Haines v. Get Air Tucson Incorporated, et al., 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 180500, 2018 WL 5118640

Haines v. Get Air Tucson Incorporated, et al., 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 180500, 2018 WL 5118640

Blake Haines, Plaintiff,

v.

Get Air Tucson Incorporated, et al., Defendants.

No. CV-15-00002-TUC-RM (EJM)

United States District Court, D. Arizona

October 19, 2018

ORDER

Honorable Rosemary Marquez United States District Judge.

Pending before the Court is Defendant Get Air, LLC’s (“Defendant” or “GALLC”) Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. 238.) On August 2, 2018, Magistrate Judge Eric J. Markovich issued a Report and Recommendation (Doc. 266), recommending that the Motion for Summary Judgment be granted as to Plaintiff’s punitive damages claim but otherwise denied. Defendant filed an Objection (Doc. 269), to which Plaintiff responded (Doc. 273).

I. Standard of Review

A district judge “may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations” made by a magistrate judge. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). The district judge must “make a de novo determination of those portions” of the magistrate judge’s “report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made.” Id. The advisory committee’s notes to Rule 72(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure state that, “[w]hen no timely objection is filed, the court need only satisfy itself that there is no clear error on the face of the record in order to accept the recommendation” of a magistrate judge. Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b) advisory committee’s note to 1983 addition. See also Johnson v. Zema Sys. Corp., 170 F.3d 734, 739 (7th Cir. 1999) (“If no objection or only partial objection is made, the district court judge reviews those unobjected portions for clear error.”); Prior v. Ryan, CV 10-225-TUC-RCC, 2012 WL 1344286, at *1 (D. Ariz. Apr. 18, 2012) (reviewing for clear error unobjected-to portions of Report and Recommendation).

II. GALLC’s Objection to Judge Markovich’s Report and Recommendation

As previously found by this Court, Plaintiff has presented evidence that GALLC developed a generic employee handbook (“EH”) for use in other Get Air trampoline parks as part of its support for the expansion of the Get Air business enterprise, and that the EH was used by Get Air Tucson. (See Doc. 158 at 12-14; Doc. 172 at 5.)[1] Plaintiff claims that his injuries were caused by allegedly deficient safety rules contained in the EH. (See Doc. 84 at 6, 10, 12-13.) In its Motion for Summary Judgment, Defendant argues (1) it owed no duty to Plaintiff, (2) even if it owed a duty, it was not negligent because the EH prohibited the maneuver that led to Plaintiff’s injuries, (3) it no longer has any potential legal liability because the employee involved in the creation of the EH was dismissed with prejudice; (4) Plaintiff cannot prove causation, and (5) Plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages is factually unsupported. (Doc. 238 at 1-2.)

Judge Markovich recommended that Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment be granted with respect to Plaintiff’s punitive-damages claim. (Doc. 266 at 17.) Judge Markovich rejected Defendant’s other arguments. He found that, as a result of “the special business-customer relationship that was created when GALLC performed an undertaking to develop the EH as part of its support work for the Get Air entities, ” GALLC owed Plaintiff a duty to exercise reasonable care in developing the safety rules in the EH. (Id. at 10.) Judge Markovich found that summary judgment on the issue of breach of the standard of care is precluded because there is a material factual dispute concerning whether the rule prohibiting somersaults in the EH was sufficient to prohibit the flip maneuver attempted by Plaintiff. (Id. at 7-8.) Judge Markovich also found that the dismissal of Val Iverson does not preclude Plaintiff from pursuing this action against GALLC, because a stipulated dismissal with prejudice no longer operates as an adjudication on the merits under Arizona law, and because Plaintiff’s claims are based on GALLC’s own negligence and piercing the corporate veil rather than on vicarious liability. (Id. at 16.) Finally, Judge Markovich found that Defendant’s causal-connection argument is “belied by other evidence previously considered by the Court.” (Id. at 16-17.)

Defendant argues that Judge Markovich erred in finding that GALLC owed Plaintiff a duty, in finding a material factual dispute with respect to the issue of breach of the standard of care, and in finding that GALLC can be held liable despite the dismissal of Val Iverson. (Doc. 269 at 1-10.) GALLC’s Objection to the Report and Recommendation does not address Judge Markovich’s finding on causation. The parties do not object to Judge Markovich’s finding that Plaintiff’s punitive-damages claim is factually unsupported.

III. Discussion

As no specific objections have been made to Judge Markovich’s recommendations regarding Plaintiff’s punitive-damages claim and Defendant’s causation argument, the Court has reviewed those portions of the Report and Recommendation for clear error, and has found none. Accordingly, the Court will accept and adopt Judge Markovich’s recommendation to grant Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment with respect to Plaintiff’s punitive damages claim and to deny the Motion for Summary Judgment to the extent it argues a lack of evidence of causation.

A. Existence of Duty

“To establish a defendant’s liability for a negligence claim, a plaintiff must prove: (1) a duty requiring the defendant to conform to a certain standard of care; (2) breach of that standard; (3) a causal connection between the breach and the resulting injury; and (4) actual damages.” Quiroz v. Alcoa Inc., 416 P.3d 824, 827-28 (Ariz. 2018). The existence of a duty is determined by the Court as a matter of law. See Id. at 828. A duty may “arise from a special relationship between the parties, ” including a special relationship finding its basis in “undertakings.” Stanley v. McCarver, 92 P.3d 849, 851 (Ariz. 2004); see also Quiroz, 416 P.3d at 829.

Although there is evidence that the various Get Air enterprises were operated as a closely linked network, the Court does not find that Plaintiff and GALLC had a traditional business-customer relationship. However, even though there was no direct business-customer relationship, Plaintiff and GALLC nevertheless had a special relationship based on GALLC undertaking to create safety rules for other Get Air trampoline parks, which GALLC included in a generic EH developed as part of its support work for the Get Air entities. Imposition of a duty based on this special relationship is supported by Arizona case law as well as sections 323 and 324A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts.

In McCarver, the Arizona Supreme Court imposed a duty of reasonable care on a radiologist contracted by the plaintiff’s employer to interpret an x-ray of the plaintiff’s chest, despite the lack of a traditional doctor-patient relationship. 92 P.3d at 853. In imposing a duty, the Court analyzed “whether the doctor was in a unique position to prevent harm, the burden of preventing harm, whether the plaintiff relied upon the doctor’s diagnosis or interpretation, the closeness of the connection between the defendant’s conduct and the injury suffered, the degree of certainty that the plaintiff has suffered or will suffer harm, the skill or special reputation of the actors, and public policy.” Id. Though the facts at issue in McCarver differ from those at issue in the present case, the factors supporting imposition of a duty in McCarver also support imposition of a duty here. By including safety rules in a generic EH developed for use in other Get Air parks, GALLC placed itself in a unique position to prevent harm to customers of those other Get Air parks. Get Air Tucson customers such as Plaintiff relied upon the safety rules developed by GALLC and enforced by Get Air Tucson. Plaintiff alleges that his injuries were caused by deficiencies in those safety rules. GALLC’s experience in the field of trampoline-park operations gave it special skill and a special reputation with respect to the creation of safety rules for other Get Air parks. Deficient safety rules increase the risk of harm to trampoline park customers, and the burden of developing sufficient safety rules is minimal.

The Court in McCarver also found that imposition of a duty in that case comported with Restatement (Second) of Torts § 324A. See McCarver, 92 P.3d at 853-54. Defendant argues in its Objection that Restatement (Second) of Torts § 324A “can appear to be the basis of the holding” in McCarver “but it is not.” (Doc. 269 at 3.) The import of Defendant’s argument is unclear. Whether it forms the basis of the holding in McCarver or not, Restatement (Second) of Torts § 324A has been adopted by Arizona courts. See Tollenaar v. Chino Valley Sch. Dist., 945 P.2d 1310, 1312 (Ariz. App. 1997). Section 324A provides:

One who undertakes, gratuitously or for consideration, to render services to another which he should recognize as necessary for the protection of a third person or his things, is subject to liability to the third person for physical harm resulting from his failure to exercise reasonable care to protect his undertaking, if

(a) his failure to exercise reasonable care increases the risk of such harm, or

(b) he has undertaken to perform a duty owed by the other to the third person, or

(c) the harm is suffered because of reliance of the other or the third person upon the undertaking.

Restatement (Second) of Torts § 324A (1965).

Restatement (Second) of Torts § 324A supports the existence of a duty in this case.[2] GALLC undertook to render services to Get Air Tucson (e.g., development of an EH containing safety rules) which were necessary for the protection of Get Air Tucson’s customers. Plaintiff alleges that GALLC failed to exercise reasonable care in the development of the EH’s safety rules; if so, the failure increased the risk of harm to Get Air Tucson’s customers. See Restatement (2d) of Torts § 324A(a) (1965). Furthermore, GALLC undertook to perform a duty-development of reasonable safety rules-which Get Air Tucson owed to its customers. See Id. at § 324A(b). Plaintiff alleges he was injured as a result of his reliance upon the safety rules developed by GALLC and enforced by Get Air Tucson. See Id. at § 324A(c).

Restatement (Second) of Torts § 323 has also been adopted by Arizona courts, see Tollenaar, 945 P.2d at 1312, and it also supports the existence of a duty here. Section 323 provides:

One who undertakes, gratuitously or for consideration, to render services to another which he should recognize as necessary for the protection of the other’s person or things, is subject to liability to the other for physical harm resulting from his failure to exercise reasonable care to perform his undertaking, if

(a) his failure to exercise such care, increases the risk of such harm, or

(b) the harm is suffered because of the other’s reliance upon the undertaking.

Restatement (2d) of Torts § 323 (1965). GALLC’s creation of safety rules was a service rendered not only to Get Air parks but to the customers of those parks, including Get Air Tucson customers.

The Court agrees with Judge Markovich that GALLC owed Plaintiff a duty to exercise reasonable care in the development of the safety rules contained in the generic EH supplied to Get Air Tucson.

B. Breach

The Court also agrees with Judge Markovich that there is a genuine issue of material fact precluding summary judgment on the issue of whether GALLC breached its duty to exercise reasonable care in the creation of the EH’s safety rules. Specifically, there is a factual dispute regarding the definition of “somersault, ” as used in the EH’s safety rules and, therefore, a dispute regarding whether the flip maneuver attempted by Plaintiff was prohibited by the safety rules. The evidence identified by Plaintiff and Defendant indicates that there may be differing technical and layperson definitions of the term “somersault.” Even if the maneuver attempted by Plaintiff falls within a technical definition of the term “somersault, ” as Defendant argues, Plaintiff has identified evidence showing that Get Air employees did not consider flips to be encompassed by the EH’s safety rule prohibiting somersaults. (See Doc. 246 at 4-5; Doc. 246-1.) Accordingly, there is evidence from which a reasonable jury could find that the EH’s safety rules were defective for not clearly prohibiting the flip maneuver that led to Plaintiff’s injuries.

C. Liability of GALLC

Defendant argues that the only act of negligence alleged by Plaintiff is GALLC’s creation of allegedly defective safety rules, that Val Iverson was solely responsible for the creation of those safety rules, and that GALLC cannot be held vicariously liable for the conduct of Val Iverson because he has been dismissed with prejudice. However, as Judge Markovich found, Plaintiff is not asserting vicarious liability; rather, Plaintiff alleges that GALLC is independently negligent for undertaking to create a generic EH for use in other Get Air parks, including Get Air Tucson, and including allegedly deficient safety rules in that EH. The dismissal with prejudice of Val Iverson does not preclude Plaintiff from asserting a claim against GALLC for its own independent negligence, even if establishing the independent negligence of GALLC may require proof of Val Iverson’s negligence. See Kopp v. Physician Grp. of Ariz., Inc., 421 P.3d 149, 150 (Ariz. 2018).

IT IS ORDERED that Defendant’s Objection (Doc. 269) is overruled, and Judge Markovich’s Report and Recommendation (Doc. 266) is accepted and adopted as set forth above.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 238) is granted as to Plaintiffs punitive damages claim only and is otherwise denied.

—–

Notes:

[1] Record citations refer to the page numbers generated by the Court’s electronic filing system.

[2] Defendant argues that § 324A is no longer a permissible basis of duty in Arizona because it is based on foreseeability. (Doc. 269 at 8.) Defendant cites no authority in support of the proposition that Arizona courts no longer follow § 324A. (See Doc. 247 at 1-4; Doc. 269 at 8.) Arizona courts have rejected the concept of duty based on the creation of an unreasonable risk of harm to “a foreseeable plaintiff, ” meaning a plaintiff “who is within the orbit or zone of danger created by a defendant’s conduct.” Quiroz, 416 P.3d at 828 (internal quotation marks omitted). Here, however, GALLC owed a duty to Get Air customers based on the special relationship created as a result of GALLC undertaking to develop safety rules for the protection of those customers. The duty arises from the special relationship rather than “zone of danger” foreseeability. See Id. at 829 (given the elimination of foreseeability from the duty framework, “the duty analysis” under Arizona law is limited to “common law special relationships or relationships created by public policy”).

—–


Louisiana State University loses climbing wall case because or climbing wall manual and state law.

Louisiana law prohibits the use of a release. That complicates any recreational activity in the state. However, the greater risk is creating a checklist for the plaintiff or in this case the court to use to determine if you breached the duty of care you owed the plaintiff.

Fecke v. The Board of Supervisors of Louisiana State University, 2015 0017 (La.App. 1 Cir. 07/07/15); 2015 La. App. LEXIS 1357

State: Louisiana

Plaintiff: Brandy Lynn Fecke, Stephen C. Fecke, and Karen Fecke

Defendant: The Board of Supervisors of Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College

Plaintiff Claims:

Defendant Defenses:

Holding: For the Plaintiff

Year: 2015

Louisiana State University converted a racquetball court into a climbing “gym.” It had two bouldering walls and one climbing wall. The climbing wall was 19′ climbing high, and the two bouldering walls were 13′ 1″ high. The plaintiff and a friend went to the climbing wall to work on a required assignment for an “Outdoor Living Skills Activity” course.

Upon arrival, the plaintiff paid to climb and signed a document entitled “Rock Climbing Wall Climbing Wall Participation Agreement.” The agreement was determined by the court to be a release which is void under Louisiana law. (See States that do not Support the Use of a Release.)

The plaintiff and her friend were then were asked if they had climbed before. The plaintiff had climbed twice ten years prior. They received some instruction, which was at issue during the appeal. The plaintiff choose to boulder because she did not want to wear a harness and bouldering was the easiest.

The court understood bouldering, which is quite unusual.

Bouldering is when a climber, with a partner standing behind the climber to act as a spotter in case the climber needs assistance, climbs up to a certain point on the wall and then traverses the wall side-to-side, in order to develop proficiency in climbing.

After bouldering to the top of the wall the plaintiff attempted to down climb and got stuck.

She lost her footing and hung from the wall. When she lost her grip after hanging for a few seconds, she let go of the wall and pushed herself away from the wall. As she fell, Ms. Fecke twirled around, facing away from the wall.

The plaintiff sustained severe injuries to her ankle that required three surgeries prior to the trial and might require more.

The case went to trial. The trial court dismissed the release because of La. C.C. art. 2004.

Louisiana Civil Code

Book 3. Of the different modes of acquiring the ownership of things

Code Title 4. Conventional obligations or contracts

Chapter 8. Effects of conventional obligations

Section 4. Damages

La. C.C. Art. 2004 (2015)

Art. 2004. Clause that excludes or limits liability

Any clause is null that, in advance, excludes or limits the liability of one party for intentional or gross fault that causes damage to the other party.

Any clause is null that, in advance, excludes or limits the liability of one party for causing physical injury to the other party.

The jury awarded the plaintiff $1,925,392.72 and additional $50,000 to her mother for loss of consortium. The trial court reduced the damages to $1,444,044.54, and the loss of consortium claim was reduced to $37,500. The judgment also received interest at 6.0%.

The University appealed.

Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.

The first issue on the appeal was the application of Louisiana law on the amount of money awarded as damages. This first issue will not be examined here. The second issue was whether the Rock Climbing Wall Participation Agreement was properly excluded during trial.

Originally, the Rock Climbing Wall Participation Agreement was excluded based on a Motion in Limine filed by the plaintiff. A Motion in Limine is a motion filed by a party that argues the evidence of the other side should be excluded because it violates a rule of evidence, or it violates the law. Arguing this type of issue in front of the jury just makes the jury wonder what you are hiding, and you want to have your arguments correct and in advance. A Motion in Limine is the most powerful motion in a litigator’s bag after the motion for summary judgment.

The defendant raised the issue at trial to have the Rock Climbing Wall Participation Agreement entered into evidence and lost that argument also. The trial court did read to the jury a summary of parts of the Rock Climbing Wall Participation Agreement that did not violate the constitution on releases.

The issue the university argued to allow the Rock Climbing Wall Participation Agreement to be entered into evidence and see by the jury was:

Ms. Fecke was sufficiently educated and understood the inherent risk of injury associated with the activity she was about to undertake and that the LSU UREC employees had properly screened Ms. Fecke prior to allowing her to climb the wall. The LSU Board avers that the Agreement constituted Ms. Fecke’s acknowledgment of the risks of climbing the wall, which is a significant factor in determining her fault, and that this information should have been presented to the jury.

The court found that paragraph four of the agreement violated the Louisiana State Constitution, (La. C.C. art. 2004). “Based on our review of the proffered Agreement, paragraph four is null pursuant to La. C.C. art. 2004 because it, in advance, excludes the liability of the LSU Board for causing physical injury to Ms. Fecke.”

The university argued the rest of the Rock Climbing Wall Participation Agreement should be allowed to be introduced to a jury because it would help the jury determine the risk assumed by the plaintiff and consequently, the percentage of damages she was responsible for.

The court then looked at when and how under Louisiana law, liability (negligence) was determined.

For liability for damages to attach under a duty-risk analysis, a plaintiff must prove five separate elements: (1) the defendant had a duty to conform his or her conduct to a specific standard of care (the duty element); (2) the defendant failed to conform his or her conduct to the appropriate standard of care (the breach of duty element); (3) the defendant’s substandard conduct was a cause in fact of the plaintiffs injuries (the cause in fact element); (4) the defendant’s substandard conduct was a legal cause of the plaintiffs injuries (the scope of protection element); and (5) actual damages (the damage element).

The court determined that rock climbing was recreational and like other, activities involved a substantial degree of risk. The duty of the climbing wall operator or gym operator was one of reasonable care, to provide a sound and secure environment.

Rock climbing is a recreational activity that involves substantial risk. Many other recreational activities such as weight lifting and swimming also involve a substantial degree of risk. The risks associated with these and other physically-challenging sports are well recognized. The duty on the gym operator, when these types of sports are conducted, is one of reasonable care under the circumstances — to provide a sound and secure environment for undertaking a clearly risky form of recreation and not that of removing every element of danger inherent in rock climbing.

The last sentence is important as the court found the climbing wall operator did not have a duty to warn about the potential for injury because of gravity. “The LSU Board did not have a duty to warn Ms. Fecke as a climber about the potential effect of gravity. A warning that “if you fall you might get hurt,” is obvious and universally known.”

The court did determine that to be found liable the gym must have failed to provide training and supervision and there must be a connection between the failure to train and supervise and the injury.

A gym and its facilities are not the insurers of the lives or safety of its patrons. A gym cannot be expected to foresee or guard against all dangers. Furthermore, the gym must only take reasonable precautions under the circumstances to avoid injury. To prove negligence on the part of the LSU Board, Ms. Fecke must show both a failure to provide reasonable training and supervision under the circumstances, as well as proof of a causal connection between the lack of reasonable training/supervision and the accident.

This was where the university lost the case. The university had created an extensive “Indoor Climbing Wall Manual” that covered all aspects of operating the climbing wall. It was probably created as a way to avoid liability. In this case the court used, the Indoor Climbing Wall Manual became a checklist to prove the defendant was liable.

The LSU UREC maintains an “Indoor Climbing Wall Manual,” which governs the rules, use, and maintenance of the indoor rock wall climbing facility. The manual requires the following of all employees of the indoor rock wall climbing facility:

The manual proved the climbing wall failed to train and failed to supervise. Nothing like your own documents proving the plaintiffs case.

The manual required all employees to know and enforce all rules of the climbing wall. The court then found ten rules in the manual that must be followed. The court then found additional rules that had to be followed beyond the first ten.

Furthermore, the LSU UREC employees are required to instruct patrons who intend to climb in accordance with the guidelines contained in a “safety clinic” document. The safety clinic requires the LSU UREC employees to give examples of danger areas and instruct climbers where to fall on crash pads, which must be placed underneath bouldering climbers at all times.

The rules went on to require the climbers be instructed in spotting techniques and have the climbers demonstrate spotting techniques. “The safety clinic also requires the LSU UREC employees to demonstrate how to properly descend the wall, and in the event of a fall, how to properly land on the ground to reduce injuries.”

The next two pages of the court’s opinion are running through the climbing manual as a checklist for everything the employees of the climbing wall failed to do. There was contradictory testimony, including one witness who said the plaintiff’s friend was in a position to spot but when she fell he moved away. However, the court did not seem to find the employees statements to be persuasive.

After our de novo review of the testimony and evidence presented at trial, we conclude that the LSU UREC employees failed to properly instruct, demonstrate, and certify that Ms. Fecke and Mr. Culotta understood the proper techniques for climbing the bouldering wall in accordance with their duties as described in the LSU UREC “Indoor Climbing Wall Manual” and the safety clinic document.

Legally, the climbing manual of the wall created the duty and the proof of the breach of the duty necessary to prove the case for the plaintiff.

Consequently, when reviewing whether the agreement should be allowed to be entered as evidence the appellate court decided that it might have been instructional to the jury.

The only portion of the excluded Agreement that might have prejudiced the LSU Board’s case is the portion in paragraph five wherein Ms. Fecke certified that she “agree[d] to abide by all rules of the sport as mandated by LSU University Recreation.” As discussed above, however, instruction as to those “rules” was not provided to Ms. Fecke by the LSU UREC employees nor was she properly screened or supervised as she climbed the bouldering wall.

However, the court also found that even if instructional, it was not sufficient of an issue to reverse the decision.

Thus, we find that the trial court legally erred in excluding a redacted version of the Agreement; however, we hold that the trial court’s error was not prejudicial. The inclusion of the remainder of the Agreement at trial could not have permissibly changed the jury’s verdict based on our de novo review of the record.

The court then went back and looked at how the damages were determined. Ultimately, the damages were lowered to $650,000.

So Now What

You can have manuals and checklists and other pieces of paper that tell your employees what they must do. However, if you do have these pieces of paper, you better have another employee standing around making sure everything on the paper is done.  

If you write it down, call it a standard, a manual, procedure it will become proof that you owed a duty to someone and breached that duty. Your own documents are proof that you are negligent.

Here a comprehensive manual was written to protect patrons of the climbing gym, and it ended up being an easy way for the court to find the gym had failed in its duty. Where did the court find the duty? In the climbing wall, manual easily laid out in lists.

This case is relevant in another light. If your state law says releases are not valid, you may not want to risk using one. You would be better off creating an acknowledgement of risk form for guests to sign.

Better, create video showing guests what they can and should do and more importantly what they should not do. Have the guest acknowledge in the assumption of the risk form, that they have watched the video. That helps prove the guest knew and assumed the risk of the activity.

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Fecke v. The Board of Supervisors of Louisiana State University, 2015 0017 (La.App. 1 Cir. 07/07/15); 2015 La. App. LEXIS 1357

Fecke v. The Board of Supervisors of Louisiana State University, 2015 0017 (La.App. 1 Cir. 07/07/15); 2015 La. App. LEXIS 1357

Brandy Lynn Fecke, Stephen C. Fecke, and Karen Fecke versus The Board of Supervisors of Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College

NO. 2015 CA 0017

COURT OF APPEAL OF LOUISIANA, FIRST CIRCUIT

2015 0017 (La.App. 1 Cir. 07/07/15); 2015 La. App. LEXIS 1357

July 7, 2015, Judgment Rendered

NOTICE:

THIS DECISION IS NOT FINAL UNTIL EXPIRATION OF THE FOURTEEN DAY REHEARING PERIOD.

SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Rehearing denied by Fecke v. Bd. of Supervisor, 2015 La. App. LEXIS 1644 (La.App. 1 Cir., Sept. 3, 2015)

Rehearing denied by Fecke v. Bd. of Supervisiors, 2015 La. App. LEXIS 1679 (La.App. 1 Cir., Sept. 3, 2015)

PRIOR HISTORY: [*1] On Appeal from the 19th Judicial District Court. In and for the Parish of East Baton Rouge, State of Louisiana. No. C584652. The Honorable R. Michael Caldwell, Judge Presiding.

DISPOSITION: REVERSED IN PART, AMENDED IN PART, AND AFFIRMED AS AMENDED.

COUNSEL: John Neale deGravelles, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Attorney for Plaintiffs/Appellees, Brandy L. Fecke, Stephen C. Fecke, and Karen Fecke.

James D. “Buddy” Caldwell, Attorney General, Patrick E. Henry, Darrell J. Saltamachia, John L. Dugas, Special Assistant Attorneys General, Baton Rouge, Louisiana and J. Elliott Baker, Special Assistant Attorney General, Covington, Louisiana, Attorneys for Defendant/Appellant, The Board of Supervisors of Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College.

JUDGES: BEFORE: GUIDRY, THERIOT, AND DRAKE, JJ. Guidry. J. concurs in the result.

OPINION BY: DRAKE

OPINION

[Pg 2] DRAKE, J.

The Board of Supervisors of Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College (“LSU Board”) appeals a judgment on a jury verdict that awarded damages to the plaintiff for injuries she sustained in an indoor rock wall climbing accident. For the following reasons, we reverse and amend portions of the judgment and affirm as amended.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL [*2] HISTORY

It is undisputed that on the evening of December 3, 2008, Brandy Lynn Fecke sustained injuries when she fell from a bouldering wall located at the LSU Recreation Center (“LSU UREC”) indoor rock climbing wall facility. Ms. Fecke, then a 23-three-year-old senior at LSU, and a fellow classmate, Chad Culotta, visited the indoor rock climbing facility to complete a required assignment for an Outdoor Living Skills Activity course. The indoor rock climbing facility at the LSU UREC is housed in a remodeled racquetball court. LSU converted the court into the rock climbing wall facility, with three rock wall climbing options: (i) a 19′ climbing wall; (ii) a 13′ 1″ bouldering wall located on the rear wall; (iii) and a 13′ 1″ bouldering wall located on a side wall.

After Ms. Fecke and Mr. Culotta paid for admission to enter the indoor rock climbing wall facility and received a receipt, the LSU UREC employees working the night of the accident signed Ms. Fecke and Mr. Culotta’s course forms to verify their completion of the rock wall climbing assignment for their Outdoor Living Skills Activity course. Ms. Fecke also executed a Rock Climbing Wall Participation Agreement, which was provided [*3] to her by the LSU UREC employees. The student workers inquired into their previous experience with rock climbing. Ms. Fecke testified that she climbed a rock wall twice before — once when she was eight years old and a second time when she was ten years old. Ms. Fecke also testified that she had “top lined” previously, that is, that she knew about [Pg 3] climbing a wall wearing a harness and using safety ropes, i.e., belay ropes. The employees proceeded to go through the instructions for the rock wall climbing experience. They explained to Ms. Fecke and her classmate that they could climb the 19′ climbing wall with top ropes while wearing a harness, or they could climb one of the 13′ 1″ bouldering walls. Ms. Fecke wanted to climb the “easiest wall” and opted to climb the rear bouldering wall, which did not require her to wear a harness or climb with belay ropes. Bouldering is when a climber, with a partner standing behind the climber to act as a spotter in case the climber needs assistance, climbs up to a certain point on the wall and then traverses the wall side-to-side, in order to develop proficiency in climbing.

After instruction and a climbing demonstration by one of the employees, [*4] Ms. Fecke’s classmate climbed up and then traversed down the wall. Ms. Fecke then climbed the wall. After reaching the top of the wall, Ms. Fecke began her descent; however, she got stuck while traversing down the wall and was unable to climb down any further. She lost her footing and hung from the wall. When she lost her grip after hanging for a few seconds, she let go of the wall and pushed herself away from the wall. As she fell, Ms. Fecke twirled around, facing away from the wall. Ms. Fecke landed on her left foot and sustained multiple fractures to the talus bone in her left ankle, known as a comminuted talus fracture. Due to the severity of the fractures, Ms. Fecke underwent three surgeries and will require additional surgery, including either a permanent ankle fusion or an ankle replacement.

Ms. Fecke and her parents, Stephen and Karen Fecke, brought suit against the LSU Board for damages Ms. Fecke sustained as a result of the accident. Following a three-day jury trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Ms. Fecke, Karen Fecke, and Stephen Fecke and against the LSU Board, and awarded damages. The jury allocated 75% of the fault to the LSU Board and 25% of the fault to Ms. [*5] Fecke and awarded damages to Ms. Fecke as follows:

[Pg 4] Physical Pain and Suffering, Past and Future: $150,000.00

Mental Pain and Suffering, Past and Future: $125,000.00

Loss of Enjoyment of Life: $75,000.00

Permanent Disability and Scarring: $165,000.00

Past Medical Expenses: $60,392.72

Fecke Future Medical Expenses: $1,000,000.00

Loss of Future Earnings: $350,000.00

TOTAL: $1,925,392.72

Additionally, the jury awarded damages to Karen Fecke as follows:

Loss of Consortium and Society: $50,000.00

The jury awarded no damages to Stephen Fecke for loss of consortium and society.

Six months later, the trial court signed a judgment on October 3, 2014, and after adjusting the jury’s damage award based on the fault allocation, awarded damages to Ms. Fecke as follows:

Physical Pain and Suffering, Past and Future: $112,500.00

Mental Pain and Suffering, Past and Future: $93,750.00

Loss of Enjoyment of Life: $56,250.00

Permanent Disability and Scarring: $123,750.00

Past Medical Expenses: $45,294.54

Fecke Future Medical Expenses: $750,000.00

Loss of Future Earnings: $262,500.00

TOTAL: $1,444,044.54

[Pg 5] The trial court also awarded Ms. Fecke all costs of the proceedings plus 6.0% judicial interest from the date [*6] of judicial demand until paid, pursuant to La. R.S. 13:5112(C). Furthermore, the trial court ordered that after being reduced for attorney’s fees and costs, Ms. Fecke’s future medical care award of $750,000 (plus judicial interest) be placed in a reversionary trust in accordance with La. R.S. 13:5106(B)(3)(c).1 Additionally, the trial court awarded damages to Karen Fecke as follows:

Loss of Consortium and Society: $37,500.00

The trial court also awarded Karen Fecke all costs of the proceedings plus 6.0% judicial interest from the date of judicial demand until paid, pursuant to La. R.S. 13:5112(C). Finally, the trial court cast the LSU Board with all costs of court, including but not limited to, the expert witness fees as follows:

Dan Pervorse: $3,500.00

Dr. James Lalonde: $1,400.00

Dr. John F. Loupe: $900.00

Stephanie Chalfin: $1,500.00

Harold Asher: $3,000.00

The LSU Board now appeals the October 3, 2014 final judgment of the trial court, assigning three errors to the trial court’s application of the law pertinent to this case.

1 Although this point will be discussed more thoroughly in the first assignment of error, we note here, for clarification purposes, that the trial court’s judgment names the reversionary trust the “Future Medical Care Trust.” We observe [*7] the label “Future Medical Care Trust” appears nowhere in La. R.S. 13:5106, nor in any other provision in the Louisiana Governmental Claims Act, La. R.S. 13:5101-5113.

LAW AND DISCUSSION

Standard of Review

[HN1] The appellate court’s review of factual findings is governed by the manifest error/clearly wrong standard. The two-part test for the appellate review of a factual finding is: 1) whether there is a reasonable factual basis in the record for the finding of the trial court; and 2) whether the record further establishes that the finding is not manifestly erroneous. Mart v. Hill, 505 So. 2d 1120, 1127 (La. 1987). Thus, if there is no reasonable factual basis in the record for the fact-finder’s finding, no additional inquiry is necessary to conclude there was manifest error. However, if a reasonable factual basis exists, an appellate court may set aside a fact-finder’s factual finding only if, after reviewing the record in its entirety, it determines the finding was clearly wrong. See Stobart v. State, through Dept, of Transp. and Dev., 617 So. 2d 880, 882 (La. 1993).

[HN2] A legal error occurs when a trial court applies incorrect principles of law and such errors are prejudicial. Legal errors are prejudicial when they materially affect the outcome and deprive a party of substantial rights. When such a prejudicial error of law skews [*8] the trial court’s finding as to issues of material fact, the [Pg 6] appellate court is required, if it can, to render judgment on the record by applying the correct law and determining the essential material facts de novo. Evans v. Lungrin, 97-0541 (La. 2/6/98), 708 So. 2d 731, 735. However, the above approach need not be considered when a jury has made some factual findings favorable to each party, and when the legal error affected only one of the findings, but does not interdict the entire fact-finding process. The appellate court should proceed to evaluate each jury finding pertinent to liability in order to determine the applicability of the manifest error rule to each. If only one of the jury’s factual findings is tainted by the application of incorrect principles of law that are prejudicial, the appellate court’s de novo review is limited to the jury finding so affected. Rideau v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 06-0894 (La. App. 1 Cir. 8/29/07), 970 So. 2d 564, 571, writ denied, 07-2228 (La. 1/11/08), 972 So. 2d 1168.

Assignment of Error 1:

In the first assignment of error, the LSU Board contends the trial court erred by ordering that attorney’s fees and costs were payable out of Ms. Fecke’s damage award for her future medical care. The LSU Board further contends that the trial court erred by awarding Ms. Fecke interest on that award. Ms. Fecke counters that she is [*9] entitled by statute to receive interest on her future medical care damage award, and she further argues that the trial court is authorized by statute to award contractual attorney fees from that award prior to establishing the terms and provisions of a reversionary trust, which is to be created for her future medical care expenses. Thus, the first issue before this court is whether any interest, attorney’s fees, or costs are due and collectible by Ms, Fecke and her attorneys on and out of her damage award against LSU for future medical care. [HN3] As the facts in this matter are not in dispute and the issue on this assignment of error is purely one of the statutory interpretation of La. R.S. 13:5106, a section of the Louisiana [Pg 7] Governmental Claims Act, this court will review the matter de novo, without deference to the legal conclusion of the trial court, and determine whether the error was prejudicial to the case. Turner v. Willis Knighton Med. Ctr., 12-0703 (La. 12/4/12), 108 So. 3d 60, 62; Duzon v. Stallworth, 01-1187 (La. App. 1 Cir. 12/11/02), 866 So. 2d 837, 861, writ denied sub nom., Duzon ex rel. Cmty. of Acquets & Gains v. Stallworth, 03-0589 (La. 5/2/03), 842 So. 2d 1101, and writ denied, 03-0605 (La. 5/2/03), 842 So. 2d 1110.

[HN4] Suits against the State of Louisiana, a state agency, or a political subdivision must be brought pursuant to the Louisiana Governmental Claims Act, La. R.S. 13:5101-5113 (“Act”). The Act applies to any suit in contract or for injury to person or property. La. R.S. 13:5101(B). Pursuant [*10] to the Act, the Legislature appropriates certain funds to pay claims against the State, its agencies, and political subdivisions. La. R.S. 13:5106(B)(1). The Act caps a claimant’s damages for personal injury at $500,000.00, exclusive of property damage, medical care and related benefits, loss of earnings, and loss of future earnings. La. R.S. 13:5106(B)(1).

[HN5] When a trial court determines that a plaintiff in a suit for personal injury against the state or a state agency is entitled to medical care and related benefits2 incurred subsequent to judgment, i.e. future medicals, the provisions of the Future Medical Care Fund (“FMCF”), La. R.S. 39:1533.2, apply to such cases. Louisiana Revised Statutes 13:5106(B)(3)(c) is the controlling statutory authority for personal injury claims against the state or a state agency:

In any suit for personal injury against the state or a state agency wherein the court pursuant to judgment determines that the claimant is entitled to medical care and related benefits that may be incurred [Pg 8] subsequent to judgment, the court shall order that all medical care and related benefits incurred subsequent to judgment be paid from the Future Medical Care Fund as provided in R.S. 39:1533.2. Medical care and related benefits shall be paid directly to the provider as they are incurred [*11] . Nothing in this Subparagraph shall be construed to prevent the parties from entering into a settlement or compromise at any time whereby medical care and related benefits shall be provided but with the requirement that they shall be paid in accordance with this Subparagraph. [Emphasis added.]

[HN6] The FMCF is administered by the Office of Risk Management, through the Treasurer of the State of Louisiana. La. R.S. 39:1533.2(B).

2 Louisiana Revised Statutes 13:5106(D)(1) provides that:

[HN7] “Medical care and related benefits” for the purpose of this Section means all reasonable medical, surgical, hospitalization, physical rehabilitation, and custodial services, and includes drugs, prosthetic devices, and other similar materials reasonably necessary in the provision of such services.

In contrast, [HN8] when a trial court determines that a plaintiff in a suit for personal injury against a political subdivision is entitled to medical care and related benefits incurred subsequent to judgment, a reversionary trust is established for the benefit of the plaintiff and all future medical care is paid pursuant to the reversionary trust instrument. Louisiana Revised Statutes 13:5106(B)(3)(a)3 is the controlling statutory authority for personal injury claims against political subdivisions:

In any suit for personal injury [*12] against a political subdivision wherein the court, pursuant to judgment, determines that the claimant is entitled to medical care and related benefits that may be incurred subsequent to judgment, the court shall order that a reversionary trust be established for the benefit of the claimant and that all medical care and related benefits incurred subsequent to judgment be paid pursuant to the reversionary trust instrument. The reversionary trust instrument shall provide that such medical care and related benefits be paid directly to the provider as they are incurred. Nothing in this Paragraph shall be construed to prevent the parties from entering into a settlement or compromise at any time whereby medical care and related benefits shall be provided, but with the requirement of establishing a reversionary trust. [Emphasis added.]

The Act [HN9] does not limit the rights of a claimant to contract with respect to attorney’s fees and costs when the claimant’s future medical care is paid from a reversionary [Pg 9] trust established by a political subdivision for that claimant’s future medical care. As provided for in Louisiana Revised Statutes 13:5106(D)(3):

[HN10] “Reversionary trust” means a trust established by a political subdivision for [*13] the exclusive benefit of the claimant to pay the medical care and related benefits as they accrue, including without limitation reasonable and necessary amounts for ah diagnosis, cure, mitigation, or treatment of any disease or condition from which the injured person suffers as a result of the injuries, and the sequelae thereof, sustained by the claimant on the date the injury was sustained. The trustee shall have the same fiduciary duties as imposed upon a trustee by the Louisiana Trust Code. Nothing herein shall limit the rights of claimants to contract with respect to attorney fees and costs. [Emphasis added.]

3 Louisiana Revised Statutes 13:5106(B)(3)(a) and (D)(3), [HN11] relative to the creation of reversionary trusts, were added by 1996 La. Acts No. 63, § 1 (effective May 9, 1996). 2000 La. Acts No. 20, § 1 (effective July 1, 2000) amended La. R.S. 13:5106(B)(3)(a) and (D)(3) to provide that the creation of reversionary trusts for the payment of future medical care specifically applies to personal injury claims against political subdivisions.

To ascertain which of the Act’s provisions regarding damage awards apply to Ms. Fecke’s case — either the provision applicable to an award against the state or a state agency, La. R.S. 13:5106(B)(3)(c), or the provision applicable to damage awards against [*14] a political subdivision, La. R.S. 13:5106(B)(3)(a) — this court must determine whether the LSU Board is classified as the “state or a state agency” or as a “political subdivision.” The Act defines a “state agency” as “any board, commission, department, agency, special district, authority, or other entity of the state.” La. R.S. 13:5102(A). The Act defines a “political subdivision” as “[a]ny parish, municipality, special district, school board, sheriff, public board, institution, department, commission, district, corporation, agency, authority, or an agency or subdivision of any of these, and other public or governmental body of any kind which is not a state agency.” La. R.S. 13:5102(B)(1).

[HN12] The starting point in the interpretation of any statute is the language of the statute itself. Whitley v. State ex rel. Bd. of Supervisors of Louisiana State Univ. Agr. Mech. College, 11-0040 (La. 7/1/11), 66 So. 3d 470, 474. When the wording of a section of the revised statutes is clear and free of ambiguity, the letter of it shall not be disregarded under the pretext of pursuing its spirit. La. C.C. art. 9; La. R.S. 1:4. “Words and phrases shall be read with their context and shall be construed according to the common and approved usage of the language.” La. R.S. 1:3. [Pg 10] Based on the clear language of La. R.S. 13:5102(A) and (B), the LSU Board is a state agency.4 Because the LSU Board is a state agency, the Act’s provision applicable to [*15] awards for future medical care against the state or a state agency – La. R.S. 13:5106(B)(3)(c) DMASH applies to the instant case. Thus, the trial court legally erred in applying La. R.S. 13:5106(B)(3)(a) to this case. That legal error became prejudicial when the trial court rendered judgment on the jury’s verdict and ordered that Ms. Fecke’s damage award for her future medical care be placed in a reversionary trust, which the trial court referred to as a “Future Medical Care Trust.”5 We therefore amend the portion of the trial court’s October 3, 2014 final judgment that refers to a “Future Medical Care Trust” to refer to the “Future Medical Care Fund.”

4 We note that there is constitutional and statutory authority for the classification of the LSU Board as a state agency. We also note there is jurisprudence that has previously applied the Act to suits involving the LSU Board. In those instances, courts applied the provisions of the Act applicable to state agencies to the LSU Board. See La. Const, art. VIII, § 7; La. R.S. 13:5102(A): La. R.S. 39:1527(1); Whitley, 66 So. 3d at 476; LeBlanc v. Thomas, 08-2869 (La. 10/20/09), 23 So. 3d 241, 246; Student Govt. Association of Louisiana State Univ. Agr. & Meek College, Main Campus, Baton Rouge v. Board of Supervisors of Louisiana State Univ. Agr. & Meek College, 262 La. 849, 867-68, 264 So. 2d 916, 922 (1972) (Barham, J., dissenting); Hunter v. Louisiana State Univ. Agr. & Meek College ex rel. Louisiana Health Care Services Center for Univ. Hosp. at New Orleans, 10-1406 (La. App. 4 Cir. 6/8/11), 77 So. 3d 264, 267, reversed on other grounds, 11-2841 (La. 3/9/12), 82 So. 3d 268.

5 The trial court’s judgment ordered that Ms. Fecke’s future medicals be placed in a “Future Medical Care Trust” in accordance with La. R.S. 13:5106(B)(3)(c); however, as we have discussed, Section 5106(B)(3)(c) applies [*16] to the state and state agencies and governs the placement of a claimant’s future medicals in the Future Medical Care Fund, not a trust.

In addition to its argument that the trial court legally erred in establishing a reversionary trust for Ms. Fecke’s future medical care instead of ordering that those benefits be paid from the FMCF, the LSU Board further contends that the trial court legally erred when it (i) ordered that costs and judicial interest be paid out of and earned on Ms. Fecke’s damage award for future medicals, and (ii) ordered that attorney’s fees be taken out of that award prior to the establishment of a reversionary trust.

[Pg 11] Section 5106(B)(3)(c), referring to La. R.S. 39:1533.2, [HN13] provides that a claimant’s future medicals are paid from the FMCF “directly to the provider as they are incurred.” The FMCF is established by La. R.S. 39:1533.2, which provides:

[HN14] A. There is hereby established in the state treasury the “Future Medical Care Fund”, hereinafter referred to as the “fund”. The fund shall consist of such monies transferred or appropriated to the fund for the purposes of funding medical care and related benefits that may be incurred subsequent to judgment rendered against the state or a state agency [*17] as provided by R.S. 13:5106 and as more specifically provided in R.S. 13:5106(B)(3)(c). All costs or expenses of administration of the fund shall be paid from the fund.

B. The fund shall be administered by the treasurer on behalf of the office of risk management for the benefit of claimants suing for personal injury who are entitled to medical care and related benefits that may be incurred subsequent to judgment. Except for costs or expenses of administration, this fund shall be used only for payment of losses associated with such claims. At the close of each fiscal year, the treasurer shall transfer to the Future Medical Care Fund from the Self-Insurance Fund an amount equal to the monies expended from the Future Medical Care Fund during that fiscal year. Monies in the fund shall be invested by the state treasurer in the same manner as monies in the state general fund. Interest earned on investment of monies in the fund shall be deposited in and credited to the fund. All unexpended and unencumbered monies in the fund at the end of the fiscal year shall remain in the fund. [Emphasis added.]

Ms. Fecke is entitled to receive costs and interest on her damage award in accordance with La. R.S. 13:5112 of the Act; however, pursuant to La. R.S. 39:1533.2 (which [*18] the Act refers to in Section 13:5106(B)(3)(c)), any interest specifically earned on the award for Ms. Fecke’s future medical care “shall be deposited in and credited to” the FMCF. Thus, to the extent that the October 3, 2014 judgment of the trial court awards interest directly to Ms. Fecke’s on her future medical care award, that portion of the judgment is hereby vacated.

[HN15] With regard to costs and attorney’s fees, this court notes that when a reversionary trust is established by a political subdivision for the payment of a claimant’s future medical care and related benefits, the statute does not limit the rights of a claimant to contract with respect to attorney fees and costs. La. R.S. 13:5106(D)(3) [Pg 12]. Ms. Fecke argues that this provision of the Act authorizes the trial court to approve her contract with her lawyer for reasonable attorney’s fees which may be deducted from the jury’s damage award for her future medical care, prior to the establishment of the reversionary trust. Ms. Fecke’s contention regarding reversionary trusts is valid, but, as we have previously held, the reversionary trust provisions contained in La, R.S. 13:5106(B)(3)(a) and (D)(3) do not apply to her suit for personal injury against the LSU Board.

Louisiana Revised Statutes 13:5106(D)(1) defines “[m]edical [*19] care and related benefits” as “all reasonable medical, surgical, hospitalization, physical rehabilitation, and custodial services, and includes drugs, prosthetic devices, and other similar materials reasonably necessary in the provision of such services.” Thus, the only monies to be paid to a provider from the FMCF for Ms. Fecke’s future medical care are those things defined in Section 13:5106(D)(1). Nowhere in the statutes pertaining to the FMCF does it provide for costs or attorney’s fees to be paid therefrom. Furthermore, costs and attorney’s fees are not “medical care and related benefits” set forth in La. R.S. 13:5106(D)(1). See Starr v. State ex rel. Dept. of Transp. & Dev., 46,226 (La. App. 2 Cir. 6/17/11), 70 So. 3d 128, 144, writs denied, 11-1835 (La. 10/21/11), 73 So. 3d 386, 11-1952 (La. 10/21/11), 73 So. 3d 387, 11-1625 (La. 10/21/11), 73 So. 3d 388 and 12-2146 (La. 10/12/12), 98 So. 3d 877.

We also note that a lump sum is not placed in the FMCF on Ms. Fecke’s behalf, out of which costs and attorney’s fees could be paid directly to her attorneys. As set forth in the statutory scheme, Ms. Fecke’s future medical care will be paid from the FMCF directly to her medical provider as her medical care is incurred.6 La. R.S. 13:5106(B)(3)(c). Therefore, the portions of the October 3, 2014 judgment of the trial court, which ordered that costs and attorney’s fees be [Pg 13] paid out of Ms. Fecke’s damage award for her future medical care, are hereby vacated.

6 The statutory scheme that creates and governs the organization and management of the FMCF is analogous to the statutory scheme that creates and governs the “Patient’s Compensation Fund,” the fund established for the payment of medical malpractice claims. See La. R.S. 40:1299.43-44.

Assignment [*20] of Error 2:

In its second assignment of error, the LSU Board contends that the trial court erred in excluding from trial a one-page Rock Climbing Wall Participation Agreement (“Agreement”) that was provided to Ms. Fecke by the LSU UREC employees, which she executed prior to climbing the wall on the day of her accident. Prior to trial, Ms. Fecke filed a motion in limine to exclude the Agreement, arguing that the document constituted a waiver of liability to release the LSU Board from any and all liability for causing injury to Ms. Fecke. Such exclusion of liability waivers are null under Louisiana law. See La. C.C. art. 2004. The LSU Board opposed the motion. A hearing was held on Ms. Fecke’s motion in limine the day before commencement of the jury trial. The trial court granted the motion excluding the Agreement.

On the second day of the jury trial, the LSU Board moved to re-consider the motion in limine to exclude the Agreement. The LSU Board argued that portions of the Agreement unrelated to the liability waiver, such as certifications regarding Ms. Fecke’s health, mental, and physical condition should be permitted into evidence. The trial court considered entering into evidence a version of the Agreement [*21] that redacted any mention of a waiver of liability; however, the trial court reasoned that a redacted document may cause confusion for the jury who might speculate over the contents of the redacted portions of the Agreement. Recognizing the need to provide the information contained in the “non-waiver of liability” paragraphs of the Agreement to the jury without causing confusion, the trial court opted to instruct the jury that Ms. Fecke certified to the LSU UREC employees that she was in good health and had no mental or physical conditions [Pg 14] that would interfere with her safety or the safety of others. The parties stipulated to the disclosure, and counsel for the LSU Board proffered the Agreement.

On appeal, the LSU Board argues that the Agreement was more than a mere waiver of liability. It argues that the Agreement establishes that Ms. Fecke was sufficiently educated and understood the inherent risk of injury associated with the activity she was about to undertake and that the LSU UREC employees had properly screened Ms. Fecke prior to allowing her to climb the wall. The LSU Board avers that the Agreement constituted Ms. Fecke’s acknowledgment of the risks of climbing the wall, [*22] which is a significant factor in determining her fault, and that this information should have been presented to the jury. Ultimately, the LSU Board contends the Agreement is relevant, highly probative, and its exclusion from evidence materially prejudiced the LSU Board in its ability to defend against Ms. Fecke’s allegations of negligence and the alleged breach of duty owed as the owner of the rock wall climbing facility. Specifically, the LSU Board argues that Ms. Fecke’s acknowledgement regarding the risk of bodily injury, representations regarding her physical and mental capacity and understanding that she alone was to determine whether she was fit to participate in the activity, and her agreement to direct any questions to the climbing wall staff constituted her informed consent and acknowledgement of the risk of climbing the indoor rock wall and are significant factors in determining her fault.

[HN16] All relevant evidence is admissible, except as otherwise provided by law. La. C.E. art. 402. Relevant evidence is evidence having any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more or less probable than it would be without the evidence. La. C.E. art. 401. The trial [*23] court has great discretion in its consideration of evidentiary matters such as motions in limine. See Heller v. Nobel Insurance Group, 00-0261 (La. 2/2/00), 753 So. 2d 841. Thus on review, an appellate court must determine whether the [Pg 15] trial court abused its great discretion in ruling on a motion in limine. Id. [HN17] Pursuant to La. C.C.P. art. 1636, when a trial court rules against the admissibility of any evidence, the court shall either permit the party offering such evidence to make a complete record thereof or permit the party to make a statement setting forth the nature of the evidence. Article 1636 is mandatory, not discretionary. Williams v. Williams, 06-2491 (La. App. 1 Cir. 9/14/07), 970 So. 2d 633, 640. The purpose of requiring a proffer is to preserve excluded evidence so that the testimony or evidence is available for appellate review of a trial court’s erroneous ruling. When legal error has been found and a complete record has been made through a proffer, the appellate court is able to conduct a de novo review of the record, including the proffered evidence, to render a decision on appeal. Id. We now review the proffered Agreement de novo to determine whether the trial court committed legal error in excluding the Agreement and whether that legal error prejudiced the LSU Board’s defense.

The Agreement is a one-page document signed by Ms. Fecke [*24] that contains eight paragraphs. The first three paragraphs provide as follows:

I understand and agree that there is a risk of serious injury to me while utilizing University Recreation facilities, equipment, and programs and recognize every activity has a certain degree of risk, some more than others. By participating, I knowingly and voluntarily assume any and all risk of injuries, regardless of severity, which from time to time may occur as a result of my participation in athletic and other activities through LSU University Recreation.

I hereby certify I have adequate health insurance to cover any injury or damages that I may suffer while participating, or alternatively, agree to bear all costs associated with any such injury or damages myself.

I further certify that I am in good health and have no mental or physical condition or symptoms that could interfere with my safety or the safety of others while participating in any activity using any equipment or facilitates of LSU University Recreation. I understand and agree that I alone am responsible to determine whether I am physically and mentally fit to participate, perform, or utilize the activities, programs, equipment or facilities [*25] available at Louisiana State University, and that I am not relying on any advice from LSU [Pg 16] University Recreation in this regard. To the extent I have any questions or need any information about my physical or mental condition or limitations, I agree to seek professional advice from a qualified physician.

The fourth paragraph of the Agreement provides as follows:

Further, I hereby RELEASE AND HOLD HARMLESS, the State of Louisiana, the Board of Supervisors of Louisiana State University and Agricultural & Mechanical College, and its respective members, officers, employees, student workers, student interns, volunteers, agents, representatives, institutions, and/or departments from any and all liability, claims, damages, costs, expenses, personal injuries, illnesses, death or loss of personal property resulting, in whole or in part, from my participation in, or use of, any facility, equipment, and/or programs of Louisiana State University.

The remaining paragraphs of the Agreement provide as follows:

I will wear proper protective equipment and I agree to abide by all rules of the sport as mandated by LSU University Recreation.

I, the undersigned, am at least eighteen (18) years of age [*26] or have a parent/legal guardian’s signature, will not use an auto-belay system if weighing less than 90 pounds, am physically fit, have read this participation agreement, and understand its terms and conditions. I agree not to climb onto the top of the structure and stay directly under the rope or belay system I am using. Any certifications, including belay certifications, are good only at the LSU’s Baton Rouge campus, Student Recreation Center, and are not transferable to any other person.

Any questions concerning equipment to be used should be directed to Climbing Wall Staff prior to engaging in this activity. The wall is not designed for rappelling from the top of the tower. Doing so may result in serious physical injury to the participant and/or bystanders.

At various times throughout the semester, University Recreation will be taking digital images, photographs, and/or videotapes of patrons [for] educational, promotional and informational purposes for use in department related print materials and on our Web site. When/if your likeness or image is used in a publication, there will be no identifying information provided. [Emphasis added.]

Louisiana Civil Code article 2004 provides:

[HN18] Any clause is null that, in advance, [*27] excludes or limits the liability of one party for intentional or gross fault that causes damage to the other party.

Any clause is null that, in advance, excludes or limits the liability of one party for causing physical injury to the other party.

[Pg 17] Based on our review of the proffered Agreement, paragraph four is null pursuant to La. C.C. art. 2004 because it, in advance, excludes the liability of the LSU Board for causing physical injury to Ms. Fecke. The trial court properly excluded that portion of the Agreement from consideration by the jury. The issue then becomes whether a redacted version of the Agreement, with the remaining paragraphs that do not exclude or limit the liability of the LSU Board, should have come into evidence. As per the agreement of the parties, the trial court gave the jury an instruction, instead of providing a redacted version of the Agreement, and disclosed these minimal facts to the jury:

They stipulate that when Brandy Fecke arrived at the LSU Recreational Center on that evening she certified to them that she was in good health and had no mental or physical condition or symptoms that could interfere with her safety or the safety of others while participating in any [*28] activity using any equipment or facilities of LSU University Recreation; further, that she was at least 18 years of age and was physically fit. So that’s again, as I said, a stipulation is the parties agree those are the facts and they don’t need to have witnesses and so forth testify to that.

Despite the trial court’s instruction to the jury, the LSU Board argues that each paragraph of the Agreement is highly probative as to the fault of the parties and that this probative value substantially outweighs any potential confusion or misleading of the jury that could have resulted from the introduction of the Agreement at trial. During the jury trial, a rock climbing expert for the plaintiff, Dan Pervorse, testified regarding the LSU Board’s duty to Ms. Fecke. Mr. Pervorse stated that the LSU Board failed to provide Ms. Fecke with an adequate warning as to the potential for significant physical injury associated with rock climbing. He further stated that the LSU UREC employees failed to properly screen and instruct Ms. Fecke prior to allowing her to climb. Mr. Pervorse further testified that the LSU Board failed to follow proper safety procedures, including the requirement that a climber [*29] who is bouldering must have a spotter standing behind the climber to provide assistance to the climber and help prevent injuries. [Pg 18] The LSU Board argues that had it been allowed to enter the Agreement into evidence and use it during its cross-examination of Mr. Pervorse, his expert testimony would have been significantly diminished and may have resulted in a different allocation of fault to the LSU Board.

[HN19] Louisiana courts have adopted a duty-risk analysis in determining whether to impose liability under the general negligence principles of La. C.C. art 2315. For liability for damages to attach under a duty-risk analysis, a plaintiff must prove five separate elements: (1) the defendant had a duty to conform his or her conduct to a specific standard of care (the duty element); (2) the defendant failed to conform his or her conduct to the appropriate standard of care (the breach of duty element); (3) the defendant’s substandard conduct was a cause in fact of the plaintiffs injuries (the cause in fact element); (4) the defendant’s substandard conduct was a legal cause of the plaintiffs injuries (the scope of protection element); and (5) actual damages (the damage element). Rideau, 970 So. 2d at 573.

[HN20] Rock climbing is a recreational [*30] activity that involves substantial risk. Many other recreational activities such as weight lifting and swimming also involve a substantial degree of risk. The risks associated with these and other physically-challenging sports are well recognized. The duty on the gym operator, when these types of sports are conducted, is one of reasonable care under the circumstances — to provide a sound and secure environment for undertaking a clearly risky form of recreation and not that of removing every element of danger inherent in rock climbing. Ravey v. Rockworks, LLC, 12-1305 (La. App. 3 Cir. 4/10/13), 111 So. 3d 1187, 1192. The LSU Board did not have a duty to warn Ms. Fecke as a climber about the potential effect of gravity. A warning that “if you fall you might get hurt,” is obvious and universally known. See Henshaw v. Audubon Park Com’n., 605 So. 2d 640, 643 (La. App. 4 Cir.) [Pg 19], writ denied, 607 So. 2d 570 (La. 1992).

A gym and its facilities are not the insurers of the lives or safety of its patrons. A gym cannot be expected to foresee or guard against all dangers. Furthermore, the gym must only take reasonable precautions under the circumstances to avoid injury . Ravey, 111 So. 3d at 1190-91. To prove negligence on the part of the LSU Board, Ms. Fecke must show both a failure to provide reasonable training and supervision under the circumstances, as well as [*31] proof of a causal connection between the lack of reasonable training/supervision and the accident. See Ravey, 111 So. 3d at 1191.

The LSU UREC maintains an “Indoor Climbing Wall Manual,” which governs the rules, use, and maintenance of the indoor rock wall climbing facility. The manual requires the following of all employees of the indoor rock wall climbing facility:

1. Full knowledge of facilities and programs ….

2. Ability to seek answers to questions.

3. Provide consistency and continuity.

4. Carry out assigned routine and non-routine tasks.

5. Follow and enforce staff and program policies and procedures.

6. Maintain a safe and enjoyable recreation environment.

Employees are required to know and enforce all climbing wall and LSU UREC rules.

The manual distinguishes between the climbing wall and the bouldering wall. The climbing wall utilizes a safety rope belay system, where a climber climbs the wall while strapped into a harness and is “belayed” via ropes by an LSU UREC employee. Bouldering, as opposed to rope climbing while wearing a harness, does not involve the use of ropes and requires the climber to traverse the boulder wall from side-to-side instead of climbing up the wall. The manual lists the following [*32] rules for bouldering:

[Pg 20] 1. Before bouldering the climber must check in at the desk.

2. The number of climbers at any one time may be limited to ensure proper supervision. When people are using climbing ropes, bouldering on walls behind them, may be stopped. Bouldering may be limited based on climber’ s/belayer’s location on the wall.

3. The climber may not boulder above or below any other climbers and must be sure that pants pockets are empty.

4. A bouldering sequence may be marked with tape.

5. Only the climbing staff may switch holds if necessary.

6. Spotting is required as bouldering can become quite demanding and may involve moves increasing the possibility of the climber coming off the wall in an awkward position. A spotter is required, to provide assistance to prevent injuries. Help all spotters to make sure that they are using proper technique and understand the purpose of spotting.

7. Participants are required to properly use crash pads at all times, a spotter may help to position crash pads.

8. Intentional jumping off the wall is not allowed. Please, climb down.

9. Please remove all hand jewelry and long necklaces. Clean athletic shoes, running shoes, or climbing shoes are the [*33] only shoes permitted. Shirts must be worn at all times. Tie hair back when necessary.

10. Be safe, be creative, have fun! [Emphasis added.]

Furthermore, the LSU UREC employees are required to instruct patrons who intend to climb in accordance with the guidelines contained in a “safety clinic” document. The safety clinic requires the LSU UREC employees to give examples of danger areas and instruct climbers where to fall on crash pads, which must be placed underneath bouldering climbers at all times. The safety clinic requires the LSU UREC employees to give an example of the technique of spotting and have the participating climbers demonstrate spotting. Section 6 of the safety clinic provides:

a. Every climber must request a spotter when applicable, i.e. when climbing at one’s limit or climbing into a situation that could yield a long or awkward fall.

b. Proper spotting techniques:

i. The role of the spotter is to first assist the climber in landing properly on their feet in the upright position. Secondly, to protect the climber’s head from hitting something hard (floor, wall, etc).

ii. Hands up, thumbs in (spoons not forks).

iii. Dominant leg back, to use as a brace.

iv. Do not catch the climber; [*34] help them regain proper balancing while landing.

[Pg 21] The safety clinic also requires the LSU UREC employees to demonstrate how to properly descend the wall, and in the event of a fall, how to properly land on the ground to reduce injuries.

At trial, Ms. Fecke, her friend Mr. Culotta, and the two LSU UREC employees who were working the night of the accident, Emanuel Andrews and Andrew Whitty, testified as to the events.7 Ms. Fecke testified that after having her course form signed and executing the Agreement, Mr. Whitty gave Ms. Fecke and Mr. Culotta a “few minutes or so” of instruction. She stated that the climbing wall employees made no clear distinction between rope climbing with a harness or bouldering. Mr. Whitty asked if she wanted to wear a harness, but she declined, stating that she and Mr. Culotta wanted to climb “whatever [wall] was easiest,” to which he indicated they could climb the back 13′ 1″ bouldering wall located on the rear wall. Ms. Fecke also testified that Mr. Whitty indicated to her that most people climbed without a harness and that it was “up to her” whether she wanted to climb while wearing a harness. Mr. Culotta suggested that she wear a harness, which Ms. [*35] Fecke took as a joke stating, “[t]he worker at the wall didn’t make me feel like it was necessary and said most people didn’t, so I didn’t think it was something I had to do.”

7 The deposition of Andrew Whitty was read in open court.

Ms. Fecke testified that the employees did not ask her to demonstrate her climbing ability. She further stated that the employees did not explain the technique of climbing with a spotter or that spotting was required in order to climb the boulder wall and that she and Mr. Culotta never spotted each other. In terms of climbing instruction given by the employees, Ms. Fecke testified that “[o]ne of the guys climbed about half the wall quickly and came back down” in about thirty seconds and asked if they had any questions, which she stated she and Mr. Culotta [Pg 22] did not have at the time. Ms. Fecke testified that there wasn’t anything she “didn’t get” in terms of instruction about climbing the wall.

Mr. Culotta testified that he and Ms. Fecke arrived at the indoor rock wall climbing facility about an hour before closing. He stated that after he and Ms. Fecke indicated their relative climbing experience, the employees gave a “few minutes” of “some basic instruction,” [*36] and one of the employees demonstrated climbing up the wall in about thirty seconds. Mr. Culotta stated that he did not remember any discussion of the spotting technique during the instruction by the climbing wall employees. Mr. Culotta further testified that he never spotted Ms. Fecke.

Andrew Whitty, one of the climbing wall employees working the night of Ms. Fecke’s accident, testified that he went over the rules and regulations of the climbing facility with Ms. Fecke and Mr. Culotta since they were both new climbers. Mr. Whitty testified that if a patron was new to the climbing wall, the employees would have to give a “brief sort of instruction” during which the employees would go over certain things,” such as the difference between climbing with a rope and bouldering. Mr. Whitty stated that since Ms. Fecke and Mr. Culotta opted to climb the boulder wall since it was more convenient, he went over spotting techniques. Mr. Whitty testified that Mr. Culotta was spotting Ms. Fecke at the time of her fall. Mr. Whitty stated that he could not recall if there was a policy in place at the LSU UREC that required a spotter for a climber on the bouldering wall. He also could not recall whether [*37] there was policy or procedures manual for the climbing wall, and if there was, he stated he did not refer to it often. Mr. Whitty testified that climbers were not tested for proficiency prior to climbing.

Emanuel Andrews, the other employee working the night of Ms. Fecke’s accident, witnessed Ms. Fecke as she fell from the wall. Mr. Andrews was standing approximately twenty feet from where Ms. Fecke and Mr. Culotta were [Pg 23] climbing, in the middle of the room, Mr. Andrews testified that while Ms. Fecke climbed the wall, Mr. Culotta was standing in the correct position to spot her, but that as she fell, Mr. Culotta moved away from the wall and out of the spotting position.

We also note that the plaintiff’s expert on rock wall climbing, Mr. Pervorse, testified that the spotting technique, which should be used any time a climber traverses a bouldering wall, involves “having a good stance, one foot forward, one foot back, slightly wider than shoulder width so that you have a good support base and, then your hands up.” He further stated that the purpose of spotting is to “slow [the climbers] fall, to keep them upright, keep them from falling over and hurting their self further by potentially [*38] falling off a mat and hitting their head, to help steadying them when they do land.”

After our de novo review of the testimony and evidence presented at trial, we conclude that the LSU UREC employees failed to properly instruct, demonstrate, and certify that Ms. Fecke and Mr. Culotta understood the proper techniques for climbing the bouldering wall in accordance with their duties as described in the LSU UREC “Indoor Climbing Wall Manual” and the safety clinic document. While the employees may have explained the spotting technique, Ms. Fecke and Mr. Culotta both testified that neither spotted the other as they climbed. Despite the LSU Board’s contention that the Agreement represents Ms. Fecke’s acknowledgment of the risks involved in rock wall climbing, as stated above, those risks are well-known. The only portion of the excluded Agreement that might have prejudiced the LSU Board’s case is the portion in paragraph five wherein Ms. Fecke certified that she “agree[d] to abide by all rules of the sport as mandated by LSU University Recreation.” As discussed above, however, instruction as to those “rules” was not provided to Ms. Fecke by the LSU UREC employees nor was she properly screened or supervised [*39] as she climbed the bouldering wall.

[Pg 24] Paragraph four of the Agreement is null because it, in advance, excludes the liability of the LSU Board for causing physical injury to Ms. Fecke, but the remaining paragraphs of the Agreement are not illegal waivers of liability. Thus, we find that the trial court legally erred in excluding a redacted version of the Agreement; however, we hold that the trial court’s error was not prejudicial. The inclusion of the remainder of the Agreement at trial could not have permissibly changed the jury’s verdict based on our de novo review of the record.

Assignment of Error 3:

In the third and final assignment of error, the LSU Board asserts that the trial court improperly instructed the jury on the award of damages for the “loss of future earnings” when the trial court should have instructed the jury on damages for the “loss of future earning capacity.” It is undisputed that at the time of Ms. Fecke’s accident, she was an unemployed senior college student at LSU. Ms. Fecke later graduated from LSU with a degree in kinesiology and obtained a secondary degree as a physical therapy assistant. At the time of trial, she was employed as a physical therapy assistant, [*40] but testified that she had recently taken on a less strenuous, and lower paid, physical therapy assistant job due to her injuries. The LSU Board argues that because Ms. Fecke was unemployed at the time of her accident, she suffered no loss of earning or loss of future earnings, but rather suffered a loss of future earning capacity.

The distinction between a damage award for the loss of future earnings and the loss of future earning capacity is crucial in this case because as a state agency, the LSU Board’s liability for damages for an award of loss of future earning capacity is included in the $500,000.00 cap on damages pursuant to La. R.S. 13:5106(B)(1). In contrast, damages for a loss of future earnings, as was awarded by the jury to Ms. Fecke based on the instruction given by the trial court, are excluded from the $500,000.00 damages cap, La. R.S. 13:5106(B)(1); see also [Pg 25] Cooper v. Public Belt R.R., 03-2116 (La. App. 4 Cir. 10/6/04), 886 So. 2d 531, 539, writ denied, 04-2748 (La. 1/28/05), 893 So. 2d 75 (the $500,000.00 cap on damages in actions against governmental units applied to damages for loss of future earning capacity; loss of future earning capacity was not the same as a loss of future earnings, and thus, it did not fall within an exception to the cap). It therefore behooves this court to determine whether or not the jury [*41] instruction given by the trial court on a loss of future earnings was proper.

Louisiana Code of Civil Procedure article 1792(B) [HN21] requires a district judge to instruct the jury on the law applicable to the case submitted to them. The trial court is responsible for reducing the possibility of confusing the jury and may exercise the right to decide what law is applicable and what law the trial court deems inappropriate. Wooley v. Lucksinger, 09-0571 (La. 4/1/11), 61 So. 3d 507, 573. The question here is whether the district judge adequately instructed the jury, as that concept has been defined in the jurisprudence:

[HN22] Adequate jury instructions are those which fairly and reasonably point out the issues and which provide correct principles of law for the jury to apply to those issues. The trial judge is under no obligation to give any specific jury instructions that may be submitted by either party; the judge must, however, correctly charge the jury. If the trial court omits an applicable, essential legal principle, its instruction does not adequately set forth the issues to be decided by the jury and may constitute reversible error.

Wooley, 61 So. 3d at 574 (citing Adams v. Rhodia, Inc., 07-2110 (La. 5/21/08), 983 So. 2d 798, 804.).

Generally, the giving of an allegedly erroneous jury instruction will not constitute grounds for reversal unless the instruction is erroneous and the complaining [*42] party has been injured or prejudiced thereby. In fact, Louisiana jurisprudence is well established that a reviewing court must exercise great restraint before it reverses a jury verdict due to an erroneous jury instruction. Wooley, 61 So. 3d at 574. When a reviewing court finds the jury was erroneously instructed and the error probably [Pg 26] contributed to the verdict, an appellate court must set aside the verdict. Wooley, 61 So. 3d at 574.

[HN23] In order to determine whether an erroneous jury instruction was given, reviewing courts must assess the targeted portion of the instruction in the context of the entire jury charge to determine if the charges adequately panicle the correct principles of law as applied to the issues framed in the pleadings and the evidence and whether the charges adequately guided the jury in its determination. The ultimate inquiry on appeal is whether the jury instructions misled the jury to such an extent that the jurors were prevented from dispensing justice. The law is clear the review function is not complete once error is found. Prejudice to the complaining party cannot automatically be assumed from the mere fact of an error. Instead, the reviewing court must then compare the degree of the error with the [*43] adequacy of the jury instructions as a whole and the circumstances of the case. Wooley, 61 So. 3d at 574.

Louisiana Revised Statutes 13:5106(D)(2) [HN24] defines “loss of future earnings” as “any form of economic loss which the claimant will sustain after the trial as a result of the injury … which forms the basis of the claim.” In contrast, loss of earning capacity is not the same as lost earnings. Rather, earning capacity refers to a person’s potential. Batiste v New Hampshire Ins. Co., 94-1467 (La. App. 3 Cir. 5/3/95), 657 So. 2d 168, 170, writ denied, 95-1413 (La. 9/22/95), 660 So. 2d 472. The Louisiana Supreme Court has held that damages for a loss of earning capacity should be estimated on the injured person’s ability to earn money, rather than what he actually earned before the injury. Earning capacity in itself is not necessarily determined by actual loss. Hobgood v. Aucoin, 574 So. 2d 344, 346 (La. 1990); Folse v. Fakouri, 371 So. 2d 1120, 1124 (La. 1979). The claimant need not be working or even in a certain profession to recover an award for loss of future earning capacity. Brandao v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 35,368 (La, App. 2 Cir. 12/19/01), 803 So. 2d 1039, 1043 [Pg 27], writ denied, 02-0493 (La. 4/26/02), 814 So. 2d 558. Damages may be assessed for the deprivation of what the injured plaintiff could have earned despite the fact that he may never have seen fit to take advantage of that capacity. The theory is that the injury done him has deprived him of a capacity he would have been entitled to enjoy even though he [*44] never profited from it monetarily. Hobgood, 574 So 2d at 346; Folse, 371 So. 2d at 1124.

[HN25] An award for loss of earning capacity is inherently speculative and cannot be calculated with absolute certainty. The most the courts can do is exercise sound discretion and make an award that in light of all facts and circumstances is fair to both parties while not being unduly oppressive to either. In determining whether a personal injury plaintiff is entitled to recover for the loss of earning capacity, the trial court should consider whether and how much plaintiffs current condition disadvantages her in the work force. Henry v. National Union Fire Ins. Co., 542 So. 2d 102, 107, writ denied, 544 So. 2d 405 (La. 1989) and 544 So. 2d 405 (La. 1989). Factors to be considered in fixing awards for loss of earning capacity include: age, life expectancy, work life expectancy, past work record, appropriate discount rate, the annual wage rate increase or productivity increase, prospects for rehabilitation, probable future earning capacity, loss of earning ability, and the inflation factor or decreasing purchasing power of the applicable currency. Henry, 542 So. 2d at 107; Brandao, 803 So. 2d at 1043.

Experts at trial testified that Ms. Fecke would likely have to change career paths — from a [Pg 28] physical therapy assistant to a job in a more sedentary position — at some undetermined point [*45] in the future due to her injuries. Stephanie Chalfin, a vocational rehabilitation expert, presented options for potential new careers for Ms. Fecke. Harold Asher, a certified public accountant and an expert in the projection of economic loss testified as to Ms. Fecke’s potential maximum salary as a physical therapy assistant (which was provided by Ms. Chalfin). Mr. Asher then calculated the difference between the hypothetical salary and Ms. Fecke’s potential earning capacity under three scenarios: Ms. Fecke remaining in her field as a physical therapy assistant, obtaining employment as a social worker, or obtaining employment as a rehabilitation counselor. Mr. Asher projected his figures over the anticipated work life of Ms. Fecke and considered a number of factors including her age, how long he expected her to continue working, her motivation to work, growth rate, and wages anticipated each year of her work life.

The jury instructions were lengthy, and this is the only reference therein to a damage award for “loss of future earnings”:

Under the loss of future earnings component of damages, the plaintiff is entitled to recover damages for the deprivation of what she should have earned [*46] but for the injury. Such damages are calculated on the plaintiff’s ability to earn money in her chosen career compared to what she can now earn because of her injury. In determining such an award, you may consider plaintiff’s physical condition and mental status before and after this incident, her work record, her earnings in prior years, the probability or improbability that she would have earned similar amounts in the remainder of her work life, and similar factors. And since, if you make an award, plaintiff would be receiving today sums of money that otherwise she would only receive over a number of years in the future, the law requires that you discount or reduce it to its present value, which is what the experts in this case have already done.

The LSU Board objected to the jury instruction given by the trial court regarding damages for “loss of future earnings.” The trial court, after citing to the Fourth Circuit’s decision in Cooper, 886 So. 2d 531, and the Louisiana Supreme Court’s decision in Folse, 371 So. 2d 1120, stated:

The cases dealing with loss of future earnings dealt with cases where the injured plaintiff was already in a certain career or profession or job description and they could not continue on in that same [*47] job. The evidence in this case was that Ms. Fecke was, despite her injury, able to qualify and go into her chosen profession of physical therapy assistant, but because of her injury will not be able to continue in that type of employment and must therefore seek other employment which may or may not pay less, as indicated by the experts who testified.

[Pg 29] So for that reason, I felt that this was more loss of future earnings as opposed to loss of earning capacity. So that’s why I gave that charge as opposed to a future earning capacity charge or a future earning capacity entry on the verdict form.

Unlike the trial court’s reasoning, [HN26] the Louisiana Supreme Court has drawn a distinction between “pecuniary loss” and a “loss of earning capacity.” The supreme court explained the rationale behind the concept of loss of future earning capacity as opposed to loss of future earnings by stating that “the theory is that the injury done him has deprived him of a capacity he would have been entitled to enjoy even though he never profited from it monetarily.” Folse, 371 So. 2d at 1123. Further, by noting that proof of loss of future earning capacity does not require proof of future monetary loss, the supreme court reinforces [*48] the conclusion that loss of future earning capacity is not an “economic loss” within the intendment of La. R.S. 13:5106(D)(2). See Folse, 371 So. 2d at 1123. Therefore, like the Fourth Circuit in Cooper, we hold that “pecuniary loss,” as used in Folse by the supreme court, is synonymous with “economic loss” as employed in La. R.S. 13:5106(D)(2). See Cooper, 886 So. 2d at 539. Thus, Ms. Fecke suffered a loss of future earning capacity as a result of her injury. It is impossible for her to receive an award for loss of earnings or loss of future earnings because she suffered no economic loss as a result of her accident since she was unemployed at the time.

The jury awarded damages estimated on Ms. Fecke’s potential to earn money in the future, which is her future earning capacity. Based on the law, the expert testimony, and the evidence introduced at trial, we find that the trial court’s instruction regarding loss of future earnings was erroneous. Furthermore, we find that the error was prejudicial to the LSU Board, particularly with regard to the $500,000.00 liability cap, pursuant to La. R.S. 13:5106(B)(1), on a damage award for a loss of future earning capacity. The error resulted in an award to Ms. Fecke that was a larger amount than she was statutorily entitled to receive. The judgment [Pg 30] warrants [*49] amendment based on the degree of this error combined with the adequacy of the jury instructions as a whole and the circumstances of this case. Therefore, we amend the portion of the October 3, 2014 judgment of the trial court, which awarded Ms. Fecke damages for loss of future earnings, to award Ms. Fecke those damages as her loss of future earning capacity. We furthermore amend the judgment to cap Ms. Fecke’s damages, exclusive of her medical care and related benefits, at $500,000.00 in accordance with La. R.S. 13:5106(B)(1).

We further note that the modification of Ms. Fecke’s damages award extinguishes the loss of consortium award to Karen Fecke. Louisiana Revised Statutes 13:5106(D)(4) [HN27] provides that “‘[d]erivative claims’ include but are not limited to claims for survival or loss of consortium.” A claim for loss of consortium pursuant to La. C.C. art. 2315(B) is a derivative claim, derived from damages to the primary plaintiff. An award of general damages in the maximum amount of $500,000.00 as allowed by statute in actions against state agencies and/or political subdivisions of the state serves to legally extinguish any derivative awards for loss of consortium, services, and society. See Jenkins v. State ex rel. Dept. of Transp, & Dev., 06-1804 (La. App. 1 Cir. 8/19/08), 993 So. 2d 749, 778, writ denied, 08-2471 (La. 12/19/08), 996 So. 2d 1133. We therefore reverse the trial court’s judgment in part and vacate [*50] the award of damages for loss of consortium to Karen Fecke.

DECREE

We amend the portion of the trial court’s October 3, 2014 final judgment, which orders that Ms. Fecke’s award of $750,000.00 for medical care and related benefits incurred subsequent to judgment be placed in a reversionary “Future Medical Care Trust,” to order that Ms. Fecke’s award of $750,000,00 for medical care and related benefits incurred subsequent to judgment be paid from the Future Medical Care Fund in accordance with La. R.S. 39:1533.2. The portions of the [Pg 31] judgment awarding interest directly to Ms. Fecke and ordering that attorney’s fees and costs be paid out of Ms. Fecke’s damage award for her medical care and related benefits incurred subsequent to judgment are hereby reversed. Furthermore, the portion of the October 3, 2014 judgment of the trial court, which awarded Ms. Fecke damages in the following amounts:

Physical Pain and Suffering, Past and Future: $112,500.00

Mental Pain and Suffering, Past and Future: $93,750.00

Loss of Enjoyment of Life: $56,250.00

Permanent Disability and Scarring: $123,750.00

Loss of Future Earnings: $262,500.00

TOTAL (exclusive of medical care and related benefits) $648,750.00

is hereby amended [*51] to cap the total amount of damages, exclusive of medical care and related benefits, to $500,000.00 as mandated by La. R.S. 13:5106(B)(1). We reverse and vacate the trial court’s award for loss of consortium to Karen Fecke. The remainder of the judgment is affirmed,

REVERSED IN PART, AMENDED IN PART, AND AFFIRMED AS AMENDED.


If you have a manual, you have to follow it, if you have rules, you have to follow them, if you have procedures, you have to follow them, or you lose in court.

Scheck v. Soul Cycle East 83rd Street, LLC, 2012 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 3719; 2012 NY Slip Op 32021(U)

Defendant with spin cycle class loses this lawsuit because they simply failed to follow their own rules and procedures. Consequently the plaintiff did not know or understand the risks of riding a spin bike and could not assume the risk.

State: New York, Supreme Court of New York, New York County

Plaintiff: Wolf Scheck and Lynn Scheck

Defendant: – Soul Cycle East 83rd Street, LLC d/b/a Soulcycle and Julie Rice

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Assumption of the risk

Holding: for the plaintiff

Year: 2012

This is interesting because of how the defendant lost the case. The plaintiff and his wife wanted to try spin classes for fitness. They registered for a spin class not knowing how or what a spin class was. New people in the class were told to arrive 15 minutes early to have an introduction and training in the equipment and the class.

The plaintiff argues he was not properly instructed on the use of the equipment, and the dangers of the equipment were not readily apparent. Those dangers were increased by the defendant’s actions by not properly instructing the class and training the plaintiff.

It appears that the plaintiff arrived late, as his wife was already there. The information provided to the plaintiff was not as comprehensive as the information provided to the plaintiff’s wife.

A spin cycle is a fixed gear bicycle meaning the pedals do not coast but rotate once each side for every wheel rotation.

The only way to stop the wheel from turning, and the pedals from turning as well, is to use the break. A rider cannot keep both feet still and let the wheel spin. Just pushing with your feet to attempt to stop the wheel is futile “unless you have very strong legs.”

During the class, the defendant stood up when told and injured his knee. Beginners are normally told not to stand up in spin classes. The plaintiff sued for his knee injury. The defendant filed a motion for summary judgement based on assumption of the risk, which was denied leading to this decision.

Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.

The first mistake is the defendant had a release but did not have either the plaintiff or the plaintiff’s spouse sign one. The validity of the release might have been at issue because the defendants paid a fee for an exercise class which might trigger General Obligation Law § 5-326 voiding the release. See NY court explains how it interprets § 5-326, which disallows releases in NY. Upholds release for a marathon for more about how this statute bars some releases in New York.

The defendant failed to follow numerous requirements for the class which it had set out either in how it dealt with people or in a manual it created for this situation. Those requirements included the following:

·        The defendant employee adjusted the seat height for the plaintiff and showed him where the brake was, however, the employee did not know how to use the brake.

·        Instructions were given to the defendant’s spouse, but not the defendant on several safety issues.

Ms. Regan, the Soul Ccycle instructor, recalls helping Mrs. Scheck get her bike ready for the class and spending a lot of time with this particular student. She testified she has a “spiel” she gives to beginners, consisting of how to use the resistance, where the emergency brake is and assuring them that there is no need to keep up with anyone else. Although she gave these instructions to Mrs. Scheck, she does not recall telling Mr. Scheck the same thing. Ms. Regan states she always asks beginners to raise their hand so she can spot them and keep an eye on them. She does not recall whether Mr. Scheck raised his hand or, if he did, whether she saw him.

·        Although they were requested to arrive 15 minutes early for training, the defendant’s employee only spent 2 minutes with them explaining the class and the spin cycle.

·        The instructors “…usually warn beginners not to get up out of the saddle. None of the defendant employees did give this warning to either defendant, and the plaintiff was injured when he stood up to pedal when the instructor told him too.

The defendant had a training manual to be used. The training manual required.

…instructing staff on what to do with beginner/new spinners. Among the instructions is; 1) offer them water, 2) provide free shoes, and 3) set up the bike for them. It is also required that the resistance knob and brake mechanisms be described and the new rider is instructed to “stay in the saddles if they’re uncomfortable.”

None of the items listed in the training manual were followed except for providing the plaintiff with free shoes.

Assumption of risk was defined according to New York law and how it was going to be applied in this situation. For assumption of risk to be effective, the risks cannot be increased. “A participant in a recreational activity will not, however, be deemed to have assumed unreasonably increased risks.” There is a duty on the dependent to make the conditions as safe possible. “Furthermore, the defendant has a duty to make the conditions as safe as they appear to be.”

The defendant’s duty, for the plaintiff to assume the risk, is measured against the risks known by the plaintiff. “…when measuring the defendant’s duty to a plaintiff, the risks undertaken by the plaintiff also have to be considered.”

The court then pointed all the problems the defendant created by not instructing the new plaintiff in spinning. The court summed up its analysis of the failures of the defendant to instruct the plaintiff by pointing out the defendant had a manual that required the employees to do each thing the manual required “The Soul Cycle training manual requires that new spinners be given certain preliminary instructions that apparently were not provided to Mr. Scheck.”

A participant in a sporting activity is held to have consented to the risks inherent in it “[i]f the risks of the activity are fully comprehended or perfectly obvious” and that “participants properly may be held to have consented, by their participation, to those injury-causing events which are known, apparent or reasonably foreseeable consequences of the participation”

The court also found that use of a gym or health club was not a sporting event which allows for increased risks to be assumed by the plaintiff and allows for the plaintiff to not fully understand some of the risks. A player in a sporting event assumes the risk of the game; including those he or she may not fully understand.

In this case, defendants have failed to prove, as a matter of law, that plaintiff assumed the risks inherent in participating in a spin class. Not only were plaintiff’s feet clipped into pedals; the pedals continue to move even though he wanted to stop them from moving. Mr. Scheck stated that once he was propelled over, he could not reach the brake because it was under his body. Plaintiff has raised triable issues of fact whether the activity he agreed to participate in was as safe as it appeared to be and whether he assumed the risks which he was subjected to. There are also triable issues of fact whether the defendants properly instructed him in how to use the equipment.

The case was set for trial.

So Now What?

Remember that assumption of the risk is accepting a known risk. By not instructing the plaintiff properly before the class began, the plaintiff could not assume the risk because the plaintiff did not know the risk. The defendant knew the risks, and had rules that required them to inform the plaintiff of the risks.

This fact was emphasized by the court several times pointing out the defendant’s manual required something to be done, which was not done.  

If you write it down and call it a manual, plan, standard, rules or regulations you better follow it every time.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Scheck v. Soul Cycle East 83rd Street, LLC, 2012 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 3719; 2012 NY Slip Op 32021(U)

Scheck v. Soul Cycle East 83rd Street, LLC, 2012 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 3719; 2012 NY Slip Op 32021(U)

[**2] Wolf Scheck and Lynn Scheck, Plaintiff(s), -against- Soul Cycle East 83rd Street, LLC d/b/a Soulcycle and Julie Rice, Defendant(s). Index No.: 104046/10

104046/10

SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, NEW YORK COUNTY

2012 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 3719; 2012 NY Slip Op 32021(U)

July 26, 2012, Decided

August 2, 2012, Filed

NOTICE: THIS OPINION IS UNCORRECTED AND WILL NOT BE PUBLISHED IN THE PRINTED OFFICIAL REPORTS.

CORE TERMS: bike, spin, cycle, wheel, brake, leg, assumption of risk, pedal, shoes, summary judgment, stationary, feet, gym, instructor, beginner, clerk’s, resistance, bicycle, spinner, front, heightened, sport, weighted, regular, street, online, minutes, rider, issues of fact, risks inherent

JUDGES: [*1] PRESENT: Hon. Judith J. Gische, J.S.C.

OPINION BY: Judith J. Gische

OPINION

Decision/Order

Upon the foregoing papers, the decision and order of the court is as follows:

Gische J.:

This is a negligence action for personal injuries. Now that issue has been joined and the note of issue was filed, defendants move for summary judgment. Plaintiffs raise the issue of the untimeliness of this motion, arguing that the motion was brought more than 120 days after the Note of Issue was served and filed.

CPLR 3212 provides that any party may move for summary judgment after issue has been joined and, If no date is set by the court, such motion shall be made “no later than [120 days] after the filing of the note of issue…” SCROLL (the Supreme Court Records On Line Library) shows that the Note of Issue was stamped “received” in the [**3] Trial Support Office on June 27, 2011, but the fee was paid and accepted by the New York County Clerk’s Office on June 29, 2011. Defendant’s motion was served by mail on October 26, 2011. A motion on notice is “made” when it is served (CPLR 2211). Papers are filed when they are delivered to the court clerk or the clerk’s designee (see Matter of Grant v. Senkowski, 95 N.Y.2d 605, 744 N.E.2d 132, 721 N.Y.S.2d 597 [2001]). Furthermore, [*2] not only does the Note of Issue have to be filed with the County Clerk, it must be accompanied by the payment of the appropriate fee, as prescribed by CPLR 8020 (Uniform Civil Rules for the Supreme Court and the County Court, 22 NYCRR 202.21).

Since the Note of Issue was paid for and filed with the County Clerk on June 29, 2011, and defendants’ motion was “made” on October 26, 2011, when it was served by mail, it was timely made within the 120 day statutory period (CPLR 3212 [a]; Gazes v. Bennett, 38 A.D.3d 287, 835 N.Y.S.2d 1 [1st Dept 2007]; see also, Nolan v. J.C.S. Realty, 79 AD3d 414, 910 N.Y.S.2d 906 [1st Dept 2011]). The motion, therefore, will be decided on its merits (CPLR § 3212; Brill v. City of New York, 2 NY3d 648, 814 N.E.2d 431, 781 N.Y.S.2d 261 [2004]).

Facts and Arguments

This action arises from events that occurred on December 25, 2009 (“date of the accident”) at “Soulcycle,” located on 83rd Street and Lexington Avenue in Manhattan during an indoor cycling class. The complaint alleges that Wolf Scheck was injured while in this “spin” class. According to Mr. Scheck, taking a spin class is not the same as just riding a regular street bicycle or stationary bicycle found at any gym. He did not, however, know this before he took the class. [*3] Mr. Scheck contends he was not properly instructed or supervised in how to use the equipment and that this constitutes negligence on the part of the defendants. Mr. Scheck denies he assumed the risk of [**4] injury just by participating in the class. He claims that the danger of this activity was not readily apparent to the casual observer and was increased by the defendants’ actions.

Defendants are Soul Cycle East 83rd Street, LLC (“Soul Cycle”), the company that owns, maintains, operates, etc., the Soul Cycle facility where the accident is claimed to have occurred and Julie Rice (“Rice”), a member of the Soul Cycle LLC. Defendants contend they are entitled to summary judgment dismissing the complaint because Mr. Scheck, by voluntarily participating in Soul Cycle’s spin class assumed the risks inherent to the participation of that recreational activity, thereby relieving them of any duty to prevent the type of accident he complains of. Defendants deny they improperly instructed Mr. Scheck in the use of the equipment. Defendants seek the dismissal of all claims against Ms. Rice on the basis that she was not personally involved in the happening of the accident and there are no factual allegations [*4] against Ms. Rice individually. They maintain she is corporate officer.

Mr. Scheck and Mrs. Scheck1 were each deposed about the accident. Mr. Scheck testified at his EBT that his wife suggested they try a spin class. Mrs. Scheck testified at her EBT that friends had told her how they lost weight “spinning” and she was eager to try it. Neither of the Schecks had any idea what it meant to “spin” or what kind of bicycle was involved. Both of them, however, have regular exercise routines. Mr. Scheck is a two-time marathon runner, he does weight training and plays tennis. Each of the Schecks has a gym membership and has belonged to other gyms in the past.

1 Mrs. Scheck has a derivative claims for loss of consortium/services.

Mrs. Scheck registered the couple for the class online after calling the facility and [**5] asking some questions. She was told on the phone they should come to class 15 minutes early so staff could go through “the whole [regimen] for you and explain everything carefully, because I said I don’t want there to be anything that goes wrong.” When Mr. Scheck arrived for the spin class, his wife was already there. He did not check himself in or do anything other than put his things [*5] in a locker. Mrs. Scheck testified that when she arrived, she learned that Soul Cycle showed only one of them was registered for the class, even though she had payed online for two participants. Apparently that was corrected and both Mr. and Mrs. Scheck were allowed to take the class.

Once inside the classroom, a female employee approached them and asked whether they had done a spin class before. Each of them said no. Mr. Scheck testified this person suggested they sit in the back because it might be easier for them to watch what everyone else was doing. This person told Mr. Scheck to get on the bike while she adjusted the seat for him. She also showed him where the brake was, but not how to use it. Mr. Scheck testified that he did not test the brake out to see how it worked. This process took about two (2) minutes. Noticing that he was not wearing the correct shoes, the female employee told Mr. Scheck to go get bike shoes from the front desk, which he did. These shoes (later described by others who were deposed), have a cleat that locks the rider’s shoes to the pedals, preventing their feet from slipping off.

The female employee who taught the class, later identified as Marybeth Regan, [*6] was someone different than the person who had shown Mr. Scheck the equipment. Ms. Regan was seated at the front of the class on a raised platform. Once the class was under way, some of the cyclists started pedaling very fast. Mr. Scheck, however, [**6] maintained a slow pace, pedaling very slowly. Five (5) or ten (2) minutes into the class, the instructor told the cyclists to stand up for the next exercise. Scheck obliged and as he raised himself with his right leg elevated and his left leg extended, “the machine grabbed my [right] leg and pulled it around…” The pedals kept revolving, almost on their own, all the while with Scheck’s feet strapped in. Scheck heard a “pop” and intense pain. One or two persons help extricate him from the bike and he was taken to the hospital by ambulance. He later discovered he had torn the quadriceps muscle in his right leg.

Madison Warren worked at the 83rd Street facility. She was the front desk associated on the day of the accident. Ms. Warren testified at her EBT that there were only three (3) people working that day, including herself, because it was Christmas Day. Ms. Warren was asked about the procedures for purchasing classes online and what new [*7] spinners usually do when they arrive for a class. According to Ms. Warren, new spinners are asked to sit in back of the class and this is reflected in a sheet showing that the Schecks were moved from one set of bikes to another in the back. She also testified that when purchasing classes online, someone can buy more than one class, or classes for more than one person. It is required, however, that the person making the purchase check a box indicating s/he has seen the waiver before s/he can complete the transaction. A hard copy of the waiver is at the front desk and participants are asked to sign and initial them upon arrival. Ms. Warren did not know whether Mr. Scheck was handed a hard copy of the waiver when he arrived for the spin class. No log of who trains each new person is maintained by the facility, Generally, the instructor teaches to the skill level of the class: if there are many beginners, the class is easier. Regardless, of the overall skill level, instructors usually warn beginners not to get up out [**7] of the saddle. Ms. Warren testified that there is a training manual instructing staff on what to do with beginner/new spinners. Among the instructions is; 1) offer them water, [*8] 2) provide free shoes, and 3) set up the bike for them. It is also required that the resistance knob and brake mechanisms be described and the new rider is instructed to “stay in the saddles if they’re uncomfortable.” Ms. Warren does not recall who assisted Mr. Scheck that day and the two employees who worked there on the day of the accident are no longer with the company.

Ms. Regan, the Soul Ccycle instructor, recalls helping Mrs. Scheck get her bike ready for the class and spending a lot of time with this particular student. She testified she has a “spiel” she gives to beginners, consisting of how to use the resistance, where the emergency brake is and assuring them that there is no need to keep up with anyone else. Although she gave these instructions to Mrs. Scheck, she does not recall telling Mr. Scheck the same thing. Ms. Regan states she always asks beginners to raise their hand so she can spot them and keep an eye on them. She does not recall whether Mr. Scheck raised his hand or, if he did, whether she saw him.

Ms. Warren and Ms. Regan were each separately asked to describe the differences between a spin bike and a stationary bike. Ms. Warren responded that, unlike a regular [*9] bicycle, a spin cycle has a single fixed wheel. Unlike a regular stationary bike, each pedal will result in one revolution of the wheel. Ms. Warren testified that she had never ridden with anyone else who had used a similar bicycle. So long as the front wheel is spinning. The only way to stop the wheel from turning, and the pedals from turning as well, is to use the break. A rider cannot keep both feet still [**8] and let the wheel spin. Just pushing with your feet to attempt to stop the wheel Is futile “unless you have very strong legs.”

Ms. Regan testified that instructs beginners that the bike has a weighted wheel and “you know [how] on a bike you can coast and stop your legs, Not on this. It’s a weighted wheel, so if you stop your legs you’re going to keep going. So you need to either turn the resistance up, or push down on the brake.” standing up in the saddle, it is important that a rider not lean on the handlebars because “you can fall forward…” She also stated that the special shoes Mr. Scheck was wearing bound his feet to the pedals and, if you fall forward, “the legs would keep going…” from the momentum “until you push down on the brake.” Ms. Regan specifically recalled that [*10] did not give these instructions to Mr. Scheck or tell him that “righty tighty” is how resistance is increased. According to Ms, Regan, this is an Instruction she gives on an individual basis, not to the entire class. When asked whether the spinner had specific instructions or warning on it, setting forth these precautions, Ms. Regan replied “no.” She also testified that the weighted wheel bike looks different than a stationary bike.

Applicable Law

On a motion for summary judgment, it is the movant’s burden to set forth evidentiary facts to prove its prima facie case that would entitle it to judgment in its favor, without the need for a trial (Zuckerman v. City of New York, 49 N.Y.2d 557, 562, 404 N.E.2d 718, 427 N.Y.S.2d 595 [1980]). The party opposing the motion must demonstrate, by admissible evidence, the existence of a factual issue requiring a trial of the action, or tender an acceptable excuse for his/her/its failure so to do (Alvarez v. Prospect Hosp., 68 N.Y.2d 320, 501 N.E.2d 572, 508 N.Y.S.2d 923 [1986]).

[**9] Discussion

While the parties basically agree on the law, they dispute its application to the facts at bar. Plaintiff contends that by all appearances, the spin bike he voluntarily agreed to use during his class looks like any other stationary [*11] bike and that when he signed up to take a spin class he assumed It was like riding any other stationary bike he had seen in other gyms. Thus, his argument is he assumed a lower risk than it turned out to actually be. Taking this argument further, plaintiff urges the court to deny defendants’ motion because he did not assume the more heightened risk and, therefore, the doctrine of implied assumption of risk applies. Plaintiff cites extensively to the Court of Appeals opinion in Trupia v. Lake George Central School Dist. (14 NY3d 392, 927 N.E.2d 547, 901 N.Y.S.2d 127 [2010]), Trupia involved a 12 year old student enrolled in a summer school program. The child was injured when, while attempting to slide down a banister, he fell off. In the Court of Appeal’s lengthy opinion Chief Judge Lipmann wrote that:

We do not hold that children may never assume the risks of activities, such as athletics, in which they freely and knowingly engage, either in or out of school–only that the inference of such an assumption as a ground for exculpation may not be made in their case, or for that matter where adults are concerned, except in the context of pursuits both unusually risky and beneficial that the defendant has in some nonculpable [*12] way enabled.

Plaintiff maintains, based on this language, that the doctrine of the assumption of risk is no longer a complete bar to recovery, except in very limited circumstances which are not present in this case. Defendants, on the other hand, urge the court to apply the doctrine of primary assumption of risk. The doctrine of primary assumption of risk is [**10] commonly applied in situations involving sports, both amateur and professional. A key distinction in these doctrines is that CPLR 1411, which addresses issues of comparative negligence, is applicable by its terms to implied assumption of risk (Abergast v. Board of Education, 65 NY2d 161, 480 N.E.2d 365, 490 N.Y.S.2d 751 [1985]) whereas a voluntary participant in a sporting event assumes the known risks normally associated with that sport (see Morgan v. State of New York, 90 N.Y.2d 471, 484, 685 N.E.2d 202, 662 N.Y.S.2d 421 [1997]). Thus, defendants argue Mr. Scheck knew or should have known, and therefore consented to the foreseeable consequences of his participation in the spin class (Turcotte v. Fell, 68 N.Y.2d 432, 439, 502 N.E.2d 964, 510 N.Y.S.2d 49 [1986]).

Plaintiff’s interpretation of the Trupia decision is unduly restrictive and ignores other, important language in that decision:

We have recognized that athletic and recreative [*13] activities possess enormous social value, even while they involve significantly heightened risks, and have employed the notion that these risks may be voluntarily assumed to preserve these beneficial pursuits as against the prohibitive liability to which they would otherwise give rise. We have not applied the doctrine outside of this limited context and it is clear that its application must be closely circumscribed if it is not seriously to undermine and displace the principles of comparative causation…

It is clear from the rest of the Trupia opinion that the doctrine of primary assumption of risk was not a possible defense for the defendant-school because the injury producing activity was unsupervised “horseplay” (i.e. school negligence) not an activity normally associated with the heightened risks attendant to sports activities. The Court did not, as plaintiff suggests, sweep away a legion of cases in which courts have [**11] recognized that certain sport activities present significantly heightened risk of injury. This point is evident from the Court of Appeals’ more recent decision in Bukowski v. Clarkson University (19 NY3d 353 [2012]). Bukowski involved a student whose jaw was broken [*14] when he was struck in the face with a baseball. The accident occurred when, for the very first time, he was pitching live in a cage. The court affirmed dismissal of plaintiff’s case because “there was insufficient evidence from which a jury could have concluded that plaintiff faced an unassumed, concealed, or even enhanced risk . . .”

A participant in a recreational activity will not, however, be deemed to have assumed unreasonably increased risks (Morgan v. State, 90 NY2d 471, 685 N.E.2d 202, 662 N.Y.S.2d 421 [1997] [player tripped on torn net]). Furthermore, the defendant has a duty to make the conditions as safe as they appear to be (Gortych v. Brenner, supra, citing Turcotte v. Fell, 68 NY2d at 439). Thus, when measuring the defendant’s duty to a plaintiff, the risks undertaken by the plaintiff also have to be considered (Turcotte v. Fell, supra at 438).

Mr. Scheck agreed to take a spin class that was led by an instructor in a gym like setting. He provided shoes he was unfamiliar with, the seat was adjusted for him and he was given preliminary instructions about how the resistance on the bike worked. He was also shown the brake on the bike. No one explained the relationship between the tension knob, the brake and [*15] how the weighted wheel worked, although the instructor and Ms. Warren each acknowledged the uniqueness of the bikes used at the facility. The entire instructional phase took two minutes, even though the person assisting him knew he was new to the class and had never “spun” before. The Soul Cycle training [**12] manual requires that new spinners be given certain preliminary instructions that apparently were not provided to Mr. Scheck.

A participant in a sporting activity is held to have consented to the risks inherent in it “[i]f the risks of the activity are fully comprehended or perfectly obvious” and that “participants properly may be held to have consented, by their participation, to those injury-causing events which are known, apparent or reasonably foreseeable consequences of the participation” (Turcotte v. Fell, supra at 439). There is appellate authority that use of a gym facility is not participation in a sporting event (Corrigan v. Musclemakers Inc., 258 A.D.2d 861, 686 N.Y.S.2d 143 [3rd Dept 1999]; Petretti v. Jefferson Valley Racquet Club, Inc., 246 A.D.2d 583, 668 N.Y.S.2d 221 [2nd Dept 1998J). Furthermore, where the plaintiff is a neophyte, the level of his or her experience is taken into account (Petretti v. Jefferson Valley Racquet Club, Inc., supra). [*16] Although the doctrine of primary assumption of risk has been applied in a recreational setting where a biker is injured (Gortych v. Brenner, 83 A.D.3d 497, 922 N.Y.S.2d 14 [1 Dept 2011]; Cotty v. Town of Southampton, 64 A.D.3d 251, 880 N.Y.S.2d 656 [2nd Dept 2009]), a primary distinguishing factor is that those cases involved bikers pedaling outdoors and their injuries were due to a defective condition on the road or path they were on. In each of those cases, defendants were denied summary judgment because they failed to make a prima facie showing that the primary assumption of risk doctrine was applicable to the activity in which the plaintiff was engaged at the time of his or her accident.

In this case, defendants have failed to prove, as a matter of law, that plaintiff [**13] assumed the risks inherent in participating in a spin class. Not only were plaintiff’s feet clipped into pedals, the pedals continue to move even though he wanted to stop them from moving. Mr. Scheck stated that once he was propelled over, he could not reach the brake because it was under his body. Plaintiff has raised triable issues of fact whether the activity he agreed to participate in was as safe as it appeared to be and whether he assumed the [*17] risks which he was subjected to (Petretti v. Jefferson Valley Racquet Club, Inc., 246 A.D.2d 583, 668 N.Y.S.2d 221 [2nd Dept 1998]). There are also triable issues of fact whether the defendants properly instructed him in how to use the equipment. Therefore, defendants’ motion to dismiss the complaint against Soul Cycle is denied.

Defendants’ motion to dismiss the claims against Ms. Rice is granted, as plaintiff has presented no argument about why that branch of their motion should be denied. No factual claim is made that she was involved in the accident or that she acted outside her capacity as a member of the company. Therefore, the claims against Ms. Rice are hereby severed and dismissed in their entirety.

Conclusion

Defendants’ motion for summary judgment is granted only to the extent that the claims against Ms. Rice are severed and dismissed. The balance of defendants’ motion for summary judgment is, however, denied not only because Soul Cycle has failed to prove it is entitled to such relief as a matter of law, but also because there are triable issues of fact. The issue of the timeliness of this motion is decided in favor of the defendants and plaintiff’s objection to this motion as untimely is denied.

[**14] [*18] This case is ready to be tried. Plaintiff shall serve a copy of this decision and order on the Mediator who is assigned to this case and also on the Office of Trial Support so the case can be scheduled for trial.

Any relief requested but not specifically addressed is hereby denied. This constitutes the decision and order of the court.

Dated: New York, New York

July 26, 2012

So Ordered:

/s/ Judith J. Gische

Hon. Judith J. Gische, JSC