Collecting accident reports without doing something with the reports guarantees you will lose a lawsuit and in this case possibly for gross negligence.Posted: May 4, 2020
Climbing gym had a collection of accident reports that were based on the same set of facts. Failure to act on the reports and solve the problem was enough proof for the Utah appellate court to hold the actions of the defendant gym were possibly grossly negligent.
State: Utah; Court of Appeals of Utah
Plaintiff: Scott Howe
Defendant: Momentum LLC
Plaintiff Claims: Momentum was grossly negligent. He alleged that Momentum, “with a knowing and reckless indifference and disregard for the safety of [Howe] and other members of [Momentum], concealed, or caused to be concealed, the defects in their floor padding by placing mats over the defective area
Defendant Defenses: the actions of the defendant did not rise to the level of gross negligence.
Holding: For the Plaintiff
Incident and Accident reports that have not been acted on and the issues that caused the accidents which had not been fixed, were proof that the defendant climbing gym possibly acted in a grossly negligent way.
Momentum is an indoor-climbing facility with a separate area for bouldering. The bouldering area’s concrete floor is covered by approximately twelve inches of foam padding overlain by thick vinyl, known as an “impact attenuation surface.” In the years after Momentum’s 2007 opening, some of the vinyl began to tear and separate. In late September 2011, Momentum had “[a]t least one” tear repaired with a welded vinyl patch.
But Momentum’s management team deemed these tear patches a hazard for tripping, so it placed modular one-inch-thick mats over certain areas of the bouldering area floor that were showing signs of wear or damage. The mats are not designed to be anchored to the underlying pad and they would sometimes move when people landed on them. Because the mats tended to move, Momentum staff “monitored the floor regularly to try to keep the [mats] in place.” In addition to this action, a Momentum employee altered the routes above those areas by reconfiguring and reducing the number of foot-and hand-holds to reduce customer use of the areas with worn and damaged padding.
Over the years—and prior to Howe’s injury—Momentum’s patrons had reported incidents, some of which involved injuries, which alerted Momentum to the fact that the padding in the bouldering area was worn and damaged in some places. Before Howe was injured, five incidents were reported before Momentum began using the mats and another eight were reported thereafter. Each of these injuries involved a climber dropping from the bouldering wall or “slab area” to the floor below and, upon landing, pushing a foot through the floor padding, making contact with the concrete floor below, either rolling or twisting an ankle in the process.
In March 2012, Howe was bouldering at Momentum. After finishing his bouldering route, Howe dropped off the wall to the floor below. As he made contact with the floor, his “left foot impacted the mat on top of the padded floor, causing the mat to move. As the mat moved, it exposed the padded floor beneath. Concealed under the mat, the cover of the pad was split in a straight line, exposing the abutting edges of pads below.” When Howe’s “right foot impacted the top of the two abutting pads, [his] foot passed between the two abutting pads to the floor beneath.” As a result of the contact with the concrete, Howe broke his right ankle.
Howe sued, asserting—among other things—that Momentum was grossly negligent. He alleged that Momentum, “with a knowing and reckless indifference and disregard for the safety of [Howe] and other members of [Momentum], concealed, or caused to be concealed, the defects in their floor padding by placing mats over the defective area.”
The defendant Momentum filed a motion for summary judgement to dismiss the gross negligence claims of the plaintiff. The trial court judge ruled the plaintiff had shown enough action and inaction on the part of the gym that the plaintiff could proceed to trial on a claim of gross negligence. The defendant appealed this ruling.
The decision also looks at the qualifications of the plaintiff’s expert witness. However, there is nothing in the decision that warrants review here.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
The court’s analysis of the law was quite good and balanced. It’s application of the law to the facts was clear cut. The court defined gross negligence under Utah’s law as “…the failure to observe even slight care….”
A broader definition was defined as:
“…the essential evidence needed to survive a defendant’s motion for summary judgment on a gross negligence claim” is “evidence that the defendant’s conduct dramatically magnified the risk of harm to the plaintiff….
The court concluded its review of gross negligence with this statement about the actions of the defendant. “…Momentum’s failure to take further action in the face of eight additional incidents creates questions of fact about whether it was grossly negligent….”
The court then followed with this statement.
It is beyond question that a plaintiff who can demonstrate that a defendant has taken no action in response to injury incidents will have likely made out at least a prima facie case of gross negligence,….
At this point, in the opinion it is clear the court looked at Momentum’s failure to act after collecting more than 13 incident reports as gross negligence.
It is also clear that the court believes that failure to act on the defendant’s own incident reports is a major failure of the defendant. Why have accident and incident reports if you do nothing about them.
These acts arguably show that Momentum exercised slight care in the beginning and was therefore not completely indifferent to the consequences of allowing climbers to use the bouldering area given the condition of the padding.
The court gave the climbing gym some benefit because after the first five accidents, they placed additional padding over the torn spots. However, having eight additional incidents, with the torn padding was more than the court would allow.
The court then summed up the accident reports that the defendant compiled.
…onto the floor below, the mat moved, their feet were caught in the crack in the foam padding, and their ankles were injured. Under these circumstances, the question of whether Momentum’s continued use of the mats constituted gross negligence presents a disputed issue of material fact.
The court found that collecting injury reports, which almost identical fact situations and not doing anything about it were proof of gross negligence. The appellate court held the trial court was correct in denying the defendant climbing gym’s motion for summary judgment to dismiss the gross negligence claims.
So Now What?
Incident reports are legal explosives just waiting to go off when a plaintiff’s attorney gets them. If you collect them, then you MUST do something with them.
Each report MUST be analyzed. It must be compared with all other reports to see trends or to determine what the cause or problem is. Then something must be done to correct the problem.
If you decided the report is a rate instance or something outside of your ability to control it, then you must indicate that in your notes or on your response to the report. If a second accident occurs with the same fact situation, then it is not longer a rare case, it is something you must act on.
If not, like in this case, the reports prove foreseeability and in this case, prove that failing to act when the defendant knew a problem existed, was enough to support a claim of gross negligence.
Copyright 2020 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529
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Howe v. Momentum LLC, 2020 UT App 5, 2020 Utah App. LEXIS 1, 2020 WL 34996
Court of Appeals of Utah
January 3, 2020, Filed
[*P1] Scott Howe sued Momentum LLC under a theory of gross negligence1 for injuries he sustained while “bouldering.”2 Momentum moved for summary judgment, which the district court denied because the disputed facts were sufficient to raise a jury question. The district court also ruled that Howe’s expert (Expert) was qualified to testify on the industry standard of care. The matter is before this court on an interlocutory appeal challenging the court’s denial of the summary judgment motion and its decision to permit Expert to testify. We affirm and remand for further proceedings.
[*P2] Momentum is an indoor-climbing facility with a separate area for bouldering. The bouldering area’s concrete floor is covered by approximately twelve inches of foam padding overlain by thick vinyl, known as an “impact attenuation surface.” In the years after Momentum’s 2007 opening, some of the vinyl [**2] began to tear and separate. In late September 2011, Momentum had “[a]t least one” tear repaired with a welded vinyl patch.
[*P3] But Momentum’s management team deemed these tear patches a hazard for tripping,4 so it placed modular one-inch-thick mats over certain areas of the bouldering area floor that were showing signs of wear or damage. The mats are not designed to be anchored to the underlying pad and they would sometimes move when people landed on them. Because the mats tended to move, Momentum staff “monitored the floor regularly to try to keep the [mats] in place.” In addition to this action, a Momentum employee altered the routes above those areas by reconfiguring and reducing the number of foot-and hand-holds to reduce customer use of the areas with worn and damaged padding.
[*P4] Over the years—and prior to Howe’s injury—Momentum’s patrons had reported incidents, some of which involved injuries, which alerted Momentum to the fact that the padding in the bouldering area was worn and damaged in some places. Before Howe was injured, five incidents were reported before Momentum began using the mats and another eight were reported thereafter. Each of these injuries involved a climber dropping [**3] from the bouldering wall or “slab area” to the floor below and, upon landing, pushing a foot through the floor padding, making contact with the concrete floor below, either rolling or twisting an ankle in the process.
[*P5] In March 2012, Howe was bouldering at Momentum. After finishing his bouldering route, Howe dropped off the wall to the floor below. As he made contact with the floor, his “left foot impacted the mat on top of the padded floor, causing the mat to move. As the mat moved, it exposed the padded floor beneath. Concealed under the mat, the cover of the pad was split in a straight line, exposing the abutting edges of pads below.” When Howe’s “right foot impacted the top of the two abutting pads, [his] foot passed between the two abutting pads to the floor beneath.” As a result of the contact with the concrete, Howe broke his right ankle.
[*P6] Howe sued, asserting—among other things—that Momentum was grossly negligent. He alleged that Momentum, “with a knowing and reckless indifference and disregard for the safety of [Howe] and other members of [Momentum], concealed, or caused to be concealed, the defects in their floor padding by placing mats over the defective area.”
[*P7] Howe designated [**4] a liability Expert. Expert has a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and petroleum refining, as well as a master’s degree in metallurgical and materials engineering. His professional experience includes research and development engineering as well as forensic engineering. Expert owns a forensic engineering company that specializes in “metallurgical, materials, and mechanical failure analysis”; “materials evaluation and testing”; “product liability and analysis”; “fire and explosion cause and origin”; “industrial, recreational, and construction accident analysis”; and “chemical and mechanical systems failure analysis.” Expert has been an expert witness in numerous cases, one of which involved a mechanical failure that caused an indoor climbing accident. He has also had professional experience with evaluating impact attenuation surfaces in the ski industry.
[*P8] Expert opined that Momentum did not take appropriate steps to protect climbers in the bouldering area. Indeed, Expert concluded that
Momentum significantly elevated the risk of injury to climbers in the bouldering area by (1) failing to repair, restrict access, clearly mark, cordon off, close walls, or close areas around and [**5] near the areas where the vinyl padding cover was damaged, and by (2) placing the [mats] over the damaged areas of the padding cover, thus concealing the hazard created by the damage.
In Expert’s opinion, appropriate steps to remedy the problem could have included using “warning signs, closing the sections of the floor or wall near damaged areas,” removing the hand-and foot-holds above the damaged padding, making inaccessible the damaged padding areas, or repairing the damaged padding. During deposition testimony, Expert explained that “those are ways to prevent the public from interacting with the obvious hazard created by the opening in the pads.” This approach was based on his “engineering background and experience in dealing with hazards.” In short, his opinion is that “gluing and adhering . . . a large patch of vinyl over the tear” would have been safer than using the mats.
[*P9] Momentum moved for summary judgment, arguing the undisputed facts established that it exercised at least slight care to protect climbers using its facility, which meant Howe could not demonstrate gross negligence. Momentum also moved to exclude Expert, claiming he was unqualified to opine upon the standard of [**6] care in the indoor-climbing industry. The district court denied these motions, and Momentum successfully petitioned this court for an interlocutory appeal.
ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW
[*P10] Momentum raises two issues on appeal. First, it claims the district court erred when it denied Momentum’s motion for summary judgment. HN1 Denials of summary judgment are questions of law reviewed for correctness. Glenn v. Reese, 2009 UT 80, ¶ 6, 225 P.3d 185.
[*P11] Second, Momentum claims the district court erred when it denied Momentum’s motion to exclude Expert. HN2 A district court’s determination regarding the admissibility of expert testimony is reviewed for abuse of discretion. Gunn Hill Dairy Props., LLC v. Los Angeles Dep’t of Water & Power, 2012 UT App 20, ¶ 16, 269 P.3d 980.
I. Summary Judgment
[*P12] HN3 Summary judgment shall be granted “if the moving party shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Utah R. Civ. P. 56(a). In this case, the district court denied Momentum’s motion for summary judgment on Howe’s claim for gross negligence, based on its finding that there were “numerous genuine issues of disputed material fact.”
HN4 In reviewing a district court’s summary judgment decision, appellate courts “must evaluate all the evidence and all reasonable inferences fairly drawn from the evidence [**7] in a light most favorable to the party opposing summary judgment to determine whether there is a material issue of fact to be tried.” Horgan v. Industrial Design Corp., 657 P.2d 751, 752 (Utah 1982). “Gross negligence is the failure to observe even slight care; it is carelessness or recklessness to a degree that shows utter indifference to the consequences that may result. Summary judgment is proper where reasonable minds could reach only one conclusion based on the applicable material facts.” Penunuri v. Sundance Partners, Ltd., 2017 UT 54, ¶ 35, 423 P.3d 1150 (quotation simplified).
[*P14] Citing Penunuri and Blaisdell v. Dentrix Dental Systems, Inc., 2012 UT 37, 284 P.3d 616, Momentum argues that “the undisputed material facts of this case show that [it] exercised care, far more than even slight care, and was not careless or reckless, let alone to a degree that shows utter indifference,” and that therefore “the district court erred in denying Momentum’s motion for summary judgment.” (Quotation simplified.) Momentum points out that it “[u]ndisputedly . . . took steps to protect climbers from being injured by the wear and tear damage that had developed in its primary padding,” including using welded patches, “thinn[ing] out” the climbing routes, and, “[a]fter determining that the . . . patches created tripping hazards,” using the mats and monitoring their positioning. In Momentum’s view, these steps [**8] demonstrate that it took at least slight care and was not utterly indifferent to the consequences that could result from a failure to take care.
[*P15] Howe acknowledges that Momentum took these steps, but argues they were inadequate. He further asserts that Momentum’s use of the pads to cover the defective flooring concealed the risk and rendered the climbers “defenseless against the dangerous conditions known to Momentum,” and claims that his “inability to see the dangerous flooring over which he was climbing contributed to his injuries.” At oral argument before this court, Howe argued this concealment “dramatically magnified” the risk of harm.
[*P16] We note the tension between our supreme court’s recent articulation of the elements of gross negligence as “the failure to observe even slight care,” Penunuri, 2017 UT 54, ¶ 35, 423 P.3d 1150 (quotation simplified), and the language of a subsequent paragraph suggesting that “the essential evidence needed to survive a defendant’s motion for summary judgment on a gross negligence claim” is “evidence that the defendant’s conduct dramatically magnified the risk of harm to the plaintiff,” id. ¶ 37. We can envision situations in which the straightforward application of the elements identified [**9] in paragraph 35 might dictate a grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendant while the application of the elements identified in paragraph 37 might dictate the denial of summary judgment. But we need not explore this tension further here because Momentum’s failure to take further action in the face of eight additional incidents creates questions of fact about whether it was grossly negligent, even assuming that paragraph 35 sets forth the correct formulation of the elements of gross negligence.
[*P17] Although Momentum took certain steps to remedy the problem created by the deterioration of the foam padding, injury incidents continued to occur even after implementation of Momentum’s injury-avoidance strategy. HN5 It is beyond question that a plaintiff who can demonstrate that a defendant has taken no action in response to injury incidents will have likely made out at least a prima facie case of gross negligence, one sufficient to withstand summary judgment. See id. ¶ 16 (“Summary judgment dismissing a gross negligence claim is appropriate where reasonable minds could only conclude that the defendant was not grossly negligent under the circumstances . . . .”). We cannot see much of a distinction [**10] between that situation and the case Howe brings here: a defendant takes some action in response to injury incidents, and therefore arguably demonstrates slight care in the beginning, but takes no additional action after injury incidents continue to occur following implementation of its original strategy. Stated another way, we are not persuaded that a defendant who simply relies on a repeatedly-failed strategy to avert injury from a known risk is entitled to judgment as a matter of law on the “slight care” question.
[*P18] In this case, five incidents, some of which involved injuries, motivated Momentum to take steps to address the problem and ultimately to place mats over the cracked foam padding. These acts arguably show that Momentum exercised slight care in the beginning and was therefore not completely indifferent to the consequences of allowing climbers to use the bouldering area given the condition of the padding. But by the time Howe was injured, eight more injuries had been reported to Momentum, even after it had thinned the routes and put down the extra pads. These eight additional climbers were injured in roughly the same manner as Howe: when they dropped from the bouldering wall [**11] onto the floor below, the mat moved, their feet were caught in the crack in the foam padding, and their ankles were injured. Under these circumstances, the question of whether Momentum’s continued use of the mats constituted gross negligence presents a disputed issue of material fact.
[*P19] Because a reasonable finder of fact could determine, on this record, that Momentum was grossly negligent, the district court’s denial of summary judgment was appropriate.
II. Expert Testimony
[*P20] HN6 The Utah Rules of Evidence allow “a witness who is qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education” to “testify in the form of an opinion or otherwise if the expert’s scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue.” Utah R. Evid. 702(a). Furthermore, “[s]cientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge may serve as the basis for expert testimony only if there is a threshold showing that the principles or methods that are underlying in the testimony (1) are reliable, (2) are based upon sufficient facts or data, and (3) have been reliably applied to the facts.” Id. R. 702(b).
[*P21] Momentum argues the district court [**12] abused its discretion in denying its motion to exclude Expert. First, it contends Expert’s experience as an engineer did not qualify him to testify as to the applicable standard of care in the indoor-climbing industry. Second, Momentum contends that, because Expert did not evaluate or test vinyl floor padding or the mats used to cover the damaged areas, Expert’s opinions did not meet the reliability standard imposed by rule 702 of the Utah Rules of Evidence.
[*P22] But as Howe points out, Expert’s training as a professional engineer with experience in “forensic engineering and accident analysis in recreational settings,” “slip and fall accident analysis,” and “warnings, design, and standard of care issues” qualifies him to assist the finder of fact in making a determination of the standard of care in the indoor-climbing industry.
[*P23] Expert’s proposed testimony is that Momentum acted with indifference toward the safety of its members when it placed mats over the damaged padding; Expert opines that Momentum could have and should have taken alternative steps to mitigate the effects of the worn padding. As Howe points out, and the district court agreed, this testimony “will be helpful to the jury to understand the options Momentum had [**13] in addressing the damaged vinyl” and to avoid speculation regarding its options.
HN7 Further, as to reliability, Expert’s opinion is based “upon [his] engineering education, experience, and training” and “knowledge . . . gained from being a forensic engineer . . . and studying padding and other types of accidents.” In determining whether to allow an expert to offer an opinion, the district court’s role is that of a “gatekeeper,” meant “to screen out unreliable expert testimony.” Gunn Hill Dairy Props., LLC v. Los Angeles Dep’t of Water & Power, 2012 UT App 20, ¶ 28, 269 P.3d 980 (quotation simplified). The court is afforded “broad discretion” when making this determination, and we “will reverse its decision only when it exceeds the bounds of reasonability.” Id. ¶ 31 (quotation simplified). Here, the court’s determination that Expert’s opinion was sufficiently reliable does not “exceed the bounds of reasonability,” and we decline to reverse it. See id. (quotation simplified). Expert’s opinion meets the threshold showing of reliability and “will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue.” Utah R. Evid. 702(a). Therefore the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying Momentum’s motion to exclude his testimony.
[*P25] Because there are material facts in [**14] dispute, the district court properly denied Momentum’s summary judgment motion. Furthermore, the court did not abuse its discretion in denying Momentum’s motion to exclude Expert. We affirm the district court’s rulings on these points and remand for further proceedings.
Lee, et al., v Brooklyn Boulders, LLC, 156 A.D.3d 689; 67 N.Y.S.3d 67; 2017 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 8723; 2017 NY Slip Op 08660Posted: May 1, 2019
Lee, et al., v Brooklyn Boulders, LLC, 156 A.D.3d 689; 67 N.Y.S.3d 67; 2017 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 8723; 2017 NY Slip Op 08660
Jennifer Lee, et al., respondents-appellants, v Brooklyn Boulders, LLC, appellant-respondent. (Index No. 503080/13)
SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, APPELLATE DIVISION, SECOND DEPARTMENT
156 A.D.3d 689; 67 N.Y.S.3d 67; 2017 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 8723; 2017 NY Slip Op 08660
December 13, 2017, Decided
THE LEXIS PAGINATION OF THIS DOCUMENT IS SUBJECT TO CHANGE PENDING RELEASE OF THE FINAL PUBLISHED VERSION. THIS OPINION IS UNCORRECTED AND SUBJECT TO REVISION BEFORE PUBLICATION IN THE OFFICIAL REPORTS.
CORE TERMS: leave to amend, punitive damages, sport, gap, recover damages, personal injuries, summary judgment, rock climbing, inherent risks, prima facie, cross-appeal, recreational, engaging, mats, inter alia
COUNSEL: [***1] Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith, LLP, New York, NY (Nicholas P. Hurzeler of counsel), for appellant-respondent.
Carman, Callahan & Ingham, LLP, Farmingdale, NY (James M. Carman and Anne P. O’Brien of counsel), for respondents-appellants.
JUDGES: WILLIAM F. MASTRO, J.P., CHERYL E. CHAMBERS, HECTOR D. LASALLE, VALERIE BRATHWAITE NELSON, JJ. MASTRO, J.P., CHAMBERS, LASALLE and BRATHWAITE NELSON, JJ., concur.
[**68] [*689] DECISION & ORDER
In an action to recover damages for personal injuries, etc., the defendant appeals, as limited by its brief, from so much of an order of the Supreme Court, Kings County (Toussaint, J.), dated April 20, 2016, as denied its motion for summary judgment dismissing the complaint, and the plaintiffs cross-appeal, as limited by their brief, from so much of the same order as denied their cross motion pursuant to CPLR 3025(b) for leave to amend the complaint to add a demand for punitive damages.
ORDERED that the order is affirmed insofar as appealed and cross-appealed from, without costs or disbursements.
The plaintiff Jennifer Lee (hereinafter the injured plaintiff) allegedly was injured at the defendant’s rock climbing facility when she dropped down from a climbing wall and her foot landed in a gap [***2] between two mats. According to the injured plaintiff, the gap was covered by a piece of velcro.
[**69] [*690] The plaintiffs commenced this action to recover damages for personal injuries, etc. The defendant moved for summary judgment dismissing the complaint, and the plaintiffs, inter alia, cross-moved for leave to amend the complaint to add a demand for punitive damages. The Supreme Court, inter alia, denied the motion and the cross motion. The defendant appeals and the plaintiffs cross-appeal.
Contrary to the defendant’s contention, the release of liability that the injured plaintiff signed is void under General Obligations Law § 5-326 because the defendant’s facility is recreational in nature (see Serin v Soulcycle Holdings, LLC, 145 AD3d 468, 469, 41 N.Y.S.3d 714; Vanderbrook v Emerald Springs Ranch, 109 AD3d 1113, 1115, 971 N.Y.S.2d 754; Debell v Wellbridge Club Mgt., Inc., 40 AD3d 248, 249, 835 N.Y.S.2d 170; Miranda v Hampton Auto Raceway, 130 AD2d 558, 558, 515 N.Y.S.2d 291). Therefore, the release does not bar the plaintiffs’ claims.
“Relieving an owner or operator of a sporting venue from liability for inherent risks of engaging in a sport is justified when a consenting participant is aware of the risks; has an appreciation of the nature of the risks; and voluntarily assumes the risks” (Morgan v State of New York, 90 NY2d 471, 484, 685 N.E.2d 202, 662 N.Y.S.2d 421; see Koubek v Denis, 21 AD3d 453, 799 N.Y.S.2d 746). “If the risks of the activity are fully comprehended or perfectly obvious, plaintiff has consented to them and defendant has performed its duty” (Turcotte v Fell, 68 NY2d 432, 439, 502 N.E.2d 964, 510 N.Y.S.2d 49; see Morgan v State of New York, 90 NY2d at 484; Joseph v New York Racing Assn., 28 AD3d 105, 108, 809 N.Y.S.2d 526). Moreover, “by engaging in a sport or recreational [***3] activity, a participant consents to those commonly appreciated risks which are inherent in and arise out of the nature of the sport generally and flow from such participation” (Morgan v State of New York, 90 NY2d at 484; see Simone v Doscas, 142 AD3d 494, 494, 35 N.Y.S.3d 720).
Here, the defendant failed to establish, prima facie, that the doctrine of primary assumption of risk applies. The defendant submitted the injured plaintiff’s deposition testimony, which reveals triable issues of fact as to whether the gap in the mats constituted a concealed risk and whether the injured plaintiff’s accident involved an inherent risk of rock climbing (see Siegel v City of New York, 90 N.Y.2d 471, 488, 685 N.E.2d 202, 662 N.Y.S.2d 421; Georgiades v Nassau Equestrian Ctr. at Old Mill, Inc., 134 AD3d 887, 889, 22 N.Y.S.3d 467; Dann v Family Sports Complex, Inc., 123 AD3d 1177, 1178, 997 N.Y.S.2d 836; Segal v St. John’s Univ., 69 AD3d 702, 704, 893 N.Y.S.2d 221; Demelio v Playmakers, Inc., 63 AD3d 777, 778, 880 N.Y.S.2d 710). Since the defendant failed to establish its prima facie entitlement to judgment as a matter of law, its motion was properly denied, [*691] regardless of the sufficiency of the opposition papers (see Winegrad v New York Univ. Med. Ctr., 64 NY2d 851, 853, 476 N.E.2d 642, 487 N.Y.S.2d 316).
The Supreme Court providently exercised its discretion in denying the plaintiffs’ cross motion for leave to amend the complaint to add a demand for punitive damages (see Jones v LeFrance Leasing Ltd. Partnership, 127 AD3d 819, 7 N.Y.S.3d 352; Hylan Elec. Contr., Inc. v MasTec N. Am., Inc., 74 AD3d 1148, 903 N.Y.S.2d 528; Kinzer v Bederman, 59 AD3d 496, 873 N.Y.S.2d 692).
[**70] MASTRO, J.P., CHAMBERS, LASALLE and BRATHWAITE NELSON, JJ., concur.
[**1] Meghan Mcdonald, Plaintiff, – against – Brooklyn Boulders, LLC., Defendant. Index No. 503314/12
SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, KINGS COUNTY
2016 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 5211; 2016 NY Slip Op 32822(U)
April 12, 2016, Decided
NOTICE: THIS OPINION IS UNCORRECTED AND WILL NOT BE PUBLISHED IN THE PRINTED OFFICIAL REPORTS.
CORE TERMS: climbing, mat, climb, team, rock climbing, recreational, leave to amend, affirmative defense, risk doctrine, instructional, bouldering, void, appreciated, concealed, teaching, training, wasn’t, amend, sport’, Rock, gym, matting, reciprocal agreement, public policy, dangerous condition, unreasonably, amusement, watching, unaware, advice
JUDGES: [*1] PRESENT: HON. MARK I. PARTNOW, J.S.C.
OPINION BY: MARK I. PARTNOW
Upon the foregoing papers, defendant Brooklyn Boulders, LLC (defendant or Brooklyn Boulders) moves for an order: 1) pursuant to CPLR §3212 granting summary judgment and the dismissal of plaintiff Meghan McDonald’s complaint against defendant; and 2) pursuant to CPLR §3025 (b) granting defendant leave to amend its answer to the complaint to include an additional affirmative defense.
Plaintiff is employed as a program director and head coach of a youth rock climbing team at The Rock Club, an indoor rock climbing gym in New Rochelle, New York and has been so employed since 2006. On September 1, 2011, plaintiff went to Brooklyn Boulders with some of the members of her youth climbing team and other adults. Brooklyn Boulders is an indoor rock climbing and bouldering facility located in Brooklyn, New York. Plaintiff testified that this trip was a treat for her team and that she would be climbing that day too. It is undisputed that plaintiff signed a waiver before she began climbing and that she did not pay an entry fee pursuant to a reciprocal agreement in place between The Rock Club and Brooklyn Boulders as well as other rock climbing facilities. After [*2] approximately one and a half hours of bouldering with her team, plaintiff went to an area of the bouldering wall known as The Beast, which is very challenging in that it becomes nearly horizontal for some distance. It was her first time on the Beast, although she had been to Brooklyn Boulders on prior occasions. Plaintiff testified that she visually inspected the area below the Beast before she began her climb. Lance Pinn, the Chief Marketing Officer, President and founder of Brooklyn Boulders testified that there was foam matting system in place, with matting wall to wall in the area of the Beast. The largest pieces available were 9 feet by 7 feet so the area where the foam pieces met when placed on the ground was covered with Velcro to keep the foam matting pieces flush together.
[**3] Plaintiff finished her upward climb and then climbed down as far as she could and then looked down below to make sure there were no shoes in her way and that her spotter was out of the way. She stated that she knew that there were mats underneath so she jumped down a distance of approximately five feet. Her right foot landed on the mat but her left foot landed on the Velcro strip where two floor mats met. [*3] She testified that her left foot went through the Velcro into a space between the two mats. Plaintiff sustained an ankle fracture as a result and required surgeries and physical therapy.
Brooklyn Boulders’ Motion
Brooklyn Boulders moves for an order: 1) pursuant to CPLR §3212 granting summary judgment and the dismissal of plaintiff’s complaint against defendant; and 2) pursuant to CPLR §3025 (b) granting defendant leave to amend its answer to the complaint to include an additional affirmative defense.
Defendant argues that the liability waiver that plaintiff signed when she entered the facility releases it from liability. Defendant maintains that plaintiff was an expert climber and coach and understood the meaning of the waiver and appreciated the assumption of risk involved in the activity that she was engaged. Defendant also points out that she did not pay a fee to climb that day based upon the reciprocal program in place with other climbing facilities. Defendant claims that plaintiff was instructing her students that day as they observed her climbing and point to her testimony as follows:
[**4] Q: And were you teaching them, you know, what to do and what not to do?
A: I wasn’t teaching them, but if they had a question [*4] they would ask me hey, should I do this or do this or what do you think of this move I always give advice. (Page 30, lines 12-17).
Q. Did you ever teach any or give any instruction there?
A. Just of terms of like in my kids I probably give instruction everywhere I go. There are so many people that climb at Brooklyn Boulders that are total beginners. I’m often spotting brand new people and telling them how to spot one another. (Page 45, lines 5-12).
Defendant notes that although General Obligations Law (GOL) §5-326 renders contract clauses which release certain entities from liability void as against public policy, activities which are “instructional” as opposed to recreational are found to be outside the scope of GOL §5-326. Defendant maintains that here, plaintiff was at Brooklyn Boulders to instruct her team members and thus GOL §5-326 is not applicable. Moreover, defendant argues that the waiver at issue was explicit, comprehensive and expressly provided that Brooklyn Boulders was released from liability for personal injuries arising out of or connected with plaintiff’s participation in rock climbing.
In support of its motion, defendant submits the signed waiver which states, in pertinent part:
I acknowledge [*5] that climbing on an artificial climbing wall entails known and unanticipated risks which could result in physical or emotional injury, paralysis, death, or damage to myself, to property, or third parties. I understand that such risks simply cannot be eliminated without jeopardizing the essential [**5] qualities of the activity. I have examined the Climbing Wall and have full knowledge of the nature and extent of the risks associated with rock climbing and the use of the Climbing Wall, including but not limited to:
a:. All manner of injury resulting from my falling off or from the Climbing Wall and hitting the floor, wall faces, people or rope projections, whether permanently or temporarily in place, loose and/or damaged artificial holds, musculoskeletal injuries and/or overtraining; head injuries; or my own negligence . . . I further acknowledge that the above list is not inclusive of all possible risks associated with the Climbing Wall and related training facilities and I agree that such list in no way limits the extent or reach of this Assumption of Risk, Release and Indemnification . . .
Defendant also argues that since plaintiff did not pay a fee to climb that day that her activity was [*6] outside the scope of GOL §5-326.
Next defendant argues that the assumption of risk doctrine bars plaintiff’s claims because, as a general rule, a plaintiff who voluntarily participates in a sporting or recreational event is held to have consented to those commonly appreciated risks that are inherent in, and arise out of, the nature of the sport generally and flow from participation in such event.
Finally, defendant argues that it should be allowed to amend its answer to assert the affirmative defense of release. Defendant contends that it was unaware of the existence of the release and waiver when it served its answer. Moreover, defendant contends that plaintiff will not be prejudiced because she was, in fact, questioned about the release that she signed during her deposition.
[**6] Plaintiff opposes defendant’s motion arguing that General Obligations Law §5-326 renders the waiver and release that she signed void. She points out that defendant is attempting to circumvent this law by asserting that the activity in which plaintiff was involved was instructional as opposed to recreational and misstates her testimony in an attempt to mislead the court. Plaintiff contends that such behavior should be sanctioned. In support of her position [*7] that she was not at Brooklyn Boulders for instructional purposes, but, rather was there for a fun day of climbing, plaintiff points to her testimony that she brought some of the older members of her team to Brooklyn Boulders to climb. She testified that they all worked at The Rock Club so this was an end of summer treat for them to go and climb somewhere else and not have to work. (Page 62, lines 5-13). She further points to the following testimony:
Q: In September of 2011 when you went there on the date in question what was your purpose of being there?
A: I went there with a handful of kids who are on my climbing team, but it wasn’t a specific training day. Usually when we go it would be for training but this was just like a fun day. I was going to climb with them.
Q: And were they climbing around you.
A: Yeah, they were.(page 29, lines 14-25).
Q: And were you supervising them?
A: I wasn’t their active supervisor. I’m a coach though so I’m always watching what they do. But this was one of the few times that I was actually going to be climbing so it was kind of a treat for them I guess to be able to climb with me.
[**7] Q: Were they watching you?
A: A few of them were watching me yeah.
Q: And were [*8] you teaching them, you know, what to do and what not to do?
A: I wasn’t teaching them, but if they had a question they would ask me hey, should I do this or do this or what do you think of this move I always give advice (page 30, lines 2-17).
Plaintiff also contends that defendant incorrectly argues that GOL §5-326 does not apply because she cannot be classified a user since she did not pay to climb that day. In this regard, plaintiff contends that she is indeed a user and the law is applicable because there was a reciprocal agreement between the gym at which she was employed and Brooklyn Boulders pursuant to which employees were not required to pay a fee to use either gym. Thus, she contends the value of the reciprocity agreement is the compensation.
Next, plaintiff argues that the assumption of risk doctrine is not applicable where the risk was un-assumed, concealed or unreasonably increased. Plaintiff argues that the question of whether the gap in the mats at Brooklyn Boulders is a commonly appreciated risk inherent in the nature of rock climbing necessitates denial of the summary judgment motion. She claims that she did not assume the risk that there would be a gap in the matting that was in [*9] place as protection from a fall. Moreover, plaintiff maintains that defendant fails to proffer any evidence demonstrating when the mats were last inspected prior to plaintiff’s accident.
Plaintiff argues that issues as to whether dangerous or defective conditions exist on property and whether the condition is foreseeable can only be answered by a jury. Thus, she [**8] contends that whether the condition of the mats was dangerous and/or defective is an issue of fact and that defendant has failed to proffer any evidence that the mats were in a reasonably safe condition.
Finally, plaintiff opposes defendant’s request to amend its answer to add the affirmative defense of waiver. Plaintiff argues that the existence of the waiver was known and that it is disingenuous at best to assert otherwise. Plaintiff contends that this request, post note of issue, is highly prejudicial to plaintiff.
In reply, defendant argues that plaintiff’s demand for sanctions lacks merit and that plaintiff’s testimony establishes that she was in fact, instructing her students when her accident occurred. Defendant contends that the waiver applies. Next defendant claims that as far as inspection of its equipment it had a [*10] route setting department that checked its walls and mats and that bouldering climbers were responsible for enuring their own safety when climbing. Finally, defendant argues that the assumption of risk doctrine applies and that plaintiff visually inspected the area before the accident and that the Velcro covers were visible and moreover, she had the option to use additional mats underneath her while climbing. Defendant further contends that the mats did not constitute a dangerous condition. Finally, Brooklyn Boulders reiterates its request for leave to amend its answer to assert the affirmative defense.
Leave to Amend
Generally, in the absence of prejudice or surprise to the opposing party, leave to amend pleadings should be freely granted unless the proposed amendment is palpably insufficient or patently devoid of merit (Yong Soon Oh v Hua Jin, 124 AD3d 639, 640, 1 N.Y.S.3d 307 ; see Jones v LeFrance Leasing Ltd. Partnership, 127 AD3d 819, 821, 7 N.Y.S.3d 352 ; Rodgers v New York City Tr. Auth., 109 AD3d 535, 537, 970 N.Y.S.2d 572 ; Schwartz v Sayah, 83 AD3d 926, 926, 920 N.Y.S.2d 714 ). A motion for leave to amend is committed to the broad discretion of the court (see Ravnikar v Skyline Credit-Ride, Inc., 79 AD3d 1118, 1119, 913 N.Y.S.2d 339 ). However, where amendment is sought after the pleader has filed a note of issue, “a trial court’s discretion to grant a motion to amend should be exercised with caution” (Harris v Jim’s Proclean Serv., Inc., 34 AD3d 1009,1010, 825 N.Y.S.2d 291 [3d Dept 2006]).
Here, while the court is not satisfied with counsel’s explanation that he was unaware of the [*11] existence of the release and waiver signed by plaintiff at the time that the original answer was served, the court notes that plaintiff was questioned about the release and waiver during her May 6, 2014 deposition so the court finds that there is no surprise of prejudice in allowing defendant leave to serve its amended answer and assert the affirmative defense of release and waiver. Accordingly, that branch of defendant’s motion seeking leave to amend its answer to the complaint to include this affirmative defense is granted.
[**10] General Obligations Law §5-326
GOL §5-326 states that:
Every covenant, agreement or understanding in or in connection with, or collateral to, any contract, membership application, ticket of admission or similar writing, entered into between the owner or operator of any pool, gymnasium, place of amusement or recreation, or similar establishment and the user of such facilities, pursuant to which such owner or operator receives a fee or other compensation for the use of such facilities, which exempts the said owner or operator from liability for damages caused by or resulting from the negligence of the owner, operator or person in charge of such establishment, or their agents, servants or employees, shall [*12] be deemed to be void as against public policy and wholly unenforceable.
Such contracts or agreements are void as against public policy unless the entity can show that its facility is used for instructional purposes as opposed to recreational purposes. “The legislative intent of the statute is to prevent amusement parks and recreational facilities from enforcing exculpatory clauses printed on admission tickets or membership applications because the public is either unaware of them or not cognizant of their effect (see Lux v Cox, 32 F.Supp.2d 92, 99 ; McDuffie v Watkins Glen Int’l, 833 F. Supp. 197, 202  ). Facilities that are places of instruction and training (see e.g. Millan v Brown, 295 AD2d 409, 411, 743 N.Y.S.2d 539 ; Chieco v Paramarketing, Inc., 228 AD2d 462, 463, 643 N.Y.S.2d 668 ; Baschuk v Diver’s Way Scuba, 209 AD2d 369, 370, 618 N.Y.S.2d 428  ), rather than “amusement or recreation” (see e.g. Meier v Ma-Do Bars, 106 AD2d 143, 145, 484 N.Y.S.2d 719  ), have been found to be outside the scope of the statute. “In assessing whether a facility is instructional or recreational, courts have [**11] examined, inter alia, the organization’s name, its certificate of incorporation, its statement of purpose and whether the money it charges is tuition or a fee for use of the facility” (Lemoine v Cornell Univ., 2 AD3d 1017, 1019, 769 N.Y.S.2d 313 , lv denied 2 NY3d 701, 810 N.E.2d 912, 778 N.Y.S.2d 459 ). In cases involving a mixed use facility, courts have focused less on a facility’s ostensible purpose and more on whether the person was at the facility for the purpose of receiving instruction (Id. At 1019; see Scrivener v Sky’s the Limit, 68 F Supp 2d 277, 281 ; Lux v Cox, 32 F Supp 2d at 99). Where [*13] a facility “promotes . . . a recreational pursuit, to which instruction is provided as an ancillary service,” General Obligations Law § 5-326 applies even if the injury occurs while receiving instruction (Debell v Wellbridge Club Mgt., Inc., 40 AD3d 248, 249, 835 N.Y.S.2d 170 ; Bacchiocchi v Ranch Parachute Club, 273 AD2d 173, 175, 710 N.Y.S.2d 54 ).
Here, defendant asserts that GOL §5-326 is not applicable because plaintiff was at Brooklyn Boulders to instruct her team members. The court disagrees. Plaintiff’s testimony establishes that she was at Brooklyn Boulders with her team for a day of fun and not to teach them how to climb. Her testimony that she would give advice to the students if they asked does not rise to the level of providing rock climbing instruction on that day. Moreover, the court notes that the cases invloving the exemption for instrctional activities generally involve the person being instructed sustaining an injury and not the person who was providing the instruction. In addition, the court finds defendants’s argument that the fact that plaintiff did not pay a fee that day renders GOL §5-326 not applicable is equally unavailing. The reciprocal agreement that was in place between Brooklyn Boulders and The Rock Club, [**12] where plaintiff was employed, which allowed such employees to use other bouldering facilities without being charged a fee was a benefit of [*14] their employment and thus could be considered compensation. Accordingly, the court finds that the release and waiver signed by plaintiff is void pursuant to GOL §5-326.
Assumption of Risk
The assumption of the risk defense is based on the proposition that “by engaging in a sport or recreational activity, a participant consents to those commonly appreciated risks which are inherent in and arise out of the nature of the sport generally and flow from such participation” (Morgan v State of New York, 90 NY2d 471, 484, 685 N.E.2d 202, 662 N.Y.S.2d 421 ; Paone v County of Suffolk, 251 AD2d 563, 674 N.Y.S.2d 761 [2d Dept 1998]), including the injury-causing events which are the known, apparent, or reasonably foreseeable risks of the participation (see Rosenbaum v Bayis Ne’Emon Inc., 32 AD3d 534, 820 N.Y.S.2d 326 [2d Dept 2006]; Colucci v Nansen Park, Inc., 226 AD2d 336, 640 N.Y.S.2d 578 [2d Dept 1996]). A plaintiff is deemed to have given consent limiting the duty of the defendant who is the proprietor of the sporting facility “to exercise care to make the conditions as safe as they appear to be. If the risks of the activity are fully comprehended or perfectly obvious, plaintiff has consented to them and defendant has performed its duty” (Turcotte v Fell, 68 NY2d 432, 502 N.E.2d 964, 510 N.Y.S.2d 49 ). Stated otherwise, the duty of the defendant is to protect the plaintiff from injuries arising out of unassumed, concealed, or unreasonably increased risks (see Manoly v City of New York, 29 AD3d 649, 816 N.Y.S.2d 499 [2d Dept 2006]; Pascucci v Town of Oyster Bay, 186 AD2d 725, 588 N.Y.S.2d 663 [2d Dept 1992]). It is well settled that “awareness of [**13] risk is not to be determined in a vacuum. It is, rather, to [*15] be assessed against the background of the skill and experience of the particular plaintiff” (Maddox v City of New York, 66 NY2d 270, 278, 487 N.E.2d 553, 496 N.Y.S.2d 726 ; see also Benitez v New York City Bd. of Educ., 73 NY2d 650, 657-658, 541 N.E.2d 29, 543 N.Y.S.2d 29 ; Turcotte v Fell, 68 NY2d 432, 440, 502 N.E.2d 964, 510 N.Y.S.2d 49 ; Latimer v City of New York, 118 AD3d 420, 421, 987 N.Y.S.2d 58 ). When applicable, the assumption of risk doctrine “is not an absolute defense but a measure of the defendant’s duty of care” (Turcotte v Fell, 68 NY2d at 439). Thus, “a gym or athletic facility cannot evade responsibility for negligent behavior ‘by invoking a generalized assumption of risk doctrine as though it was some sort of amulet that confers automatic immunity’ (Jafri v Equinox Holdings, Inc., 2014 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 5330, 4-5 [Sup. Ct, New York County quoting Mellon v Crunch & At Crunch Acquisition, LLC, 32 Misc 3d 1214[A], 934 N.Y.S.2d 35, 2011 NY Slip Op 51289[U] [Sup Ct, Kings County 2011]; Livshitz v United States Tennis Assn. Natl. Tennis Ctr., 196 Misc 2d 460, 466, 761 N.Y.S.2d 825 [Sup Ct, Queens County 2003]).
Furthermore, “in assessing whether a defendant has violated a duty of care within the genre of tort-sports activities and their inherent risks, the applicable standard should include whether the conditions caused by the defendants’ negligence are unique and created a dangerous condition over and above the usual dangers that are inherent in the sport’ (Morgan, 90 NY2d at 485. quoting Owen v R.J.S. Safety Equip., 79 NY2d 967, 970, 591 N.E.2d 1184, 582 N.Y.S.2d 998 ; Georgiades v Nassau Equestrian Ctr. at Old Mill, Inc., 134 AD3d 887, 889, 22 N.Y.S.3d 467 [2d Dept 2015]; Weinberger v Solomon Schechter Sch. of Westchester, 102 AD3d 675, 678, 961 N.Y.S.2d 178 [2d Dept 2013]). Participants, however, do not assume risks which have been unreasonably increased or [**14] concealed over and above the usual dangers inherent in the activity (see Morgan, 90 NY2d at 485; Benitez, 73 NY2d at 657-658; Muniz v Warwick School Dist., 293 AD2d 724, 743 N.Y.S.2d 113 ).
In this regard, the court finds that plaintiff has raised a question of fact regarding whether the condition of the mats, with the Velcro connection, increased the risk in the danger [*16] of the activity and caused a concealed dangerous condition. Thus it cannot be said that plaintiff assumed the particular risk that was present and caused her injuries.
Based upon the foregoing, that branch of Brooklyn Boulders motion seeking summary judgment dismissing plaintiff’s complaint is denied.
The foregoing constitutes the decision and order of the court.
/s/ Mark I Partnow
J. S. C.
HON. MARK I PARTNOW
SUPREME COURT JUSTICE