Posted: June 23, 2017 Filed under: Climbing Wall, Legal Case, New Hampshire, Release (pre-injury contract not to sue) | Tags: absurd, Ambiguity, Ambiguous, burden of proving, clear meaning, Climbing, Climbing Gym, construe, contracting parties, contractually, coverage, endorsement, Gym, Gymnastics, insurance coverage, Insurance policy, insured, insurer, linguistic, matter of law, objectively, ordinary meaning, policy language, policyholder, purported, question of law, reasonable expectations of coverage, Reasonable person, Release, Summary judgment, unambiguous, words used
Colony Insurance Company v. Dover Indoor Climbing Gym & a., 158 N.H. 628; 974 A.2d 399; 2009 N.H. LEXIS 51
Colony Insurance Company v. Dover Indoor Climbing Gym & a.
SUPREME COURT OF NEW HAMPSHIRE
158 N.H. 628; 974 A.2d 399; 2009 N.H. LEXIS 51
March 18, 2009, Argued
April 24, 2009, Opinion Issued
HEADNOTES NEW HAMPSHIRE OFFICIAL REPORTS HEADNOTES
1. Insurance–Policies–Construction The interpretation of insurance policy language is a question of law for the court to decide. The court construes the language of an insurance policy as would a reasonable person in the position of the insured based upon a more than casual reading of the policy as a whole. Policy terms are construed objectively, and where the terms of a policy are clear and unambiguous, the court accords the language its natural and ordinary meaning. The court need not examine the parties’ reasonable expectations of coverage when a policy is clear and unambiguous; absent ambiguity, the court’s search for the parties’ intent is limited to the words of the policy.
2. Insurance–Proceedings–Burden of Proof The burden of proving that no insurance coverage exists rests squarely with the insurer.
3. Insurance–Policies–Ambiguities Although an insurer has a right to contractually limit the extent of its liability, it must do so through clear and unambiguous policy language. Ambiguity exists if reasonable disagreement between contracting parties leads to at least two interpretations of the language. In determining whether an ambiguity exists, the court will look to the claimed ambiguity, consider it in its appropriate context, and construe the words used according to their plain, ordinary, and popular definitions. If one of the reasonable meanings of the language favors the policyholder, the ambiguity will be construed against the insurer. Where, however, the policy language is clear, the court will not perform amazing feats of linguistic gymnastics to find a purported ambiguity simply to construe the policy against the insurer and create coverage where it is clear that none was intended.
4. Insurance–Policies–Construction When a climbing gym’s insurance policy stated, “All participants shall be required to sign a waiver or release of liability in your favor prior to engaging in any climbing activity,” the clear meaning of the policy language was that the gym was required to actually obtain waivers from climbing participants. The gym’s interpretation that a reasonable person would believe that coverage existed so long as the gym had a policy of requiring waivers regardless of whether it actually obtained waivers would lead to the absurd result of requiring coverage even if the gym never actually enforced its waiver policy. A reasonable person reading the policy would not understand that coverage existed in such circumstances. Because the policy required the gym to obtain waivers from all participants, the failure to do so in the case of an injured climber rendered coverage under the policy inapplicable to his claims.
COUNSEL: Wiggin & Nourie, P.A., of Manchester (Doreen F. Connor on the brief and orally), for the plaintiff.
Mallory & Friedman, PLLC, of Concord (Mark L. Mallory on the brief and orally), for defendant, Dover Indoor Climbing Gym.
Shaheen & Gordon, P.A., of Dover, for defendant, Richard Bigelow, filed no brief.
JUDGES: DUGGAN, J. BRODERICK, C.J., and DALIANIS, J., concurred.
OPINION BY: DUGGAN
[**400] [*629] Duggan, J. The plaintiff, Colony Insurance Company (Colony), appeals an order of the Superior Court (McHugh, J.) denying its motion for summary judgment and granting that of the defendants, Dover Indoor Climbing Gym (the gym) and Richard Bigelow. We reverse and remand.
The trial court found, or the record supports, the following facts. Colony issued a commercial general liability insurance policy to the gym, which was in effect from January 5, 2007, to January 5, 2008. An endorsement to the policy stated: “All ‘participants’ shall be required to sign a waiver or release of liability in your favor prior to engaging in any ‘climbing activity.’ ” It further stated: “Failure to conform to this warranty will render this policy null and void as [sic] those claims brought against you.”
On August 14, 2007, [***2] Bigelow accompanied friends to the climbing gym, but did not sign a waiver. He testified that he was never asked to sign a waiver; the gym owner’s affidavit stated that the owner asked the group of climbers if they had waivers on file and received no negative answers. It is undisputed, however, that Bigelow did not sign a waiver or release. While climbing, Bigelow fell and sustained serious injuries. The gym then put Colony on notice to defend and pay any verdict obtained by Bigelow. In response, Colony filed a petition for declaratory judgment, arguing that the gym’s failure to obtain a release from Bigelow absolved Colony of any duty to defend or indemnify the gym.
Both Colony and the defendants filed motions for summary judgment, which the trial court addressed in a written order. The trial court found that Colony’s failure to provide the gym with a sample waiver rendered the endorsement provision ambiguous. The trial court therefore denied Colony’s motion for summary judgment, and granted the defendants’ cross-motion [**401] for summary judgment. This appeal followed.
[*630] On appeal, Colony argues that the trial court erred in finding that the endorsement was ambiguous, and contends that the [***3] gym’s failure to obtain a waiver from Bigelow renders the policy inapplicable as to his claims. Alternatively, Colony argues that even if the endorsement is ambiguous, the gym is not entitled to coverage because it had actual knowledge of the policy’s waiver requirement.
[HN1] In reviewing the trial court’s grant or denial of summary judgment, we consider the evidence, and all inferences properly drawn from it, in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Everitt v. Gen. Elec. Co., 156 N.H. 202, 208, 932 A.2d 831 (2007); Sintros v. Hamon, 148 N.H. 478, 480, 810 A.2d 553 (2002). If there is no genuine issue of material fact, and if the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, the grant of summary judgment is proper. Everitt, 156 N.H. at 209; Sintros, 148 N.H. at 480. We review the trial court’s application of the law to the facts de novo. Everitt, 156 N.H. at 209; Sintros, 148 N.H. at 480.
 [HN2] The interpretation of insurance policy language is a question of law for this court to decide. Godbout v. Lloyd’s Ins. Syndicates, 150 N.H. 103, 105, 834 A.2d 360 (2003). We construe the language of an insurance policy as would a reasonable person in the position of the insured based upon a more than casual reading [***4] of the policy as a whole. Id. Policy terms are construed objectively, and where the terms of a policy are clear and unambiguous, we accord the language its natural and ordinary meaning. Id. We need not examine the parties’ reasonable expectations of coverage when a policy is clear and unambiguous; absent ambiguity, our search for the parties’ intent is limited to the words of the policy. Id.
[2, 3] In this case, the gym argues that the policy is ambiguous and Colony maintains that it is not. [HN3] The burden of proving that no insurance coverage exists rests squarely with the insurer. Curtis v. Guaranty Trust Life Ins. Co., 132 N.H. 337, 340, 566 A.2d 176 (1989); see RSA 491:22-a (1997). [HN4] Although an insurer has a right to contractually limit the extent of its liability, it must do so “through clear and unambiguous policy language.” Id. (quotation omitted). Ambiguity exists if “reasonable disagreement between contracting parties” leads to at least two interpretations of the language. Int’l Surplus Lines Ins. Co. v. Mfgs. & Merchants Mut. Ins. Co., 140 N.H. 15, 20, 661 A.2d 1192 (1995); Trombly v. Blue Cross/Blue Shield, 120 N.H. 764, 771, 423 A.2d 980 (1980). In determining whether an ambiguity exists, we will look to the claimed ambiguity, [***5] consider it in its appropriate context, and construe the words used according to their plain, ordinary, and popular definitions. Int’l Surplus, 140 N.H. at 20. If one of the reasonable meanings of the language favors the policyholder, the ambiguity will be construed against the insurer. Id. Where, however, the policy language is clear, this court “will not [*631] perform amazing feats of linguistic gymnastics to find a purported ambiguity” simply to construe the policy against the insurer and create coverage where it is clear that none was intended. Hudson v. Farm Family Mut. Ins. Co., 142 N.H. 144, 147, 697 A.2d 501 (1997); Curtis, 132 N.H. at 342.
The trial court found that the endorsement requiring waivers is ambiguous because Colony did not provide the gym with a sample waiver. Even the gym, however, contends that the trial court “reached the [**402] correct result for the wrong reasons.” Thus, the gym does not argue that the endorsement creates an ambiguity by its failure to provide the insured with a sample waiver form, but, rather, that the exclusionary language is ambiguous because it states that participants shall “be required” to sign waivers as opposed to mandating that the gym obtain signed waivers. [***6] Under this interpretation, the gym argues, a reasonable person would believe that coverage exists so long as the gym has a policy of requiring waivers regardless of whether it actually obtained waivers from climbing participants. Colony argues that the policy language is unambiguous. We agree with Colony.
 The clear meaning of the policy language is that the gym is required to actually obtain waivers from climbing participants. The gym’s interpretation would lead to the absurd result of requiring coverage even if the gym never actually enforced its waiver policy. A reasonable person reading the policy would not understand that coverage existed in such circumstances. The gym’s interpretation is unreasonably narrow, and is therefore not the type of alternative interpretation that renders policy language ambiguous. See Curtis, 132 N.H. at 342 ( [HN5] refusing to find ambiguity when alternate interpretations would “inevitably lead to absurd results”). To construe the exclusion against the insurer here would create coverage where it is clear that none was intended. We therefore conclude that the policy language is unambiguous and that a reasonable insured would understand that the exclusion would [***7] apply in this case.
Because the policy requires the gym to obtain waivers from all participants, the failure to do so in the case of Bigelow renders coverage under the policy inapplicable to his claims. In light of our holding, we need not address Colony’s remaining argument. We therefore reverse the order of the trial court granting the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, and hold that Colony is entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law.
Reversed and remanded.
Broderick, C.J., and Dalianis, J., concurred.
Posted: June 13, 2017 Filed under: Legal Case, Release (pre-injury contract not to sue), Triathlon, Virginia | Tags: altered, bottom, by-law, common carrier's, condominium, constructive fraud, Dangerous Condition, Duty to Warn, implicated, Indemnification, Lake, matter of law, Misrepresentation, ownership interest, personal injury, pre-injury, property damage, Public Policy, railroad, railway, release agreement, subcontractor's, swimming, telephone, train, Triathlon, universally, valid contract, Void
Hiett v. Lake Barcroft Community Association, Inc., et al., 244 Va. 191; 418 S.E.2d 894; 1992 Va. LEXIS 69; 8 Va. Law Rep. 3381
Robert David Hiett v. Lake Barcroft Community Association, Inc., et al.
Record No. 911395
Supreme Court of Virginia
244 Va. 191; 418 S.E.2d 894; 1992 Va. LEXIS 69; 8 Va. Law Rep. 3381
June 5, 1992
COUNSEL: Bernard S. Cohen (Sandra M. Rohrstaff; Cohen, Dunn & Sinclair, on brief), for appellant.
Joseph D. Roberts (Slenker, Brandt, Jennings & Johnson, on brief), for appellees.
JUDGES: Justice Keenan delivered the opinion of the Court.
OPINION BY: KEENAN
[*192] [**894] The primary issue in this appeal is whether a pre-injury release from liability for negligence is void as being against public policy.
Robert D. Hiett sustained an injury which rendered him a quadriplegic while participating in the “Teflon Man Triathlon” (the triathlon) sponsored by the Lake Barcroft [**895] Community Association, Inc. (LABARCA). The injury occurred at the start of the swimming event when Hiett waded into Lake Barcroft to a point where the water reachedhis [***2] thighs, dove into the water, and struck his head on either the lake bottom or an object beneath the water surface.
Thomas M. Penland, Jr., a resident of Lake Barcroft, organized and directed the triathlon. He drafted the entry form which all participants were required to sign. The first sentence of the form provided:
In consideration of this entry being accept[ed] to participate in the Lake Barcroft Teflon Man Triathlon I hereby, for myself, my heirs, and executors waive, release and forever discharge any and all rights and claims for damages which I may have or [*193] m[a]y hereafter accrue to me against the organizers and sponsors and their representatives, successors, and assigns, for any and all injuries suffered by me in said event.
Evelyn Novins, a homeowner in the Lake Barcroft subdivision, asked Hiett to participate in the swimming portion of the triathlon. She and Hiett were both teachers at a school for learning-disabled children. Novins invited Hiett to participate as a member of one of two teams of fellow teachers she was organizing. During a break between classes, Novins presented Hiett with the entry form and he signed it.
Hiett alleged inhis [***3] third amended motion for judgment that LABARCA, Penland, and Novins had failed to ensure that the lake was reasonably safe, properly supervise the swimming event, advise the participants of the risk of injury, and train them how to avoid such injuries. Hiett also alleged that Penland and Novins were agents of LABARCA and that Novins’s failure to direct his attention to the release clause in the entry form constituted constructive fraud and misrepresentation.
In a preliminary ruling, the trial court held that, absent fraud, misrepresentation, duress, illiteracy, or the denial of an opportunity to read the form, the entry form was a valid contract and that the pre-injury release language in the contract released the defendants from liability for negligence. The trial court also ruled that such a release was prohibited as a matter of public policy only when it was included: (1) in a common carrier’s contract of carriage; (2) in the contract of a public utility under a duty to furnish telephone service; or (3) as a condition of employment set forth in an employment contract.
Pursuant to an agreement between the parties, the trial court conducted an evidentiary hearing in whichit determined [***4] that there was sufficient evidence to present to a jury on the issue of constructive fraud and misrepresentation. Additionally, the trial court ruled that as a matter of law Novins was not an agent of LABARCA, and it dismissed her from the case.
The remaining parties proceeded to trial solely on the issue whether there was constructive fraud and misrepresentation by the defendants such as would invalidate the waiver-release language in the entry form. After Hiett had rested his case, the trial court granted the defendants’ motion to strike the evidence. This appeal followed.
[*194] Hiett first argues that the trial court erred in ruling that the pre-injury release provision in the entry form did not violate public policy. He contends that since the decision of this Court in Johnson’s Adm’x v. Richmond and Danville R.R. Co., 86 Va. 975, 11 S.E. 829 (1890), the law in Virginia has been settled that an agreement entered into prior to any injury, releasing a tortfeasor from liability for negligence resulting in personal injury, is void because it violates public policy. Hiett asserts that the later cases of this Court have addressed only therelease of liability [***5] from property damage or indemnification against liability to third parties. Thus, he contends that the holding in Johnson remains unchanged. In response, LABARCA and Novins argue that the decisions of this Court since Johnson have established [**896] that pre-injury release agreements such as the one before us do not violate public policy. We disagree with LABARCA and Novins.
The case law in this Commonwealth over the past one hundred years has not altered the holding in Johnson. In Johnson, this Court addressed the validity of a pre-injury release of liability for future negligent acts. There, the decedent was a member of a firm of quarry workers which had entered into an agreement with a railroad company to remove a granite bluff located on the company’s right of way. The agreement specified that the railroad would not be liable for any injuries or death sustained by any members of the firm, or its employees, occurring from any cause whatsoever.
The decedent was killed while attempting to warn one of his employees of a fast-approaching train. The evidence showed that the train was moving at a speed of not less than 25 miles per hour, notwithstanding the [***6] railroad company’s agreement that all trains would pass by the work site at speeds not exceeding six miles per hour.
 In holding that the release language was invalid because it violated public policy, this Court stated:
[T]o hold that it was competent for one party to put the other parties to the contract at the mercy of its own misconduct . . . can never be lawfully done where an enlightened system of jurisprudence prevails. Public policy forbids it, and contracts against public policy are void.
[*195] 86 Va. at 978, 11 S.E. at 829. This Court emphasized that its holding was not based on the fact that the railroad company was a common carrier. Rather, this Court found that such [HN1] provisions for release from liability for personal injury which may be caused by future acts of negligence are prohibited “universally.” 86 Va. at 978, 11 S.E. at 830.
 As noted by Hiett, the cases following Johnson have not eroded this principle. Instead, this Court’s decisions after Johnson have been limited to upholding theright to contract for the release of liability for property damage, as well as indemnification from liability to [***7] third parties for such damage.
 In C. & O. Ry. Co. v. Telephone Co., 216 Va. 858, 224 S.E.2d 317 (1976), this Court upheld a provision in an agreement entered into by the parties to allow the telephone company to place underground cables under a certain railway overpass. In the agreement, the telephone company agreed to release the C & O Railway Company from any damage to the wire line crossing and appurtenances. In upholding this property damage stipulation, this Court found that public policy considerations were not implicated. 216 Va. at 865-66, 224 S.E. at 322.
This Court upheld another property damage release provision in Nido v. Ocean Owners’ Council, 237 Va. 664, 378 S.E.2d 837 (1989). There, a condominium unit owner filed suit against the owners’ council of the condominium for property damage to his unit resulting from a defect in the common area of the condominium. This Court held that, under the applicable condominium by-laws, each unit owner had voluntarily waived his right to bring an action againstthe owners’ council for such property damage. 237 Va. at 667, 378 S.E.2d at 838. 1
1 Although the by-law at issue attempted to release the owners’ council for injury to both persons and property, the issue before the Court involved only the property damage portion of the clause.
[***8]  Other cases decided by this Court since Johnson have upheld provisions for indemnification against future property damage claims. In none of these cases, however, did the Court address the issue whether an indemnification provision would be valid against a claim for personal injury.
In Richardson – Wayland v. VEPCO, 219 Va. 198, 247 S.E.2d 465 (1978), the disputed claim involved property damage only, although [**897] the contract provided that VEPCO would be indemnified against both property damage and personal injury claims. This [*196] Court held that the provision for indemnification against property damage did not violate public policy. In so holding, this Court emphasizedthe fact that the contract was not between VEPCO and a consumer but, rather, that it was a contract made by VEPCO with a private company for certain repairs to its premises. 219 Va. at 202-03, 247 S.E.2d at 468.
This Court also addressed an indemnification clause covering liability for both personal injury and property damage in Appalachian Power Co. v. Sanders, 232 Va. 189, 349 S.E.2d 101 (1986). However, this Court was not required [***9] to rule on the validity of the clause with respect to a claim for personal injury, based on its holding that the party asserting indemnification was not guilty of actionable negligence. 232 Va. at 196, 349 S.E. at 106.
Finally, in Kitchin v. Gary Steel Corp., 196 Va. 259, 83 S.E.2d 348 (1954), this Court found that an indemnification agreement between a prime contractor and its subcontractor was not predicated on negligence. For this reason, this Court held that there was no merit in the subcontractor’s claim that the agreement violated public policy as set forth in Johnson. 196 Va. at 265, 83 S.E.2d at 351.
 We agree with Hiett that the above cases have notmodified or altered the holding in Johnson. Therefore, we conclude here, based on Johnson, that the pre-injury release provision signed by Hiett is prohibited by public policy and, thus, it is void. Johnson, 86 Va. at 978, 11 S.E. at 829.
 Since we have held that the pre-injury release agreement signed by Hiett is void, the issue whether Novins acted as LABARCA’s agent in procuring Hiett’s signature will not be before the trial court in [***10] the retrial of this case. Nevertheless, Hiett argues that, irrespective of any agency relationship, Novins had a common law duty to warn Hiett of the dangerous condition of the uneven lake bottom. We disagree.
 The record before us shows that Lake Barcroft is owned by Barcroft Beach, Incorporated, and it is operated and controlled by Barcroft Lake Management Association, Incorporated. Further, it is undisputed that the individual landowners in the Lake Barcroft subdivision have no ownership interest in the Lake. Since Novins had no ownership interest in or control over the operation of Lake Barcroft, she had no duty to warn Hiett of any dangerous condition therein. See Busch v. Gaglio, 207 Va. 343, 348, 150 S.E.2d 110, 114 (1966).Therefore, Hiett’s assertion that Novins had a duty to warn him of the condition of the lake bottom, fails as a matter of [*197] law, and we conclude that the trial court did not err in dismissing Novins from the case.
Accordingly, we will affirm in part and reverse in part the judgment of the trial court, and we will remand this case for further proceedings consistent with the principles expressed in this opinion. 2
2 Based on our decision here, we do not reach the questions raised by the remaining assignments of error.
[***11] Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded.