New York court shreds Tough Mudder online release and arbitration clause because the reader could assent to the release without reading the release.

The clauses in the release were not clearly identified and could be avoided by plaintiff. Release was found to be void because if violated New York General Obligations Law § 5-326

Scotti v Tough Mudder Inc., 63 Misc. 3d 843, 97 N.Y.S.3d 825, 2019 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 1525, 2019 NY Slip Op 29098, 2019 WL 1511142

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

Plaintiff: Richard E. Scotti et al. (Richard E. Scotti and Joseph Russo)

Defendant: Tough Mudder Incorporated et al. (Tough Mudder Incorporated and Tough Mudder Event Production Incorporated)

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Arbitration Clause & Release

Holding: for the Plaintiffs

Year: 2019

Summary

Tough Mudder has been having a tough time in court. This was another court that found several ways to void the release. Tough Mudder was attempting to compel arbitration; however, the arbitration clause in the release did not meet the legal requirements of New York Law. The release itself failed because if violated New York General Obligations Law § 5-326 which voids releases for recreation.

Facts

This personal injury action stems from an accident which occurred on July 23, 2016, when the plaintiffs Richard E. Scotti and Joseph Russo participated in the “Tough Mudder,” a physically challenging obstacle course event (hereinafter the TM event), which took place at 1303 Round Swamp Road, Old Bethpage, New York. Defendants Tough Mudder Incorporated and Tough Mudder Event Production Incorporated (collectively, Tough Mudder) are the business entities that organized the TM event. Plaintiffs commenced the within action on or about November 17, 2017, against Tough Mudder alleging that they each sustained injuries as a result of defendants’ negligent operation of an activity at the event, referred to as the “salmon ladder.” Tough Mudder joined issue on or about December 20, 2017, with the service of a verified answer. In their answer, Tough Mudder denied all material allegations and asserted various affirmative defenses, including that the plaintiffs’ action is barred by the participation/registration agreement, which included an arbitration clause.

Tough Mudder now moves, pursuant to CPLR 7501 and 7503, to compel arbitration, arguing that the plaintiffs are barred from pursuing the instant action in this court because they each waived the right to sue by virtue of agreeing to arbitrate any “disputes, controversies, or claims” arising out of their participation in the TM event. Tough Mudder claims that the plaintiffs each entered into an agreement to arbitrate all claims related to their participation in the TM event when they completed an online Internet registration form. In support of this contention, Tough Mudder has submitted the sworn affidavit of Jenna Best, the manager of customer relations for Tough Mudder Incorporated. Best avers that she is fully familiar with the TM event online registration process as it existed in 2016 when the plaintiffs registered for the TM event at issue. Tough Mudder has submitted copies of the online registration forms that the plaintiffs allegedly completed for the TM event (Cash affirmation, exhibit D). Best states that, during the online registration process, the plaintiffs were required to scroll down to a section containing the “Participant Waiver and Course Rules” (hereinafter PWCR), a document version of which has been submitted herein She contends that the full text of the PWCR was contained in a box on the screen, which could be read by scrolling down in the text box. Best contends that the initial visible content of the scrollable box, which preceded the full PWCR document, which could be read in its entirety by scrolling down…

Below the box containing the scrollable PWCR was another box next to the statement: “I agree to the above waiver.” Best avers that it was necessary for the plaintiffs, or any other registrant, to click on the box to indicate his or her consent to the PWCR in order for the registrant to complete his or her registration for the TM event. According to Best, the Internet registration form cannot proceed to the payment page, and registration cannot be completed, until the registrant checks the box indicating his or her consent to the PWCR She further avers that both plaintiffs did in fact click on the box indicating their consent to the PWCR, as otherwise they would not have been able to participate in the TM event. Based upon the foregoing, Tough Mudder contends that the plaintiffs agreed to the terms of the online waiver, which included the arbitration clause, and, therefore, are barred from pursuing the instant action.

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

The court looked at the plaintiff’s arguments first.

In opposition, plaintiffs argue that the arbitration provision at issue is unenforceable because Tough Mudder has failed to establish that they actually agreed to it. In this regard, plaintiffs point out that the webpage where the PWCR was located contained a text box that did not show the entire document. In order to read the full PWCR, including the arbitration provision, plaintiffs contend it would have been necessary to scroll down through many screens of text using the arrows on the right-hand side of the text box. The PWCR fills seven single-spaced pages of text.

On top of that, the court stated the evidence presented by the defendant Tough Mudder was not sufficient to prove that either plaintiff checked the box or agreed to the terms of the contract.

Plaintiffs further argue that Tough Mudder has failed to proffer any evidence that either plaintiff actually signed/checked the consent box, or any evidence identifying the computers or electronic devices from which their respective registrations were completed.

The burden was on Tough Mudder to prove the plaintiffs signed the agreement which contained the arbitration clause.

It is well settled that “[a] party to an agreement may not be compelled to arbitrate its dispute with another unless the evidence establishes the parties’ clear, explicit and unequivocal agreement to arbitrate” When one party seeks to compel the other to arbitrate any disputes between them, the court must first determine whether the parties made a valid arbitration agreement. The party seeking arbitration bears the burden of establishing that an agreement to arbitrate exists

To prove the existence of the contract and the agreement to the arbitration clause the courts look for evidence that the website user had actual or constructive knowledge of clauses in the contract.

The question of whether there is agreement to accept the terms of an online contract turns on the particular facts and circumstances. Courts generally look for evidence that a website user had actual or constructive notice of the terms by using the website. Where the person’s alleged consent is solely online, courts seek to determine whether a reasonably prudent person would be put on notice of the provision in the contract, and whether the terms of the agreement were reasonably communicated to the user. In Specht v Netscape Communications Corp, the court emphasized that “[r]easonably conspicuous notice of the existence of contract terms and unambiguous manifestation of assent to those terms by consumers are essential if electronic bargaining is to have integrity and credibility”

The seven-page agreement had no headings, no italics, no bold print, nothing to indicate the agreement covered more issues than were identified in the heading. The heading stated:

“ASSUMPTION OF RISK, WAIVER OF LIABILITY, AND INDEMNITY AGREEMENT “PARTICIPANTS: READ THIS DOCUMENT CAREFULLY BEFORE ACCEPTING. THIS DOCUMENT HAS LEGAL CONSEQUENCES AND WILL AFFECT YOUR LEGAL RIGHTS AND WILL ELIMINATE YOUR ABILITY TO BRING FUTURE LEGAL ACTIONS.”

No where in the heading was a mention of a mandatory arbitration clause. (Ambush by small print was eliminated by the courts in the 70’s, this lawsuit was in 2019; someone should have realized that by now.)

The court the defined the agreement as one of four types of agreements found online “the four “general types of online consumer contracts [are identified as] (a) browsewrap; (b) clickwrap; (c) scrollwrap; and (d) sign-in-wrap.”

Based on the evidence presented by the defendants the court found the agreement was a “clickwrap” agreement.

Here, the PWCR at issue appears to be a click-wrap agreement as identified in Berkson in that the clickable box is located directly below the scrollable text box that allegedly contained the full text of the agreement. Only by scrolling down in the text box would the user see all of the terms of the PWCR, including the arbitration clause at issue.

The court then held that you could agree to the agreement without scrolling through the agreement; therefore, you could sign the agreement without knowing what was in the agreement.

However, the user could proceed to complete the registration process without necessarily scrolling down through the text box to view the full document, thereby rendering it a click-wrap agreement.

The plaintiff could be bound by a clickwrap agreement, but only if they were given sufficient opportunity to read the agreement and agree to it. There must also be a way to decline a click-wrap agreement.

A party may be bound to a click-wrap agreement by clicking a button declaring assent, so long as the party is given a “sufficient opportunity to read the . . . agreement, and assents thereto after being provided with an unambiguous method of accepting or declining the offer.”

Then the court closed the door on the defendants attempt to compel arbitration.

…[a] court cannot presume that a person who clicks on a box that appears on a . . . screen has notice of all contents not only of that page but of other content that requires further action (scrolling, following a link, etc.). The presentation of the online agreement matters: Whether there was notice of the existence of additional contract terms presented on a webpage depends heavily on whether the design and content of that webpage rendered the existence of terms reasonably conspicuous. Clarity and conspicuousness of arbitration terms are important in securing informed assent.” (Internal quotation marks and citations omitted.)

Understand, the court did not say the contract was invalid; the court was only looking at the issue of the arbitration clause. Under New York law for the arbitration clause to be valid, the plaintiff had to “had actual or constructive notice of the terms….” Since there was no notice of arbitration in the heading, and you could agree to the agreement without reading it, the agreement failed the heightened requirements to prove an arbitration clause existed between the parties.

Thus, on a motion to compel arbitration, a valid agreement to arbitrate exists where the notice of the arbitration provision was reasonably conspicuous, and manifestation of assent is unambiguous as a matter of law. Therefore, the issue herein is whether Tough Mudder’s website registration screen put a reasonably prudent user on inquiry notice of the relevant terms of the PWCR, particularly the arbitration clause at issue.

Then the court jumped on the issue that the evidence in front of the court did not prove their argument. Black-and-white copies were provided to the court rather than color copies. The font size was small and barely legible.

In addition, the court notes that the purported copies of the plaintiffs’ respective online registration forms (screenshots) submitted by Tough Mudder are black and white copies of poor quality, the text of which is in an extremely small font size and is barely legible. Tough Mudder has not proffered any color copies of any screenshots depicting its online registration process. In addition, the full text of the PWCR, as provided by Tough Mudder, is not a screenshot but a black and white document, consisting of seven pages of single-spaced language, all in the same font and size, with no underlined, hyperlinked or bolded terms.

The court then attacked how the document would have been presented online from the evidence in front of it.

In order to view the “Mediation and Arbitration” clause, the plaintiffs, by using the arrows inside the text box, needed to scroll down significantly beyond what is initially visible, to page four of the seven-page single-spaced PWCR document. The court additionally notes that, as with the entire document, the arbitration provision is neither underlined, bolded nor hyperlinked. Further, since this court has only been provided with a black and white document, not screenshots, it is unable to discern how the subject arbitration clause actually appeared to the user. Indeed, “[i]n the context of web-based contracts, [courts] look to the design and content of the relevant interface to determine if the contract terms were presented to the offeree in a way that would put her [or him] on inquiry notice of such terms

It is laughable that in 2019 you read a case where the court complains about the type being too small to read.

The court found that based on the evidence in front of it, there was not an arbitration clause between the parties.

The court then looked at the release.

New York General Obligations Law § 5-32 voids releases for recreation activities where a fee is paid.

That statute protects consumers from the effect of form releases printed on membership applications and similar documents when such releases are offered in connection with the use of a “place of amusement or recreation” for which a fee is paid

The court found New York General Obligations Law § 5-32 voided the release.

The terms of this statute apply to the plaintiffs herein, who paid a fee to use Tough Mudder’s obstacle course, which, contrary to Tough Mudder’s assertion, is a place of recreation. Indeed, the nature of the TM event as described by Tough Mudder—a rigorous, athletic competition requiring proper training—is comparable to the other activities, such as horseback riding, auto racing, cycling and skiing, which have been held to be covered by General Obligations Law § 5-326.

The final issue was the agreement had a severability clause. This is a clause that states if a portion of the contract is found unenforceable or void by the court it does not void the entire document. Only the portions the court finds void, are severed from the document, and the document without those clauses can be used as evidence in court.

However, as Tough Mudder correctly argues, the unenforceable provisions of the PWCR do not nullify the entire agreement. Where an agreement consists partially of an unlawful objective, the “court may sever the illegal aspects . . . and enforce the legal ones, so long as the illegal aspects are incidental to the legal aspects and are not the main objective of the agreement.

Which is exactly what the court did.

Here, the waiver of liability provision in the PWCR releasing Tough Mudder from liability, as well as the arbitration clause, are severable from the remainder of the PWCR agreement on the ground that the unenforceable provisions are incidental to the legal aspects and not the main objective of the agreement. Further, the severability provision in the PWCR reflects the intent of the parties that the legal provisions of the agreement be severed from any provisions determined to be void and unenforceable.

So, hopefully the seven-page document had language that could be used to prove assumption of the risk by the defendants.

So Now What?

On paper, this release might have survived. However, there are more issues with online releases. This is the second case where the court found the proof offered by the defense to prove the release was signed was found to be lacking because of poor copies of the website. That is just stupid. With color printers now days, computers and monitors that can be brought into court or linked to in a document you should be able to have anyone see what the document actually looked and how the software performed.

When you have several different issues in a contract, it is common to identify the new issues with a heading or bold type. In this case not only where there are new issues in the release besides release language there was an arbitration agreement. New York, as most states, have specific language in how an arbitration agreement should be written. This release failed that test.

The arbitration agreement was an attempt to lose the value of the entire release because releases for recreation where a person pays money to recreation are void. New York General Obligations Law § 5-32

§ 5-326.  Agreements exempting pools, gymnasiums, places of public amusement or recreation and similar establishments from liability for negligence void and unenforceable

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 be deemed to be void as against public policy and wholly unenforceable.

The big issue the court seemed to be pushing was the game of hide and seek that Tough Mudder plays both with its courses and with the release. Contestants never know what they will encounter when competing in a Tough Mudder event. Consequently, you eliminate a lot of the defense of assumption of the risk. You can’t assume a risk you don’t know about.

Tough Mudder then tried that game with its release (or did not have an attorney write its release) and tried to slide the arbitration clause past the participants. It failed because the court held it must meet New York law and be written and visible in a way that the signor understands they are signing an arbitration agreement. That is a bigger burden then just signing a release.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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