 Pa. 644, 841 A.2d 1000, 1004 (2003), citingPappas v. Asbel, 564 Pa. 407, 768 A.2d 1089 (2001). In determining whether the lower court erred in granting summary judgment, the standard of review is de novo and the scope of review is plenary. Liss & Marion, P.C. v. Recordex Acquisition Corp., 603 Pa. 198, 983 A.2d 652, 657 (2009), citingLJL Transp., Inc. v. Pilot Air Freight Corp., 599 Pa. 546, 962 A.2d 639, 647 (2009). We consider the parties’ arguments with these standards in mind.
Appellant argues the Superior Court erred in determining the Waiver, which
was executed solely by Decedent, barred his heirs’ wrongful death action. Appellant first notes wrongful death actions are statutorily authorized in Pennsylvania:
(a) General rule.–An action may be brought, under procedures prescribed by general rules, to recover damages for the death of an individual caused by the wrongful act or neglect or unlawful violence or negligence of another if no recovery for the same damages claimed in the wrongful death action was obtained by the injured individual during his lifetime and any prior actions for the same injuries are consolidated with the wrongful death claim so as to avoid a duplicate recovery.
42 Pa.C.S. § 8301(a). Relying on Pennsylvania jurisprudence, appellant argues a wrongful death action is derivative of the victim’s fatal injuries, but is nevertheless meant to compensate a decedent’s survivors “for the pecuniary loss they have sustained by the denial of future contributions decedent would have made in his or her lifetime.” Appellant’s Brief at 13-15, quotingFrey v. Pa. Elec. Comp., 414 Pa.Super. 535, 607 A.2d 796, 798 (1992), and citingTulewicz v. Se. Pa. Transp. Auth., 529 Pa. 588, 606 A.2d 427, 431 (1992), Kaczorowski, 184 A. at 664 (wrongful death claim is “derivative” because “it has as its basis the same tortious act which would have supported the injured party’s own cause of action”).
Appellant relies on Buttermore v. Aliquippa Hospital, 522 Pa. 325, 561 A.2d 733 (1989), where the tort-victim husband executed a general release and settlement agreement after a car accident which purported to waive recovery by “any and all other persons associations and/or corporations[.]” Appellant’s Brief at 15-16, quotingButtermore, 561 A.2d at 734. Plaintiff’s wife did not sign the release agreement. The Buttermores filed a suit against medical professionals who treated him after the accident, including a claim brought by wife for loss of consortium. Seeid. at 16. On appeal from summary judgment, this Court ruled husband’s claim was barred by the release he executed, but wife’s claim was not because she herself had not signed it. Id., citingButtermore, 561 A.2d at 736. Appellant argues the lower courts’ ruling the Waiver in this case, which only Decedent signed, bars his heirs’ wrongful death claims is in direct contravention of Buttermore . Id. at 17-18, citingButtermore, 561 A.2d at 735.
In response, appellee contends summary judgment was properly entered and dismissal of appellant’s wrongful death claims should be affirmed. Appellee argues a wrongful death action is derivative of, and dependent upon, a tortious act that results in decedent’s death. Appellee’s Brief at 13, citingCentofanti v. Pa. R. Co., 244 Pa. 255, 90 A. 558, 561 (1914) (additional citations omitted). Appellee insists the Superior Court correctly determined Decedent’s execution of the Waiver meant appellee’s conduct was rendered non-tortious in all respects because appellee no longer owed Decedent any duty of care. Id. at 16-17, citingMontagazzi v. Crisci, 994 A.2d 626, 635 (Pa. Super. 2010) (plaintiff knowingly and voluntarily encountering an obvious and dangerous risk relieves those “who may have otherwise had a duty”); Staub v. Toy Factory, Inc., 749 A.2d 522, 526 (Pa. Super. 2000) (en banc ) (“Our [S]upreme [C]ourt appears to have concluded that in a negligence action, the question whether a litigant has assumed the risk is a question of law as part of the court’s duty analysis ….”) (additional citations omitted). Appellee also argues Pisano is not applicable here. Appellee contends Pisano determined only the narrow issue of whether a wrongful death plaintiff is bound by an arbitration agreement which she did not sign, and is not relevant to questions regarding
the exculpatory Waiver signed by Decedent. Seeid. at 24.
The Wrongful Death Act (the Act), provides an independent statutory cause of action that belongs to specific claimants, i.e. the surviving spouse, children or parents of the deceased. 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301 (Act provides spouse, children or parents of decedent can bring action “to recover damages for the death of an individual caused by the wrongful act or neglect or unlawful violence or negligence of another”). SeeKaczorowski, 184 A. at 665 (“By the statute there is given an explicit and independent right of action to recover the damages peculiarly suffered by the parties named therein.”). This statutory claim for wrongful death “is derivative because it has as its basis the same tortious act which would have supported the injured party’s own cause of action. Its derivation, however, is from the tortious act and not from the person of the deceased, so that it comes to the parties named in the statute free from personal disabilities arising from the relationship of the injured party and tort-feasor.” Id. at 664 (internal citations omitted). Accordingly, Pennsylvania courts recognize that while wrongful death actions seek damages for losses to heirs arising from their relative’s wrongful death, the claims are not derivative of — or limited by — the decedent’s own rights. SeePisano, 77 A.3d at 660.
It is clear the General Assembly intended the Act to compensate the decedent’s surviving heirs, not the decedent himself, whose own losses are encompassed in a survival action. Compare 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301(wrongful death) with 42 Pa.C.S. § 8302 (survival); see alsoAmato v. Bell & Gossett, 116 A.3d 607, 625 (Pa. Super. 2015), quotingHatwood v. Hosp. of the Univ. of Pa., 55 A.3d 1229, 1235 (Pa. Super. 2012) (“The purpose of the Wrongful Death Statute … is to compensate the decedent’s survivors for the pecuniary losses they have sustained as a result of the decedent’s death…. A wrongful death action does not compensate the decedent; it compensates the survivors for damages which they have sustained as a result of the decedent’s death.”) (additional citations omitted). The Act is thus designed to assure a decedent’s heirs may seek compensation “for the loss of pecuniary benefits which [they] would have received from the deceased had death not intervened.” Kaczorowski, 184 A. at 665. Also, the Act is a remedial statute, and as such it must be liberally interpreted to effect its purpose and promote justice. 1 Pa.C.S. § 1928(c); Amadio v. Levin, 509 Pa. 199, 501 A.2d 1085, 1087 (1985) (wrongful death statute is “remedial in nature and purpose, and as such should be liberally construed to accomplish the objective of the act”); see alsoO’Rourke v. Commonwealth, 566 Pa. 161, 778 A.2d 1194, 1203 (2001) (noting remedial statutes are to be liberally construed to effect objectives).
With these principles and the legislative purpose of the Act in mind, we must determine whether the Waiver provides a complete defense to a wrongful death claim brought by non-signatory heirs. A liability waiver is, at its core, a contract, and must be construed and interpreted in the same manner as other contracts — such as arbitration clauses or settlement agreements and releases — when determining whether it is effective against a non-signatory third party. The Waiver purports to be an exculpatory contract, and such contracts are generally disfavored by the law. SeeEmployers Liability Assur. Corp. v. Greenville Business Men’s Ass’n., 423 Pa. 288, 224 A.2d 620, 623 (1966) (“contracts providing for immunity from liability for negligence must be construed strictly since
they are not favorites of the law”); see alsoSoxman v. Goodge, 372 Pa.Super. 343, 539 A.2d 826, 828 (1988) (“the law … recognized that lying behind [exculpatory] contracts is a residuum of public policy which is antagonistic to carte blanche exculpation from liability and thus developed the rule that these provisions would be strictly construed with every intendment against the party seeking their protection”), quotingPhillips Home Furnishings Inc. v. Continental Bank, 231 Pa.Super. 174, 331 A.2d 840, 843 (1974). Accordingly, a pre-injury exculpatory agreement is valid only when “it does not contravene public policy, is between parties relating entirely to their private affairs, and where each party is a free bargaining agent so that the contract is not one of adhesion.” Chepkevich v. Hidden Valley Resort, L.P., 607 Pa. 1, 2 A.3d 1174, 1177 (2010), citingTopp Copy Prods., Inc. v. Singletary, 533 Pa. 468, 626 A.2d 98, 99 (1993). This Court has consistently recognized the exculpatory contract is an agreement that is “intended to diminish legal rights which normally accrue as a result of a given legal relationship or transaction … [which must be] construed strictly against the party seeking [its] protection.” Dilks v. Flohr Chevrolet, Inc., 411 Pa. 425, 192 A.2d 682, 687 (1963), quotingMorton v. Ambridge Borough, 375 Pa. 630, 101 A.2d 661, 663 (1954).
Thus, in determining whether the Waiver provides a defense to appellant’s wrongful death action, we must liberally apply the remedial Act while we simultaneously construe the Waiver strictly against appellee as the party seeking protection from the contract. We would hold the Superior Court did the opposite in its decision below: the court erroneously gave the Waiver the broadest application possible while disregarding the remedial nature of the Act and the public policy considerations underpinning it.
First, we note the Waiver is a contract between Decedent and appellee involving their own private affairs. Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1177. The Waiver includes broad language barring Triathlon participants from filing suit to recover damages for injuries or death “which may arise out of, result from, or relate to my participation in the [Triathlon], including claims for Liability caused in whole or in part by the negligence of” appellees. See Waiver attached as Exhibit A to appellee’s Answer and New Matter. However, the Waiver is plainly not an agreement between Triathlon participants’ wrongful death heirs and appellee. We emphasize a wrongful death action belongs solely to a decedent’s heirs, is intended to compensate them, and does not accrue to the decedent. SeeHatwood, 55 A.3d at 1235, quotingMachado v. Kunkel, 804 A.2d 1238, 1246 (Pa. Super. 2002) (“Under the wrongful death act the widow or family is entitled, in addition to costs, to compensation for the loss of the contributions decedent would have made …”). Thus, while a pre-injury exculpatory
waiver might indeed be effective to bar a survival claim by a decedent’s estate, it is quite another thing to conclude the decedent’s agreement acts as a complete defense to statutory claims that are specifically available to his non-signatory heirs. Appellee argues the Waiver provides a complete defense to appellant’s wrongful death claim, but in our considered view, allowing the Waiver to have this effect would require us to ignore the purpose of the Act and the public policy concerns it was specifically enacted to protect.
Our conclusion is consistent with prior Pennsylvania case law arising from wrongful death actions. As this Court has stated, such lawsuits are meant to compensate the statutory beneficiaries, i.e. the spouse, children or parents of the decedent for the pecuniary losses they sustained as a result of their relative’s death. SeeTulewicz, 606 A.2d at 431. Accordingly, our courts have recognized the distinct nature of these claims and have declined to enforce a decedent’s own agreements and obligations against his heirs. SeeButtermore, 561 A.2d at 736 (release signed by husband barred his own action against hospital but not the independent action of wife, who did not sign release); Pisano, 77 A.3d at 660, citingKaczorowski, 184 A. at 664 (wrongful death claim is derived from injury to decedent but it is independent and distinct cause of action; decedent’s agreement to arbitrate not binding on non-signatory heirs); see alsoRickard v. Am. Nat’l Prop. & Cas. Co., 173 A.3d 299 (Pa. Super. 2017) (decedent’s agreement to accept insurance benefits in exchange for allowing subrogation by insurer not binding on non-signatory heirs who recovered damages in subsequent wrongful death action against tortfeasor). The Waiver in this regard is analogous to the settlement and release agreement at issue in Buttermore, or the arbitration agreement in Pisano .
We observe that the undisputed purpose of the Act is “to provide a cause of action against one whose tortious conduct caused the death of another.” Amadio, 501 A.2d at 1087. And, as we have stated, exculpatory contracts must be read narrowly. SeeDilks, 192 A.2d at 687; see alsoTayar v. Camelback Ski Corp. Inc., 616 Pa. 385, 47 A.3d 1190, 1196 (2012) (for exculpatory clause to be enforceable “contract language must be construed strictly”), quotingTopp Copy, 626 A.2d at 99. Allowing the Waiver to have a broad exculpatory effect with respect to non-signatory wrongful death claimants would essentially make the right the General Assembly created for certain heirs through the Act an illusory one. Abrogation of an express statutory right to recovery in this way violates public policy, and a pre-injury exculpatory waiver that contravenes public policy is invalid and unenforceable. Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1177. Cf.Tayar, 47 A.3d at 1203 (curtailing purported effect of waiver on public policy grounds). Moreover, our recognition of relevant public policy concerns in this regard does not constitute “creation” of public policy. See OISA at 947. Our law is clear that determination of whether contract terms may be avoided on public policy grounds “requires a showing of overriding public policy from legal precedents [or] governmental practice ….” Tayar, 47 A.3d at 1199. The public policy
we recognize here is well-established in both judicial precedents and statutory enactment. This Court has declined to enforce exculpatory contracts “[w]here the legislature has, by definite and unequivocal language, determined the public policy of this Commonwealth with regard to a particular subject, [because] that pronouncement cannot be set aside and rendered unenforceable by a contract between individuals.” Boyd v. Smith, 372 Pa. 306, 94 A.2d 44, 46 (1953) (exculpatory waiver of liability unenforceable on public policy grounds due to conflict with statute). Precluding the use of the Waiver as a carte blanche automatic defense to wrongful death actions comports with the remedial purpose and protection expressed in the Act. A contrary holding elevates a private contract above public policy embodied in a statutory enactment, and overrides our jurisprudence directing a narrow and strict construction of exculpatory waivers.
Accordingly, we would hold the Waiver is void and unenforceable with respect to appellant’s wrongful death claims and, as such, the Waiver should not be available to appellee as a defense in the underlying wrongful death litigation. We would hold the Superior Court erred in affirming summary judgment in favor of appellee on that basis, and reverse and remand to the trial court for further proceedings on appellant’s wrongful death claim.
Justice Donohue and Justice Mundy join this opinion in support of reversal.
OPINION IN SUPPORT OF REVERSAL
I join Justice Dougherty’s Opinion in Support of Reversal (“OISR”) in full. I too disagree with the Superior Court’s conclusion that the Decedent’s exculpatory agreement may serve as a complete defense to the wrongful death heir’s claim against the Triathlon. I write separately to express my view that, in light of the derivative nature of wrongful death actions, the Superior Court was technically correct in its analysis of the mechanical operation of the liability waiver in reaching its conclusion. However, when the mechanical operation of the law works to defeat the purpose of a remedial statute like the Wrongful Death Act, by way of the broad enforcement of a legally disfavored exculpatory agreement, the mechanical operation must yield.
As Justice Dougherty explains, this Court has repeatedly affirmed a requirement that exculpatory agreements must be narrowly and strictly construed because exculpatory language, which purports to relieve a person of liability even when he has negligently caused injury to another, is not favored in the law. OISR (Dougherty, J.) at 952-53, 954-55 (citing Employers Liability Assur. Corp. v. Greenville Business Men’s Ass’n., 423 Pa. 288, 224 A.2d 620, 623 (1966); Chepkevich v. Hidden Valley Resort, L.P., 607 Pa. 1, 2 A.3d 1174, 1189 (2010); Topp Copy Prods. Inc. v. Singletary, 533 Pa. 468, 626 A.2d 98 (1993);
Dilks v. Flohr Chevrolet, Inc., 411 Pa. 425, 192 A.2d 682, 687 (1963)). Here, Appellant does not challenge the validity or the enforceability of the contractual assumption of risk in the survival action she brought (as administratrix) on behalf of Decedent’s estate. Therefore, for purposes of this appeal, the liability waiver is valid and enforceable as a complete defense to the survival action. As between the Triathlon and Decedent, there is a knowing and voluntary agreement to extinguish Decedent’s ability to recover for claims of ordinary negligence.
I believe that we must, however, decline to allow the liability waiver to defeat a wrongful death action brought by heirs who never agreed, expressly or otherwise, to eliminate their statutory right to recover for their pecuniary loss resulting from the death of their loved one that, as alleged, was tortious but for the liability waiver. Allowing the liability waiver to defeat the wrongful death action, as the Superior Court did, gives the waiver the broadest possible reading, contrary to our mandate to narrowly construe such provisions. The tenet of strict construction requires that we limit this liability waiver to its narrowest effect: a bar to recovery under the survival action.
Moreover, as noted by Justice Dougherty, for an exculpatory waiver to be valid, it must meet three conditions: it must not contravene public policy, the contract must be between persons relating entirely to their own private affairs, and each party must be a free bargaining agent to the agreement so that the contract is not one of adhesion. OISR (Dougherty, J.) at 952-53 (citing Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1177). As to these first two prongs, this Court’s decision in Boyd v. Smith, 372 Pa. 306, 94 A.2d 44 (1953), is instructive. In Boyd, an agreement between a property owner and a tenant relieved the property owner from liability for any injury occasioned by the property owner’s negligence in the maintenance of the leased building. Boyd, 94 A.2d at 45. However, pursuant to statute, “no building … shall be used for human habitation unless it is equipped with a fire escape or fire escapes as required by law.” Id. (quoting 53 P.S. § 3962). The property in question was not equipped with fire escapes. The building caught fire and, unable to escape the building by fire escape, the tenant sustained serious injuries and sued. The property owner attempted to rely on the exculpatory agreement in the lease to avoid liability.
We declined to find the waiver enforceable, explaining:
Such a protective clause is undoubtedly valid and enforceable if it does not contravene any policy of the law, that is, if it is not a matter of interest to the public or the state but merely an agreement between persons relating entirely to their private affairs. The situation becomes an entirely different one in the eye of the law when the legislation in question is, as here, a police measure obviously intended for the protection of human life; in such event public policy does not permit an individual to waive the protection which the statute is designed to afford him.
Id. at 46. We further held, “where the legislature has, by definite and unequivocal language, determined the public policy of this Commonwealth with regard to a particular subject, that pronouncement cannot be set aside and rendered unenforceable by a contract between individuals.” Id.
We are tasked here with determining the legal effect of a liability waiver upon a third party, not the signatory – a far more extreme reach of the waiver of liability than in Boyd . However, as in Boyd, the fullest enforcement of the liability waiver would contravene an unequivocal policy determination by the General Assembly,
namely that wrongful death heirs are entitled to recover pecuniary losses from the party responsible for their provider’s death. See OISR (Dougherty, J.) at 952-53, 954.
The Wrongful Death Act, which is remedial in nature and must be construed liberally, assures that surviving heirs do not need to go without financial support nor look to public welfare agencies to shoulder the economic burden of the loss of a provider. SeeKaczorowski, 184 A. at 665; see alsoGershon v. Regency Diving Center, 368 N.J.Super. 237, 845 A.2d 720, 728 (2004) (observing that, “in many wrongful death cases the decedent was the ‘breadwinner’ and the heirs are children, incompetents or those otherwise economically dependent on the decedent”). Notably, in the case at bar, Decedent was a forty-year-old husband and father of two who worked full-time for United Parcel Service and part-time as a licensed realtor. See Appellant’s Response to Triathlon’s Motion for Summary Judgment at 2.
Allowing the Triathlon to use Decedent’s waiver of liability to defeat a wrongful death claim would require us to ignore clear public policy embedded in the wrongful death statute and our laws governing decedents more generally. Analogously, the General Assembly has for centuries prohibited spousal disinheritance by will in order to ensure the surviving spouse’s financial security after the decedent’s death. SeeIn re Houston’s Estate, 371 Pa. 396, 89 A.2d 525, 526 (1952); see also 20 Pa.C.S. § 2203 (authorizing a surviving spouse to take against the will an elective share of one-third of the deceased’s property, subject to certain exceptions, thereby ensuring the surviving spouse’s right to some inheritance). Thus, a married individual cannot eliminate his spouse’s statutory entitlement, even through an attempted disinheritance in a last will and testament. In my view, it is impossible to reconcile allowing a sporting event participant to eradicate a statutory claim for wrongful death damages when he could not accomplish a disinheritance by virtue of a will. For this reason, and because liability waivers are disfavored, I join Justice Dougherty in narrowly construing the liability waiver so that it is enforceable only in the survival action brought on behalf of Decedent’s estate, where it was not challenged. Cf.Tayar, 47 A.3d at 1203 (curtailing purported effect of waiver on public policy grounds). So construed, it has no effect on the wrongful death action. Like Justice Dougherty, I would decline to give any effect to the Decedent’s contractual waiver of the Triathlon’s duty of care in the wrongful death action because doing so would implicate public, not merely private, affairs and would contravene the policy set forth by our legislature in the Wrongful Death Act which we must liberally construe. OISR (Dougherty, J.) at 954-55; see alsoChepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1189; Boyd, 94 A.2d at 46.
 We also granted allowance of appeal to determine whether to abolish the assumption of the risk doctrine under circumstances where the Comparative Negligence Act does not expressly permit its application. Appellant, however, waived this issue by not challenging the overall viability of the assumption of the risk doctrine in the lower tribunals. See Pa.R.A.P. 302(a) (providing that “[i]ssues not raised in the lower court are waived and cannot be raised for the first time on appeal”).
 In block capital lettering above the signature line, the Agreement stated that Decedent’s acceptance of the Agreement confirmed that he read and understood its terms, that he understood that he would surrender substantial rights, including the right to sue, and that Decedent signed the agreement freely and voluntarily. Id. This final paragraph went on to state that acceptance of the Agreement constituted “a complete and unconditional release of all liability to the greatest extent allowed by law.” Id.
 In Pisano, the decedent had executed an agreement at the time of his admission to a long-term care nursing facility (“Extendicare”), providing that any dispute arising from the agreement would be resolved by binding arbitration. Id. at 653. The decedent’s son subsequently commenced a wrongful death action against Extendicare in the trial court. Extendicare filed preliminary objections, seeking to have the case dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The trial court overruled Extendicare’s preliminary objections, holding that a wrongful death action is a creature of statute and is independent of the right of action of the decedent’s estate. Id. at 654. Thus, the trial court concluded, the decedent’s agreement to arbitrate disputes did not preclude the wrongful death claim brought by the decedent’s son. Id.
The Superior Court affirmed. The court reasoned that pursuant to 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301, a wrongful death action is not derivative of the decedent’s claim, but is a separate and distinct right of action belonging to statutory claimants to compensate them for damages they sustained as a result of the decedent’s death. Id. at 656-8. The Pisano court concluded that the arbitration agreement was not binding on the decedent’s son because he was not a party to that agreement; thus, the trial court was correct in refusing to compel arbitration.
 Notably, the Superior Court presumed the validity of the Agreement as Appellant presented no claim to the contrary. See id. at 492 n.6 (explaining that Appellant “does not challenge the substantive validity of the liability waiver as a bar to her claims of ordinary negligence. Consequently, we need not address the validity of the exculpatory provisions in the context of this case.”). By declaring the Agreement void as against public policy, the OISR ignores this clear waiver of any challenge to the Agreement on those grounds.
 Appellant stipulated to the dismissal of all defendants other than appellee on January 29, 2013, and they are not involved in this appeal. See Stipulation of Dismissal Without Prejudice.
 In Pennsylvania, wrongful death claims are separate and distinct from survival claims, although both involve allegations of negligence against the defendant. SeeDubose v. Quinlan, 643 Pa. 244, 173 A.3d 634, 637 (2017); Kiser v. Schulte, 538 Pa. 219, 648 A.2d 1, 4 (1994) (discussing differences between survival and wrongful death claims); Tulewicz v. Se. Pa. Transp. Auth., 529 Pa. 588, 606 A.2d 427, 431 (1992); (“the two actions are designed to compensate two different categories of claimants”); Pisano v. Extendicare Homes, Inc., 77 A.3d 651, 654 (Pa. Super. 2013), appeal denied, 624 Pa. 683, 86 A.3d 233 (Pa . 2014) (“Pennsylvania courts have repeatedly distinguished wrongful death claims from survival claims”). The survival claim is the “continuation of a cause of action that accrued to the plaintiff’s decedent while the decedent was alive …. On the other hand, a wrongful death action accrues to the decedent’s heirs when the decedent dies of such an injury ….” Dubose, 173 A.3d at 637. As explained more fully infra, a wrongful death claim is an independent action which belongs to the decedent’s heirs for damages aimed to compensate members of a decedent’s family for their loss. Tulewicz, 606 A.2d at 431.
 Judge Olson authored the majority opinion joined by P.J. Gantman, P.J.E. Bender, and Judges Bowes, Shogun and Ott.
 In a concurring and dissenting opinion joined by Judges Panella and Lazarus, P.J.E. Ford Elliott determined Buttermore v. Aliquippa Hospital, 522 Pa. 325, 561 A.2d 733 (1989) was instructive on the analysis of the Waiver, despite the majority’s effort to distinguish it. Valentino, 150 A.3d at 501-02 (Ford Elliott, P.J.E., concurring and dissenting). Judge Ford Elliott noted the Waiver is similar to the release in Buttermore, and the non-signatory heir in that case had an independent right to sue for the injury she suffered as a result of her decedent’s death. Id. Judge Ford Elliott stated the majority’s holding the Decedent’s own assumption of risk created a complete defense to his heirs’ wrongful death action would “eviscerate the Pennsylvania wrongful death statute which creates an independent and distinct cause of action, not derivative of the decedent’s rights at time of death.” Id. at 502. Judge Ford Elliott would also have relied on Pisano to reverse summary judgment. Id. at 504.
 This Court granted review of this second issue and ordered supplemental briefing via a per curiam order dated January 26, 2018. As acknowledged by the Opinion in Support of Affirmance (OISA), although appellant challenged the effectiveness of the Waiver as it applied to Decedent, she never questioned the overall viability of the doctrine of assumption of the risk below, and the issue is therefore waived. See OISA at 942, n.1.
 The OISA suggests our view of the case ignores the question before the Court. See OISA at 942-43. Respectfully, the OISA’s position reveals an overly narrow reading of the issue on appeal, i.e., whether an exculpatory contract can be enforced against non-signatory heirs in a claim made pursuant to the Wrongful Death Act. Seesupra at 950-51. In answering that question, we examine the terms of the Waiver within the context in which it is to be enforced. We cannot disregard the nature of the underlying suit and our jurisprudence guiding our interpretation of exculpatory contracts, which specifically includes a consideration of public policy. SeeChepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1177 (exculpatory agreement is valid only when “it does not contravene public policy …”). Although the question granted on appeal did not include the term “public policy,” we must surely consider public policy when determining whether an exculpatory agreement is valid and enforceable under the given circumstances.
 The OISA accurately observes an exculpatory agreement would “generally be valid to preclude a participant’s ordinary negligence claims against the purveyor of an inherently dangerous sport or activity,” but nevertheless rejects our view that the same waiver could be ineffective as a defense in a wrongful death claim while providing a viable defense in a survival action. See OISA at 947. We consider the disparate treatment of the Waiver in the two causes of action to be the direct result of the different goals and purposes served by the relevant statutes. Seesupra at 942, n.2.
 Importantly, our holding would not render appellee defenseless in that litigation, despite the OISA statement our reading means appellant’s right to relief is “absolute”. See OISA at 947. We recognize a wrongful death action is a tort claim arising from the alleged “wrongful act or neglect or unlawful violence or negligence of another.” 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301. Appellant must still prove the elements of her case, including causation, before any recovery would be assured. See, e.g.,Phillips v. Cricket Lighters, 576 Pa. 644, 841 A.2d 1000, 1008 (2003) (to maintain negligence action, plaintiff must show defendant had duty to conform to standard of conduct, breach of duty, the breach caused the injury, and the injury resulted in damages).
Connecticut court rejects motion for summary judgment because plaintiff claimed he did not have enough time to read the release before he signed itPosted: October 30, 2017
Plaintiff successfully argued he did not have enough time to read the release before he signed it. The court bought it.
State: Connecticut, Superior Court of Connecticut, Judicial District of New Haven at New Haven
Plaintiff: Guy DeWitt, Jr.
Defendant: Felt Racing, LLC and Pedal Power, LLC
Plaintiff Claims: no time to read the release, not told he needed to sign a release
Defendant Defenses: Release
Holding: for the plaintiff
This case looks at demoing a bike in Connecticut. The rider/plaintiff argued that he did not have enough time to read the release, and the bike shop was chaotic creating confusing for him. He was injured when the handlebars broke causing him to fall.
The plaintiff participated in the Wednesday night right put on by Pedal Power, LLC, one of the defendants. That night Pedal Power made arrangements for people to demo Felt Bicycles. Most people did so and sent their information to Felt Racing so the bikes were fit and ready to go when they arrived.
The plaintiff arrived with his own bike. However, once he got there he decided to demo a felt bicycle. While the bike was being fitted for him, he was handed a release to sign. The plaintiff stated the place was chaotic, and he did not have time to read the release.
During the ride, the handlebar failed or cracked causing the plaintiff to fall and hit a tree.
What is disputed is whether the plaintiff was given sufficient time to read and consider the Release and Waiver. The plaintiff claims that he did not read it because there wasn’t time to do so. “Everything was very chaotic and rushed there What is disputed is whether the plaintiff was given sufficient time to read and consider the Release and Waiver. The plaintiff claims that he did not read it because there wasn’t time to do so. “Everything was very chaotic and rushed there to make the ride. I just did not have the time to read that . . .” Further, the plaintiff claims that there was no mention of it until his bike was taken, and the Felt employees had begun custom fitting the Felt bike to him. The defendants, on the other hand, denied during oral argument that the scene was “chaotic” or that the plaintiff was coerced into riding the Felt bike because he had his own personal bike that he could ride. to make the ride. I just did not have the time to read that . . .” Further, the plaintiff claims that there was no mention of it until his bike was taken, and the Felt employees had begun custom fitting the Felt bike to him. The defendants, on the other hand, denied during oral argument that the scene was “chaotic” or that the plaintiff was coerced into riding the Felt bike because he had his own personal bike that he could ride.
The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, and this was the analysis of the motion by the court.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
Each state has its own requirements for when a court can grant a motion for summary judgment. The court in this case set forth those requirements before starting an analysis of the facts as they applied to the law.
“A motion for summary judgment is designed to eliminate the delay and expense of litigating an issue when there is no real issue to be tried. Practice Book section 17-49 provides that summary judgment shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, affidavits and any other proof submitted 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. In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the trial court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.”
Most states apply similar standards to deciding motions for summary judgment. The major point is there is no genuine issue of fact’s material to the case. Meaning no matter how you look at the facts, the motion is going to win because the law is clear.
Additional statements in the case indicated the court was not inclined to grant any motion for summary judgment.
“Summary judgment is particularly ‘ill-adapted to negligence cases, where . . . the ultimate issue in contention involves a mixed question of fact and law . . . [T]he conclusion of negligence is necessarily one of fact . . .”
“The courts hold the movant to a strict standard. To satisfy [their] burden the movant[s] must make a showing that it is clear what the truth is, and that excludes any real doubt as to the existence of any genuine issue of material fact, the nonmoving party has no obligation to submit documents establishing the existence of such an issue . . . Once the moving party has met its burden, however, the opposing party must present evidence that demonstrates the existence of some disputed factual issue.”
The court then analyzed the entire issue of why summary judgments are rarely granted in this judge’s opinion.
“[T]he fundamental policy purposes of the tort compensation system [are] compensation of innocent parties, shifting the loss to responsible parties or distributing it among appropriate entities, and deterrence of wrongful conduct . . . It is sometimes said that compensation for losses is the primary function of tort law . . . [but it] is perhaps more accurate to describe the primary function as one of determining when tort system is the prophylactic factor of preventing future harm . . . The courts are concerned not only with compensation of the victim, but with admonition of the wrongdoer.” “Thus, it is consistent with public policy ‘to posit the risk of negligence upon the actor’ and, if this policy is to be abandoned, ‘it has generally been to allow or require that the risk shift to another party better or equally able to bear it, not shift the risk to the weak bargainer.’
The writing on the wall, or in the opinion, makes it pretty clear this judge was not inclined to grant motions for summary judgment in tort cases when the risk of the injury would transfer to the plaintiff.
The court then reviewed the requirements of what is required in a release under Connecticut law.
…requirements for an enforceable agreement as well as the elements which demonstrate that an agreement violates public policy and renders the agreement unenforceable: the agreement concerns a business of a type suitable for regulation; the party seeking to enforce the agreement is engaged in performing a service of great importance to the public; the party holds itself out as willing to perform a service for any member of the public; there is an economic component to the transaction; the agreement is an adhesive contract; and as a result of the transaction, the plaintiff is placed under the control of the seller.
Nowhere in the requirements does it state a requirement that the plaintiff have enough time to read the release, even if did go ahead and sign the release.
The language quoted sounds like similar language found in other decisions in other states regarding releases.
Connecticut also requires “that in order for an exculpatory clause to validly release the defendant, it must be clear and contain specific reference to the term “negligence.”
In this release, the term negligence is only found once.
The plaintiff argued that he did not have time to sign the release, and the place was chaotic. This was enough for the court to say there were material facts at issue in this case. “If the plaintiff was not afforded the opportunity to read and consider the Waiver and Release, then the agreement cannot be enforced. It is for the trier of fact to determine this.”
The defendants created the conditions under which the plaintiff could participate in the ride on a Felt bicycle. Enforcement of an agreement requiring the plaintiff to assume the risk of the defendants’ actions when there is a question of fact regarding whether the plaintiff had been given sufficient time to read and consider the Waiver and Release, would violate public policy, even if the language of the agreement was explicit and clear. For this reason, this court denies the defendants’ motions for summary judgment.
The motion for summary judgment was denied.
So Now What?
This is the first time I have read a decision where the claim there was not enough time to read the release was upheld by a court. Normally, the court states if the release is signed the signor read and agreed to the terms.
This is one more argument that will eliminate releases in Connecticut. There have been several already, and although there are several decisions that support releases, there is a growing list of decisions that are providing opportunities for the courts to throw them out.
Other Connecticut Decisions Involving Releases
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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.
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 signor 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